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December 12, 2018

Foreign NGO Employee Detained in Beijing

Ministry of Foreign Affairs Suggests Michael Kovrig of International Crisis Group Detained under Foreign NGO Law

On Monday night, Chinese authorities detained Michael Kovrig of the Brussels-based non-profit International Crisis Group (ICG) in Beijing. On Wednesday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs suggested—though did not definitively state—that Kovrig may have been detained under the auspices of the Foreign NGO Law.

Kovrig is a former Canadian diplomat. His detention follows on the heels of Canada’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou, a Chinese citizen and Chief Financial Officer of Chinese technology firm Huawei, for possible extradition to the U.S. Though Beijing has not made an explicit connection between Meng’s and Kovrig’s cases, several observers have posited that Kovrig’s detention is retaliation for Meng’s arrest.

The Foreign Ministry’s remarks on Kovrig’s detention, at a regularly-scheduled press briefing on December 12, were the Chinese authorities’ first public statement about the case. As reported by domestic Chinese media, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said that “according to [his] understanding, Michael Kovrig’s employer, ICG, did not file [for a temporary activity] in China. Now, if it hadn’t filed, having its personnel conduct activities in China would already violate the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Administration of Activities of Overseas Nongovernmental Organizations in the Mainland of China, just passed last year.” [Translation by The China NGO Project.] According to the Ministry of Public Security database, ICG has not registered a foreign NGO representative office in China, nor has it filed for any temporary activities. ICG’s press statement about Kovrig’s detention does not specify why Kovrig was in Beijing on Monday.

The Foreign Ministry’s remarks are notable in that they do not clearly state that Beijing is detaining Kovrig under the Foreign NGO Law, but rather discuss violations of the law as a hypothetical. Under the law, employees of foreign NGOs can be detained for up to 10 days for conducting activities in China without submitting the necessary documentation, or up to 15 days for, among other things, endangering national security.

ICG’s statement indicates that it is the Beijing branch of the Ministry of State Security that has Kovrig in custody. Though the Ministry of Public Security is the primary implementing authority of the Foreign NGO Law, Article 43 of the law does provide for “departments in charge of national security” and other departments to oversee and supervise foreign NGOs “according to their respective duties and in accordance with the law.” The involvement of the Ministry of State Security, rather than the Ministry of Public Security, suggests that Beijing is treating this case with a heightened level of severity.

Since the law went into effect at the beginning of 2017, there have been several cases of foreign or domestic NGO worker detentions with possible connections to the Foreign NGO Law. Yet, to the best of our knowledge, the Foreign NGO Law has not yet been formally invoked to justify a detention or other punishment.

No matter how this particular case is resolved, the Foreign Ministry’s invocation of the Foreign NGO Law does not bode well for international groups working in China. If the Foreign NGO Law is indeed used to detain or punish Kovrig, it would only underscore how ill-defined the concept of “temporary activities” actually is, and likely cause a number of groups and individuals to simply opt not to travel to China for fear of being accused of violating the law. If the Foreign NGO Law is only ever invoked at one press briefing and does not end up being used to detain or punish him, it might suggest to some groups that the Foreign NGO Law can easily be used for political ends and is not a safe or reliable mechanism under which to work as a non-profit in the People’s Republic of China. Either way, this case will likely have a chilling effect on international NGOs’ work in China.

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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...