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The Overseas NGO Law: A Game-Changer?


China’s Overseas NGO Law went into effect January 1, 2017, raising questions about the future of foreigners serving in China. Clearly, in the current environment, it is no longer “business as usual” for foreign organizations working in China. But is the new NGO law really a game-changer?

Several months into the implementation of the new law, ChinaSource polled a panel of scholars and faith-based nonprofit leaders concerning what the new law has meant for those serving on the ground in China. Here are some of their observations.

Whether or not the new NGO law is a game changer depends in large part on the organization involved. Many have been working in a legal gray area; now they need to decide where (and whether) they fit into the new reality created by the law.

The provisions of the law are very broad and subject to interpretation, ultimately by the Public Security Bureau and other local officials tasked with working with foreign organizations. How their activities will be defined remains a huge question mark.

The process of registration is complicated and can be daunting, time-consuming, and expensive. Organizations seeking registration need to retain legal counsel in country to deal with government agencies and to take care of translating and filing documents. Even if the registration process is completed according to the law there is no guarantee that local officials will grant approval.

One of the biggest implications of the new law concerns foreign funding of projects in China. Groups that are reliant upon such funding and cannot find a way to legally support the work going forward will have to cease operations. Sending overseas funds directly to personal accounts in China is no longer an option. In this sense the new law is a game-changer.

On the other hand, some NGOs are still able to operate, even though their registration with the PSB is pending, because everything else is in order. For some the law is a potential advantage, as it would grant their work clear legal status.

Depending on one’s timeframe, it may not be a game-changer. Today’s situation is in some ways like going back to the 1980s. There are still plenty of opportunities for foreigners to serve in China on work visas, e.g. as English teachers, or to remain in country as students. Being required to function with legal status did not mean China was “closed” to foreigners in the 1980s, nor does it mean China is “closing” today.

This new NGO law does mean that groups serving long-term in China need to be more creative, to think of new ways of doing things. It also forces foreign organizations to ask the fundamental question, “What are we really trying to accomplish?”

A game changer? Perhaps it’s too early to tell. But if the new law forces groups working in China to raise their game, it will ultimately benefit these foreign organizations as well as those whom they serve. 

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the president of ChinaSource and the editor of the ChinaSource Quarterly. Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of... View Full Bio