The Chinese government’s adoption of a new draconian law on overseas NGOs will have a profoundly detrimental impact on civil society in China, say human rights groups. The law gives police unprecedented power to restrict the work of foreign groups in the country and will also limit domestic groups’ ability to obtain foreign funding and work with foreign organizations.
China’s legislature passed the Law on the Management of Foreign Non-Government Organizations Activities in China (the NGO Law) on April 27th despite critical international responses to the most recent draft that dates back to last spring. The adopted version retains the most troubling elements of the previous draft, and allows for even tighter government control over NGO activities. It authorizes even greater power to police (compared to the prior draft) to exercise “daily supervision and monitoring” of overseas NGOs.
“Beijing hardly needs more ammunition to crack down on civil society groups,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The NGO Law is like many others of the Xi Jinping era: ever-stronger tools to legalize China’s human rights abuses.”
Once the law takes effect on January 1st 2017, it will further restrict international NGOs working in China and suffocate the country’s already beleaguered independent organizations, says the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders. The law has kept perhaps the most worrisome provision, which hands the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) full authority over the registration and supervision of foreign-based NGOs operating inside China. This is a clear indication the government views such groups as a threat to national security.
The law has also retained the strict funding restrictions that appeared in the previous draft. As such, the legislation will deliver a heavy blow to mainland NGOs, which rely heavily on overseas NGOs’ financial support due to insurmountable obstacles to securing funding inside China. CHRD calls for the repeal of the overseas NGO management law or, at minimum, significant revisions of its stipulations that violate independent groups’ right to freedom of association.
The fundamental focus of the legislation – to subject foreign groups to tighter police oversight and prohibit any activities considered to “endanger China’s national unity, national security, or ethnic unity” – remains, Human Rights Watch said. This is likely to disproportionately harm the work of groups engaged on issues the government deems “sensitive.”
The NGO Law requires that foreign groups must be sponsored by a Chinese government organization and be registered with the police, rather than the Ministry of Civil Affairs, as has been the case. It grants police extensive investigation and enforcement powers, including the ability to arbitrarily summon representatives of overseas groups, cancel activities deemed a threat to national security, blacklist groups considered to be involved in vaguely defined “subversive” or “separatist” activities, and permanently bar them from setting up offices or organize activities in the country. The ability to summon NGO representatives creates a legal basis for a longstanding practice, and there appears to be little if any opportunity for organizations to contest their treatment.
In addition, the NGO Law permits police investigating foreign NGOs to:
- Enter its premises and seize documents and other information;
- Examine its bank accounts and limit incoming funds;
- Cancel activities, revoke registration, and impose administrative detention; and
- Participate in the annual assessment of foreign NGOs, which determines whether a group can continue operating.
These expansions of police power underscore an essential function of the law—to restrict foreign influence and ideas from entering China, especially when the government perceives that they present a political threat or would offer different perspectives on human rights and other sensitive issues.
If foreign NGOs have carried out acts that are seen by the authorities as “splitting the state, damaging national unity, or subverting state power,” police can hand down administrative detentions. Foreigners found to have breached the new law can either be barred from leaving China or deported.
The law also steps up financial scrutiny of foreign NGOs, imposing strict regulations on the source of funding and account management of the groups, requiring that the organization’s financial accounts be audited and announced publicly.
Regulations on nongovernmental organizations should not undermine the rights to freedom of association, expression, and peaceful assembly, which are protected under the Chinese constitution and international law, Human Rights Watch said. Registration requirements should also be minimal and free of surveillance.
Because the NGO Law fails to meet basic international standards, Human Rights Watch urges the Chinese government should substantially amend or revoke the measure.
Previous versions of the law alarmed the international community, and sparked significant concerns due to its focus on national security and its overly broad scope. The legislation prompted unprecedented concern from foreign governments, universities, business groups, cultural organizations and others that have exchanges and cooperation with local groups in China. Some of their criticisms appear reflected in the government’s decision not to apply the law to certain kinds of groups. Governments and institutions concerned by Beijing’s efforts to stifle civil society should urge the law to be repealed or revised in conformity with international law.
The NGO Law was developed during a period of escalating Chinese government hostility toward civil society, Human Rights Watch said. During the same period it has been under consideration, some of the most outspoken domestic groups, including anti-discrimination organization Yirenping, educational institution Liren Rural Libraries, and think tank Transition Institute have been targeted by the police for raids and arbitrary detentions. Swedish NGO worker Peter Dahlin, a co-founder of Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, which supported rights activists and petitioners to promote legal awareness, was detained in January and his group forcibly closed. The authorities accused the group of receiving foreign funding to finance “agents” to carry out works that “endanger state security.”
Chinese Human Rights Defenders also says that the law must be repealed until significant revisions of the legislation are made to conform with international human rights standards on the protection of the right to free association. The organization recommends that governments and the European Union with bilateral human rights dialogues with China must raise serious concerns during such dialogues and in all meetings with high-level Chinese officials over the passage of this law, as well as the government’s new standard of using the pretext of “national security” to persecute civil society organizations and stifle human rights activities.
“Civil society groups have been one of the only human rights success stories in China in recent years, and their survival is crucial for the country’s future,” Sophie Richardson said. “So long as repressive restrictions are imposed on some parts of civil society in China, all organizations remain at risk.”