Civil Society to Take a Hit as China Pushes New NGO Controls

Civil Society to Take a Hit as China Pushes New NGO Controls
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像

There are renewed fears that tighter rules around foreign non-government organizations in China will narrow an already restricted political space.

According to Xinhua, the draft foreign NGO management law has been submitted for its third reading at a session of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee later this week.

While state-owned Xinhua maintains the law “eases restrictions over their operations and activities,” the changes have drawn criticism outside of China.

The UK Foreign Office, which lobbied the Chinese government on the new law, says the law may further restrict political space in China.

“China’s proposed foreign NGO law risks narrowing the space for a free civil society,” tweeted The British Embassy in Beijing.

The Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders said the law would mean greater police power and more NGOs becoming blacklisted.

Reuters describes the law as part of a wider crackdown on dissent by the Xi Jinping administration, alongside new counterterrorism and cybersecurity measures.

Latest changes to NGO laws in China

The latest draft law follows earlier iterations, which drew wide criticism from the international community. Among the rules proposed last year, foreign NGOs wanting to set up an office in China would have to secure sponsorship from a high-level government agency and approval of the Ministry of Public Security. They would also have to get sign-off from their sponsor and the ministry for all activities. A range of further restrictions would have been placed on the numbers of foreign staff and branches that NGOs are allowed to have in China.

Xinhua reports that the new draft removes some of those restrictions, including NGOs only being allowed one office in China.

“They will be allowed to open offices according to operational needs but the number and locations must be approved by the regulatory authority,” says Xinhua, noting that the new bill also deletes the previous five-year limit on operations of representative offices in China.

Earlier “restrictions on staff and volunteers are removed but tougher rules are imposed on finances including the source of funds, expenses and revenue,” says Xinhua.

Still, Xinhua adds that new bill “allows the police to interview chief representatives and senior executives of overseas NGOs and force the Chinese partner to terminate a cooperation program if it is considered to undermine state security.”

Human rights fears

In a March article for The Diplomat, University of Alberta Professor Dr Reza Hasmath said the new rules “in total, will create a less free civil society and severely reduce the influence of foreign actors on the domestic affairs of China.”

However, he also said the law “allows for greater accountability and predictability in domestic NGO activities.”

“Over time, this predictability will provide space for the state to further trust domestic civil society actors; and in the same breath, will give the Party a greater stranglehold over power in China,” said Hasmath.

CIVICUS, an international alliance of NGOs and other civil society groups, last year said it was “deeply concerned” about the possible impact of the new law.

“If enacted, the draft law will severely restrict the work of international civil society organizations (CSOs) and public spirited individuals operating in mainland China,” said the organization in June.

It noted the creation of undue burdens and difficulties for foreign NGOs, excessive policing powers of the Chinese government, and the potential chilling of academic freedoms and research.

“The draft law will impede the vital work of civil society organizations and potentially subject them to increased monitoring, censorship and even criminalization of their work in certain circumstances,” it said at the time.

The change to the NGO law comes amid a steady stream of international concern over human rights issues in China.

In a report on human rights in China published last week, the UK Foreign Office noted that while China improved social and economic rights in 2015, civil and political rights were subject to increasingly tight restrictions.

It notes a range of key issues including: restrictions on religion and minorities; online and media censorship; the jailing of journalists; closing of civil organisations; and, the detaining of human rights workers and EU nationals.

“In 2016, the government’s ‘stability maintenance’ policies look set to continue,” says the report.  “These are likely to target groups perceived as disruptive. Many of those detained in 2015 may face further legal action. Proposed laws on foreign NGO management and cyber security may further restrict political space.”


The Diplomat
The American Chamber of Commerce China
UK Foreign Office