The first batch of foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) registered with China’s police and security agency this week under a controversial new law that went into effect on Jan. 1. The law – described by many as draconian – has caused considerable uncertainty for more than 7,000 organizations about their ability to operate and receive funding.
As expected, the first 32 NGOs to successfully register under the new law include big names like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, World Economic Forum, Save the Children and the Paulson Institute. These organizations were all previously registered as representative offices of foundations under the Ministry of Civil Affairs, according to Shawn Shieh, deputy director of Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin who maintains a blog called NGOs in China. Now, as decreed, they are registered with the Ministry of Public Security.
The Law on the Management of Foreign Non-Government Organizations Activities in China – also called Overseas NGO Law – is among several pieces of legislation that display President Xi Jinping’s renewed focus on national security and rule of law. Since taking office in 2012, Xi has cracked down on activists, lawyers, bloggers, journalists and NGOs working in Tibet.
“We’re really seeing the Xi Jinping government target civil society in a way that I don’t think any of us saw coming,” Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said in an interview with Humanosphere.
After a previous draft was made public and fiercely decried in April 2015, the National People’s Congress passed the current revision on April 28, 2016, shortly after also passing the National Security Law and Counterterrorism Law. The Cybersecurity Law is the latest to join their ranks.
Under the legislation, NGOs that wish to operate in China must set up a representative office under the “dual management” of the police and a professional supervisory unit that corresponds with the NGO’s main area of work. For example, an environmental organization must receive approval from the Environmental Protection Bureau to register with the Ministry of Public Security.
“Everybody woke up on Jan. 1, and most everybody still wasn’t registered properly, in part because the government didn’t issue the list of professional supervisory units with which NGOs could register until about a week or 10 days before the law went into effect,” Richardson said.
The other legal option for NGOs is to find a “Chinese Partner” from a larger pool of approved organizations to file the necessary documents with the Ministry of Public Security for “temporary activities.” NGOs must disclose details including the location, goal, time period and funding for these activities that cannot exceed one year without refiling.
After attending a roundtable of NGOs in Hong Kong last week, Shieh told Humanosphere in an email that several groups are attempting this “temporary activities” route and will share with the others how it goes.
“Everyone is still thinking about how they want to operate in China, and taking the necessary steps as required by the law,” he said. “It’s still too early in the process to know how any of these organizations are faring in their efforts.”
Although the revised law now in effect did ease some restrictions in previous drafts, there is still considerable concern for the future role of civil society in China.
“As long as the NGOs respect Chinese laws and regulations we will ensure favorable and an enabling environment and working conditions,” Hua Chunying, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, said in response to concerns raised by the European Union’s ambassador to China on Wednesday, according to Business Standard.
However, Richardson said her phone “blew up” with calls when the law was first passed in April. She said that organizations of every stripe and color – from museums to high school marching bands – wanted to know what the law will mean for them.
“What we’re likely to see is that certain kinds of organizations that do work the government either likes or doesn’t really object to will be somewhat bureaucratically pampered in the way one generally can be in China,” Richardson said. “But there will be other groups the government doesn’t like that will not be allowed to register or will be very subtly surveilled. It’s entirely possible that as time goes by … we’ll see the law used as a way of clipping those groups’ wings.”
Whereas NGOs previously operated in an unregulated “gray area” of goodwill on the part of local officials, Shieh said that the law may actually create more transparency in NGO regulation. However, Richardson argues that the new police-run environment will ultimately undermine China’s development goals.
“Effectively what you will see is the state co-opting independent organizations to do only what the state wants them to do,” she said. “I think it leaves out of the picture people who have very different ideas about what development is or how it should be pursued or how to ensure the benefits are shared by all the people who have a stake in it.”
“[China] is not an unblemished economic miracle. Vulnerable people are paying an enormous price and not necessarily reaping gains that are supposedly being pursued in their name,” Richardson said. “To shut down the work of groups who are simply trying to close those gaps strikes us as remarkably counterproductive.”