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Foreign NGOs fear restrictive draft law in China

Legislation would place agencies under harsher scrutiny and hinder ability to raise funds
Foreign NGOs fear restrictive draft law in China

Although Chinese President Xi Jinping has tried to curb fears that China would place restrictions on foreign nongovernmental organizations, a draft law will make it difficult for the agencies to remain working on the mainland. (Photo by AFP)

Published: March 07, 2016 07:44 AM GMT
Updated: March 07, 2016 07:52 AM GMT

When the United States, Canada, Germany, Japan and the European Union wrote a letter to the Chinese government in late January calling on Beijing to reconsider a number of new laws deemed overly restrictive, China was far from happy.

"We have expressed these concerns through a variety of different approaches and continue to raise these with the Chinese government," a Canadian government spokesman told ucanews.com.

The state media called the "rare joint action" an infringement of Chinese sovereignty as both sides publicly acknowledged the letters for the first time this month.

"Foreign nations should respect China's efforts to enforce the rule of law," wrote the nationalistic Global Times on March 2.   

Among the three laws or drafts argued over is proposed legislation that critics say would limit the ability of foreign non-governmental organizations to operate in China. Hundreds of millions of dollars for poverty alleviation on healthcare and education could be at stake.

Amid the warnings from abroad, China has delayed passing the bill. The Communist Party's rubber-stamp parliament in Beijing was expected to give the draft a third reading during high-level meetings that started on March 3.

Last May, the government released a draft of the nongovernmental organization law for feedback and has solicited comments from the likes of the foreign business community in Beijing. But while China remains as keen as ever to look good on the global stage, there are few signs it will budge on a key provision: foreign nongovernmental organizations would be required to find a local partner agency and must be overseen by state security.

"Public consultation is a classic law-making tool in China, but rarely — if ever — entails important changes to a draft," said Hugo Winckler, a legal consultant on Greater China.
 

Harshscrutiny

Foreign nongovernmental organizations would be under scrutiny like never before, the Chinese state giving itself power to have a say on staff appointments and routinely scrutinize financial records.

With Beijing showing few signs of significant compromise, China has received a barrage of criticism in recent months as rights groups and foreign governments have warned the law would mark the latest nail in the coffin of Chinese civil society.

Authorities have detained more than 200 lawyers since July. Among them, Christian lawyer Zhang Kai who remains in criminal detention after he helped churches in Zhejiang try to rebuff a campaign by provincial authorities in which more than 1,700 crosses have been removed since late 2013.

"We are seeing a very worrying pattern in China that has serious implications for civil society and the work they do across the country," the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said last month, announcing he had sought answers from Beijing on the recent crackdown.

China's apparent suspicion over the activities of nongovernmental organizations has mirrored other authoritarian regimes, which have restricted overseas organizations, including Russia.

Beijing continues to insist it needs some kind of legal framework to regulate the sector — it has no NGO law currently.

During a visit to the United States in September, President Xi Jinping tried to curb fears that foreign nongovernmental organizations would be pushed out of China altogether.

"So long as their activities are beneficial to the Chinese people, we will not restrict or prohibit their operations," he told business leaders in Seattle.

Few appear to believe him. Xi's presidency thus far has seen some of the most restrictive policies against civil society and religious communities since Chairman Mao banned both until his death in 1976, say analysts.

In a sign of the growing restrictions facing foreign humanitarian groups in China, Swedish national Peter Dahlin was paraded on state television in January to "confess" to charges including endangering state security as a result of his work with local rights groups and was then deported.

The draft law suggests Beijing wants to try to weaken ties between local nongovernmental organizations and foreign funding, said Shawn Shieh, an expert on Chinese civil society. 

"My sense is that this is designed to de-link domestic NGOs from foreign funding and push them more toward localized programs and funding," he added.

Amid all the doom and gloom, a new charity draft law that is surprisingly generous in its wide and vague definition of potential activities has largely gone unnoticed, said Shieh.

Even so, although most analysts agree the future is uncertain, the few nongovernmental organizations willing to talk about how they see their future remain wary — and pessimistic.

 

Fundingconcerns

A Christian nongovernmental organization that declined to be named for security reasons told ucanews.com that, with one-third of its funding coming from overseas, it would likely face a significant shortfall if the draft law passes China's rubber-stamp legislature.

"There are not many Christians in the country and the church is still poor, so it is true that we need support from the outside," said a director of the organization. "Most NGOs are not happy with the draft."

For the few religious nongovernmental organizations operating in China, most struggle because financial backers prefer charities with clear and strong government links, which helps to avoid uncertainty and myriad problems, including sudden closures.

Amid the recriminations, Beijing points out that China has a diminishing need for foreign aid agencies anyway, especially those delivering services the state should and could provide.

After more than 30 years of economic growth that has typically hit over 8 percent per year since Deng Xiaoping's 'Reform and Opening' in 1984, China is no longer the poor country it once was.

"There's been a gradual long-term trend over the past 10 years towards international aid pulling out, because China is becoming more developed," said Shieh. "But foreign NGOs will continue to find ways to work in China. There's this sense that if you're not working there then you're not being relevant because China is so important."

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