New Chinese Law Puts Foreign Non-profits in Limbo

16-Dec-2016 Intellasia | WSJ | 6:00 AM Print This Post

Many NGOs could be made illegal on January 1 amid campaign against unwanted foreign influences

Hundreds of international non-profits in China are bracing for the new year when a law rolled out as part of President Xi Jinping’s push against unwanted foreign influence threatens to make them illegal.

The uncertainty stems from new rules requiring foreign non-profits to register with police and have a government sponsor, among other restrictions. The non-profits most at risk are smaller groups working on criminal justice and rule of law. But without key information on how to register, groups operating even in nonsensitive fields are in danger of ending up violating the law.

An exodus of such groups would weaken informal ties between China and the US just as tough talk from President-elect Donald Trump on trade and other issues is shaking up the relationship.

On Wednesday, the US Embassy in Beijing sent out a notice warning that US citizens employed by or associated with non-profits “may face special scrutiny and/or penalties for noncompliance” when the law goes into effect on January 1.

Fears in the Communist Party that foreign governments might exploit non-profits to promote democracy in China have ramped up under Xi. The new law, which passed in April, follows tightened controls targeting foreign textbooks and foreign entertainment and is part of expanding legal fortification against what Chinese leaders see as threats from abroad.

China estimates 7,000 foreign groups have activities in the country, while experts say those with a long-term presence number less than a thousand. A few large organisations like the Ford Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are formally registered under older regulations, but the vast majority operate in a regulatory gray area, registered as businesses or sometimes not at all.

Authorities have signaled that groups working on civil rights will have trouble registering, according to Western diplomats.

One prominent non-profit, the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative, which has advised activists in environmental lawsuits and lobbied for landmark legislation on domestic violence, decided as a result to move its China programme to Hong Kong and will have no staff in China come next year.

With only a couple of weeks till the deadline, authorities haven’t provided lists of government sponsors or approved activity areas necessary for groups to register under the law.

“A lot of organisations just don’t know what to do,” said Mark Sidel, a University of Wisconsin law professor who has been advising groups on how to prepare for the law.

Several rights-advocacy groups are looking at mothballing their programmes, and some have already moved foreign managers out of the country, according to non-profit staffers.

China routinely portrays informal exchanges as vital for good relations with other nations. Nongovernment groups also provide a framework for important back-channel dialogue in times of flare-ups.

“How do we deal with another bilateral disruption if there’s no fabric holding the relationship together?” asked the China head of a large international INGO.

US National Security Adviser Susan Rice raised concerns about the new law’s impact on “people-to-people links” in a Washington meeting on December 8 with China’s minister of public security, Guo Shengkun, the White House said. Neither the public security ministry nor China’s foreign ministry responded to requests for comment.

One veteran non-profit staffer said he believed China’s government’s approach to foreign non-profits is similar to its treatment of foreign technology companies: absorb what they have to teach, then use laws to push out undesirable ones and create local groups that are more easily controlled.

The small number of non-profits already registered will be able to re-register under an expedited process, officials have said. Several Western officials, legal experts and non-profit staff said they believed the government intends to let most unregistered groups enter the new year as illegal organisations to make it easier to control or expel them.

At a forum on foreign NGOs in Beijing on Monday, Ching Tien, the Canadian founder of a non-profit that sponsors the schooling of girls in western China’s Gansu province, said she is now thinking of making her group part of an existing Chinese foundation, which would mean giving up financial control.

“No one can explain the law to us,” Tien said. “It’s just easier this way.”

In discussions about the law, one Western diplomat said, Chinese officials showed little interest in addressing foreign governments’ concerns. A foreigner involved in the talks said authorities attributed the delay in releasing the guidelines to a lack of consensus “at the highest levels” over which agencies would be approved to sponsor foreign groups. Officials also said “all political activities will be forbidden,” the person said.

For groups that can’t get registered, there’s a danger that international funders will pull support, or that local partners will be afraid to work with them, said Gisa Dang, former programme director for Asia Catalyst, which does training and research on HIV and other health issues in Asia.

“I think that’s part of the plan,” said Dang, who moved to the US from Beijing earlier this year. Asia Catalyst declined to comment.

In July, the American Bar Association angered Beijing by giving its inaugural International Human Rights Award to Chinese human-rights lawyer Wang Yu. Some in China’s legal circles took the award and the closure of ABA’s Beijing office as a sign the organisation had given up on engagement with China.

The director of the ABA’s Rule of Law Initiative, Elisabeth Anderson, said the organisation was hopeful it would be allowed to register under the new law and would try to continue to work in China.


Category: China

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