China :: New law to silence activists

New law on foreign NGOs restricts the work of civil society

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Since the first day of 2017, a new law has been in effect in China that limits the activities of foreign NGOs in the country and establishes the need for rigorous registration and inspection of the work of these organizations by the authorities. If they do not receive official approval, they will have to cease their activities.

While the Chinese government has justified the measure by the need to impose limits on Western influence, in practice both Chinese and foreign organizations fear that the law poses a threat to the freedoms of association, assembly and expression.

Global Witness, an international NGO that combats corruption and human rights and environmental violations, is one of the organizations that has been affected by the new law. In an interview with Conectas, Lizzie Parsons, China program leader at Global Witness, explains how international organizations will have to adapt to keep a firm footing in the country. Read the interview below:

Conectas – How does the new Chinese law for NGOs affect foreign organization’s operations in the country?

Lizzie Parsons – The new law will likely have a dramatic impact on many foreign organisations operating in China, as well as on their local partners who depend on foreign funding. Some few organisations  already registered with the authorities should be able to transfer their registration over to the Ministry of Public Security, from the Ministry of Civil Affairs, and continue as before. However most foreign organisations will have to apply for registration for the first time. This process is dependent on having oversight by one of a set list of government departments, according to the main area of activity of that NGO (Catalog Of Fields And Projects For Overseas NGOs With Activities In China, And Directory Of Organizations In Charge Of Operations). Already major organisations are finding it difficult to have a government department agree to oversee their activities..

More broadly, the uncertainty of how the government will roll out the law is likely to result in significantly reduced activities across the foreign NGO sector in mainland China in the coming months.

Conectas – For your organization, is it still worth working in China? If so, what is going to change in your way of working compared to other countries where you have offices?

LP – Global Witness is committed to engaging with the government, companies and other groups in China around good governance in the natural resources sector around the world. Chinese companies are major players in the extractives sectors globally and, like non-Chinese companies, their activities can either contribute to or diminish social and economic development in communities where they operate. It’s paramount that China is both contributing to global governance debates and also learning from international best practice. We are working to facilitate this. In particular we have enjoyed working closely with key institutions in the Chinese mining industry and the CSR sector in recent years through open collaboration and information sharing. I hope this will be able to continue under the new law.

Conectas – In which subjects do you still see room for progress and which ones are more sensitive and will eventually be phased out in this new context?

LP – At this stage it’s too early to tell which subjects will likely be phased out under the law. The list of subjects formally permitted under the law are included as part of the Catalog Of Fields And Projects For Overseas NGOs With Activities In China, And Directory Of Organizations In Charge Of Operations (2017). Sensitive topics that could be excluded include promoting political or legal reform, community participation, human rights protection, environmental protection and anti-corruption.

Conectas – How do conditions for civil society in China compare to those in other countries?

LP – The Chinese Foreign NGO law risks being another method used by governments to silence dissent, as part of a global trend of narrowing civil society space. More acutely Global Witness documented the murder of 185 land and environmental activists globally in 2015. States must take strong steps to guarantee freedom of association, assembly and expression at home and condemn moves to restrict these rights elsewhere.

censorship, china, civil society, ngo law, repression

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