Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Patients wait their turn in the lobby of the free health clinic in Jherekhe, Tibetan Plateau, China, on June 30, 2011. The clinic is funded by the Surmang Foundation, an American NGO. The foundation is the first foreign NGO to be registered in Quinghai Province.

National security? China ready to slam door on foreign NGOs.

New law would allow Beijing to filter out foreign funding of groups that support free expression and civil society. 

After years of operating in a precarious legal limbo, foreign non-governmental organizations in China are facing a moment of truth that could force many of them to close their doors.

The Chinese government is drafting a new foreign NGO law that is widely expected to make work more difficult, if not impossible, for many of the 6,000 overseas non-profits that operate here in a broad range of fields from education and the environment to HIV-Aids and legal education.

Under the new law, foreign non-profits would not be allowed to open more than one office, or to raise funds locally, or be allowed to fund projects deemed counter to what is being called “Chinese society’s moral customs," according to excerpts seen by The Christian Science Monitor of the still unpublished bill. 

“It will be a new world if the law goes through as it is written now,” says Anthony Spires of the Center for Civil Society Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who has seen an early draft of the bill. “There will be a lot more layers of control and opportunities for the government to say no” to NGO projects.

National security threat?

At the heart of the proposed law is a view that foreign non-profits are as much a potential threat to national security as they are a benefit to social and economic development in China. 

“We need to protect their legitimate interests, to let them play a greater role, but on the other hand they need more effective management, to sufficiently protect our national security and social stability,” said Fu Ying, spokeswoman for the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s parliament, before it opened its annual session last week.

The bill was presented last December to the Standing Committee of the NPC by Yang Huanning, Vice Minister of Public Security. It came on the heels of a survey of foreign-funded NGOs ordered last summer by the National Security Commission, headed by President Xi Jinping.

The Ministry of Civil Affairs, traditionally responsible for non-governmental organizations, appears to play no role in the drafting of the legal text, according to people familiar with the situation.

The draft law puts the Ministry of Public Security in charge of registering foreign NGOs, which are obliged to find a government agency to sponsor them. They would also have to submit annual work plans, including all funding proposals, in advance to their sponsoring agency such as a ministry or local government authority.

“Will they use this to screen out the groups they don’t like? Probably,” says one foreigner working for an overseas non-profit who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. “It will be really hard for any rights-based or religious organization to find an appropriate official sponsor.”

Civil society NGOs always fragile 

Some NGO workers say that a law could be helpful in clarifying their groups’ ambiguous legal status, allowing them to operate above board. Foreign NGOs in the southwestern province of Yunnan which registered under a pilot program there “had to jump through more hoops, but those who did it felt it was worth it because it gave them quasi-legal status,” says Shawn Shieh, an expert on Chinese civil society at the Hong Kong based China Labor Bulletin.

Others, though, especially those who work in politically sensitive areas such as gay rights, journalism training or labor relations fear that the new law will be used to shut them down. “This law, from what we have heard, gives unprecedented power to the police,” says one activist with a foreign NGO in Beijing. “They want to show a heavy hand.”

Over the years, the lack of a clear legal framework for most foreign NGOs has made their existence in China a fragile one. Only a handful of the largest and least controversial organizations such as the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Save the Children UK have been able to register legally as foreign non-profits.

The rest of the foreign NGOs operating here, estimated at 6,000, have either flown under the radar or set themselves up as commercial enterprises, which is legally easier and less time consuming than trying to establish an NGO.

The new law’s requirement that all foreign non-profits secure the backing of an official agency means that “many of them may find no sponsor…and may have to leave,” predicts Prof. Spires.

That would deprive countless local governments of the money and expertise that foreign NGOs have brought to China over the past two decades.

Over that period, more than 500,000 Chinese non-profits have sprung up across the country, according to official figures. Many of them have won official blessing for the way in which they have provided volunteer social welfare services, from garbage collection to education and healthcare, that overstretched and underfunded local governments have not always been able to offer.

Foreign funding has boosted many of the the local Chinese NGO efforts. But some international NGOs have also been more willing than their local counterparts to finance efforts at greater social and political rights and individuals that have earned the government’s ire for challenging the Communist party dominated system.

Comes amid renewed crackdown

The new bill, now under closed-door discussion, is expected to pass by the end of this year.

It comes amid the toughest sustained crackdown on Chinese social and political activists in more than a decade.

Ten feminists are the latest victims of the campaign that has put scores of journalists, lawyers and civil rights activists behind bars. The women were detained over the weekend, on the eve of International Womens’ Day, as they planned a publicity campaign against sexual harassment on public transport.

The mood among civil society activists, both local and foreign, “is not good,” says Mr. Shieh. “A lot of people are discouraged by what’s going on and the general feeling is pretty down and pessimistic. There is a sense that recent gains have been stopped at this point.”

Shieh attributes the NGO bill to the central government’s “current emphasis on national security and national sovereignty…which have been moved up as priorities.”

Most international NGOs have good working relations with the local and provincial governments they assist, he points out, and their contributions are valued. The authorities “need civil society organizations because they play a useful role,” Shieh adds. “This crackdown is not sustainable because it is counter-productive to solving problems. In the long term the government will have to make space for NGOs and work with them.”

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