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Getting Rid of the Grey

5 Years into the Overseas NGO Law


When I was in China, those of us working in the NGO space would often lament the lack of a comprehensive legal framework for Overseas NGOs (ONGO) to operate in China. Some groups operated under the endorsement/supervision of provincial government agencies and some under central government agencies. But what was missing was a uniform set of rules that were clear and applied nationwide. “Wouldn’t it be nice . . .” we thought.

In 2016, we got what we wanted—only it wasn’t really what we wanted—when China promulgated its first law regulating foreign nonprofits. Instead of codifying the work and processes to make things easier, the new law turned out to place onerous restrictions on ONGO activities.  

On October 15, 2021, the US-Asia Law Institute (USALI) at New York University held an online forum to discuss how things have developed for ONGOs in the past five years and what the future might look like. The event was moderated by USALI Executive Director Katherine Wilhelm. Here’s the description of the event:

In 2016 China passed a law tightly restricting the activities of non-profit organizations from “overseas” jurisdictions, including Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan. NGOs, foundations, think tanks, and many universities, museums, and even industry associations suddenly faced a new regime of reporting obligations and surveillance. It is now almost five years since the law took effect. Law Professor Mark Sidel of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Jessica Batke, editor at the China NGO Project, will talk with USALI Executive Director Katherine Wilhelm about what five years of a heavily securitized regulatory regime has meant for overseas nonprofits in China, how the regime is adapting and expanding, and prospects for the future.

The full video of the event has been posted to the USALI YouTube Channel.

Here are ten key take-aways:

  1. The actual name of the law is a mouthful: The People’s Republic of China Law for the Management of the Activities Inside China of Overseas Non-government/Non-profit Organizations. Most China-watchers refer to it simply as The Overseas NGO Law.
  2. The promulgation of the law was an attempt to get rid of the grey area in which overseas NGOs (ONGO) were operating.
  3. Management of ONGO activities was shifted from the Ministry of Civil Affairs to the Ministry of Public Security (MPS). This, then, must be seen in the context of the overall “securitization” of Chinese governance, where everything becomes secondary to managing and mitigating potential security threats. Local offices of the MPS have become the primary gatekeepers of who can register, what they can do, and how they can do it.
  4. The tangible effects of this law are difficult to assess since there is much data that is unknown, such as how many ONGOs were operating in China prior to the law; there is no baseline.
  5. Official government documents can tell us numbers, such as the number of successful registrations (591), and the provinces where registrations have been successful (every province except Xinjiang and Shanxi).
  6. Official government documents can tell us what the top five activities are: trade/industry, international relations, education, youth, and health. They can also tell us the least approved activity areas: (from last) LGBTQ issues, human rights, religion, media, and ethnic affairs.
  7. Official government data does not tell us what ONGOs applied and were rejected or what they were applying to do. It also cannot tell us the effects of the pandemic on ONGO registration.
  8. Because the national security concerns and framework for ONGO management have expanded into Hong Kong, it is rapidly disappearing as a place from which ONGOs can conduct activities in mainland China.
  9. This new legal environment has made things very difficult for ONGOs. After five years of waiting, in hope that things will get better, many are facing a reckoning and will have to decide if they can stay and remain true to their values.
  10. ONGOs who want to remain in or enter China must examine their rationales for being in China and see how they align (or don’t align) with the priorities of the government, realizing that national security priorities may trump any other benefit the ONGO might bring.

For those of you working in the ONGO space and wondering what the road ahead may look like, I encourage you to take the time to watch the entire video presentation. In addition, bookmark the The China NGO Project at China File for all the lasted information.

In the 1990s and early 2000s we all wished for an ONGO law that would shrink the grey. Perhaps this is a lesson in “be careful what you wish for.”

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio


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