China passes law imposing security controls on foreign NGOs

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Originally published by The guardian on April 28, 2016

A Chinese government offensive against civil society that campaigners describe as the worst in nearly three decades has intensified with Beijing’s approval on Thursday of a controversial new law that gives security forces control over foreign NGOs operating in the country.

Campaigners attacked the move as the latest phase of President Xi Jinping’s bid to rein in opposition to the Communist party. They said it represented a severe blow to non-profit groups involved in issues such as the environment, public health and education, as well as human rights.

Lu Jun, a well-known social activist who was forced to move to the US last year after his organisation was targeted by law enforcement, described the decision to give greater powers to police as a disaster.

“The real purpose of the foreign NGO law is to restrict foreign NGOs’ activities in China and to restrict domestic-rights NGOs’ activities in China by cutting the connection between [the two],” he said.

Lu, whose group, Yirenping, has campaigned on health and employment issues, claimed Beijing was attempting to use the new legislation to neutralise foreign-supported groups that it suspected were attempting to destabilise the government. “They consider foreign NGOs and some domestic NGOs as a threat to their regime,” he said.

Members of China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, green-lit the long-awaited law on Thursday afternoon, according to Xinhua, the country’s official news agency.

The foreign NGO “management” law, which will come into effect on 1 January 2017, stipulates that any group wishing to operate in China must register with public security officials. Foreign NGOs must refrain from engaging in political or religious activities or acting in a way that damages “China’s national interests” or “ethnic unity”, according to a 15-page outline of the law distributed to the media.

Criminal measures will be taken against any individual who is directly responsible for a foreign NGO found to have engaged in activities that “split the country or damage national unity or subvert the state”.

The law also gives authorities the power to ban any NGO found to have “violated Chinese regulations” from operating in China for five years. Foreign NGOs in China will only be permitted to use bank accounts registered with public security officials.

“The authorities, particularly the police, will have virtually unchecked powers to target NGOs, restrict their activities, and ultimately stifle civil society,” said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International.

“The law presents a very real threat to the legitimate work of independent NGOs and should be immediately revoked.”

Chinese officials have defended the need for such a law, arguing that it is an important step in improving the management of an estimated 7,000 foreign non-governmental operations operating in China.

Until now NGOs have operated in a legal grey area in China with no specific law setting out how they can work.

“Since their number has grown quickly and their activities have intensified, it is necessary to have a law to regulate and guide them,” Xu Xianming, a senior legal official, told Chinese state media on Tuesday.

However, critics claim the law is a pretext to expanding the clampdown on Chinese civil society that many observers say is the most severe since the days following the 1989 military offensive against Tiananmen protesters.

“Civil society groups have been one of the only human rights success stories in recent years, and their survival is crucial for the country’s future,” said Sophie Richardson, the China director for Human Rights Watch. “But the government seems incapable of tolerating independent, peaceful work and advocacy, and with this law it’s making clear that only state-sanctioned work will be tolerated.”

Richardson said giving police authority over foreign NGOs was “presumably designed to make all groups think at least twice about which issues they work on, how they work on them, and what the risks to them and their domestic partner organisations will be.”

“Police in China have long arbitrarily harassed and detained domestic and foreign NGOs working on issues the authorities considered ‘sensitive’,” she added. “Those dynamics will now extend to a far broader set of organisations.”

Lu, the Chinese activist, said he also expected the situation to deteriorate for non-profit rights groups in China. With its “very hostile” new law, Beijing was indicating it would now treat foreign NGOs as enemies rather than friends.

“I assume many foreign NGOs will withdraw their offices from China and will cancel their grants in China. And it will affect many, many domestic NGOs’ budgets because it is very hard for NGOs to raise funds inside China because the government has set up many, many restrictions on funding raising for domestic NGOs.”

“Almost all kinds of service and charity NGOs will be confronting very big difficulties,” Lu added. “There are so many restrictions – many, many obstacles.”

Critics of the legislation believe it was born out of Beijing’s fears that foreign governments were using NGOs to undermine the Communist party by spreading western concepts such as democracy and freedom of speech.

However, Lu predicted the law would cause most damage to groups involved in social issues such as HIV and Aids, poverty relief and education.

China has been engaged in a widening campaign against civil society since Xi came to power in late 2012, detaining and jailing activists, journalists, and human rights lawyers.

In January Peter Dahlin, a Beijing-based Swedish human rights campaigner, was taken into secret detention and accused of being an agent working for “western anti-China forces” to stir up opposition to the Communist party.

Dahlin was subsequently removed from China after being paraded on state television to make what supporters called a “forced confession”.

Since last July, security services have been pursuing a major crackdown on Chinese human rights lawyers, several of whom are still being held in secret detention.

China is not alone in seeking to curtail the activities of non-governmental and civil society organisations, with activists warning of similar moves in places including Cambodia, Egypt, India, and Russia.

Last year campaigners claimed the world was witnessing the “viral-like spread of new laws” targeting such groups.

In a statement the  Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group, which is run by overseas activists, criticised the “draconian” new law.

The group predicted the law would have a “profoundly detrimental impact on civil society” and would “suffocate [China’s] already beleaguered independent organisations”.

Additional reporting by Christy Yao

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