What's at stake in the Chinese government's proposed new restrictions on independent organizations?
These groups work on issues affecting millions that are often the responsibility of governments in other countries: from domestic violence (which affects one in four women in China) to the welfare of migrant workers' children, to environmental pollution. These organizations have developed the kind of flexibility and creativity needed to address overwhelming societal challenges and, until recently, the latitude to urge the state to change policies and practices.
It has never been easy to run an independent organization in China. Regulations are stringent and the risks of being arbitrarily shut down or harassed are high, as shown by the arrest on 8 March and ongoing detention of five women's rights activists and a 24 March raid on an NGO that supports their work in Beijing.
At the same time, the lack of a national law governing these organizations, 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 – ones that actively campaign, or work on human rights or civil liberties – 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 organizations in China, and the running of certain foreign organizations, has been tolerated.
Many of China's civil society organizations have long relied on outside funding. It has been especially valuable for sensitive NGOs. It is nearly impossible for them to access the few domestic funding sources available when they are not legally registered as a nonprofit, and when these sources tend to stay away to stave off official harassment. But with the dawn of the long-debated Foreign NGOs Administration Law, likely to be adopted this year, the funding lifeline that allowed more outspoken NGOs to operate will rapidly dry up.
Although the draft law has not yet been made public, a copy reviewed by Human Rights Watch suggests it will significantly tighten the Government's control over civil society if adopted as currently written. As Beijing becomes increasingly paranoid, claiming that civil society has helped topple governments in 'color revolutions' around the world, it has opted for a management model that maximizes state control.
The draft is consistent with a larger effort to curb civil society and crack down on already restricted civil liberties and their defenders since President Xi Jinping came to power.
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 mean that an NGO's representative in China (the draft law now requires foreign NGO to establish a representative office) 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.
Governments that publicly support civil society worldwide should vigorously object to the law and redouble their efforts to condemn attacks on civil society activists being swept up in the current crackdown. Absent strong voices from other governments and respect for domestic activists, China will prevail in its insistence on authoritarian activism. Only those who echo the Government's wishes will prosper, while organizations which push the Government to address urgent social problems will languish and could disappear entirely.