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February 1, 2019

Recommended Reading: European NGOs and the Foreign NGO Law

Bertram Lang and Heike Holbig recently published an overview of the Foreign NGO Law’s effect on Europe-based non-profits, titled “Civil Society Work in China: Trade-Offs and Opportunities for European NGOs.” Though the article is primarily focused on Europe, much of its analysis is pertinent to international groups hailing from elsewhere in the world.

Lang and Holbig find that, in many cases, the law has not necessarily altered the facts on the ground, but rather thrown into starker relief the kinds of organizations and activities that are welcome and those that are not. For the few organizations registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs under the old legal regime, the Foreign NGO Law has not much affected their work. On the other side of the spectrum, “sensitive” groups circumscribed under the Foreign NGO Law had been limiting their China work even before the law came into effect. For groups in between these two poles, the authors have observed three strategies in response to the law: “redirecting activities to politically welcome fields,” “continuing to operate without formal registration,” and “suspending activities in mainland China.”

Describing the trade-offs each international NGO must consider when deciding how best to engage, Lang and Holbig write:

To officially continue operations in China means complying with the new institutional rules, accepting tightened supervision by Chinese sponsors and security personnel, renegotiating one’s own agenda to fit the official line, and maybe sacrificing certain values and principles in exchange for access—as well as for the pragmatic benefit of not burning bridges. On the other hand, exiting mainland China to avoid the costs of compliance, or the risk of compromising one’s own agenda and credibility among international supporters, also means losing touch with developments on the ground, severing ties with China’s still vibrant society, and potentially putting an end to projects valuable to many people.

Lang and Holbig also discuss the Foreign NGO Law’s impact on domestic Chinese non-profits, noting that the government aims for the newly-invigorated domestic charity sector to help make up for the resulting gaps in foreign funding—even if that aim has not yet been fully attained.

The full article, which is well worth a read, can be found on the German Institute for Global and Area Studies’ GIGA Focus website.

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