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August 21, 2018

Chinese Partner Units: Who (and Where) Are They?

When considering the impact of the Foreign NGO Law, we often think first of the foreign NGOs themselves—who they are, and where they’re able to gain approval to carry out work in China. Yet, for foreign NGOs carrying out temporary activities in China, Chinese Partner Units (CPUs) are critical players whose organizational structure, location, and capacity affect what activities will be possible. Notably, it is CPUs, and not foreign NGOs, that actually submit temporary activity filings to the Public Security Bureaus.

Unlike Professional Supervisory Units, which sponsor foreign NGO representative offices in China and which, in most cases, must be government agencies, CPUs are allowed by Article 16 of the Foreign NGO Law to be drawn from a wider range of organizations. As Shawn Shieh has noted, CPUs may be one of four types of entities: a “state organ” (a government agency), a “people’s organization” (a Party-affiliated entity that is meant to represent and mobilize certain sectors of society; for example, the Women’s Federation or the Communist Youth League), a “public institution” (such as a university), or a “social organization” (which is the Chinese government’s term for groups that, generally, are known elsewhere as NGOs). What this means in practice is that there are many different types of organizations serving as CPUs for foreign NGOs, from a district-level Patriotic Health Sports Committee Office in Beijing to the Guangdong Karatedo Association, from a rural elementary school in Qinghai to the Shenzhen Autism Society.

What follows is a closer look at the CPUs that have successfully filed for one or more temporary activities since the Foreign NGO Law took effect on January 1, 2017. The number of data points here is still relatively small, making it difficult to talk about statistically significant differences, but there is value in exploring even this limited data and it may help predict trends over the longer term.

The data, drawn from the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) website, includes all temporary activities with a start date of June 30, 2018 or earlier, for a total of 800 activities. The data cutoff date is July 2, 2018; there may be additional temporary activities that started in June but are not represented here because they were posted to the MPS website after July 2. Though the Foreign NGO Law went into effect on January 1, 2017, the first temporary activities filed under it did not take place until March 2017. Therefore, In this analysis, we have measured from March 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018. There are four temporary activities in this dataset (out of a total of 800) that included more than one CPU per activity. Two of these took place in Henan and two in Chongqing. We have left them in the dataset and marked their CPU type as “other,” as the collaborating CPUs were, in each of these cases, two different types of organizations. These data points may slightly skew the number of “unique” CPUs, but as they are less than one half of one percent of the total number of CPUs, and end up being less than one percent of the number of “unique” CPUs, we left them in the data.

What Types of Organizations Are Serving as CPUs?

As of June 30, more than half (54 percent) of the total number of temporary activities carried out in China were organized in conjunction with a CPU that was a non-profit or a foundation. About 18 percent were carried out with a Party or government entity serving as a CPU, and roughly 17 percent in conjunction with a school, college, university, or training institution. Of note, in more than 90 of the 430 instances when a non-profit or foundation served as a CPU, the CPU was a university-affiliated “education foundation” and the temporary activities in question primarily served to provide funds for particular scholarships, prizes, or institutes within the university.

Number of Temporary Activity Filings, by CPU Type, March 2017-June 2018

These figures, however, do not clearly show that some CPUs have implemented multiple temporary activities. Given that a few CPUs have filed for several dozen temporary activities, looking only at the total number of activity filings by non-profits can give the impression that there are many more individual non-profits partnering with foreign NGOs than there actually are. The following table shows the number of unique CPUs that have filed for temporary activities; by comparing the total number of unique CPUs (475) to the total number of temporary activity filings (800), we can see that nearly 60 percent of all temporary activity filings come from CPUs that have filed for two or more temporary activities. This means that the total number of unique CPUs is far less than what one might expect just from looking at the number of temporary activity filings.

Number of Unique CPUs, by CPU Type, March 2017-June 2018

When counting by unique CPUs, the share of non-profits and foundations drops to just over 40 percent, while schools, Party and government bodies, and hospitals make up a slightly greater proportion of CPUs. The same telescoping effect occurs when looking just at the university-affiliated “education foundations”: it was in fact only 11 of these groups that carried out the more than 90 relevant temporary activities.

Do CPU Types Vary by Location in China?

Most province-level administrative areas have allowed at least one temporary activity, but the majority of temporary activity filings (60 percent) have been processed in just five province-level administrative units: Beijing (178 activities), Guangdong (122), Yunnan (63), Guizhou (59), and Sichuan (59). (Note that filing location can be separate from activity location; a given activity must be filed for in the province where the CPU is registered, but the activity may take place in different or additional provinces.)

Number of Temporary Activity Filings, by Filing Location, March 2017-June 2018

Looking more closely at the five most-active provinces, it becomes clear that certain types of organizations are more likely to serve as CPUs in some places than in others:

Number of Temporary Activity Filings, by CPU Type, for Most Active Provinces, March 2017-June 2018

As would be expected given its status as the nation’s capital and a hub of international activity, Beijing is the provincial-level location that has processed the most temporary activity filings. Temporary activities there were more likely to be held in conjunction with a non-profit or foundation CPU than the national average (65 percent vs. 54 percent). Party or government entities serving as CPUs in Beijing occurred much less frequently than average (6 percent vs. 18 percent). Of the four remaining provinces, only Sichuan had a higher proportion of temporary activities carried out by non-profit CPUs (75 percent). In Guizhou, in contrast, fully 58 percent of temporary activities had a Party or government CPU, with a correspondingly low proportion of non-profit or foundation CPUs (19 percent).

Again, however, it is instructive to look at the number of unique CPUs in each province, as it becomes clear that a few very active CPUs are responsible for a large proportion of temporary activity filings:

Number of Unique CPUs, for Most Active Provinces, March 2017-June 2018

In Sichuan, for example, looking only at the number of unique CPUs that have filed for temporary activities lowers the proportion of non-profits from 75 percent to 48 percent. Similarly, In Beijing, the percentage of non-profits as a share of Beijing’s CPUs drops below 50 percent when considering just the tally of unique CPUs. Even under this alternative sorting mechanism, however, Guizhou retains its high proportion of Party and government CPUs.

Of the five provinces, Guangdong has the greatest number of unique CPUs (91), as well as the highest ratio of unique CPUs to total number of temporary activity filings (91 unique CPUs out of 122 filings, or 75 percent). Compare this with Beijing’s 40 percent—meaning that more than half of all temporary activity filings in Beijing are submitted by repeat CPUs. The other provinces fall somewhere between these two.

What about CPUs’ “Mothers-in-Law”?

CPUs that are non-profits or foundations often have their own Chinese government supervisory authority (called a Professional Supervisory Unit (PSU)—and colloquially referred to as a CPU’s “mother-in-law”). This is relevant to foreign NGOs seeking to partner with domestic Chinese non-profits, as the CPU’s “mother-in-law” has the right to approve, deny, or pocket veto a proposed temporary activity. Most “mother-in-laws” are part of larger vertical government chains of authority, known as xitong, or functional hierarchies (central-to-local government structures that often include a ministry and its subordinate governments units at the provincial and local levels). Which of these functional hierarchies, when serving as PSUs to domestic Chinese groups, have been the most willing to approve a temporary activity with a foreign NGO?

Anecdotally, this has caused confusion on the ground when some directly-registered CPUs try to file for temporary activities but encounter difficulty completing the appropriate paperwork, as it requires PSU approval—and both the CPUs and the Civil Affairs units seem to be confused on how to address this situation.

At first glance, the Civil Affairs hierarchy is doing the heavy lifting here, with more than 100 activities approved. The situation is actually a bit more complicated than it appears, however. Under the Charity Law and related regulations, some types of domestic NGOs no longer need to have a PSU (previously, NGOs had to first obtain the sponsorship of a PSU and then register with Civil Affairs under a “dual management system”). These NGOs are now able to “directly register” with a Civil Affairs unit and technically do not have a PSU. Anecdotally, this has caused confusion on the ground when some directly-registered CPUs try to file for temporary activities but encounter difficulty completing the appropriate paperwork, as it requires PSU approval—and both the CPUs and the Civil Affairs units seem to be confused on how to address this situation. Therefore, it’s not clear how Civil Affairs units interacted with CPUs in each of these cases or how involved they were in the approval and filing process. Moreover, a significant portion of the CPUs whose PSUs are “unknown” are likely actually Civil Affairs units; the Chinese government database that is the source of this information is not standardized in a way that allows us to distinguish between entries with missing information and entries that simply do not list a PSU because the NGO is directly registered.

Looking beyond Civil Affairs and the “unknowns,” then, the next most active functional hierarchy is Education. As noted above, the vast majority of these Education units are acting as PSUs for university-affiliated “education foundations.”

Past this point, the functional hierarchies that have approved their sponsored organizations’ temporary activities with foreign NGOs are scattered and varied:

Number of Temporary Activities Approved by Chinese Partner Units’ Professional Supervisory Units, by Functional Hierarchy,* March 2017-June 2018

*For the sake of clarity, we have used the names of the highest-level entity in each functional hierarchy (for example, the Ministry of Justice). Technically speaking, there are no “ministries” at the provincial level, but rather bureaus or departments.

**Some of these PSUs, such as the National Health and Family Planning Commission, will no longer be named as such after the government completes the restructuring program outlined at the National People’s Congress earlier this year. This is how the PSUs are listed in the Chinese government database that is the source for this information, however, and we are leaving them listed as such for the purposes of this analysis.

†There does not appear to be a true functional hierarchy for one PSU, the Gansu Social Science Federation (甘肃省社会科学界联合会); instead, most, if not all, provinces have a corresponding federation that is overseen by the provincial Party committee. It is technically a “people’s organization” or “mass organization” (人民团体, renmin tuanti).

‡For four activities, the CPU’s PSU was the Yilong County Bureau of Poverty Alleviation and Migration (仪陇县扶贫移民局) in Sichuan province. There is not a national-level organization with the same name, but based on an official government document, it is likely that this bureau reports to the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development, so we have assigned it to that functional hierarchy here.

What Does This Tell Us About CPUs in the First 18 Months of the Foreign NGO Law’s Implementation?

Looking at China as a whole, non-profits and foundations are the go-to partner organizations for foreign NGOs. Non-profits and foundations most frequently serve as CPUs for foreign NGOs carrying out temporary activities in China. Further, looking just at the number of unique non-profit/foundation CPUs reveals that a large percentage of these temporary activities are implemented by repeat CPUs. This could be attributed to a number of factors: certain key non-profits and foundations with the relevant capacity were able to adapt to the Foreign NGO Law’s requirements more quickly and file for multiple temporary activities; some non-profits/foundations are carrying out a large number of very similar temporary activities, allowing for speedy filing; foreign NGOs seeking out CPUs with a proven track record of successful temporary activity filings; among others.

Domestic NGOs that are unable to get registered under the Charity Law, and are therefore unable to serve as CPUs for Foreign NGOs, are cut off from these types of partnerships.

Domestic NGOs that are unable to get registered under the Charity Law, and are therefore unable to serve as CPUs for Foreign NGOs, are cut off from these types of partnerships.

However, the most common CPU type does differ by province. In an echo of the variability in implementation of the law generally, in some provinces more government or Party entities are serving as CPUs than in others. Some of this could be explained by the relative concentrations of domestic NGOs with adequate resources and international connections to serve as CPUs in various areas. In other cases, it also likely reflects local authorities’ preferences; the relatively high concentration of foreign NGOs in, say, Beijing, may breed a baseline familiarity with foreign NGOs that leads local authorities to be more comfortable allowing non-government entities to serve as CPUs for foreign NGOs.

For those non-profit CPUs with their own supervisory units, the education xitong ends up approving a significant percentage of temporary activities. This means that the education functional hierarchy is playing a real, though somewhat removed, role in related foreign NGO work. It is possible, however, that nearly half of CPUs are directly registered with the Civil Affairs xitong—providing, on paper, somewhat greater latitude to engage with foreign NGOs, but in fact creating confusion on the ground.

Jasmine I-Shin Su and Tianyu Fu contributed research.

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Jessica Batke is a ChinaFile Senior Editor. She is an expert on China’s domestic political and social affairs, and served as the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research Analyst for...