From Grey to Grey: Foreign NGOs Feel Their Way Forward in China

News that nearly three dozen foreign NGOs had successfully registered under the new Overseas NGO Law sounded an optimistic note for organizations working in China. Yet, as a recent article in The Diplomat points out, this apparent gain for the overseas NGO community masks the greater realities facing foreign groups as they weigh their options under the new law.

Based in part on a roundtable discussion with a group of NGO leaders in Germany, the Diplomat article makes several important observations about what the new law means for those currently serving in China:

  • All of the organizations that have successfully registered under the new law had already been previously registered “under other labels,” whether through the Ministry of Civil Affairs or some other government entity.
  • Most of these were business groups or large international foundations with high-level government relationships. For smaller organizations that had been working in the legal grey area created by the previous lack of clarity about foreign NGOs, the path to registration is not as clear.
  • The Ministry of Public Security, which is charged with implementing the new law, is not making registration easy. Calls to MPS offices go unanswered, and its website for foreign NGOs is still not available in English.
  • In the meantime, organizations with ongoing work in China are finding it difficult to conduct financial transactions, hire staff, or obtain visas for foreign workers. “In fact,” says the Diplomat article, “Many foreign NGOs that operated in a legal grey area before the new law took effect are now being pushed into outright illegality.”
  • By narrowly defining the kinds of NGO activities that will be permitted in the future, the Chinese government is further squeezing the non-governmental exchanges that had, up until now, contributed to robust development in many areas of society. Those foreign organizations that remain will be expected to work only through official channels in support of officially sanctioned goals.

These developments have prompted some NGO observers to ask whether the new law’s purpose all along was simply to discourage overseas groups from even attempting to serve in China, and to send a strong signal to those currently engaged that it’s time to leave. While the new law makes it technically possible for foreign organizations to register and function effectively, only time will tell whether those who are currently in the throes of registration will be successful. In the meantime, many feel as if they’ve just moved from one grey area to another.