With the start of the new year, a controversial law comes into force in China affecting non-governmental organizations in the country. Their work is to be more closely monitored in future.
The law, which makes changes to regulations on dealing with international non-governmental organizations, first sparked controversy in April 2016. This was when the People's Congress, the highest legislative body in China, approved the new rules. Beijing's official line is that the law will help establish greater legal certainty.
Foreign foundations and NGOs, however, interpret the law very differently. They see it as a threat to freedom of expression and to their own scope for action in the country, and fear tighter control by local security agencies.
For example, all organizations active in China must reapply for registration. And that's not all - after that, all NGOs are obliged to operate under supervisory control, i.e. constant surveillance.
Two weeks ago, the Ministry of Public Security published a list of names of the agencies entitled to carry out this professional supervision. According to Chinese media reports, these agencies operate as intermediaries between the NGOs and the security ministry. Foreign organizations can only register with the local police as NGOs once this professional supervision has been approved. What this means is that responsibility for foreign NGOs has been transferred from the Ministry of Civil Affairs to the Ministry of Public Security, i.e. the police.
Preventing political influence
"The Chinese leadership wants to put a stop to the political and also, in some fields, societal influence of foreign NGOs," says Kristin Shi-Kupfer from the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin. "China wants to prevent infiltration by 'hostile Western forces.' Beijing understands these to be institutionalized Western values, and concepts of political order that could promote political liberalization."
It's not yet clear to what extent the law will also affect German political foundations in China; but Germany already signaled misgivings months ago. The way China was dealing with NGOs was a cause for concern, the German government said in a statement in July 2016. "The sweeping control regulations in the law raise fears that future cooperation between German non-governmental organizations and Chinese civil society will be restricted and made more difficult."
Human rights absent
The Chinese Ministry of Public Security has divided up the foreign organizations into different categories such as economy, education, healthcare, environment and "other." This last group also includes critical fields such as legal advice, women's rights, equality and unions. The topic of human rights doesn't even appear on the list. To date, organizations such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch have not been permitted to open offices in China.
The statement by the German government also says that "in its official rhetoric, the Chinese leadership repeatedly portrays international standards concerning the rule of law and human rights as concepts of hostile forces that have to be kept in check."
Authorities to monitor everything
According the law, the professional supervisory body will monitor, above all, the NGOs' income and expenditure. In addition, foreign non-governmental organizations must disclose all activities and cooperation with Chinese groups. NGO employees risk heavy penalties if the police determine that they are involved in activities that "endanger national security or divide the nation."
"The formulation of the law is extremely vague, leaving the authorities considerable scope for using their discretion," says Human Rights Watch. And that has wide-ranging consequences, according to MERICS expert Kristin Shi-Kupfer: "The increasingly systematic surveillance and repression of people active in civil society has significantly reduced Chinese civil society's room to maneuver."
Beijing, however, takes a very different view. On December 15, 2016, government spokesman Geng Shuang said that, with this law, China aimed to safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of the organizations, in order to "integrate them into the process of economic and societal development."