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January 3, 2020

‘The New Normal’ for Foreign NGOs in 2020

The China NGO Project has, since its inception, been heavily focused on Chinese government-provided data as a means to understand the environment for foreign NGOs there. This includes the number and types of groups who have registered a representative office in the mainland, as well as groups who file to carry out temporary activities there. However, taking stock of the three years that the Foreign NGO Law has been in effect, it is clear that simply totting up the most recent registration and filing figures won’t give us an adequate picture of what is really happening on the ground in China. Moreover, the figures themselves have their own limitations. They show only successes and stop far short of describing the environment in which those qualified successes occur. Pulling back to take in the full sweep of the last few years, there is little to leave us overly hopeful for the next few.

The raw numbers of representative office registrations and temporary activity filings can be somewhat deceiving. First, the numbers themselves don’t necessarily represent what many people assume they do: While there are 511 foreign NGO representative offices registered in China as of December 31, 2019, there are only 420 total foreign NGOs running those individual offices (nearly 100 groups have more than one office in China). The temporary activity figures are even more striking. The 2,392 temporary activities initiated on or before December 31, 2019 have been carried out by only 724 different foreign NGOs. (About one-third of those activities are less than a month long, and a majority of those lasted only a few days.) This may seem like quite a few non-profits, but given that China is home to nearly one-fifth of the global population, it is not hard to imagine that there are more international groups interested in working there than the 1,100 or so just mentioned.

And, even these modified figures do not directly reveal the kinds of work such groups are undertaking. Of the 420 unique foreign NGOs registered in China, nearly half are industry or trade-promotion associations—legitimate non-profits, to be sure, but engaged in work that most people don’t immediately associate with “NGO work.” About half of the nearly 2,400 filed temporary activities are connected to education of some sort, such as improving facilities in rural schools or establishing scholarship funds at prestigious universities. This tilt toward education helps reveal Beijing’s priorities for international non-profit funding: In general, the state clearly has no issue with foreign NGO money going to support basic and higher education. Yet, looking at sectors that are languishing, such as labor and LGBTQ rights, tells us just as much about the operating environment than looking at those that are flourishing. Beijing has implicitly directed international funding away from less-favored sectors by denying legal status—and therefore access to foreign grants—to domestic NGOs working in these fields. As a result, we’ve seen only one foreign NGO temporary activity explicitly related to LGBTQ issues in the last three years, and only 25 labor-related ones. Similarly, there are very few foreign NGO representative offices explicitly working on labor issues (11, including some groups conducting field-specific job training rather than focusing on labor rights). There are no representative offices working on LGBTQ issues, as described in their scope of work on the Ministry of Public Security’s (MPS’s) website. It’s likely that education would be a popular field of work for foreign NGOs in China with or without the Foreign NGO Law in place, but it beggars belief that in a less-restricted environment so few international groups would be focusing on LGBTQ or labor concerns.

Another piece of the picture the figures obscure is the number and type of groups leaving China. As we’ve written before, the MPS’s database only tallies successful registrations and filings. Absent a comprehensive list of groups which have tried and failed to move through these processes, or even a comprehensive list of groups working in China before the law went into effect, we lack a reliable way to assess how many groups public security authorities, through the mechanism of the Foreign NGO Law, have frozen out of the mainland.

The one exception to this lack of information is the MPS-provided list of foreign NGOs that have formally de-registered an office in China. This number jumped significantly in 2019 to 11, from two in 2018. This probably reflects, at least in part, the simple reality of international non-profit work: At any given time, there are groups coming and going. For some organizations, it also likely reflects an increased difficulty managing work in China: In at least one case, an NGO de-registered specifically because of logistical hurdles introduced by the law.

Even within the bounds of this diminished space to work, why are some foreign NGOs able to register and others not? Why are some groups able to work in more “sensitive” sectors, while others are not? Beyond an NGO’s having prior working relationships with domestic partners, locality clearly plays a role. It is unlikely, for example, that absent any other restrictions, there would only be one international NGO with a representative office in Tibet, as is currently the case; Beijing’s political sensitivity around Tibet is clearly a determining factor in the regional Public Security Bureau’s (PSB’s) decision-making process when granting foreign NGOs permission to work there. However, in other instances, it can be quite difficult to tell whether any given decision by a local public security bureau reflects its own idiosyncratic predilections or specific guidance from above. Why is there only one foreign NGO representative office in Jiangxi, or in Guizhou? Perhaps there are no foreign NGOs interested in basing themselves there—though given the sheer size of these provinces’ populations, that seems somewhat unlikely. Perhaps the central government has determined these areas to be “sensitive,” though that would be something of a shift from before. Perhaps the local PSB, or other local government departments, simply don’t have the interest or the capacity to work with foreign groups. It is impossible to completely disentangle the general from the specific, or the intentional from the reactive, when considering the causes of de facto restrictions on foreign NGOs.

Of course, the larger operating environment for foreign NGOs, well beyond the bounds of the Foreign NGO law, has changed markedly since the beginning of January 2017. The past 13 months in particular have seen a number of developments that augur badly for the coming year.

The sharpening conflict between China and certain Western countries—with the United States at the fore—is cutting into normally mundane and uncontroversial exchanges. There is no clearer nor more chilling example of this than the December 2018 detentions of Canadian nationals Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, international non-profit employees who are being held in what has been seen by many as retaliation for Canada’s detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. In this case, it is not the two men’s foreign NGO activity itself that was the cause of their trouble. All the same, their situation highlights how vulnerable foreign NGO employees are if and when Beijing decides it wants to make an unrelated political point.

Similarly, the vagaries of the U.S.-China trade war—or, if it does indeed finally draw to a close, whatever inter-governmental face-off succeeds it—will continue to exert pressure on international NGOs’ breathing space in China. In this, the broader context reigns: Beijing views itself as largely at odds with the United States and a number of other Western countries, and it has shown itself perfectly willing to hold individuals accountable for the actions of an entire foreign government.

Finally, we come to the issue of Hong Kong. Whether or not anyone in the governing apparatus truly believes Beijing’s unfounded accusations that U.S.-based NGOs are responsible for fomenting the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, the danger for foreign NGOs is how susceptible they are to becoming a convenient target for Beijing’s fear and ire. Hong Kong has long been a special, critical outpost for international groups, offering proximity to the mainland while safeguarding basic freedoms. It is this very combination of traits that is now working against international NGOs located there, at least in terms of Beijing’s threat perceptions. Can Hong Kong sustain itself as a viable location for NGOs out of favor with Beijing? If so, for how long?

And where does all of this leave us? As others have persuasively said, the MPS can reasonably view the implementation of the Foreign NGO Law as an almost complete success. It has allowed the MPS to establish control of foreign groups under a single bureaucracy and has helped reshape their activities into a form more congenial to the preferences of the Chinese Communist Party. Yet, the Foreign NGO Law is just one of the factors affecting international groups’ work in China. It is part of a broader domestic environment that increasingly demands political conformity, and it is part of Beijing’s response to a broader international environment it views as hostile and invasive. The Foreign NGO Law is both an outgrowth of this context and cause for concern about further restrictions in the future.

This is not to say there is no scope for any constructive work by foreign NGOs in China right now. There is, and will continue to be, room for progress and cooperation on a defined set of issues. But even on those issues, the international non-profit community should expect and prepare for unanticipated shifts in the permissible and sudden restrictions in the ability to operate. Beijing’s desire for more rules-bound, regularized governance mechanisms is in fundamental tension with its neuralgic response to the ever-increasing number of behaviors it considers “sensitive.” Under the current P.R.C. leadership, the most likely changes are those which diminish foreign NGOs’ space to work. This is the new normal.

This article references data available as of January 2, 2020.

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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...