The Chinese National People’s Congress has just passed the controversial Law on the Management of Foreign NGOs. What are the key messages of this new law?
China now views foreign NGOs as a potential threat to national security. The Chinese government wants to curb the political, and to some extent also the social influence of foreign NGOs, referring mainly to organisations from Western democracies. Beijing is increasingly worried about an “infiltration by hostile Western forces”, meaning Western values and political concepts like autonomous representation of interests or fostering a rule of law.
Simultaneously, however, the Chinese leadership wants to benefit from the know-how and commitment of foreign non-governmental organisations in selective areas. NGOs that are successfully registered under the Ministry of Public Security will be subject to strict transparency requirements and day-to-day supervision. Within the framework of what the Chinese leadership allows, they have a rather clear-cut legal basis for their activities.
Schools, hospitals as well as exchange and cooperation projects in natural and engineering sciences are excluded from these new regulations. It remains to be seen whether they will be subject to existing laws or whether new regulations will be passed to include them. The Chinese government clearly doesn’t want to endanger cooperation with foreign institutions, which are necessary to build up China’s innovative power or to drive its socio-economic development.
Foreign diplomats and experts have expressed deep concerns about the first two draft versions of the law. Did their protests have any effect on the final law?
Beijing obviously did make some concessions. The name of the law was changed, so that it now only refers to activities of foreign NGOs within China, and not potentially to their China-related activities in other countries. The Chinese government also deleted passages that mandated re-registration after five years or that imposed very strict restrictions on accepting Chinese volunteers or members. Additionally, foreign NGOs can now register more than one representative office in the PRC.
However, concerns within China also played a very important role. It was telling that two days before the law was passed, the party and state-run news agency Xinhua had published changes compared to the second draft version, giving detailed reasons. This points to various conflicts of interests within the Chinese political elite. For example, Chinese educational and scientific institutions worried that an overemphasis on national security might put all their co-operation projects on hold. Provincial cadres were obviously concerned that an overly restricted handling of foreign NGOs in the health sector would impact the socio-economic development in their regions.
Some observers fear the „end of civil society“ in China? What‘s your view on that?
The increasing systemic supervision and repression against all autonomous expression and organization of social interests have clearly limited the space for civil society in China. For example, Chinese NGOs offering legal consultation or capacity building are already finding it increasingly difficult to continue their work or to co-operate with foreign institutions.
On the other hand, Beijing clearly wants to foster charitable activities of Chinese NGOs. The new Charity Law that was passed in March has made it easier to register as a charitable organisation, to raise donations or to get tax reductions. Beijing openly encourages private enterprises to set up foundations, allowing private capital and initiatives to take on a portion of the provision of social welfare from the party-state.
How can foreign NGOs go on working? What is the future of foreign NGOs under this new law?
Foreign NGOs offering legal aid or autonomous capacity building and their Chinese partners will face increasing difficulties that could lead to an eventual stop to their activities. Specifically they will have to fear being accused of “endangering national security” or other crimes.
These organisations might have the option to re-classify their activities under a category that is more likely to find official approval such as charity, education or health work.
But whether and how foreign NGO operations can operate on a secure basis in the future depends on how the law will be further shaped by additional regulations.
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