China’s new foreign NGO law bound to make things worse for ‘sensitive’ human rights defenders

April 8, 2015

Maya Wang (twitter @wang_maya), a China researcher at Human Rights Watch, published on 8 April 2105 an interesting post under the title “China’s new foreign NGO law will help silence critics“.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Willem Velthoven.

Some years back I participated in an interesting meeting with Chinese academics in Beijing about exactly this issue of the status of NGOs in China. The meeting resulted in a book ‘NGOs in China and Europe’ (exceptionally also published in Chinese!) edited by Yuwen Li and published by Ashgate in 2011 (ISBN: 978-1-4094-1959-4). Although almost all participants agreed that the current regime for establishing associations is too cumbersome and too heavy-handed for Chinese civil society to flourish, the Government made clear that its main concern remained with what Maya calls ‘sensitive’ NGOs. Those working on issue that are even faintly related to human rights or smack of possible activism, especially when funded from abroad, are seen as a danger and should be subject tot maximum control. That seems to be born out by the draft of the long-awaited ‘Foreign NGOs Administration Law’, likely to be adopted this year and of which Human Rights Watch obtained a copy.

As Maya states, it has never been easy to run an independent organisation in China. The risks of being arbitrarily shut down or harassed are high, as shown by the arrest on 8 March of five women’s rights activists and a 24 March raid on an NGO that supports their work in Beijing. But the absence of a national law governing NGOs, coupled with differences in attitudes towards NGOs by regional leaders, have afforded some leeway for those with creative strategies. It has been common for ‘sensitive’ NGOs to register as a business to bypass the wary eyes of the state, or not register at all. And over the years, some international funding to these organisations in China has been tolerated.

 

Especially ‘sensitive’ NGOs have been unable to access domestic funding sources because they are not legally registered as a nonprofit and anyway those who did want to fund would receive official harassment. The new Foreign NGOs Administration Law is bound to end the funding lifeline that allowed more outspoken NGOs to operate.

The draft law is likely to significantly tighten the Government’s control over civil society says Maya: “If approved, the Ministry of Public Security (not the Ministry of Civil Affairs) will now have the power to supervise and approve registration of foreign NGOs. That ‘supervision’ can entail entering the premises of the foreign NGO at any point, questioning its staff, and copying or seizing any document, all tactics more commonly reserved for a criminal investigation. Foreign NGOs will have to submit for approval annual work plans and funding allocations, and will be prohibited from engaging in a range of peaceful activities, from raising funds or accepting donations in-country to recruiting volunteers or trying to recruit members ‘directly or indirectly.’” Violations of these prescriptions mean that an NGO’s representative in China would be liable to punishments, including a 15-day detention.

“The draft law is another step towards the Chinese Government’s ‘differentiated management’ model of NGOs, in which domestic groups working on issues approved by the state, such as charities for people with disabilities, can register easily and are considered for increased state funding and support.  But those engaged on rights or lobbying are stifled. The draft explicitly prohibits activities that ‘endanger…national security, unity and solidarity’ or that ‘go against China’s social morality’. These are vague terms, but ones frequently used to silence peaceful government critics and activists.”

China’s new foreign NGO law will help silence critics.

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