China's rural areas don't receive the same education resources that the country's wealthier urban centers do. This gap is a widely acknowledged problem, and many organizations have been established to improve the facilities in rural China and ensure that the students there aren't left behind.
However, Chinese authorities don't exactly welcome citizen-led initiatives with open arms, and recently an independent library project called China Rural Library (CRL) was forced to close due to political pressure.
CRL announced the closure of its library project on Sept. 18, 2014, on popular microblogging website Sina Weibo and published an open letter explaining the pressure they faced. The letter went viral on Chinese social media and was later censored by the authorities. Independent news website China Digital Times published a copy of the letter on Google Plus.
The letter revealed that the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Education and the Police Security Bureau started imposing pressure on CRL's library project since June this year. In some cases, the authorities raid the libraries of books that discuss religion. For example, the sociology classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, by Max Weber was confiscated. Their online volunteer recruitment platform and souvenir shop were also forced to shut down. By September, 19 libraries across the countries were forced to shut down. CRL stressed that “none of its libraries are voluntarily closed for mismanagement reasons”.
Established in 2007, CRL's mission is to “help rural teenagers grow into healthy, normal modern citizens ” by providing free access to books. During the past seven years, it has partnered with local schools and government-owned libraries and set up 22 libraries across 11 provinces in China. The project is supported by donations and volunteer support.
The founder of CRL, Li Yingqiang, received his master degree in economics from Peking University and wished to boost literacy and education through public libraries after having witnessed a lack of quality education in rural China.
There is speculation that foreign donations and Li Yingqiang’s Christian beliefs might have upset authorities. But Li Yingqiang clarified that while the organization received a total of 15,000 euros in small grants from a German foundation, that foundation was founded by a Chinese living overseas, and all the donations are from Chinese citizens and organizations. In 2013, Li left his position as the chief executive of CRL and also resigned as director at the end of 2014.
Since CRL is a non-political and non-religious charity group, the nationwide crackdown on its libraries attracted many online comments. A former volunteer from CRL offered an explanation of its closure on Zhihu, a question and answer platform:
CRL’s real problem is that it developed too fast. While most of its projects, including the public libraries, elderly friends [a mentor project], torch and rural school girl projects are still in their infancy, the bold act of launching the Liren University [a summer camp project which was forced to be cancelled] brought the organization down.
As education is a major battlefield for the ideological struggle against western universal values like “citizen right”, any education initiatives which are outside the direct control of the Chinese Communist Party is forbidden.
Weibo user and a former supporter of CRL, “Pursuing empty dream” (@空空追梦), believed the shutdown was a result of management problems rather than political pressure:
Such a big mess. The library project, which was originally a passive symbol of freedom, had become the clamp-down project. Instead of reflecting on what's gone wrong, the management kept talking about NGO principles and “citizens” and blaming the authorities’ policy. It is disheartening to see people not taking responsibility. As a friend of Liren, I have to pour cold water, ring the funeral bell and light up the fire at this critical moment.
Popular Weibo user, “the myth of social work” (@社工迷思), believed the problem was rooted in the relationship between government administration and NGOs:
The closure of Liren libraries forced us to reflect upon the bubbles of “the big development of social organization”. Administrative intervention is the biggest challenge an NGO faces today. It determines whether the philanthropy and civil organizations can grow healthily in China.
Taiwanese Professor Shih-Hung Lo, who studied the development of civil society in mainland China, wrote on his blog:
On China’s mainland, philanthropy and civil society have become dangerous professions. No matter how hard they try to shy away from politics, there could be the target of a crackdown by authorities. The closure of China's rural libraries is an unsettling signal of current condition of society on the mainland, destroying the last hope of those who want gradual reform in China.