In China, NGOs tread lightly over new law

By Lean Alfred Santos 26 May 2015

A view of the Great Hall of the People, the meeting place of the Chinese parliament in Beijing. A new law aims to regulate international nongovernmental organizations' operations in the country. Photo by: Remko Tanis / CC BY-NC-ND

The early June deadline for public consultation over a draft law that aims to regulate the operations and “influence” of international nongovernmental organizations in China is fast approaching. And yet, many things remain unclear to NGOs and civil society organizations.

The Chinese government released the first draft of the controversial law in December, a move that seemed to tighten already strict civil society regulations in Beijing. Some of the provisions that raised concerns among NGOs include restrictions on fundraising, establishing multiple representative offices in China, and the cumbersome registration process to gain legal recognition from the central government.

The National People’s Congress released a slightly amended second draft last month. While this new version allows for some flexibility, the message remains the same:

Foreign NGOs operating in China “must not endanger China's national unity, security, or ethnic unity; must not harm China's national interests, society's public interest, or other groups' and citizens' lawful rights; and must not violate public order and customs.”

The draft NGO law talks about the need to uphold national security — a common refrain among countries that are introducing similar regulations on international NGOs. Experts suggest this is due mainly to concerns that these organizations might introduce and promote foreign values to their intended beneficiaries.

But even before the new law was proposed, international NGOs have already been facing tighter scrutiny from Beijing. While the Chinese government is “encouraging local NGOs to get registered,” Humphrey Wou, co-founder and director of the San Francisco-based AIDS Relief Fund for China, explained to Devex that registering and operating foreign NGOs in the country is a “different story.”

Wou, whose organization provides technical support and training to local NGOs, including community-based rapid testing and safe sex education in parts of China, shared that operationally, “there are plenty of difficulties” working as a development organization in the country.

“Most of China’s social development is basically limited to providing social services. China has never been big on any other kinds of development. Some [of the provisions] are not new … foreign groups have never been able to raise funding,” he explained, adding that at present, foreign NGOs aren’t even allowed to register in China unless it becomes a local entity.

Sticking points

What are the specific points of the new law, particularly with the recent draft released last month?

Anthony Spires, associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong released a document summarizing opinions and suggestions — mostly of “deep concern” — of a number of NGOs over the new draft, weeks before the public consultation deadline.

The draft is divided into nine sections, including representative offices, temporary activities, regulation of conduct, supervision and management, legal responsibility and special regulations, among others.

While the opening of public consultations has been lauded by the larger development community in mainland China and in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan — which will be affected by the law if implemented — glaring concerns linger. These include the basic definition of an “overseas NGO” and whether it should include organizations registered as foundations and businesses that enjoy tax-free policies in other countries.

The sectors international NGOs can work in is a concern as well; the draft law names specific sectors, including education and science and technology. Spires suggests this list should be expanded to include poverty alleviation and disaster relief, among other. Better yet, it would be helpful if the government just listed the sectors foreign NGOs cannot be involved in, he argued.

Another concern is the added bureaucracy the NGO law seems to introduce, what with the extra processes needed to register and gain legal recognition. The new draft requires foreign NGOs to be authorized by “professional supervisory units,” which may comprise state council departments and local governments, while ensuring their advocacies align with these PSUs. There is also no clarity on what kind of partnership there will be with these PSUs — and how to forge it.

If implemented, the draft law in its current form requires foreign NGOs to submit year-round plans that do not allow for contingencies in case natural disasters strike or emergency operations are required. Where and how to establish representative offices, the process of employing local staff (if eventually allowed) and the process of raising funds or even receiving donations are contentious points as well.

For China’s future

While discussions continue, experts suggest the draft NGO law should, in the end, promote the Chinese people’s welfare and the participation of civil society in the whole development process.

Spires said he hopes to see a final version of the law that reflects the reality faced by organizations on the ground while “aim[ing] to make the work of NGOs in China easier and able to fully contribute to the development of the public welfare.”

A third reading of the new draft is expected after the June consultations and is likely to be “promulgated,” as Spires suggests, by the end of the year.

Zhang Xiliang, executive director of the Institute of Energy, Environment and Economy at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, told Devex that organizations should adhere to the existing law, while fears about the new law should be tempered for now as it is still being drafted and not yet implemented.

He explained that while the government is concerned by the rising influence of international organizations in the country, it is still looking to these foreign agencies to provide best practices in implementing development programs.

“We pretty much promote the idea of social inclusion and we are also very much keen to learn from the experience from other nations,” Zhang concluded, noting that the government can learn from these NGOs’ experiences. “It can forge new value and perspective.”

What are your thoughts on the proposed NGO law in China? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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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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