China Passes Law Clamping Down on Foreign NGOs
Ministry of Public Security is put in charge of registering the overseas groups, and police are authorized to search offices
Han Yunhong from China’s Public Security Bureau listens to questions during a news conference about a law regulating overseas nongovernmental organizations, held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Thursday. PHOTO: NG HAN GUAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS
By JOSH CHIN
BEIJING—A new law grants Chinese police wide authority to supervise foreign nonprofit groups in China, bolstering a contentious effort by President Xi Jinping to eliminate what the government sees as unwanted influences from overseas.
Chinese legislators voted overwhelmingly Thursday to pass the law, earlier versions of which drew an outpouring of opposition from foreign governments, rights groups and academics for being overly broad and treating foreign nonprofits as a security threat.
The final law was narrower in scope and addressed some of those criticisms. It exempts professional exchanges and cooperation involving foreign hospitals, schools and science and engineering groups and effectively grandfathers in groups already legally registered.
Left unchanged is the controversial provision putting the Ministry of Public Security in charge of the registration process for the overseas groups. The law also requires that, once registered, groups publish online annual reports including financial information for all activities. The law authorizes the police to search nonprofits’ offices and summon their representatives at will.
Officials with the legislature defended the law, saying it protects the legal rights of friendly nonprofits while providing a mechanism to exclude groups intending to harm China’s interests.
A Chinese paramilitary guard stands outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Thursday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
“China has a positive, open and welcoming attitude toward overseas nongovernmental organizations that come here to engage in friendly exchanges, interactions and cooperation,” Zhang Yong, vice director of the legal committee of the National People’s Congress, said at a media briefing in Beijing on Thursday.
“But—and I don’t think there’s any need to mince words—there is certainly a very small minority of foreign NGOs which intend to or have already damaged social stability and national security,” he said.
The tenor and aim of the new law fits with a wide-ranging campaign under President Xi to galvanize Chinese society against foreign ideologies and influence and to bolster support for Communist Party rule. Two other new laws, on national-security andcounterterrorism, give the government and security forces a stronger legal footing to spot and curb threats to national interests.
While authorities have taken action against human-rights groups, the government also relies on nonprofits to help deal with environmental issues, public health, poverty and other problems stemming from the country’s staggering growth.
Rights groups and legal experts reacted largely with dismay to the new nonprofit law, saying it expanded police powers while constraining the development of civil society.
“The very point of civil society is that, beyond minimal registration requirements, it’s independent—free of government control. This law shows Beijing’s intent to do exactly the opposite,” said Sophie Richardson, director of Asia advocacy at Human Rights Watch.
Legal experts caution that the law’s impact on overseas groups is difficult to determine. The law doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1, and details about how it will be implemented have yet to be released.
Mr. Zhang, the official, said nearly 10,000 foreign nonprofits operate in China. Prior to the new law, the vast majority had no way to register legally, causing many to register as businesses or to operate without registration in, at best, a gray area.
A police official in charge of managing foreign nonprofits told reporters that a process is being devised so that nonprofits already legally registered won’t have to reapply. Previous drafts of the law had left unclear what would happen to those organizations, a small group that includes the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and U.K.-based nonprofit Save the Children.
The Gates Foundation didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Save the Children said in a statement that it was too early to comment on how the law would impact its operations. “Generally, we welcome steps to clarify the regulation of the not-for-profit sector in China,” it said.
Huang Haoming, secretary-general of China Association for NGO Cooperation, a state-supported organization that has helped foreign nonprofits operate in China in the past, said the law raised questions about existing and future collaborations between overseas and domestic groups. The new reporting requirements, he said, will drive up costs for groups whose funding is often stretched.
In allowing exemptions for educational, scientific and medical exchanges, the law also warns that any activities that threaten national security or ethnic harmony will be punished.
Guo Linmao, another member of the legislature’s legal committee, said at the news conference that using the police to manage nonprofits was “in keeping with China’s national conditions.” He didn’t elaborate on what that meant but said police would themselves obey the law.
“Everyone needs to stop being afraid of our public-security agencies as if they’re tigers,” he said. He went on to quote what he described as a folk saying: “If you’re in trouble, seek out the police. If you haven’t broken the law, what’s to fear?”
Write to Josh Chin at firstname.lastname@example.org