China accuses Oxfam of 'infiltration'

Oxfam shops have outfitted some of Britain's greatest rock stars, from Morrissey to Jarvis Cocker. But don't expect China's pop icons to be shopping there any time soon.

The Chinese government has told students and schoolchildren to cut any potential ties with Oxfam because of what they say is a hidden political agenda being pursued by its Hong Kong branch that is aimed at undermining the country's rise.

The order to shun Oxfam came in a statement from the Education Ministry which was posted on a website belonging to Minzu University in Beijing.

Oxfam Hong Kong, the base from which the charity does most of its China work, was labelled a "non-governmental organisation seeking to infiltrate our interior".

"All education departments and institutions of higher education must raise their guard and together recognise and take precautions against the unfriendly intentions of Oxfam Hong Kong's recruitment of college volunteers," the statement said. It was dated 4 February and was later removed from the university website, in what some observers interpreted as a sign that it was never intended to be public.

The Chinese Communist Party remains deeply suspicious of most independent social groups outside its direct control and sets strict limits on the activities of international NGOs. It can act quickly and ruthlessly to shut them down if the political environment requires it.

Howard Liu, the director of the charity's Hong Kong unit, said Oxfam had never done anything to challenge Beijing's policies or laws and was only interested in alleviating poverty. The organisation, he explained, had trained about 40 young graduates to become programme officers for non-governmental organisations on the mainland.

"We've been doing it without any problems for four years, and with no indication from the government that there was any problem or it was in any way not suitable or sensitive in their eyes," said Mr Liu. "And then suddenly we get this posting on the web telling the universities to back off and have nothing to do with us in regard to this programme."

The chairman of Oxfam Hong Kong is Lo Chi-kin, a known member of the Democratic Party, which advocates reforms including direct elections for the legislature. Beijing branded Mr Lo a "stalwart of the opposition faction", using language more commonly associated with communist political struggles of the past.

However, other Oxfam Hong Kong board members include prominent pro-Beijing figures such as the former justice secretary Elsie Leung and Bernard Chan, a member of China's national parliament, the NPC.

Oxfam, which was founded in 1942, works in about 100 countries.