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Foreign fuss over China’s non-government organisation law

BEIJING (UCAN): The United States of America (US), 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, including one on the operation of foreign non-government organisations (NGOs), which they deem to be far too restrictive.

“We have expressed these concerns through a variety of different approaches and continue to raise these with the Chinese government,” a Canadian government spokesperson said.

However, China reacted sourly. State media called the rare joint action an infringement on national sovereignty, as both sides publicly acknowledged the correspondence for the first time this month.

“Foreign nations should respect China’s efforts to enforce the rule of law,” the nationalistic Global Times editorialised on March 2.

All up, three new laws have been drafted that are causing consternation and one, the Foreign NGO Management Law, which critics say would limit the ability of foreign NGOs to operate in China is seen as particularly pernicious.

Critics say that it puts hundreds of millions of dollars worth of poverty relief for healthcare and education at risk.

Amid warnings from abroad, China has delayed passing the bill, but the National People’s Congress that started on March 3 in Beijing was expected to give the draft a third reading during high-level meetings.

Last May, the government released a draft of the NGO law for feedback and has solicited comments from outside bodies including the foreign business community in Beijing.

But while China remains keen to look good on the global stage, there are few signs it will budge on one key provision—foreign NGOs will be required to find a local agency to sponsor them and 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,” Hugo Winckler, a legal consultant on Greater China, commented.

Foreign NGOs would come under scrutiny like never before, as the Chinese state would be giving itself power to have a say on staff appointments and activity plans, as well as routinely scrutinise 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 yet another nail in the coffin of Chinese civil society.

Authorities have detained more than 200 lawyers since July. Among them, Zhang Kai, a Christian lawyer who remains in criminal detention after he helped Church communities in Zhejiang defend themselves against 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 United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said in February, when announcing he had sought answers from Beijing on the recent crackdowns.

China’s apparent suspicion over the activities of NGOs mirrors that of other authoritarian regimes, including Russia, which have restricted the activity of overseas organisations.

Beijing continues to insist it needs some kind of legal framework to regulate the sector, as it currently has no law governing this area of activity.

During a visit to the US in September, the president, Xi Jinping, tried to curb fears that foreign NGOs 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.

But few appear to believe him. Analysts say that Xi’s presidency thus far has seen some of the most restrictive policies against civil society and religious communities since Mao Zedong banned both. No change was made until after his death in 1976.

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, before being deported.

Although most analysts agree the future is uncertain, the few NGOs willing to talk about how they see their future remain wary and pessimistic.

A Christian NGO that declined to be named for security reasons said that with one-third of its funding coming from overseas, it is likely to face a significant shortfall if the draft law gets the rubber stamp, as by and large, the Church in China is still poor, so it is true that we need support from the outside.

A director of the organisation said, “Most organisations are not happy with the draft.”

For the few religious NGOs operating in China, most struggle, because local financial backers prefer charities with clear and strong government links, which helps to avoid uncertainty and the myriad problems that can arise, 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 eight per cent per annum since Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening in 1984, China is no longer the poor cousin it once was.

However, in a reconciliatory tone, Xinhua published a short article on March 9 quoting Fu Ying, a spokesperson for the National People’s Congress, as saying that the law is not intended to restrict foreign NGOs in their lawful and helpful activities, but only to provide a sound legal environment.

However, Fu did not go into the obstacles involved in forming a relationship with a local sponsoring body and gaining the necessary clearance for every separate initiative, even when they are all part to the same activity. Limitations on where funding can be sourced from are also problematic.

“There’s been a gradual long-term trend over the past 10 years towards international aid pulling out, because China is becoming more developed,” Shawn Shieh, a Hong Kong-based expert on Chinese civil society, said.

 

“But foreign organisations 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,” he concluded.

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