China considers new law aimed at a crackdown on foreign NGO operations and funding of activities feared threatening to Communist rule. Probe International, named as one of several international foundations in a recent criminal investigation, told the New York Times: “From our perspective in Canada, it is perplexing that such activities [researching and writing articles and reports, and giving university lectures] would be considered illegal.”
“For a long time now the primary concern of the authorities when dealing with Chinese NGOs has been to see who their funders are. And, in fact, they’ve known this for a long time. It’s just now they’re putting this out into the open.”
When the Beijing Public Security Bureau recommended that prosecutors charge Guo Yushan and He Zhengjun of the Transition Institute, an economic and social policy think tank, with conducting “illegal business activity” by publishing books and periodicals, it named four foreign nongovernmental organizations that it said had helped finance the alleged crime.
It is not illegal in China for international NGOs to provide grants to Chinese nongovernmental organizations. About 1,000 of these operate in China, while up to 5,000 more work on temporary programs, according to a China Daily article posted on the website of the State Council, China’s Cabinet.
“So why are they appearing in police documents? It’s an important question to ask,” said Geoffrey Crothall of China Labor Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based NGO that promotes the rights of workers in China.
Draft legislation currently before the National People’s Congress may increase controls over the activities of foreign NGOs in China, including the funding of local groups. But China is not the only country seeking to rein in foreign NGOs. Both India and Russia have recently done so.
One of the four foreign NGOs named by the Beijing police was Probe International, a Toronto-based organization that focuses on environmental issues. Its executive director, Patricia Adams, commented in an email that the police recommendation to prosecute the two men was “perplexing.”
Here is her fuller statement:
As we understand from the Beijing Police Bureau’s written recommendation, our colleagues at the Transition Institute in China are accused of researching and writing articles and reports, and giving university lectures. From our perspective in Canada, it is perplexing that such activities would be considered illegal.
We have indeed collaborated with the Transition Institute on environmental and resource policy issues, as you can see from our website. These collaborations also appeared on the Transition Institute’s websites before they were taken down. In addition, the Transition Institute has translated some of our foundation’s publications dealing with Canadian environmental and resource policies, which it felt would be of interest to Chinese readers.
In our view, the Transition Institute has provided expert analysis on policies that are central to China’s economic development and environmental protection. Until we have a better understanding of the totality of the Chinese police’s complaints, we wouldn’t want to comment on matters that might come before Chinese courts.
After a first draft of China’s proposed law on foreign NGOs drew negative comments last year from Chinese academics as potentially too restrictive — it suggested, among other things, that they must register with public security bureaus and not raise money domestically, according to media reports — the government appeared to soften its approach, said Mr. Crothall, of China Labor Bulletin.
Currently many foreign NGOs operate as businesses, as do domestic ones, in an effort to avoid onerous capital requirements for a formal registration with the Ministry of Civil Affairs.
“It seems the first draft was drafted by the Public Security Bureau,” one of two ministries — the other was the Ministry of Civil Affairs — tasked with the job, he said. “And so you saw it was very much from their perspective. And now other people have realized there are other things you have to take into consideration.”
These include the expertise and practical help that international NGOs offer, especially to local governments grappling with poverty or environmental issues.
According to the latest draft, an international NGO may set up a branch in China, if it receives the approval of the State Council.
Naming the four groups in the document was a form of pressure, Mr. Crothall said. “But the pressure is not new,” he said. “For a long time now the primary concern of the authorities when dealing with Chinese NGOs has been to see who their funders are. And, in fact, they’ve known this for a long time. It’s just now they’re putting this out into the open.”
China has in the past warned that foreign organizations could help foment “color revolutions” subversive to Communist rule. Articles in prominent state-run news outlets have accused the pro-democracy demonstrators who occupied parts of Hong Kong for more than two months of having been financed by foreign organizations, a charge the protesters denied.
For background reading on China’s crackdown on NGOs, both domestic and foreign, see: China set to step up control over NGOs by China Digital Times, published March 12, 2015.