Hong Kong Rights Group Calls China’s NGO Law a ‘Step Forward’

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Originally published by Voice of America on July 5, 2016

A Hong Kong group advocating for workers’ rights in mainland China says the country has taken a “step forward” by passing a new law to regulate overseas nongovernmental organizations.

Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin is one of the overseas NGOs covered by the law, and its positive view of that Chinese law contrasts with strong criticisms from human rights activists and even the U.S. government.

Beijing approved the Law on the Management of Overseas NGO Activities Within Mainland China in April. When it takes effect on January 1st, the NGOs will come under supervision of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security.

The law gives the overseas NGOs two options. One is to register a representative office in mainland China with the ministry. The second is for the NGOs to declare that they are operating in the country temporarily with a Chinese partner organization or sponsor.

Providing clarity

“I think we need to see the NGO law for what it is,” said Shawn Shieh, China Labour Bulletin’s deputy director, while visiting Washington last week. Speaking to VOA’s China 360 podcast, he called the law “an attempt to regulate a sector that has not been regulated before in any comprehensive way.”

Shieh said overseas NGOs have been looking to Beijing for guidance on what they can and cannot do since the 1990s, when he said they started coming to China in significant numbers.

He also said Beijing is promising to support NGOs who have questions about the registration process, indicating that it values their presence.

“I think the Chinese government’s recognition that overseas NGOs play an important, valuable role in the country is not a bad thing,” Shieh said.

Beijing has said the law is intended to clarify the NGOs’ legal rights and obligations in mainland China.

New prohibitions

Chinese leaders also have said the measure has a national security element, banning overseas NGOs from engaging in activities deemed harmful to Chinese national interests.

Such language has angered human rights activists. One group,  Chinese Human Rights Defenders  , has called for the law to be repealed, saying Beijing will use it to “suffocate” China’s “already beleaguered” independent organizations.

The Obama administration also has expressed concern. U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said last month the law will create an “unwelcome environment” for overseas NGOs in China, while the U.S. National Security Council said in April it will “further narrow the space” for Chinese civil society.

China Labour Bulletin deputy director Shieh offered a different perspective, saying he does not see Beijing’s new NGO registration system narrowing the space for his group to operate.

“Chinese public security probably already knows a lot about what we and other NGOs are doing,” he said. “They talk to our partners and take them ‘out to tea’, which is a euphemism for basically interrogating individuals about their activities. So I do not think the law’s notification requirement is adding anything new to what the authorities already know.”

Maneuvering space

Shieh also said he does not expect China to implement the NGO law quickly, based on his group’s experience of trying to ensure that Beijing enforces its laws on workers’ rights.

“China passed labor laws in 2008, 2009 and the ensuing years, but a lot of them have not been enforced,” he said. “So why do we assume that this overseas NGO law is suddenly going to be enforced in full?”

The labor rights activist said he understands why some overseas NGOs feel that Beijing is “closing the door” on them by passing the law. But instead of staying away from China, Shieh said those groups have an opportunity to engage with it.

“Overseas NGOs, their Chinese partners and the U.S. and Chinese governments will have room to shape the new law’s implementation because some Chinese officials do not necessarily agree with it,” he said. “They can try to implement the law in a way that is fair and does not selectively root out and close down certain, more sensitive NGOs. The law is by no means a done deal.”

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