Translation: NGO Staff Are Not “Enemies of the State”

The open letter translated below was published by NGOCN on May 8, 2015, after the second draft of the People’s Republic of China Foreign Non-Governmental Organization Management Law was released. The final version was passed at the end of April. Controversial clauses, such as requiring that foreign operate under the wing of a Chinese sponsoring organization, and that they be supervised by the Ministry of Public Security and not the Ministry of Public Affairs, were retained. The new law, like the recent state security and anti-terror laws, seems designed to smother dissenting voices

“Casio” is a pen name. The identity of the author is not known. The bolded text reflects the emphasis in the original.

We Are Not Enemies of the State: On the Foreign NGO Management Law

Dear Legislators,

You represent China’s most powerful people. You formulate laws, and have wide-ranging impact on society. As a veteran employee of a foreign [international] NGO (INGO) with many contacts in the field, I ought to be happy  that you should attach importance to the work of public welfare organizations. On reading the second draft of the PRC’s Foreign NGO Management Law, however, not only did this joy fail to arise, but I felt deep and bitter disappointment instead. My head was filled with these few words: enemy of the state, second-class citizen, criminal suspect.

Right now, let me tell you a little bit about the work of INGOs over the past few years.

The organization I worked for has carried out philanthropic works in mainland China for many years, and once received an official award. My colleagues and collaborators were an amiable bunch—brought there mostly by a sense of idealism at a time when knowledge of public welfare [work] was not widespread and was often misunderstood or ignored—to work in the countryside for weeks at a time, so absorbed that they would forget to eat and sleep.

While I was with them, I heard very little about grand political topics. The daily conversation was about methods: how best to satisfy the various needs of those we were helping, how we could improve their lives. Those little details—how to design an equitable system for allotting resources to the poor, how to resolve conflict between services and those served, how a meeting once went on to 1 or 2 a.m…. I still it remember clearly.

When I’d just started in INGO work, I heard stories from the old hands. Many years before, they’d been followed by police cars and interrogated. Sometimes, no sooner had they stepped outside a village when the police would arrive to find out what they’d been up to.

They could all understand that at that time, public welfare organizations were still a new and developing phenomenon, so caution and unfamiliarity were quite normal, especially toward international NGOs. They believed they could dispel this kind of suspicion through their great effort and service.

So when you came to investigate them, they took heed: the activities you forbade, they dropped, and the information you required, they provided. They understood your anxiety, and always believed that their sincerity could dispel your doubts.

I believed these old hands’ words, and learned to follow them. But only now, many years later, do I realize that their confidence was misplaced. In your eyes, so long as they’re an international NGO, so long as they’re involved in public welfare and social development, they have original sin, harboring hidden goals, and must be guarded against, monitored, and attacked.

This suspicion, by current trends, will pervade their whole existence in China, while anyone who works with them will come under the same shadow.

At this moment, facing the imminent enactment of this law with “24 prohibitions” and various restrictions put forward in the name of “protecting and promoting development,” how must those who work for or collaborate with international NGOs be feeling? Angry, perhaps? Intensely humiliated? When did all those who work for the public welfare or who are involved with INGOs become second-class citizens? Why can those who are just trying to do some good, if they’re not careful, be fined or arrested?

Even in less than friendly times, it’s never been the case till now that a public welfare organization has to file reports on every last bit of its activity, and doesn’t even have the right to recruit! What I want to know, dear legislators, is this: what made you so anxious?

You say you worry that NGOs will get involved in politics, but “politics” is a neutral word. In itself, it’s just a normal part of everyday life. If an NGO is to serve society, and research social problems in order to resolve them, how can it completely avoid involvement with politics? If you’re really worried, why not clearly stipulate which aspects of political activity NGOs are barred from, instead of using “politics” as a vague catch-all?

You say you’re afraid of abnormal NGO activities, so you must examine and approve them. But “activity” covers a similarly broad range. Do you want to ban all of it?  Throwing a party or going on a trip is an “activity.” Do you need all those to be submitted to you for approval? Do these also need a Chinese partner? Is that realistic?

Dear legislators, you don’t trust these public welfare organizations. You always think they’re harboring secret objectives. You spend so much time probing their affairs and backgrounds, and those of their staff. Ask yourself, of all those you’ve come into contact with, how many people and how many organizations are engaged in NGO work in order to subvert the state? Are they really so ill-intentioned?

Dear legislators, on account of a small bunch of “hostile elements,” your conclusion is to draft a strict law to regulate them. But don’t forget, “non-governmental organization” is a broad concept. Chambers of commerce, associations, and volunteer organizations are all non-governmental organizations. Is it in keeping with China’s global image of “openness and  self-confidence” to treat all these organizations as suspect, placing them under watch, because of that possible minority? Where is the law’s dignity if it’s reduced to an unenforceable joke, or enforced selectively, robbing the authorities of credibility?

Dear legislators, we are not your enemies. We are part of this country. Our colleagues and collaborators come from all parts of society, with no lack of gifted people from different walks of life among them, who gave up their often more comfortable former lives to throw themselves into working for society, wanting nothing more than for this country and its people to proceed smoothly along the course of social transformation, and to endure as little current and future hardship as possible. If you treat these idealistic, moderate, gradual reformists as enemies, perhaps you’ll have real enemies before long. Is that the idea?

Look on INGOs with goodwill. In order to serve China, they need a future.

— Casio, veteran of public welfare work [Chinese]

Translation by Samuel Wade.