Milestones in the Evolution of China’s Overseas NGO Law

Earlier this month I wrote a post on the “Why” behind China’s new Overseas NGO Law, which put the law into the larger political context of China.

For a closer look at how the law was actually formulated, I recommend Shawn Shieh’s excellent piece, “The Origins of China’s New Law on Foreign NGOs,” which traces the evolution of NGO policy from the late 1980s up to the present. Shieh views President Xi Jinping’s concerns about national security as the impetus for the new law, noting that legislation on terrorism, national security, and cyber security all appeared concurrently with the foreign NGO law.

Hsieh highlights these important milestones in the law’s evolution:

  • At its first meeting in April 2014 Xi Jinping’s newly formed National Security Commission apparently made the decision to place supervision of foreign NGOs under the Ministry of Public Security, instead of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, and began work on the law. A month later the commission ordered a nationwide survey of foreign NGOs operating in China.
  • In December 2014 the Vice Minister of Public Security announced that the National People’s Congress Standing Committee was deliberating the first draft of the foreign NGO law. Leaked drafts of the legislation indicated a strong security orientation, with lengthy passages delineating the role of China’s Public Security organs and measures to be taken against those who contravene the law.
  • Government concern about the role of foreign NGOs became more apparent in 2015 with crackdowns on foreign NGO workers who were in China without proper visas, culminating in the arrest and well-publicized “confession” of Peter Dahlin, a Swedish citizen whose NGO had supported Chinese human rights lawyers.
  • As subsequent drafts of the law were reviewed, the requirement that organizations conducting temporary activities in China obtain Public Security approval was replaced by the requirement that these organizations simply notify Public Security once they had filed the necessary documents with a Chinese partner organization.
  • Subsequent drafts also removed a provision that would have allowed foreign NGOs to establish domestic NGOs (which, unlike foreign NGOs, are still under the Ministry of Civil Affairs and governed by a different set of regulations).

While many critics say the new law gives the Ministry of Public Security a free hand to deal harshly with foreign NGOs, Hsieh argues that the legislation, in fact, provides a new degree of accountability by limiting the discretionary power of China’s security organs and others.

“The intended effect, in my view, was not to drive NGOs from China but to corral them into officially-sanctioned areas and away from more sensitive areas working with grassroots NGOs working on rights protection, advocacy, religion, etc.”

Shieh contrasts the new law with the Ministry of Civil Affairs’ “Interim Regulations for Banning Illegal NGOs,” issued in 2000, which very well could have become a blunt instrument in the hands of security officials but which in reality was only loosely enforced.

On the other hand, as Shieh’s description of today’s security-focused policy environment illustrates, the current political climate is quite different from that of 17 years ago. Procedural safeguards aside, the new NGO law, if strictly enforced, has serious implications for foreign NGOs across the board in China.

Correction: The author of the referenced article was mistakenly identified as Shaun Hseih in the original version and has been corrected. Our apologies for the error. 

Image credt: Three Travellers Cave Park at Yichang on the Yangzi by Ray Devlin via Flickr.