A remarkable assortment of foreign organizations set up shop in China in the decades after its emergence from isolation under Mao Zedong (毛澤東), offering good will, money and expertise that helped link the nation more closely to the rest of the world and turn it into the global powerhouse it is today.
However, sweeping new legislation introduced by the government of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) is forcing many of these groups — including international trade associations and philanthropic foundations — to consider scaling back their activities in China or pulling out of the country entirely.
The proposed law, which began circulating in draft form last month and is expected to be enacted later this year, would put foreign non-profit and non-governmental organizations (NGO) under the supervision of the Chinese security apparatus, reflecting both the more restrictive approach toward civil society endorsed by Xi and the Chinese Communist Party’s long-standing fear that external forces are conspiring to overthrow it.
If the legislation is adopted unchanged — a prospect many experts say is likely given the party’s approach to lawmaking — foreign groups working in China would have to find a government sponsor and seek police approval for all “activities.”
With few exceptions, they would be barred from accepting donations inside China and would be required to hire Chinese citizens for at least half of all staff positions. And professional associations, whether for scientists or insurance brokers, would be prohibited from accepting Chinese members.
Beijing has long been wary of international groups that campaign for political causes or work to promote rule of law and legal rights in China. However, the proposed foreign nongovernmental organization management law has caused alarm across a broad array of institutions that the Chinese government had previously welcomed, including European industry groups, US universities and international aid organizations.
Several groups said the law could force them to curtail their operations, including professional training programs, public lectures and grant-making, in part because it appears to empower the police to decide the legality of almost everything they do. More broadly, there is concern that after three decades of increasing openness, China has concluded that it no longer needs what the outside world has to offer and is beginning to close its doors.
“A lot of groups are panicking, even those that are completely apolitical,” said a US employee of a foundation that focuses on governance and environmental issues and is preparing for the possibility that it is going to have to leave China.
The irony, she and others said, is that the legislation threatens groups that over the past three decades have supported policies that contributed to China’s rejuvenation, including exchange programs and expanded trade, even as others urged a tougher line against the government’s repressive tendencies.
She and a dozen other employees of the estimated 6,000 foreign non-profits in China spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of offending Beijing and drawing attention to their organizations.
“The kind of engagement provided by groups like us has been so valuable for China and the risk is they will be throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” said the director of a US university program that operates in Beijing, adding that the proposed law does not distinguish between advocacy groups that promote labor rights, for example, and buttoned-up business associations and academic institutions.
Until now, many foreign non-profits have been managed by the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs, though bureaucratic obstacles have led some to register as businesses or operate under the radar without registering at all. The Chinese government has framed the legislation in part as an effort to bring foreign groups out of this regulatory gray area.
However, the government has also presented the law as an urgently needed tool for rooting out foreign organizations that harm China’s interests.
In an interview last month with the official newspaper of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, national security expert Wang Cunkui (王存奎) warned that there were hundreds of politically oriented foreign NGOs working in China, including some he said were devoted to “infiltrating the ideological sphere” and nurturing “Western agents.”
In an editorial this month, Xinhua news agency suggested that some foreign organizations were fronts for intelligence gathering or stirring up social unrest.
“In the name of ‘safeguarding rights,’ they incite the public to stand against their government, and more so they support and play a role in street-level activism, ethnic divisions and other activities,” it said.
The Chinese Ministry of Public Security and the National People’s Congress, did not respond to interview requests.
In a joint letter this month to the National People’s Congress, nearly four dozen US trade and professional associations warned that the proposed limits on their work would hinder China’s economic development and harm its relations with the US.
A copy was provided to the New York Times by one of the groups that signed it, but it was not publicly released by its signers, which included the Motion Picture Association of America, the American Petroleum Institute and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.
In a statement submitted to the government after it requested public comment on the bill, the American Bar Association said that the language of the draft legislation was so vague that it could be interpreted as outlawing broad categories of activity, including international cooperation on social and legal issues as well as people-to-people diplomacy.
“These types of exchanges have been mutually beneficial and noncontroversial, and have been vital in promoting economic and social development and professionalization in technical fields, such as law and finance,” it wrote.
Chinese University of Hong Kong professor Anthony Spires, who studies civil society groups in China, said the law could require a high-school basketball team to get police permission before visiting China or give security officials veto power over a PowerPoint presentation by a visiting academic during a lecture.
Experts said it was unlikely that such concerns would have a substantial impact on the final law. “There may be revisions to some details but the chances for big changes are very small,” said Jia Xijin (賈西津), deputy director of the NGO Research Center at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
Zhou Dan (周丹), an openly gay lawyer in Shanghai who speaks at gay rights workshops financed by foreign foundations, said many organizations feared that the law would be used to crush them. “When you give the public security bureau oversight over non-profits, it’s going to be interpreted as an unfriendly gesture,” he said.
Party leaders have accused Western organizations of fomenting the “color revolutions,” the popular uprisings that dislodged authoritarian governments of the former Soviet bloc in the early 2000s, as well as the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.
When pro-democracy demonstrations paralyzed parts of Hong Kong last year, Beijing blamed “external forces.”
The government has clamped down on Chinese advocacy groups in recent months, raiding their offices, arresting employees and shuttering a number of organizations.
Some that have come under pressure say foreign foundations have distanced themselves or cut off funding, perhaps as a precaution in anticipation of the new law.
Lu Jun (陸軍), the director of the Beijing Yirenping Center, a group that fights discrimination against people with HIV and hepatitis B, said new restrictions on foreign non-profits would ultimately leave domestic groups poorer and more isolated.
“Foreign funding is important, but so too is foreign expertise because Chinese NGOs have such a short history and overseas organizations have been working for many years,” said Lu, whose offices have been sealed since a police raid in March.
Alison Friedman, the director of Ping Pong Productions, a non-profit that sends contemporary Chinese dance troupes to Europe and brings US drama to theaters in China, said she did not believe that the authorities would object to her group’s mission, but was worried about new bureaucratic constraints.
Friedman said her organization’s name, a homage to the game that ushered in the era of modern relations between the US and China, is a testament to people-to-people exchanges and their role in promoting cross-cultural understanding.
“At a time of growing tensions, we can really use more of that, not less,” she said.
Kiki Zhao contributed research
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