The aspect of the draft Law on the Management of Foreign NGOs that merits the most attention is that it replaces the Ministry of Civil Affairs with the public security apparatus, as the government body in charge of registering foreign NGOs. As article 7 of the draft explains: “The Public Security departments of the State Council and provincial level public security authorities are in charge of the registration and management of overseas NGOs that conduct activities in China.”
Not only does the draft bill give the police power, it also crudely enlarges that power to encompass supervision of every aspect of foreign NGOs’ work, from registration, permitting, annual inspections, and investigations to seizing data, sealing offices, and freezing assets, and this is on top of the pubic security organs’ existing power to investigate, detain, etc. One can imagine what a disaster this will be for foreign NGOs. It’s also an embodiment of the way the authorities seem to be reverting to class struggle as the lens through which they view civil society. From this perspective any non-governmental organization becomes an anti-government organization, an instrument of West's hostility and determination to subjugate us, a tool for fomenting Color Revolution.
Despite the critical reaction the draft law's naked agenda has sparked, there should be little suspense about whether it will pass. The attitudes it espouses and projects are not an aberration.
The authorities have never let down their guard toward NGOs, whether they’re foreign or domestic. When it comes to registering, receiving funding, and carrying out their work, NGOs in China have always faced layer upon layer of obstruction. Many of the leading Chinese NGOs were never able to register officially with the Ministry of Civil Affairs and instead have been forced to set themselves up as businesses. Many more exist only thanks to gray areas in the law. And many foreign NGOs don’t know where to turn either.
Moreover, authorities treat NGOs whose work relates to human rights, the rule of law and politics differently from groups whose work isn't political. During the period before Xi Jinping came to power, NGOs and think tanks that worked on issues such as poverty alleviation, education, environmental protection, and other non politically-“sensitive” issues, were able to operate and grow, within certain limits. Groups whose work addressed AIDS, occupational diseases, women's rights, LGBT issues, and labor rights, as well as rural libraries, were able to carry out their work despite restriction and harassment. The Open Constitution Initiative, an organization on the forefront of rights protection, on the other hand, was shut down, fined a huge sum and saw its founder Xu Zhiyong locked up.
After Xi Jinping came to power, repression of civil society increased markedly. A large number of leading figures in rights were arrested, a number of directives emerged calling for stricter control of ideology, and controls over the Internet intensified further, all of which made it a bad time to be an NGO. The Aizhixing Institute (an AIDS group), the Transition Institute, and the Liren network of rural libaries, as well as a few women’s and LGBT rights organizations that had up to that point maintained the space in which to operate, met with disaster one after another: shutdowns, arrests, imprisonment. The strategy of remaining apolitical ceased to offer effective protection. The authorities position on civil society and the human rights movement had shifted from restriction and control to outright repression. The draft bill under discussion isn’t surprising given this context.
But, it’s not hard to see how the fearsome face of the regime, for all its apparent ferocity, covers a weak and paranoid mind.
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