On April 28, 2016, the Chinese government cracked down on foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating within its borders. The new law, set to take effect on January 1, 2017, will clamp down on the activities of thousands of groups. Several of its provisions will make it difficult for foreign NGOs that the Chinese government deems subversive to continue operating in the country.

“Big Brother” Policies

The new law – known as China’s Foreign NGO Management Law – limits the activities of foreign NGOs in several ways:

1.) Professional Supervisory Units

The law requires that these NGOs – including NGOs based in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau – find a “professional supervisory unit” [Article 11] to sponsor them; also, that NGOs conducting temporary work in China partner with a Chinese entity (e.g. a state organ, or a public or social organization). While the law’s language is vague as to what exactly constitutes a professional supervisory unit or a Chinese partner unit, the fact that the directory of such units is published by the Ministry of Public Security suggests tight government overwatch. 

The Ministry of Public Security is given expansive liberties to investigate the activities of foreign NGOs.

2.) Ministry of Public Security

In fact, foreign NGOs must register with Ministry of Public Security, which is given expansive liberties to investigate the practices and scope of activities of foreign NGOs. These new powers include inspecting finances and interrogating employees. In addition, the Ministry of Public Security will provide overseas NGOs with “policy consultation and activity guidance” to ensure compliance with the law [Article 34]. The phrasing is so vague that it appears to have been designed as a “catch-all” to entrap potentially troublesome foreign organizations. Any NGO discovered violating the guidance will be expelled from China by the Ministry of Public Security.

3.) Restrictions on Operations

The new law severely limits foreign NGOs’ operations in China. For instance, these groups will be required to keep funds intended for use in China in Chinese banks, or, in the case of organizations working in China temporarily, in the banks of their Chinese partners [Article 22]. Furthermore, foreign NGOs will not be allowed to fundraise in China or support political parties. 

The White House released a statement condemning the law, saying it will limit human rights.

Negative Global Reaction

Predictably, the new law has been greeted with near-universal condemnation from the international community:

Foreign countries and organizations, including the European Union (EU), said there remained “fundamental flaws in the draft under consultation.” Among their concerns are that under the new law as drafted, the Ministry of Public Security would have “unlimited authority” and follow ambiguous guidelines.

The White House released a statement condemning the law, saying it will “narrow the space for civil society” by limiting human rights. In fact, the law clearly targets certain American NGOs currently operating in China. A Broad Target

Because the language of the law is so broad and vague, it appears that the Chinese government can use it to expel any groups it feels are subversive. This is widely expected to include groups with Western-oriented views on business, the environment, philanthropy and education, as well as think tanks. The New York Times forecasts that among the many groups that will be adversely affected are The Ford Foundation, Greenpeace and the Bethel Foundation, and it is more than likely that a range of U.S.-headquartered NGOs will be affected to varying degrees. 

The new law is part of a broader initiative by the Chinese government to clamp down on Western exposure and influences.

What’s Behind the New Law?

The new law is part of a broader initiative by the Chinese government to clamp down on Western exposure and influences. Several points are important to understand:

Since President Xi Jinping assumed office in 2012, China has become increasingly wary of foreign, especially American, involvement in the country.

Part of China’s anxiety is due to rising tensions in the Asian-Pacific. President Xi has been pursuing an aggressive strategy of in the South China Sea to secure territorial rights over valuable oil reserves and shipping lanes, and China is in constant conflict with Japan over islands in the East China Sea.

Also, issues having to do with the North Korean nuclear program and Taiwanese sovereignty further compound relations in the region. 

Unfortunately, China has increasingly seen the United States as an adversary rather than a partner.

Unfortunately, China has increasingly seen the United States as an adversary rather than a partner when it comes to resolving the complex issues in the Asia-Pacific. As a result, it is not surprising to see China take an increasingly aggressive stance against U.S. groups operating within its borders.

There is increasing evidence that China has become increasingly hostile to foreigners operating within its borders. As recently as 2014, the Chinese government forced state-run enterprises to cut ties with various U.S. consultants, citing fears that these entities were spying on them for the U.S. government. And in reaction to various protests within the country, China has banned a range of U.S. websites, including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

Looking Ahead

Given all of the factors outlined above, the outlook is grim for NGOs – and even certain businesses – hoping to operate in China going forward, if the law goes into effect as planned.

About the author

Cole Pfeiffer

Cole Pfeiffer

Cole spent two years at King & Spalding LLP where he worked as a Project Assistant for matters involving the Department of Commerce, International Trade Commission and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Before that, he was a legislative intern for Congressman Blumenauer and a U.S. Embassy Intern. Cole is a now a member of the Georgetown University Law class of 2019.

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