Registration of Foreign NGOs Crawls Past 1%

China’s new foreign NGO management law came into effect on January 1, bringing strict registration and oversight requirements and financial controls in exchange for tax benefits and greater legal clarity about organizations’ rights and responsibilities. Some experts have argued that general alarm at the new rules is premature, but the law’s emphasis on national security and the central role of the instead of the Ministry of Civil Affairs have left some in the sector feeling that they are regarded as “enemies of the state.” The arrest of Taiwanese NGO worker Lee Ming-che for subversion after a lengthy and opaque detention has done nothing to reassure anxious parties about the new climate, or to dispel fears that the new law is part of what NYU’s Jerome Cohen has labeled “a comprehensive legislative agenda designed to confirm China as a de facto garrison state.”

At South China Morning Post this week, Nectar Gan provided an in-depth report on slow progress in the registration of foreign NGOs. Little more than one percent of the 7,000 active FNGOs have successfully registered, she wrote, and many of those still in limbo have shuttered, suspended, or relocated their Chinese operations. The lack of clarity surrounding the law has reportedly deterred government departments from agreeing to provide the legally required supervision, while the law’s national security focus continues to fuel uncertainty and unease.

Many groups trying to register are running into problems – especially those working in politically sensitive areas – and have found it difficult to convince potential government sponsors to work with them due to a lack of detailed guidance on the law’s implementation and a lack of incentives for sponsors. No groups advocating human rights, workers’ rights or the rule of law have successfully registered so far.

And even some of the that have registered are uncertain how strict their government supervisors will be and whether they will be able to carry on working as before.

[…] “We chose to stop all activities to avoid putting ourselves and partners at risk … it’s not like the law allows any wriggle room,” said [one U.S. environmental organization’s] China programme director, who asked not to be identified because her organisation was still trying to register. “If someone wanted to target you they could easily do so as the law is clear that registration is required.”

[…] Although the new law applies to , its impact has rippled through to their Chinese counterparts, especially those who rely on overseas sources for most of their funding.

[…] The deputy director of the Guangzhou-based NGO said the municipal office that managed foreign NGOs and their applications had only been set up on March 1, two months after the registration process was supposed to start, and she had never seen its heavy, burgundy wooden door open.

[… The Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Anthony Spires said that] “The political freedom and human rights organisations are going to have the toughest time registering under the law, for sure. Some of them have left; some of them are considering the options; some of them will continue to stay in China and do their work despite the law and won’t attempt to get registered; and then others will simply pull out because it’s just too hard.” Source

The Diplomat’s DD Wu also looked at the ongoing registration process last week:

On April 1 (April Fools’ Day), China’s government-run Xinhua News Agency published an article claiming that “the foreign NGOs believe the registration procedure under new law is more convenient, efficient, and simple.” The article confirmed that by April 1, 62 foreign NGOs had legally registered in China. Interestingly, it also acknowledged that more than 780 foreign NGOs have consulted with the police on registration.

Now it is still uncertain what is happening to the majority of foreign NGOs operating in China: have they decided to wait to see, or to leave, or not to register at all, or they have actually applied for registration but got no reply from the Chinese police?

Yet at least one thing is for certain: those organizations that haven’t received official approval are supposed to stop operating in China, technically speaking. Otherwise, they would face on-site inspection by police, examination of documents, the freezing of their bank accounts, sealing of venues, seizure of assets, temporary or permanent suspension of activities, and staff members’ detention, according to the law. Source

China Development Brief has been tracking new registrations as part of its deep coverage of the law’s implementation, and recently compiled a new landing page for these reports. Early last month, CDB founder Shawn Shieh categorized the then 62 registrants by field and country of origin, finding that the majority were American or from Hong Kong or Macau, and focused on either development or trade and economics. Four of Germany’s six party political foundations are among the more recent registrants: CDB describes these as “an institution specific to Germany. Subsidized by the German government, each party political foundation is affiliated with its respective political party. They engage in international aid and volunteer training activities.”