"The organisations could be a way for the Communist Party to co-opt the energy and resources of civil society. They could also be a means by which that energy challenges the party's power. And so their status has big implications."
AGAINST a powerful alliance of factory bosses and Communist Party chiefs, Zeng Feiyang cuts a frail figure. Mr Zeng, who is 39, works from a windowless office in Panyu, on the edge of the southern city of Guangzhou, where he runs a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called the Panyu Migrant Workers' Service Centre. For more than a decade his organisation has battled against the odds to defend the rights of workers in the factories of Guangdong province. For his troubles, Mr Zeng has been evicted from various premises, had his water and electricity cut off, and been constantly harassed by local officials and their thugs. Then last autumn he received a call from one such official. "The man asked if I wanted to register the NGO," he says. "I was very surprised."
Over the past three years other activists at unregistered NGOs have received similar phone calls from the authorities about the sensitive issue of registration, an apparently mundane bit of administrative box-ticking which in fact represents real change. China has over 500,000 NGOs already registered with the state. The number comes with a big caveat. Many NGOs are quasi-official or mere shell entities attempting to get government money. Of those genuine groups that do seek to improve the common lot, nearly all carry out politically uncontentious activities. But perhaps 1.5m more are not registered, and some of these, like Mr Zeng's, pursue activism in areas which officials have often found worrying.