The Chinese government released the second draft of the Foreign NGO Management Law on April 4, 2015. The government allowed public comments from both domestic and foreign organizations and individuals on possible revisions to this legislation until June 4, 2015. It is not clear when the third hearing will be held and when the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress will vote to adopt the law. The law states that it is designed to safeguard the “lawful rights and interests” of foreign NGOs within Mainland China. These safeguards come in the form of the China’s security police vetting possible foreign NGOs by determining whether potential security threats exist within the organization or its mission. Foreign NGOs will also be registered and regulated by the Public Security Ministry, whereas the Ministry of Civil Affairs previously managed them.
President Xi Jinping initially started investigating NGOs in April of 2014, when his National Security Commission began a “penetrating review of foreign NGOs.” It is possible that this commission is imitating Russia’s example, as Russia passed legislation in 2012 to restrict NGO activities.
Why China Wants the Law
The law is designed to address anti-terrorism and national security. The government accomplishes these goals by requiring foreign-based nonprofits, universities, and trade organizations to go through a vetting process and be sponsored by an organization within China. However, the definitions presented in the legislation are broad about what constitutes anti terrorism or national security. These broad definitions will enable the Public Security Ministry to deny an organization for any reason it believes a threat to national security.
Although the law states that it is designed to protect NGOs, the law is in effect designed to curtail Western influences within China. The law will serve as a means for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to strengthen its grip on power by making the people rely on the government for support. During the Mao era, the CCP employed extensive support systems that the people relied on daily. Stanley B. Lubman, a scholar of Chinese law at the University of California, Berkeley stated, “the Chinese Communist Party needs more institutional support than before…” Prior to the Great Opening Up initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, the CCP provided the primary support network for the people, as all enterprises were state-owned. As China opened up more and more by allowing private businesses and foreign companies, that support system began to diminish in scope and influence. Foreign NGOs have operated in China to address some of the issues that the Chinese government began to neglect or were unable to address. This law would help bolster the CCP’s faded influence by essentially requiring international organizations to follow communist party ideology.
Likely Impacts from the Law
The CCP’s objective for introducing this legislation is to protect the country from terrorism and other threats to national security. In reality, the bill will provide sweeping legislation to ensure that they can control foreign NGOs, which were largely unregulated in China prior to this bill.
If the law were to pass in its current form, foreign NGOs operating in China would likely decrease substantially. This decrease would be due in part to the extra restrictions the law would place on NGOs in the form of bureaucratic tape. These restrictions may deter NGOs from even applying to operate in China in the first place.
Other factors that will discourage NGOs from working in China are the requirements that at least half of the staff are Chinese citizens, and the Chinese security ministry will determine whether foreigners will be allowed to work at the NGO.  In addition, the majority of donations must be received from outside China and foreign NGOs must disclose where all of their funding comes from. These conditions mean that foreign NGOs will essentially be funneling money from foreign countries into China, as most of the employees are Chinese nationals.
NGOs may also find it difficult to find organizations willing to sponsor them. One reason is that if an NGO fails the vetting process, a sponsor may be weary of further government scrutiny as to why the organization would sponsor that foreign NGO in the first place. Sponsors will also have to wade through the added bureaucratic tape, making some less likely to be sponsors at all.
Some analyst and scholars worry that the broader effects of this legislation will not just affect foreign NGOs, but also on the Chinese people and international relations. NGOs in Western countries focus on improving the lives of the local population by addressing issues that the government fails to, or does not adequately address. If the proposed legislation were to pass, and fewer NGOs operated in China, issues that the Chinese government fails to address would likely continue to be neglected.
Chinese NGOs will likely feel the brunt of this legislation, as many receive support from foreign NGOs, which will in turn affect the Chinese people who receive services.
However, some analysts do not believe this legislation will impact the Chinese people as drastically as some predict. Stephen Harner, a former US State Department Official, believes that the Chinese government will be able to address the needs of the Chinese people just as current NGOs do. To address these needs, the government will have to establish a network similar to what existed during the Mao era so that Chinese people will be able to gain access and receive support.
Education, cultural, and even technical exchanges will also likely decrease if this bill passes at the end of 2015. Visiting professors will have to get approval from the security police about the topic they plan on discussing. Sports teams and performance groups will also have to get permission from the government before going to China. In the past, these cultural exchanges have promoted cooperation and understanding between China and other nations. The Ping Pong Diplomacy of the early 1970s is one of the factors that led the way for then-President Richard Nixon to visit China in 1972. Heavily restricting these types of exchanges could threaten future cooperation between China and foreign nations.
During the vetting process, it is also possible that individuals and groups from Western organizations may be judged based on the actions of their institution. For example, if a university had a demonstration supporting the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong of 2014, the China security police may use that as a reason to deny a professor from that university permission to give a lecture in China. This would in effect make the actions of Western institutions that take place outside of China, subject to scrutiny by the security police if anyone from that institution goes to China.
Responses to the Proposed Law
During his speech in Seattle, Washington on September 22nd, President Xi Jinping stated that, “China recognizes the positive role played by foreign non-profit organizations.” He goes on to say that foreign NGOs will not be restricted or prohibited, so long as they are in compliance with Chinese law. These comments are similar to those made by Guo Shengkun, China’s Minister of Security, when he stated, “[F]oreign NGOs… [need to] conscientiously abide by Chinese laws and fully show their advantages in terms of ideas, talent, management, funding and so on.” Both comments show China’s desire to maintain control not just through legal methods, but also by identifying foreign NGO supporters.
Xi’s comments at the start of his US visit in September 2015 to justify the Foreign NGO Management Law show China’s rising power and prestige in international affairs. Dr. Elizabeth Economy, an expert in the field of US-China relations, believes that China has three main objectives while Xi is in the US: recognition of a new international order, respect for China’s political system, and acceptance of Chinese security priorities. Dr. Economy does not believe China will receive recognition from the US in regards to these objectives, but the NGO law highlights China’s continued efforts to achieve each one of these goals.
China needs foreign NGOs. The current version of the Foreign NGO Management Law would impact the Chinese people most, as they would be the ones that will lose access to various services. Even if the government can satisfy the issues that NGOs previously addressed, the lack of foreign cooperation with Chinese organizations may impact future international relationships. In order for constructive US-China relations to continue, foreign NGOs, trade organizations, and foreign universities need to be able to function in China without restrictive laws. This law threatens the supports that hold up US-China relations.
The CCP may be weary of Western influences, but restricting international NGOs that meet the various needs of the Chinese people will only add to instability issues. Rejecting foreign engagements and cooperation is in direct opposition to the principles that have contributed to China’s economic growth during the past 30 years. Whether or not this law is passed will serve as a barometer of China’s openness in the future.
By IAN PILCHER, September 25, 2015