China accused of waging ‘lawfare’ on foreign NGOs

Controversial Bill will give Chinese police more power to restrict overseas charities

China’s parliament will this week give a final reading to a controversial Bill ramping up control of hundreds of overseas charities and non-governmental organisations, which could give police sweeping powers to regulate activities and funding.

The government says the new laws are not about restricting foreign NGOs in China – which impacts on Ireland's interests, as these technically include universities and chambers of commerce – but about providing a "sound legal environment" for their operation.

The Bill has triggered widespread criticism from Europe and the US, and raised anxiety levels among foreign non-profits in China, of which there are thought to be about 1,000, with thousands more smaller affiliated groups.

The very concept of an NGO in a country where all control rests with the Communist Party is problematic, and the government actively resists efforts to expand civil society, arresting feminists and environmental activists under the aegis of imposing a rule of law and controlling subversion.


Against this background, many overseas groups are worried about the requirement that each foreign NGO must register with the police, or the ministry of public security, and the rule that foreign non-profits must find official sponsors, typically a government-backed agency.

"The perceived ideological hostility of the West underpins the NGO law," the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) said in a commentary on the Bill, China: Waging 'Lawfare' on NGOs.

Human rights

“NGOs must adjust to the new reality: this new draft will provide the Chinese administration with strong tools to deter NGOs from taking any action that could be considered as at odds with the core interests of the Chinese Communist Party,” the ECFR said.

Foreign non-profits that are allowed to operate in China include Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund and Save the Children, but groups that advocate human rights or support legal activists are not welcome.

The leadership believes overseas NGOs are hotbeds of subversion and spiritual pollution trying to undermine the party, and state media has highlighted overseas NGOs that “have brought national security concerns to China”.

"Chinese authorities are aware and concerned that foreign NGOs can be used by states to promote their objectives and values, or achieve other political agendas," the Global Times reported.

These include the recently expelled Swedish national Peter Dahlin and his Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, which "together with lawyers from the Beijing-based Fengrui Law Firm, set up over 10 'legal aid centres' in the Chinese mainland to train unlicensed lawyers and support petitioners to defame China and sensationalise social issues", the Xinhua news agency said.

State media points out how the Bill, which is up for a third reading by the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, will make it easier for co-operation between overseas NGOs and Chinese institutions on politically less sensitive areas.Foreign non-profits will be poring over the final draft to see the possible impact on how they operate in China in future.