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The “Why” Behind China’s New Overseas NGO Law


With the implementation of the new Overseas NGO Law it is imperative that organizations engaged in China become familiar with the provisions of the legislation, along with subsequent documents and pronouncements that continue to provide clues as to how the law is actually being carried out.

Making sense of the new legislation also requires a grasp of its larger policy context. Understanding the underlying concerns that gave rise to the legislation will help organizations know which of their activities might come under particular scrutiny. A change in posture, positioning, or certain operational aspects of an organization’s work could make it more likely that this work can continue in the new environment.

Several aspects of President Xi Jinping’s “new normal” (新常态) have direct implications for faith-based organizations engaged in China:

Social stability has long been at the top of the Party’s agenda, but efforts to quell any sign of dissent have taken on a new intensity under Xi. A steady stream of regulations has sought to tighten Party control in every corner of society, including media, business, education, and religion. Expect the emphasis on social control to heighten in the months leading up to this autumn’s Party Congress, where Xi is expected to further consolidate his already unprecedented power.

The Party’s emphasis on rule by law is significantly shrinking the gray area in which many Chinese Christians and foreign groups are accustomed to operating. In this context, the draft regulations on religion that surfaced last September came as little surprise. Cadres who until now have turned a blind eye toward unregistered church activities or toward Christian initiatives in areas such as publishing or education will have less of an incentive to do so and more reason to take proactive steps to limit such activities.

Anti-Western sentiment has become a fixture in official pronouncements on education, media, and commerce, as well as in statements about China’s relationships internationally. Coupled with Xi’s emphasis on returning to China’s cultural roots as part of realizing the “China Dream,” this anti-Western impulse gives ammunition to those who seek to cast Christianity as a foreign religion. The theme of “Sinicization” figured prominently in Xi’s speech on religion last April.

In China’s official religious establishment Xi’s instructions are being given a twofold interpretation: reduce friction between Christianity and Confucianism domestically while reducing the Chinese church’s identification with, and ties to, the church in the West, particularly the United States. With the onus on Chinese Christians to demonstrate that the church is indeed a Chinese institution, blatant Western connections become more of a liability.

This brings us to the current regime’s policy toward NGOs. As the foregoing discussion suggests, the government cannot tolerate the existence of untethered autonomous social organizations capable of garnering popular support among potentially disenfranchised populations. Organizations associated with the West or with religion are particularly suspect.  

During the past several decades foreigners serving in China have become accustomed to a trend toward increasing openness. This brief look at the “new normal” suggests this trend is being reversed. Changing political winds require changing strategies on the part of those desiring to continue their involvement in China. In the coming weeks we will be looking at specific ways in which NGOs are adapting to the new environment.

Image credit: DSC00605 by Matthew Stinson via Flickr.
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