Sunday, March 12, 2017

Putting the Overseas NGO Law in Perspective

There hasn't been much news since the announcements in January of 32 foreign NGOs registering in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangdong. In the meantime, several in-depth articles have appeared on the Overseas NGO Law and its implementation.

One article, The Origins of China's New Law on Foreign NGOs, was written by yours truly and was published in ChinaFile in early January as a more polished version of an earlier blogpost.

Another article, Overseas NGOs in China: Left in Legal Limbo, was published in the Diplomat in early March by Kristin Shi-Kupfer and Bertram Lang, two China experts, at the Mecator Institute for China Studies, a private think-tank based in Berlin.

Soon after, Jia Xijing, a well-respected expert on Chinese civil society at Tsinghua University's NGO Research Center and a strong supporter of an independent civil society in China, published a long, very detailed article, China's Implementation of the Overseas NGO Law, in the Southern Weekly (南方周某(the English-language and Chinese-language version of the article can be found on China Development Brief's website).

These articles are valuable because they give us some much needed perspective on how the law came to be, and its historical and political significance. This perspective is particularly important given the perception of mutual mistrust between the Chinese government and NGOs, and the lack of detailed information and guidance about the law's implementation from Chinese authorities. It's an environment ripe for misperception and misunderstanding, short-term thinking and behavior. Reports of foreign NGOs closing their offices and leaving China, Chinese NGO partners withdrawing from projects, and directives from local authorities seeking to implement the law in their jurisdictions, can easily lead NGOs to make judgements based on misinformation or misconceptions. The easy conclusion to draw is that a crackdown on NGOs in imminent. 

I think we should resist the temptation to draw that conclusion without first seeking more information and analysis, and to keep the long view in mind, which is why these articles serve an important purpose. The Overseas NGO Law does not mean the end of an independent civil society in China. It does mean another period of adaptation in which both foreign and Chinese NGOs will have to figure out how to operate in this new environment. Moreover, we should remember that the long view cuts both ways. It is not just about NGOs adapting, it is also about Chinese authorities adapting to the new law and finding a way to make it workable. As my article, and Professor Jia's, both point out, we need to remember that the law is part and parcel of a larger, ambitious, long-term project announced in the 4th Plenum in 2014 to build a socialist rule of law in China. This "rule of law" is not the rule of law that we know in liberal democracies; rather as various commentators note,[1] it is an instrument that Chinese leaders see as necessary if they want to reduce local government discretion, push through reforms and strengthen governance with the goal of maintaining sustainable growth and social stability. In other words, Chinese leaders will take the implementation of this law and other laws seriously because they see building a socialist rule of law as the path to a more prosperous, just and stable society.

To return to the challenges facing NGOs, my experience working with Chinese and foreign NGOs in China is that both are quite creative and persistent and as long as there are pressing social needs for their work, they will find ways to work through or around the NGO Law. When we hear of a foreign NGO closing its office, or a Chinese NGO partner declaring its withdrawal, we should not assume that is the end of the story. Or to put it another way, we should not, to paraphrase Mark Twain's words, greatly exaggerate their death.

[1] See Randall Peremboom, “Fly High the Banner of Socialist Rule of Law with Chinese Characteristics: What Does the 4th Plenum Decision Mean for Legal Reforms in China?,”, and Zachary Keck, “4th Plenum: Rule of Law with Chinese Characteristics,” The Diplomat, October 20, 2014,