China passes new laws on foreign NGOs amid international criticism

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Originally published by BBC on April 28, 2016

China has passed new laws on foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) state media said, amid criticism.

The full text was not immediately available, but previous drafts stated that NGOs would have to submit to police supervision and declare sources of funding.

Critics say the laws amount to a crackdown, but China has argued that such regulation is long overdue.

There are currently more than 7,000 foreign NGOs operating in China.

The bill has undergone several drafts after international criticism that it was too onerous. The White House has said the bill will “further narrow space for civil society” and constrain US-China exchanges.

Amnesty International said on Thursday that the law was aimed at “further smothering civil society”, and called on China to scrap it.

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

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

The Network of  Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) described the law as “draconian” and said it would have “a profoundly detrimental impact on civil society in China”.

The group said police would be allowed to exercise daily supervision and monitoring of foreign NGOs.

Stephen McDonell, BBC News, Beijing

Officials in Beijing say that for too long overseas organisations have been operating in an unregulated environment and that the new system will set clear boundaries governing their behaviour.

However some charities, environmental groups and aid organisations see this as a potential tool to crackdown on civil society in China.

They fear that new regulations could provide a smokescreen for what is actually political decision making by giving officials a range of measures to clamp down on NGOs found to be in breach of various technical requirements.

What was adding to stress levels prior to the introduction of the laws is that many were confused about the details.

People are asking: Who do they cover? What will the laws mean for their day to day operations? What are they really designed to do?

Xinhua reported the law had been passed by the national legislature on Thursday, without giving details of any amendments.

The state news agency reported this week that some restrictions would be eased, such as allowing more than one office on the mainland, and removing a proposed five-year limit on operations.

But other key features were likely to remain, said the Global Times, namely heavy police oversight where foreign NGOs must register with public security departments and must submit to their management.

Previous drafts stated that police would have the right to check the offices of NGOs, seal their offices, question employees and cancel activities judged as threats to national security.

Foreign NGOs would also be banned from recruiting members in mainland China, previous drafts had suggested.

Critics had also raised fears that the definition of what constitutes actions that harm China’s national interests was too vague.

Correspondents said the ambiguity largely remained in the final version of the law.

Officials who briefed reporters on Thursday declined to give specific examples of actions by NGOs that could constitute such violations, Reuters reported.

“If there are a few foreign NGOs, holding high the banner of co-operation and exchange, coming to engage in illegal activities or even committing criminal acts, our Ministry of Public Security should stop it, and even enact punishments,” said Guo Linmao, of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee.

The move comes after January’s high profile detention of Peter Dahlin, a Swedish NGO worker who was accused of damaging national security.

He made a state television confession – which is rare for foreign detainees – before he was deported. He and his group were accused of breaking the law by supporting the efforts of Chinese human rights lawyers.

Local NGOs and activists are heavily policed and have been subject to increasing crackdowns under President Xi Jinping’s rule. Last summer saw sweeping arrests of nearly 300 lawyers and activists.

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