China's Civil Society Under Pressure

Next year China will introduce a new law on the regulation of foreign NGOs. Observers fear that this could further aggravate the situation for NGOs in the country. In Berlin, experts discussed the contents and possible effects of the law - "regulated playing field" or "expulsion of unpleasant actors"?

Robert Bosch Stiftung | October 2016

Since President Xi Jinping came to power, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in China have come under increasing pressure. Their work is being monitored more closely, partnerships made more difficult, and political freedoms curbed. On January 1, 2017, a new law regulating foreign NGOs will come into force that may make the situation even more challenging. How does the law fit in with China’s role as a key player on the international stage, and what are the implications for civil society in that country? As part of the "Engaging with China" event series, international experts met at the Foundation’s Berlin Office to discuss these questions.

"Chinese civil society is part of global civil society and therefore part of our own." With these words, Oliver Radtke, senior project manager at the Robert Bosch Stiftung, opened the debate. He argued that the imprisonment of lawyers, the closure of private museums, and the shutting down of critical magazines and websites are all indications of a "clampdown on the freedoms" of members of civil society. He went on to claim that this clampdown is not just affecting domestic individuals and groups, but international NGOs as well.

In light of this, many observers and actors are concerned about a new law regulating foreign NGOs that is set to come into effect on January 1, 2017. Moderator Katrin Kinzelbach, associate director of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), was keen to hear from the panelists what the new law means, what its implications might be for local and international organizations, and how they will respond. The panelists were Nora Sausmikat, head of the China program at Stiftung Asienhaus; David Bandurski, author and editor of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong; and Shawn Shieh, deputy director of Hong Kong-based labor rights organization China Labour Bulletin.

Chinese-Style Control

Shieh started by explaining the key features of the law to the roughly 90 guests. It transfers regulatory authority for foreign NGOs from the Ministry of Civil Affairs to the Ministry of Public Security. In the future, foreign organizations with an office in China (including those from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao) will have to register with the Ministry of Public Security if they wish to operate for extended periods in the country. Nonregistered foreign NGOs without a Chinese arm will have to submit a declaration about their activities and register these on a temporary basis. Shieh thinks that this step should, in principle, be welcomed for now, as it strengthens the legal status of nongovernmental organizations vis-à-vis the security authorities. "NGOs have entered the mainstream. They no longer have to operate in the shadows and can work within the public arena."

He declined to employ terms such as "neoauthoritarian development" and "limited freedoms," preferring to talk about "regulated freedoms" in relation to the new law. He argued that other governments also want to know what NGOs are doing in their country, but conceded that the law is "Chinese-style control" rather than what we are used to in the West.

"Throwing Out Unwelcome Foreign Organizations"

Nora Sausmikat takes a more critical view of the new law. "When you’re dealing with thousands of civil organizations, the need for registration is, of course, understandable. We wouldn’t be able to manage without it in Germany either," said the expert from Stiftung Asienhaus. In the case of China, however, she believes that the tough new regulations effectively amount to the "throwing out of unwelcome foreign organizations." She claimed that many had been expecting this move for a long time, seeing it as the culmination of a long process.

Although China had shown growing interest in the involvement of foreign organizations on issues such as environmental protection and women’s rights ever since the 1990s, there has been a sharp shift since President Xi took office. "A paternalistic philosophy once again prevails, whereby the role of the Party is to lead society," explained Sausmikat. Nevertheless, she has observed two opposing trends. Although she feels that the position of NGOs has been considerably strengthened in terms of environmental protection and that improved laws have been passed in this area, she takes the view that constraints are being imposed on organizations active in the fields of labor, human, and social rights.

Social Management Instead of Civic Engagement

Shawn Shieh backed up the notion that the Party is attempting to reduce the "ideological" influence of civil society. Even the term "civil society" has been shunned since the publication of the internal Party document entitled Document Number Nine in 2013, with the government preferring to talk about "social management." He did add, though, that members of civil society are not interested in the semantics. "For workers, the important issues are higher wages, a secure income, and occupational safety - and not the question of whether they belong to civil society." The government should therefore focus more closely on people’s needs and pay less attention to specific types of organizations involved in civil engagement. He anticipates that the government will take a pragmatic approach to the new law and define its success also by the extent to which it meets people’s needs. He believes that they will keep the dialog with NGOs open for this reason. "Surprising things are always happening in China," he added.

David Bandurski also rejected the phrase "clampdown on freedoms" in connection with freedom of expression and spoke instead of "more closely managed freedoms." Bandurski argued that the aim should be to extend these freedoms further. He nevertheless admitted that many critics are getting cold feet as they come under pressure, and that online forums and magazines critical of the regime are disappearing or being closed down more frequently. "The fear is there," agreed Sausmikat.

Solidarity and Joint Action

Shawn Shieh pointed out that there are positive developments too. Wherever people have experienced repression - such as the detained lawyers or booksellers - there has also been a great deal of public support from friends, relatives, and colleagues. "I found that quite remarkable, as they are risking their jobs at the very least." Bandurski also attaches great importance to joint action and coordinated efforts. "In the future, international supporters will need to coordinate more effectively and think about what approach to take in China," said the researcher.

Sausmikat expects the work of German foundations to become more challenging as a result of the new law and thinks that some organizations may pull out of China altogether, with local organizations taking their place. They could fund their activities with the help of another new piece of legislation, the Charity Law, which allows nongovernmental organizations in China to collect donations from the local community for the first time ever. Shieh is certain that this will strengthen the position of national groups. "Although I am in favor of this new law in principle, it does need to conform to international standards."

(David Weyand, October 2016)