The Chinese National People’s Congress (NPC) on Thursday passed, as expected, a law that tightens controls over foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and gives police the power to closely monitor them and shut them down if they have overstepped a host of ill-defined restrictions, including “endangering national security,” “threatening society’s interests” or “spreading rumors.”
While the final version of the law is not as severe as an earlier draft — international schools, medical facilities and some academic groups have been exempted — it casts an onerous shadow over a host of groups providing much-needed health, educational, legal and disaster aid and those who are trying to develop a civil society.
While foreign NGOs will be able to establish multiple representative offices and will no longer have to reapply for operating licenses every five years, they will not be able to set up chapters, recruit members or raise funds locally and will have to provide detailed annual financial and personnel reports and use bank accounts registered with police after the law takes effect in January next year.
The number of foreign NGOs in China is estimated at several thousand, ranging from big internationals, such as Save the Children and Greenpeace, to the American Chamber of Commerce and other trade associations and groups from Taiwan, such as the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation, which opened its first office in China in Suzhou in 2010.
One NPC official told a news conference in Beijing after the passage of the law was announced that foreign groups working on human rights issues are welcome as long as they, like other NGOs, comply with Chinese laws.
There is the rub. There is really no such entity as “Chinese laws,” since the Chinese Communist Party defines the law the way it wants and the way that will best preserve its rule. If there was ever any doubt of that, or hope of a relaxation of controls, those have been dashed by the relentless crackdown on Chinese legal aid and civic groups over the past two years.
Lawyers and activists have been detained or imprisoned for “separatism” or trying to “subvert state power” when all they are guilty of is holding an opinion different from the party’s as to what the Chinese constitution and the nation’s laws allow. It does not even have to be a critical opinion, just a different one.
There should be no doubt that the real goal of the law is to make it harder, if not almost impossible, for foreign NGOs to work in China and to cut links between foreign and Chinese groups.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has shown that peaceful, independent advocacy is anathema to him and his hold on power, although he is not alone in trying to curtail, if not eradicate, civic empowerment — similar efforts are under way by his counterparts in Egypt, Russia, India, Cambodia and other nations governed by thin-skinned leaders who do not want to hear anything from the public except acquiescence, even though their governments too often fail to provide adequate public services.
It is worth remembering that many who are considered political dissidents or “radical activists” and have become targets of Beijing’s wrath are those who have tried to help those in need: physician Gao Yaojie (高耀潔), who was the first to raise the alarm about the plight of Henan Province farmers who contracted HIV because of unsanitary blood collection stations and transfusion practices, or artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未), who did not really upset authorities until he became active in trying to help those injured or who lost family members in the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
As for Taiwanese NGOs, as much as Beijing likes to talk about “compatriots from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau,” for the purposes of the new NGO law, groups from this nation, as well as the two special administrative regions, will be considered foreign.
Brotherly love counts for little in Beijing.
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