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China’s New FNGO Law Seeks to Divide and Conquer China’s Civil Society

April 28, 2016

The Chinese legislature passed today a law, introduced in draft in April 2015, which had elicited widespread concerns among diverse sectors of the international community about its potential to undermine the role and contributions that foreign organizations make toward China’s growing civil society.

The enacted Law on Management of Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations in the Territory of Mainland China 《境外非政府组织境内活动管理法》 (“FNGO Law”), in addition to retaining all of the structural, ideological, and international law problems in the draft, introduces a division between “beneficial” activities such as cooperation on projects in education, health, culture, and the natural sciences (arts. 3 and 53) on the one hand, and those that “endanger” China’s national unity, security, and ethnic cohesion, national interest, and social and public interest (art. 5) on the other. According to Guo Linmao (郭林茂)of the Legislative Affairs Commission of the National People’s Congress speaking at an April 28, 2016 press conference, these “beneficial” activities will be “exempt,” but it is unclear what “exempt” actually means. The foreign NGOs that are deemed to have “incited resistance to the law,” “obtained state secrets,” “created rumors or . . . disseminated other harmful information” or committed other acts that “endanger national security or harm national interest” (art. 47) will be placed on an “unwelcome list” (不受欢迎的名单) (art. 48).

“The international community needs to avoid getting suckered into China’s divide-and-conquer strategy and must reject the clearly politicized distinction between the ‘harmful’ and ‘beneficial,’ especially when ‘beneficial’ really means beneficial to Party control,” said Sharon Hom, Executive Director of HRIC. “Just as the Chinese authorities openly flout the rule of law whenever expedient, the distinction between welcome and unwelcome may arbitrarily shift at any point. Ultimately no group will be deemed welcome unless it is willing to work within a constricted civil society space that is securely monitored and controlled by the authorities.”

At its core, in subjecting all foreign NGO activities to oversight by China’s public security organs, the new law reflects a complete lack of understanding and mistrust of civil society, with provisions undermining international standards for freedom of expression, freedom of association, and the robust civil society needed to address the massive social problems and inequalities destabilizing China. Troubling recent examples include the targeting of domestic civil society groups constructively addressing gender-based violence and health-based discrimination, and of rights-defense lawyers that took place in 2015.

Lu Jun (陆军), director of Yirenping Center (益仁平中心), a well-known Chinese anti-discrimination NGO cautions that the law could result in collateral damage, especially affecting charitable and other services organizations.

“China’s leaders need to wake up and smell the coffee—realizing a true ‘China Dream’ is not possible without a robust civil society and respecting the diverse aspirations of the Chinese people,” said Hom. “The leaders’ vision of civil society as a completely domesticated and controlled space is also incompatible with China’s international obligations and with its claimed status as a respected world leader.”