Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Patients waited their turn in the lobby of the free health clinic in Jherekhe, Tibetan Plateau, China, in this 2011 file photo. The clinic is funded by the Surmang Foundation, an American NGO.

China battles foreign influence with new NGO law

The government's tighter controls could discourage a wide array of international groups from continuing their work in China.

China’s legislature brushed aside international criticism and enacted a strict law Thursday that authorizes tighter controls on foreign nongovernmental organizations, including police supervision of charities and nonprofit groups.

The law is the ruling Communist Party’s latest attempt to limit foreign influences in the world’s most populous country. Yet in so doing, critics warn, the government could discourage a wide array of international groups from continuing their work in China, hurting national efforts to improve health care, education, and environmental protection, among other national goals.

One provision of the law requires NGOs to register with the police, but only once they have found a professional supervisory unit – an official Chinese sponsor of some sort. 

“If they can’t get a sponsor, they will have to leave the country,” says Shawn Shieh, deputy director of the China Labour Bulletin, an NGO based in Hong Kong. Groups that deal with issues deemed sensitive by the party – such as land rights or gender equality – will have the hardest time finding official sponsors, he predicted. 

“The NGO law is like many others” passed since President Xi Jinping took power three years ago, says Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, a US-based watchdog; “ever stronger tools to legalize China’s human rights abuses.”

Roughly 7,000 foreign NGOs have offices in China, according to government figures. Many launched their operations here when China “opened up” in the 1980s, seeking international assistance to develop its economy, universities, and public institutions. 

Yet under President Xi Jinping, China has sought to clamp down on rights lawyers, feminist groups, and labor organizations in China. State media have accused “hostile foreign forces” – including NGOs – of supporting such groups as part of a plot to destabilize the government.  

The law enacted Thursday was in some ways less restrictive than an initial draft floated – and widely condemned – last year. That draft's proposals, for example, limited foreign NGOs to a single office in China. The final law grants more latitude.

'A very real threat'

Even so, foreign governments and various nonprofits criticized the final version.

Michael Clauss, the German ambassador to China, issued a statement saying that the revised legislation “does not dispel our concern that it could make cooperation with German partners more difficult in the future.”

Amnesty International called on China’s top leaders to scrap the statute. “The law presents a very real threat to the legitimate work of independent NGOs and should be immediately revoked,” says William Nee, an Amnesty China researcher based in Hong Kong. 

NGOs have long operated in a legal gray space in China, neither officially permitted nor prohibited. Only a handful of groups – those deemed unthreatening to the Communist Party – have been allowed to register. These include such organizations such as the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Save the Children. 

Some foreign NGOs have long sought an opportunity to come out of the shadows and obtain clearer legal status. These include relatively innocuous groups such as educational exchanges and business groups. 

The future is far less certain for outfits that seek to assist rights advocates in China. In January, Chinese police detained Peter Dahlin, a Swedish citizen who headed an unregistered NGO that provided assistance to human rights lawyers in China. Police accused him of endangering national security, and he was later deported. 

Chilling effect

Earlier this week, a report about the NGO law by the state-run Xinhua News Service raised hopes that the Communist Party might soften the legislation. Those hopes were dashed Thursday when Xinhua announced the law’s passage in a terse one-sentence report. 

Although the text of the final legislation has not been made public, portions of it have leaked out. “Most of the more restrictive measures are still in this final version,” says Mr. Shieh, who said he had obtained excerpts of the text late Thursday. 

Shieh says that NGOs still have an opportunity to shape the law’s impact as it is implemented. The law takes effect next Jan. 1, but it may take some time, he said, for the police to train officers to carry out its provisions.

Still, he said, the law will likely have a chilling effect on any groups, foreign or Chinese, working on social issues in China. Over the past year, China has enacted national security and antiterrorism laws that give the police wide powers to restrict the activities of Chinese citizens and others in the country. The new law allows the police to restrict foreign groups’ work, and to limit domestic organizations’ right to receive foreign funding.

“There is definitely a pattern here,” says Shieh.

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