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The Government Specter Hovering Over Foreign NGOs in China

April 28, 2015 saw the ratification of a controversial foreign NGO management law set to take effect in 2017 in China. In April 2016 the People’s Congress revised the draft and components regarding regulations of academic institutions were deleted; the rules for other NGOs, however, were strengthened. The regulation will directly affect approximately 7,000 foreign NGOs operating within the country’s borders, including a variety of foundations, social groups, and think tanks. The law will likely be manifested in increasingly stringent governmental control over this vulnerable area of Chinese culture. Furthermore, the new law demonstrates the administration’s strategy of preventing the diffusion of Western ideologies. Although the deleterious effects of foreign NGOs and the Western ideas they are said to represent remain to be proven, Chinese president Xi Jinping’s government seems prepared to stifle any alleged incitement to pro-democracy acts in order to prevent the occurrence of a much-feared “Chinese Spring.”

Following its founding in 1949, the new government of the People’s Republic of China abolished, evicted, or co-opted all existing NGOs under its jurisdiction, effectively suppressing their ability to operate efficiently. It was not until the late 1970s, when party chairman Deng Xiaoping enacted the “Reform and Open-up” policy, that nonprofit organizations slowly began to reemerge.

According to data published by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, over 600,000 civil society groups were formally registered in China as of spring 2015, while scholars have estimated that the number of unregistered or purposefully incorrectly registered NGOs in the country exceeds 1.5 million.

Due to the complicated registration and administration process, many NGOs choose to register as business corporations, which are not granted tax-exemption status, or simply did not register at all. Nonetheless, a prosperous and tenacious civil society has been active in instigating discussion related to issues of poverty, environmental disaster, ecological protection, education, disease control, and mass migration.

As of 2016, NGOs operating in China are required to secure the oversight of a supervisory agency within the government before registering with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. For registered NGOs, the specter of government supervision hovers constantly, and those focusing on sensitive subjects such as human rights and political reform are often severely harassed. The newly revised law, however, goes even further by requiring that all foreign NGOs operating in China register with the Ministry of Public Security which also assumes responsibility for NGO supervision. As a result of the new law, police authorities are permitted to detain NGOs’ representatives and subsequently revoke their operating licenses if they are deemed, by the government’s byzantine logic, to subvert the state or injure national unity. Authorities will also have unrestricted access to NGOs’ financial records. The wording of the law is ambiguous and the definitions of these terms vague at best, meaning that such security agencies are permitted an unprecedented degree of power over NGOs.

The party’s tightened control over foreign NGOs largely reflects the Chinese government’s response to uprisings in Eastern Europe in the mid-2000s. While the Western press celebrated the triumph of participatory democracy and the pervasive influence of NGOs with the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, the Chinese government became concerned that similar uprisings would occur within its own borders. The party used these upheavals as evidence of the negative influences of foreign and internationally oriented domestic NGOs. As a result, in the spring of 2005, all registered Chinese NGOs were required to submit reports to supervisory government agencies in which they clarified their connections with foreign organizations.

The actual consequences of this recently approved law remain unknown since it will not be implemented until 2017. Yet, it will undoubtedly strengthen the party-state’s control over foreign NGOs, eliminating many organizations and decreasing the abilities of those that remain to maneuver at their discretion. As a response to these anticipated outcomes, many foreign NGOs are now considering curtailing their operations in or even retreating from China altogether. Consequently, the country may see an overall decrease in the number of grassroots Chinese domestic NGOs—even those that work on subjects of no political consequence—as overseas support wanes.

What the government fails to acknowledge with such legislation, however, is that, as many Chinese domestic environmental, HIV/AIDS, and poverty alleviation organizations demonstrate, the nation is heavily dependent on funding from transnational NGOs. The new law will likely stifle thousands of Chinese grassroots organizations, whether fledgling or previously successful in the field. The government’s policy is paradoxical. It puts into place obstacles that will directly impede the development of NGOs in China at a time when the party-state is actively seeking support from the same groups in order to combat social issues and promote China’s international reputation.

In light of these circumstances, it is actually in the government’s best interest to relax rather than tighten controls over international NGOs and slacken its hypervigilance regarding the alleged subversive harms of either domestic or foreign-oriented civil society and the danger of Western ideologies. Such an approach would allow NGOs more freedom to develop and contribute to the overall well-being of Chinese society. As China’s economy continues to expand, the support of NGOs will become increasingly indispensable. In order for the state to secure the resources necessary to thrive it must inevitably retreat and make compromises with these organizations.