China's 'foreign NGO law' could weigh on the grassroots

By Lean Alfred Santos 09 May 2016

Chinese officials maintain their new 'foreign NGO law' protects national security and upholds democratic principles. Photo by: Johnathan Nightingale / CC BY-SA

China’s new foreign nongovernmental organization management law, intended to give police forces more power to regulate and monitor foreign NGOs operating in the country, will not go into effect for another eight months. But already NGO advocates are weighing the consequences of more restrictions in an already restrictive environment.

Some accuse the Chinese government of trying to “legalize human rights abuses,” while others note that the restrictions placed on foreign NGOs could also have big consequences for the Chinese grassroots organizations to whom they frequently grant funding.

The law, passed by the Chinese parliament with an overwhelming vote of 147-1 (with one abstention), will require foreign organizations to register with the public security ministry and its provincial counterparts and places limitations on the kinds of work overseas NGOs can engage in. While nonprofit groups and multilateral organizations around the world have called for the law to be revoked, the Chinese government is touting a “democratic,” consultative process that gave rise to a policy that will protect national security.

Zhang Yong, deputy director of the parliament’s standing committee on legislative affairs, said in a press conference following the announcement of the bill’s passage that the whole process — consultation and adoption — followed democratic principles.

“In the drafting process itself, an open and democratic lawmaking process was implemented, and opinions from all quarters were fully heard,” the official said, explaining that among the stakeholders engaged in the consultations were “many foreign NGOs conducting activities in China.” Lawmakers and officials say that some portions of the adopted legislation were revised to accommodate the many inputs discussed during the consultations.

But NGO representatives are not convinced.

After a year of consultations following the release of the second and final draft in May 2015, those revisions appear relatively minor. Some of the these changes, according to documents from the country’s parliament, include easing administrative restrictions on overseas NGO staffing and operations, exemption of foreign colleges, selected research institutes and hospitals in the definition of a “foreign NGO,” and the removal of the five-year limit on operations of representative offices, among others. The provision regarding the one-representative-office-limit in mainland China is also removed, although specifics including location and allowable number is currently unclear.

The law’s most significant provisions, however, remained the same; and NGOs continue to protest them.

Sophie Richardson, China director of Human Rights Watch, described in a press release how the policy grants Beijing an additional excuse “to crack down on civil society groups” — something she added the Chinese government doesn’t need. “The NGO law is like many others at the Xi Jinping era: ever-stronger tools to legalize China’s human rights abuses.”

Willliam Nee, researcher for China at Amnesty International, said in a separate press release that the “law presents a very real threat to the legitimate work of independent NGOs and should be immediately revoked.”

Despite these and other protests from civil society and advocacy groups, state officials maintain that the thrust of the law is to prevent breaches of national security. The government “praises the active role of foreign NGOs,” according to Hao Yunhong, head of foreign NGO management office in the country’s public security ministry.

“However, we have also noticed there have been an extremely small number of foreign NGOs that have used funding channels and methods to engage in illegal actions, such as those that have harmed China’s national security and interests,” he said in the same press conference.

Foreign NGOs might not be the only ones to feel the effects of the new restrictions. Shawn Shieh, deputy director of development and operations at Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin, shared in a blog post that the grass-roots NGOs that rely on funding and support from these international groups could also feel the pinch.

“By regulating and possibly restricting the activities of [foreign NGOs] in China, this law will potentially have a very significant negative impact on grass-roots organizations,” Shieh wrote.

The law comes just weeks after the Chinese parliament passed a similar piece of legislation focusing on the operations, rights and legal mandate of charitable organizations and foundations operating within the country.

The overseas NGO law is expected to take effect in January next year.

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About the author

Lean 2
Lean Alfred Santos@DevexLeanAS

Lean Alfred Santos is a Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Prior to joining Devex, he covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics. Lean is based in Manila.


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