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A New Day for Foreign NGOs?


For decades foreign NGOs trying to work in China have struggled with a lack of legal framework. Rumors have abounded about legislation that was “just around the corner,” but which never seemed to see the light of day.

Now as the National People’s Congress considers a new draft NGO law it appears the wait may finally be over. Depending on what one is trying to accomplish in China, the new law could come as a relief or as a rude awakening. Based on this latest draft, here is a sampling of what may be in store:

  • Foreign NGOs are permitted to operate one office in China. (This is an improvement over a previous draft, which did not allow for any.)
  • The Public Security Bureau has the ultimate say over who can set up an office and is responsible for overseeing their conduct. While this may have been the de facto arrangement all along, the new law would formalize the relationship between China’s security apparatus and foreign NGOs, giving the police broad supervisory and investigative powers.
  • Activities must be conducted through an approved Chinese partner organization as authorized by the government (no surprises here), with activity plans to be submitted annually.
  • Foreign NGOs are not permitted to recruit staff or volunteers, but must rely on government entities to do this for them.
  • Nor are they allowed to contract with any local Chinese individual or entity to represent them or to carry out their work. This has obvious implications for foreign organizations providing financial or others types of support to local NGOs.
  • Foreign NGOs are not permitted to raise funds within China.
  • NGOs based outside China must obtain prior approval for any activities conducted inside the country. This provision has the potential to severely limit the activities of organizations that currently run various short-term programs in China.

The usual restrictions on religious activities, political activities or anything that could be construed as harmful to “China’s national interests” or “society’s public interest” are here as well. Foreigners found in violation of the law could be subject to detention ranging from five to 15 days and expelled.

As I’ve written previously, the Party has been vacillating for some time between acknowledging the legitimate role of NGOs and seeking to control them. This piece of legislation, assuming it is passed by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, would appear to represent the regime’s attempt to strike a balance, although, as would be expected in the current political climate, it comes down squarely on the side of control.

Image courtesy of Jinshanling Great Wall before sunrise by Neil Young, on Flickr.

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, 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 …View Full Bio


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