China passes strict new law controlling foreign NGOs

Police get sweeping powers to monitor overseas not-for-profit organisations

The Chinese government has passed a strict new law which steps up control of overseas charities and non-governmental organisations, giving police sweeping powers to regulate activities and funding.

"The Ministry of Public Security and provincial police departments will be responsible for the registration and regulation," the Xinhua news agency reported in a brief posting. "Foreign NGOs operating in China without approval will be punished."

During the draft stage, the Bill sparked widespread criticism from Europe and the US, and raised anxiety levels among foreign non-profit organisations in China, of which there are thought to be about 1,000, with thousands more smaller affiliated groups.

China says the new rules are aimed at clarifying the position of foreign NGOs in China, and points out the new law requires governments at all levels to accommodate legal operation of overseas NGOs, providing policy consultation and guidance.


“The law was aimed at regulating the activities of overseas NGOs in China, protecting their legal rights and interests, and promoting exchanges and co-operation,” Xinhua said.

There were no details about amendments to the rules, which are part of a series of tough new legislation that also includes a counterterrorism law and a draft cyber security law, that form a key plank of President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on dissent.

Critics of the rules say they are ambiguous and could be used to restrict the operations of social and environmental advocacy groups, as well as chambers of commerce and universities and colleges trying to collaborate with China.

Amnesty International urged Beijing to scrap the new law, which it believes is aimed at further smothering civil society.

The new law will have severe consequences for freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, which are already sharply curtailed under existing laws and policies, Amnesty said.

"The authorities – particularly the police – will have virtually unchecked powers to target NGOs, restrict their activities, and ultimately stifle civil society," said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International.

“The law presents a very real threat to the legitimate work of independent NGOs and should be immediately revoked,” said Mr Nee.

Foreign NGOs will have to get approval from Chinese authorities before they operate in China, regardless of whether they open permanent offices or just operate here temporarily, according to the new law.

The rules were was adopted through a vote at the bi-monthly session of the standing committee of China’s top legislature, the National People’s Congress.

The notion of an NGO is problematic in a country where all control rests with the Communist Party, and the government actively resists efforts to expand civil society, arresting feminists and environmental activists alike as it imposes a rule of law.

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.

However, the leadership believes overseas NGOs are hotbeds of subversion and spiritual pollution trying to undermine the party.

The case of the recently expelled Swedish national Peter Dahlin and his Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, which the government say as a subversive organisation after it set up legal aid centres in China to support petitioners, highlighted the challenges facing NGOs in China.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing