Uncertainty Over New Chinese Law Rattles Foreign Nonprofits

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BEIJING — The hotline rings, but nobody answers.

China’s Ministry of Public Security opened the line last month to answer questions about the new law regulating foreign nonprofit organizations, which takes effect on Sunday.

But this week and last, calls went unanswered, exemplifying the uncertainty that still surrounds the law, raising concern among thousands of nongovernmental organizations about their ability to continue their work in the new year.

The law, which places a raft of new requirements on foreign nonprofits operating in China, is another building block in President Xi Jinping’s fortification of one-party rule, which he sees as threatened by foreign influence and unfettered civil society.

Under the law, foreign nonprofits such as foundations, charities and many business associations must register with the police, persuade state agencies and organizations to act as their sponsors, and submit regular, detailed reports on their activities.

According to an official estimate, there are 7,000 foreign nongovernmental organizations in China. They range from well-known institutions like the Ford Foundation and Oxfam to groups of a few people working on issues like rural education, nature conservation and health care.

But groups working on politically sensitive issues like human rights, legal reform and the rule of law, or those concerning ethnic minorities, are seen as most at risk.

Some foreign organizations have already pulled back. The American Bar Association, which has a program providing training and support to strengthen the rule of law, recently closed its Beijing office until it could gain formal approval for its work.

Elizabeth Andersen, the association’s associate executive director, cited the “heightened scrutiny of foreign organizations working in China and the uncertainties and lack of information surrounding how the new law will be implemented.”

But the uncertainty has also unsettled groups far removed from political concerns. Numerous aspects of the law remain opaque, and many groups are anxious about the vagueness and expense of the new requirements, while some fear their work will be curtailed or even banned.

“Nothing’s clear,” said Corinne Richeux Hua, executive director of Stepping Stones, a locally registered charity in Shanghai that organizes English teachers for children from the countryside. “We’ve got vague directives and guidelines.”

The local police, with whom her group must now register, had been helpful, but “they are still figuring it,” she said. “The rules haven’t been made completely clear to them yet.”

Ambiguity about how the law will be enforced is likely to make foreign groups extra cautious, and the Ministry of Public Security, which administers the law, “has every incentive to maintain uncertainty,” said Jessica C. Teets, a political scientist at Middlebury College in Vermont who studies nongovernmental organizations in China.

“This will mean that the government is able to more closely monitor the foreign NGOs, and, more importantly, the Chinese citizens working and interacting with them, while allowing them to continue the work that the government deems beneficial,” Ms. Teets said by email. “The NGOs have every right to fear the closing off of space for advocacy and programs, but I think the impact will be really differentiated.”

Indeed, a Ministry of Public Security official told diplomats in Shanghai last month that “the Chinese government will continue welcoming and supporting foreign nongovernmental organizations coming to China.”

After Deng Xiaoping opened up China in the 1980s, foreign foundations, associations and charities became important channels for sharing money, ideas and inspiration. Officials often welcomed their help, especially in poorer parts of the country, even though the rules governing their status were murky.

But certain kinds of organizations, especially those that work in law and contentious social issues, have garnered distrust. Through the new law, the government wants to narrow permissible activities of foreign groups and monitor their work much more thoroughly.

A list of permitted categories of assistance issued last week suggested that foreign groups offering technical help on environmental, health and other relatively uncontroversial issues had strong chances of gaining approval.

Those working on legal issues will have a much narrower foothold. “Human rights,” for example, is not on the list of permitted issues.

“Rather than seeing foreign NGOs as potential partners who can help aid in economic, social and legal development in China, instead they see a latent threat that needs to be controlled,” said Thomas Kellogg, the East Asia director of the Open Society Foundations, which has financed some work in China. “People on the international side are definitely worried. And well they should be. I think it will be difficult for many foreign NGOs working on legal reform to register. For those that are able to register, the law will likely restrict what they are able to do.”

Even before the new law, combative rights lawyers and advocates, feminists and labor activists have come under Mr. Xi’s heavy grip. Peter Dahlin, a Swedish citizen in Beijing, was arrested, forced to apologize on television and expelled from China early this year for working for an unregistered group that did low-key advocacy for legal rights.

The party sees groups like his as potential Trojan horses of political subversion. A propaganda video promoted by public security agencies this month warned that anti-party forces were “using foreign nongovernmental organizations to nurture ‘proxies’ and to establish a social basis” for insurrection.

The groups’ worries have been compounded by confusion about many requirements, the belated release of crucial rules, and signs that public security bureaus are poorly prepared for their new role.

But it is not just activists and charities who are concerned. The opaque rules mean that organizations such as business groups, universities and education programs that seemingly pose no political threat are also unclear whether they must register for some of their activities.

“Business and trade associations, civil society, environmental groups and educational institutions that are concerned about how their operations in China may be affected” have met with American diplomats to discuss the law, said Mary Beth Polley, a spokeswoman for the American Embassy in Beijing.

“We remain deeply concerned about the uncertainties and potentially hostile environment for foreign nonprofit, nongovernment organizations and their Chinese partners that this law creates,” she said.

Foreign organizations working in China have long had to seek out domestic agencies or organizations to act as their sponsors. But the new law narrows the list of permissible sponsors, and those permitted may be reluctant to take on the risk of vouching for foreign groups, or feel they do not have the personnel available for the task.

“Who wants to assume this burden?” asks Lester Ross, a partner in the Beijing office of the WilmerHale law firm who has been advising companies and organizations on the new law. “I think there’s a real issue of capacity. The NGO community serves as an important ballast for relationships, and if this is mishandled, it won’t help.”

While some foreign organizations are resigned to months of uncertainty, some said they would keep working full time in the country, confident that public security offices will let them stay open while the registration is ironed out. Several American trade associations said they thought they would be allowed to stay, and some groups said they looked forward to gaining official status under the new rules.

“We see these new regulations as a pretty positive thing for us,” said Steve Blake, the acting chief representative in Beijing of WildAid, which works with the Chinese government to fight illegal trading in wildlife. “We have a big presence here, but we’ve never been completely officially on the books.”

But organizations working on legal issues or social problems said they were unsure of their futures and may face hard choices. Registration may mean sacrificing autonomy, but the alternative may be abandoning people in China who need their help, said Mr. Kellogg of the Open Society Foundations.

“I would urge foreign NGOs to adopt a wait-and-see attitude before they make any final decisions about either registering or pulling out of China,” he said. “Once there is more clarity about how the law will be enforced, it will be at least a bit easier to come up with mitigation strategies.”

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