(New York) – The Chinese government should withdraw its draft law on foreign organizations, Human Rights Watch said today in a submission to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee Legislative Affairs Commission. If adopted, the second draft of the Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations Management Law will severely and arbitrarily restrict the ability of civil society organizations in China to access resources from and cooperate with international organizations.

“Vague and overly restrictive regulations on organizations always have the goal of curtailing – not reasonably regulating – legitimate group activities,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “In the past two years, Chinese authorities have shown increasing hostility toward civil society, and this draft law is nothing more than a means to block the activities of groups Beijing doesn’t like.”

In its submission, Human Rights Watch notes concerns about five aspects of the law:

  • Broad and vague limitations on foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating temporarily or permanently in China;
  • An onerous supervisory framework for NGOs;
  • An expansive role for the police in approving and monitoring NGOs’ work;
  • Restrictions on staffing and operations; and
  • Punishments for vaguely defined activities.

The impact of this law would be wide-ranging. Domestic organizations have worked on issues affecting millions of people that the government often claims it wishes to address: poverty alleviation, public health crises, and fighting environmental pollution. These groups have developed the kind of flexibility and creativity needed to address overwhelming societal challenges. Many of them have long relied on an estimated 1000 to 6000 foreign organizations and foundations for funding, training, and expertise. The draft law would also affect cooperation and exchanges with a wide range of nonprofits such as schools, universities, hospitals, professional associations, research institutes, and museums.

The draft law appears to be another step toward the Chinese government’s “differentiated management” model of NGOs, in which groups working on issues approved by the state, such as charities for people with disabilities, can register more easily and are considered for increased state funding and support. In contrast, those engaged on rights or lobbying are stifled. Foreign funding has been essential for this latter group of “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.

In the past year, the Chinese government has increased its harassment of domestic civil society organizations. Some of the most outspoken domestic NGOs, 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. The head of Transition Institute, Guo Yushan, and its administrative manager, Liu Zhengjun, have been indicted for “operating an illegal business” because the organization published public policy publications funded by international foundations.

Governments have a legitimate regulatory interest in providing benefits to organizations that become legal entities and preventing criminal activity. But such regulations should not be used as a cover to undermine rights to freedom of association, expression, and assembly, which are protected under the Chinese constitution and international law. The ability of organizations to receive and use funding for lawful activities is an integral part of the right to freedom of association, which should be protected regardless of whether the groups are registered, and regardless of the nature of the funding source. While international law allows restrictions on freedom of association, they must be set out in law and narrowly defined for a specific and legitimate purpose.

“Chinese civil society organizations have made extremely valuable contributions to Chinese society,” Richardson said. “The Chinese government should facilitate their work, not strangle it.”