China prompts criticism with new curbs on foreign NGOs


China took a major step on Thursday in President Xi Jinping’s movement away from Western influences and toward stronger social control, as it passed a new law aimed at limiting the work of foreign nongovernmental organizations and their local partners, mainly through police supervision. More than 7,000 foreign nongovernmental groups will be affected, according to state news reports, The New York Times reports:

Foreign groups working across Chinese civil society — on issues including the environment, philanthropy and cultural exchanges, and possibly even in education and business — will now have to find an official Chinese sponsor and ensure that their programs receive police approval. Those unable to do so will be forced to leave the country. Many groups will probably curtail or eliminate programs deemed politically sensitive, such as training lawyers, in order to remain.

The new law is the latest in a series of actions taken by Mr. Xi against the kind of Western influences and ideas that he and other leaders view as a threat to the survival of the Communist Party. Mr. Xi makes loud pronouncements about ideology, and is expected to enact other sweeping security laws. He has departed sharply from the direction of several of his predecessors, who for decades guided China in seeking out foreign expertise to build up society.

The most draconian aspect of the earlier drafts remained, despite widespread outcry from foreign groups and governments. It requires that foreign nongovernmental organizations register with the Ministry of Public Security and allow the police to scrutinize all aspects of their operations, including finances, at any time.

“I think more important than the law itself will be its implementation, and I think overseas NGOs now need to turn their focus to how they can be involved in the implementation process, which will be long and drawn out,” said Shawn Shieh, a deputy director at the China Labor Bulletin in Hong Kong who closely tracks the work of nongovernmental groups in China:

The Public Security Ministry will need to hire staff members and take other steps to enact the law, he said, “and overseas NGOs will need to communicate frequently with Public Security, educate them and maybe even provide services such as workshops, trainings and advice on how to manage NGOs and their projects and activities in China.”

Lu Jun, a well-known social activist who was forced to move to the US last year after his organisation was targeted by law enforcement, described the decision to give greater powers to police as a disaster, The Guardian adds:

Lu, whose group, Yirenping, has campaigned on health and employment issues, claimed Beijing was attempting to use the new legislation to neutralise foreign-supported groups that it suspected were attempting to destabilise the government. “They consider foreign NGOs and some domestic NGOs as a threat to their regime,” he said.

“The real purpose of the foreign NGO law is to restrict foreign NGOs’ activities in China and to restrict domestic-rights NGOs’ activities in China by cutting the connection between [the two],” he said.

The law is also partly inspired by similar moves in Russia under President Vladimir Putin. Both regimes see the West’s hand in the “color revolutions” that opposed autocratic regimes in the former Soviet Union and in the Balkans in the early 2000s, in the Arab Spring in 2011, and in pro-democracy protests that swept Hong Kong in 2014, The Washington Post adds:

“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,” said Kristin Shi-Kupfer, director of research into politics, society and media at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin.

But, she said, “the Chinese leadership wants to benefit from the know-how and commitment of foreign non-governmental organizations in selective areas.”

In a statement released shortly after the legislation was approved, the group Chinese Human Rights Defenders called for the repeal of the “draconian law.”  

“The adopted version appears to retain the most troubling elements of the previous draft, and allows for even tighter government control over NGO activities,” the group said.  “Once the law takes effect on January 1, 2017, it will further restrict international NGOs working in China and suffocate the country’s already beleaguered independent organizations.”

Huang Haoming, secretary-general of China Association for NGO Cooperation, a state-supported organization that has helped foreign nonprofits operate in China in the past, said the law raised questions about existing and future collaborations between overseas and domestic groups, The Wall Street Journal notes. The new reporting requirements, he said, will drive up costs for groups whose funding is often stretched.

Silent Contest, a military-produced video widely circulated on the Chinese internet in 2013, listed the Ford Foundation and the New York-based Asia Society as part of a conspiracy to ‘westernise and divide’ China, The FT notes:

Hao Yunhong, a representative of the NGO management office at the ministry of public security, acknowledged that foreign-funded organisations had “promoted our country’s development” since economic reforms were first adopted nearly four decades ago. “But we have noticed,” he added that, “some funding organisations, a minority, a small minority, are using funding channels to hurt China’s interests. We want to increase oversight of this. This is something we should do.”

Programs “have to be in line with national security, the national interest and also the interest of society,” he told reporters. “I believe no country would allow an organisation that hurts its national interest.”

Some officials in Beijing have characterized foreign nongovernmental groups as “black hands” working to undermine one-party rule in the country. Those suspicions have grown under Mr. Xi, The Times adds:

Beijing is already suspicious of foreign and Chinese nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from outside sources deemed politically suspect, such as the National Endowment for Democracy and the Open Society Foundations, both based in the United States. Groups that operate here with any financing from those sources will be even more vulnerable under the new law.

Certain types of nongovernmental organizations — like groups that work with Chinese human rights activists or lawyers — will have little chance of finding an official partner or registering with the police. One example is the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, which a Chinese lawyer and a Swedish resident of Beijing founded seven years ago and registered as a business in Hong Kong.

“The authorities – particularly the police – will have virtually unchecked powers to target NGOs, restrict their activities, and ultimately stifle civil society,” said William Nee, Amnesty’s China Researcher.

“The law presents a very real threat to the legitimate work of independent NGOs and should be immediately revoked.”

However, the fundamental focus of the legislation – to subject foreign groups to tighter police oversight and prohibit any activities considered to “endanger China’s national unity, national security, or ethnic unity” – has not changed, Human Rights Watch said. This is likely to disproportionately harm the work of groups engaged on issues the government deems “sensitive.”

“Beijing hardly needs more ammunition to crack down on civil society groups,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The NGO Law is like many others of the Xi Jinping era: ever-stronger tools to legalize China’s human rights abuses,” she added:

The NGO Law requires that foreign groups must be sponsored by a Chinese government organization and be registered with the police, rather than the Ministry of Civil Affairs, as has been the case. It grants police extensive investigation and enforcement powers, including the ability to arbitrarily summon representatives of overseas groups, cancel activities deemed a threat to national security, blacklist groups considered to be involved in vaguely defined “subversive” or “separatist” activities, and permanently bar them from setting up offices or organize activities in the country. The ability to summon NGO representatives creates a legal basis for a longstanding practice, and there appears to be little if any opportunity for organizations to contest their treatment.

The NGO Law permits police investigating foreign NGOs to:

  • Enter its premises and seize documents and other information;
  • Examine its bank accounts and limit incoming funds;
  • Cancel activities, revoke registration, and impose administrative detention; and
  • Participate in the annual assessment of foreign NGOs, which determines whether a group can continue operating.

The NGO Law was developed during a period of escalating Chinese government hostility toward civil society, Human Rights Watch added:

During the same period it has been under consideration, some of the most outspoken domestic groups, including anti-discrimination organization Yirenping, educational institution Liren Rural Libraries, and think tank Transition Institute have been targeted by the police for raids and arbitrary detentions. Swedish NGO worker Peter Dahlin, a co-founder of Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, which supported rights activists and petitioners to promote legal awareness, was detained in January and his group forcibly closed. The authorities accused the group of receiving foreign funding to finance “agents” to carry out works that “endanger state security.”

“Civil society groups have been one of the only human rights success stories in China in recent years, and their survival is crucial for the country’s future,” Richardson said. “So long as repressive restrictions are imposed on some parts of civil society in China, all organizations remain at risk.”

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