China's Oversight Plan for Foreign Organizations Raises Concerns

Sweeping new legislation introduced by the Chinese government aimed at putting foreign nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations under the supervision of its security apparatus is forcing many groups to consider downsizing their activities or pulling out of the country entirely, the New York Times reports.

Under the proposed law, which experts told the Times is likely to be adopted without alteration, foundations, humanitarian groups, international trade associations, and universities will be required to find a government sponsor, seek police approval for all "activities," and hire Chinese citizens to fill at least half their staff positions. In addition, they will not be allowed to receive donations from inside China, and professional associations will be barred from accepting Chinese members. While Beijing has long been wary of international groups that campaign for political causes or work to promote the rule of law and legal rights in China, the new legislation has caused alarm across a broad array of institutions the Chinese government previously had welcomed, including European industry groups, American universities, and international aid organizations. Several groups told the Times the law as written could force them to curtail their activities, including professional training programs, public lectures, and grantmaking, in part because it appears to empower the police to assess the legality of nearly everything they do.

"A lot of groups are panicking, even those that are completely apolitical," said an American employee of a foundation that focuses on governance and environmental issues and is preparing for the possibility it will have to leave the country.

The Chinese government has framed the legislation in part as an effort to bring foreign nonprofits, many of which have been managed by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, out of a regulatory gray area — while also presenting it as an urgently needed tool to root out foreign organizations working to harm China's interests. "The kind of engagement provided by groups like us has been so valuable for China, and the risk is they will be throwing out the baby with the bath water," said the director of an American university program in Beijing, noting that the proposed law does not distinguish between advocacy groups and buttoned-up business associations and academic institutions.

In a joint letter to the Chinese legislature, nearly four dozen American trade and professional associations — including the Motion Picture Association of America, the American Petroleum Institute, and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants — warned that the proposed limits would hinder China's economic development and harm its relations with the United States. And in a statement submitted to the government after it requested public comment on the bill, the American Bar Association argued that the language of the draft legislation was so vague it could be interpreted as outlawing broad categories of activities, including international cooperation on social and legal issues as well as people-to-people diplomacy. "These types of exchanges have been mutually beneficial and non-controversial," the statement said, "and have been vital in promoting economic and social development and professionalization in technical fields such as law and finance."

Andrew Jacobs. "Foreign Groups Fear China Oversight Plan." New York Times 06/18/2015.