China looks set to unveil revised regulations for NGOs this year, a policy which should eliminate the sponsor or dual registration requirement and allow for direct registration of certain organizations. Civil society law expert Karla Simon calls the development “big news,” and The Diplomat’s David Cohen writes that the new regulations, when implemented, should create a much larger opening for a legal civil society to emerge:
Significant limits on nonprofit activity will, of course, remain in place. For example, the new policy explicitly excludes political and religious organizations from the streamlined registration process. Religious groups have a separate, highly restrictive, process. Simon expects the vague exception for political groups to be interpreted broadly, giving more local governments broad discretion to approve or deny licenses. Public interest law firms will also be unable to register for the time being, pending new regulations from the Ministry of Justice.
The main driver of the new policy seems to be social services outsourcing, according to Simon. With more NGOs, local governments hope to create competitive bidding processes. Of course, this means that the civil society groups that get licenses will be those that somehow serve the Party’s policy ends.
But the experience of pilot programs in areas like Guangdong Province and Shanghai demonstrates that this still leaves broad scope for civil society groups to pursue their own ends and engage in advocacy. On many issues – most notably, the environment – there is a huge gap between official Party policy and local results, creating an obvious space for civil society groups to put pressure on local officials.
It will be some time yet before we can see the new regulations in action, but they will bear close watching – both because they will create a much larger space for a fully legal civil society in China, and because of what they suggest about the vision that China’s leaders have for the country’s future.