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December 20, 2018

What More Do We Know about Recent Detentions and Foreign NGOs?

More than a week after the detention of two Canadian citizens, we know very little about the nature of the charges against them. As most news coverage suggests, it is likely that they are part of a “deepening dispute” between China and Canada over the latter’s arrest of a prominent Chinese businessperson. (Even more recent reports of a third detention suggest it may not be linked to the bilateral dispute.)

Of particular concern to the foreign NGO community is the detention of Michael Kovrig, an employee of the non-profit International Crisis Group. As The China NGO Project previously noted, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson mentioned the Foreign NGO Law in connection with Kovrig’s detention on December 12, but did not definitively state that Kovrig had been detained for violating the Foreign NGO Law.

The Foreign Ministry has since stated that Kovrig and fellow Canadian detainee Michael Spavor are “suspected of engaging in activities that endangered China’s national security.” On December 13, in response to a reporter’s question about whether the detentions and investigations had anything to do with violations of the Foreign NGO Law, Lu replied, “I already said, they are suspected of engaging in activities that endangered China’s national security.”

Though it now appears that Kovrig’s detention is no longer being publicly tied to the Foreign NGO Law, the fact that he is detained still represents a “‘troubling message’ for those working to build closer ties between China and the international community, like diplomats or NGO staff.” Official Chinese government statements and Chinese media coverage have been minimal, heightening the sense of uncertainty and discomfort among the international non-profit community.

The general dearth of Chinese media coverage makes the following article, “Canadian Citizen Detained in China, What Are Foreign NGOs Panicked About? (加拿大公民在华被拘 境外非政府组织慌什么?)” that much more notable. Originally appearing in a People's Daily  opinion section targeted at Chinese living overseas, the article cannot be considered authoritative. But it stands out as one of the few original pieces on the subject that does not heavily rely on Foreign Ministry quotes—suggesting that it has passed censorship muster. The China NGO Project’s partial translation of the article is below.

China’s attitude toward law-abiding foreign NGOs has consistently been: they are welcome to come to China to carry out friendly exchange and cooperation.

Of course, with regard to those foreign NGOs with ulterior motives that engage in illegal activities in China, the reins of Chinese law are indeed getting tighter and tighter. In the modern world, NGOs have become an important force in international relations, as well as an important tool for certain powers to promote values and realize foreign policy objectives. We can see from the two large-scale international political upheavals of this century, the “Color Revolutions” and the “Arab Spring,” that some western NGOs played a disgraceful role as “advocates.” This was also the customary trick of some foreign NGOs in China, which, under the banner of charity, human rights, poverty alleviation, and environmental protection, departed from their non-profit, non-government, voluntary natures and endangered China’s national security and public welfare by covertly seeking profit as well as supporting and offering asylum to foreign splittist forces. As the situation became increasingly complicated and severe, calls to regulate foreign NGO activities in China surged. And on January 1, 2017, the Foreign NGO Law formally went into effect, finally subjecting foreign NGOs in China to legal restraints and ending a situation of growing disorder.

It is worth noting that when the Foreign NGO Law was first being pushed out, there appeared a wave of “concern” in western public opinion. But this concern had a whiff of “do as I say, not as I do” about it. We know that in investigating “foreign agents,” the United States is famous for its harshness. As early as 1938, the United States drew up the Foreign Agents Registration Act to strictly control “Nazi propaganda.” Not only is this law in use through today, its scope has been continuously expanded. In 2017, at the behest of the U.S. government, the U.S. branch of the TV station Russia Today was required to register as a foreign agent. This means that Russia Today’s right as a media organization to contact U.S. congresspersons or other American officials has been restricted.

From this we can see that using laws to draw red lines for foreign NGO activities in China is not a rare occurrence in the international context. Moreover, the effective implementation of the Foreign NGO Law creates a good rule-of-law environment for law-abiding foreign NGOs, making their activities in China convenient and guaranteeing their legal rights and benefits. As a matter of fact, one year after the law went into effect, nearly 300 foreign NGOs had achieved a smooth transition. In short, as long as they’re law-abiding, foreign NGOs in China don’t have anything to worry about. And in the process of actively assimilating into China’s cultural scene, they will also get more space to develop.

对这样遵纪守法的境外非政府组织,中国的态度是一以贯之的:欢迎来华开展友好交流合作。

当然,对那些别有目的来华从事非法活动的境外非政府组织来说,中国法律的缰绳的确是越拉越紧了。在当今世界,非政府组织已成为国际关系中的一股重要力量,也被个别势力当做推广价值理念、实现外交政策目标的重要工具。我们看到,在“颜色革命”与“阿拉伯之春”这两次本世纪的大范围国际政治动荡中,一些西方非政府组织都扮演了不光彩的“推手”角色。打着慈善、人权、扶贫、环保等旗号,背离非营利性、非政府性、志愿性等基本特征,变相营利、支持和庇护境外分裂势力,危害中国国家安全和公共利益,也是一些在华境外非政府组织的惯用伎俩。随着形势的日益复杂严峻,规范境外非政府组织在华活动的呼声近年来日益高涨。而2017年1月1日《管理法》的正式实施,终于给在华境外非政府组织戴上了法律的紧箍咒,结束了无序生长的局面。

值得注意的是,当初《管理法》推出之时,西方舆论也曾出现过一波“担忧”,但这种担忧颇有些“只许州官放火,不许百姓点灯”的意思。我们知道,在查“外国代理人”方面,美国是出了名的严苛。早在1938年,美国就以严控“纳粹宣传”为由制定了《外国代理人登记法》,这部法律不仅一直沿用至今,而且适用范围被不断扩大。就在2017年,今日俄罗斯电视台美国分部就在美国政府要求下,登记为外国代理人。这意味着,今日俄罗斯电视台作为媒体接触美国国会议员和其他美国官员的权利受到限制。

由此可见,用法律为外国组织在华活动划红线的做法,放之国际并不稀奇。况且,《管理法》的有效实施,也为那些合法合规的境外非政府组织创造了良好法治环境,有利于为其在华活动提供便利,保障其合法权益。事实上,在《管理法》实施后的第一年,就有近300家境外非政府组织实现了平稳过渡。一句话,只要依法依规,在华境外非政府组织就没有什么可担心的。而且,在它们主动融入中国的文化场景过程中,也会获得更大的发展空间。

Correction: This post previously stated that the translated text came from an article on the website Sina. It has been corrected to reflect that the article orginally appeared in the People's Daily overseas opinion section.

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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...