Although a law that places new requirements on foreign nonprofits operating in China was scheduled to go into effect January 1, foreign NGOs in the country remain unclear about the details of the rules and their impact on their ability to continue their work in the new year, the New York Times reports.
Passed by China's national legislature last April, the law states that foreign NGOs must not endanger China's national security and ethnic unity. To that end, foreign nonprofits such as foundations, charities, and most business associations must register with the police, be sponsored by state agencies and organizations, and submit regular reports on their activities. Many aspects of the law remain opaque, however, and some organizations fear their work will be curtailed or even banned. Calls to a hotline recently set up by the Ministry of Public Security to answer questions about the law have gone unanswered.
Ambiguity about how the law will be enforced is likely to make foreign NGOs extra cautious, and the Ministry of Public Security "has every incentive to maintain uncertainty," said Jessica C. Teets, a political scientist at Middlebury College who studies nongovernmental organizations in China. "This will mean that the government is able to more closely monitor the foreign NGOs, and, more importantly, the Chinese citizens working and interacting with them, while allowing them to continue the work that the government deems beneficial. The NGOs have every right to fear the closing off of space for advocacy and programs, but I think the impact will be really differentiated."
NGOs focused on legal and contentious social issues are especially at risk. A list of permitted categories of assistance issued last week suggested that foreign groups offering technical help on environmental, health, and other relatively uncontroversial issues had a good chance of being approved, while "human rights" is not among the permitted issues.
"Rather than seeing foreign NGOs as potential partners who can help aid in economic, social, and legal development in China, instead they see a latent threat that needs to be controlled," said Thomas Kellogg, East Asia director at the Open Society Foundations, which has funded initiatives in China. "People on the international side are definitely worried. And well they should be. I think it will be difficult for many foreign NGOs working on legal reform to register. For those that are able to register, the law will likely restrict what they are able to do."