(New York) – A newly adopted law in China gives police unprecedented power to restrict the work of foreign groups in the country, Human Rights Watch said today. The law will also limit domestic groups’ ability to obtain foreign funding and work with foreign organizations.
The National People’s Congress passed the draconian Law on the Management of Foreign Non-Government Organizations Activities in China (the NGO Law) on April 28, 2016, and will come into force on January 1, 2017.
“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.”
According to state media reports, the NGO Law as adopted makes some narrow improvements on previous drafts. It eases some of the administrative restrictions on foreign organizations’ staffing and operations, and seemingly exempts foreign colleges, hospitals, and science and engineering research institutes. It also removes proposed restrictions limiting foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to one office each on the mainland and restricting them to five years of operation.
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.”
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.
If foreign NGOs have carried out acts that are seen by the authorities as “splitting the state, damaging national unity, or subverting state power,” police can hand down administrative detentions. Foreigners found to have breached the new law can either be barred from leaving China or deported.
The law also steps up financial scrutiny of foreign NGOs, imposing strict regulations on the source of funding and account management of the groups, requiring that the organization’s financial accounts be audited and announced publicly.
Regulations on nongovernmental organizations should not undermine the rights to freedom of association, expression, and peaceful assembly, which are protected under the Chinese constitution and international law, Human Rights Watch said. Registration requirements should also be minimal and free of surveillance.
Because the NGO Law fails to meet basic international standards, Human Rights Watch urges the Chinese government should substantially amend or revoke the measure.
Previous versions of the law prompted unprecedented concern from foreign governments, universities, business groups, cultural organizations and others that have exchanges and cooperation with local groups in China. Some of their criticisms appear reflected in the government’s decision not to apply the law to certain kinds of groups. Governments and institutions concerned by Beijing’s efforts to stifle civil society should urge the law to be repealed or revised in conformity with international law.
The NGO Law was developed during a period of escalating Chinese government hostility toward civil society, Human Rights Watch said. 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.”