What Future for International NGOs in China?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Nearly five years have passed since China implemented its Foreign NGO Law, imposing a host of new restrictions on the activities of international and non-mainland Chinese nonprofit groups. Thus far, the law’s impact on the work of trade and industry associations has been minimal, but groups working on rights-related issues have found themselves far more constrained. Even after many months working within a byzantine and opaque bureaucracy to comply with the law’s administrative requirements, such organizations may still never win official approval for their programs. As a result, some NGOs have quietly left China, some continue to seek ad-hoc arrangements to enable them to carry out specific projects, while still others have acquiesced to Beijing’s preferences, tailoring their programming to accord with government priorities in order to safeguard their prospects for remaining in the country.

What kind of responsibility do non-government organizations bear for sustaining international exchange with China at a time when many governments are finding relations with Beijing increasingly contentious? Are the increased administrative burdens the Foreign NGO law imposes worth the benefits of remaining in China? How much should organizations compromise their missions to keep operations in China alive? —The Editors


No organization should compromise its mission in order to keep a China program active. And virtually no one would consciously do that: It could alienate staff and key stakeholders and court public controversy. Staying in China is not an end in itself. At the same time, it is difficult for large organizations to completely ignore China given its impact on the planet. The real dilemma, therefore, is figuring out how to achieve the organizational mission as it applies to China.

Fewer foreign NGOs are attempting to work inside China now than 10 or 15 years ago. Many left as early as the 2008 Beijing Olympics because they saw China graduating from the ranks of developing countries. Others left after the passage of the Foreign NGO Law in 2016 because they were unable to find an official Chinese sponsor, as required by the law. Taking into account both voluntary and involuntary exits, as well as some scaling down of activities by those who remain, decoupling has become a very real phenomenon in the non-profit sector.

Decoupling poses dangers for both China and the U.S.: Fear and suspicion quickly flourish where previously there was understanding and trust. For a U.S. organization, working with a Chinese partner toward a shared goal can generate awareness of the many similarities between our societies, while from a distance, it is the differences that loom large. Recently, as mutual fear has overtaken both societies, mere association with the other has been stigmatized.

Still, nonprofits should not stay in China just to keep open the line of communication unless that is actually their mission. Each NGO must conduct its own cost-benefit analysis of whether it can accomplish more inside China or outside. Reasons to stay might include better access to information and opportunities to influence Chinese counterparts. On the other side of the ledger might be the substantial time now spent obtaining activity approvals and reporting to sponsors and police. If excessive demands from the sponsor or police threaten organizational autonomy, there is little hope of achieving the mission—and no reason to stay. Current government policy treats domestic nonprofits (as well as for-profits) as foot soldiers of national policy; foreign nonprofits cannot play that role.

Given that China’s presence extends across the world, though, closing a China office should not mean the end of China-related work. NGOs working on global problems like climate change need to understand what China is doing and address their research and advocacy to audiences in China. To the extent possible, they should continue to do that from outside China. NGOs working in any place with large-scale Chinese investments should factor China into their strategies. NGOs should not discard their China-literate staff but deploy them to help the rest of the organization and their home societies better understand China’s policies, motivations, and behavior in the world. The lessons gained from past decades of on-the-ground collaboration should not be wasted.

The responsibility that international NGOs (as well as other international donors supporting exchange and collaboration) bear now is significant. One can argue that their role is as important, or more important, than it was 10 or 20 years ago. With the decline of bilateral relations between China and Western democracies, and decoupling taking its toll across a wide range of industries and sectors, international NGOs working in China remain among the few sounding boards for the outside world to understand what is happening inside China. They are doing the work of engagement.

The notion of “engagement” has gotten a bad rap in recent years because of its purported linkage with liberalization and democratization, which, of course, have not happened in China. Yet engagement was always about so much more. It was about having foreigners on the ground, learning from, talking with, and collaborating with Chinese partners; helping the outside world understand what was going on in China; and, in some small way, shaping the public debate over values and policy. It was about establishing a two-way conversation, and mutual understanding, between China and the rest of the world because many of us “engagers” understood that a one-way conversation, and mutual misunderstanding, would pose a threat to long-term global stability and peace.

In the process of engagement, international NGOs made important contributions not only to international exchange, but also to the building of an independent civil society in China. International NGOs of course had their faults. There is now a global conversation happening about addressing the power imbalance between Global North NGOs and Global South NGOs, and China should be seen as part of that conversation. International NGOs working in China no doubt are better resourced and have greater international status and influence than their Chinese counterparts, and they also compete with Chinese NGOs for funding and staff. But since the 1990s, they also have supported and incubated local organizations, practitioners, and activists by providing ideas and funding as well as by collaborating with them on projects, exchanges, and research. The civil society sector that came into public view in response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake was shaped in significant ways by international NGOs.

Some people might criticize international NGOs for compromising their missions in order to work in China, particularly as the political environment for civil society has worsened. But the work international NGOs have done to support civil society in China is entirely consistent with their missions. The ideas international NGOs share with their Chinese staff and partners, and seek to introduce into their projects, are informed by their missions and values. International NGOs might not speak explicitly about human rights but find ways to talk about and practice human rights in language acceptable to Chinese authorities. Some might say international NGOs are compromising their commitment to universal values. But many INGOs think they are finding strategic and smart methods to introduce these values in ways that can be understood, accepted, and internalized by the local population.

In short, the benefits of international NGOs staying in China far outweigh the costs. If international NGOs were to leave China en masse, it would be a big blow not only to international exchange and understanding but also to China’s fragile civil society.

China’s Reform and Opening period was characterized by an eagerness to bring in ideas and resources to spur social, economic, and political development and build up legal and regulatory frameworks. All sectors—commercial, cultural, educational, social—enjoyed latitude in how and with whom they engaged. Many NGOs entered China in the 1990s when grassroots civil society organizations proliferated. In this golden age for civil society, Chinese NGOs were eager to adopt foreign ideas and approaches, and relatively small investments by foreign NGO partners could make an outsized impact.

Over the past 15 years or so, much has changed. China’s legal and regulatory systems have matured. Regulation has steadily increased across all sectors and has reduced the latitude formerly enjoyed by NGOs and businesses alike. Chinese officials are increasingly confident in the ability of domestic institutions to manage development challenges, and no longer feel the need to import ideas and resources from the outside. There is a growing rejection of “Western” ideas and a search for indigenous concepts for philanthropy, impact investing, and the relationship of civil society to the state. And, a clearer prioritization of values has emerged that emphasizes social stability over individual freedom, views authoritarian governance as the best means to deliver the most good to the most people, and conceives of law as a tool of governance, not a way to hold state power accountable.

All these tendencies continue to intensify because of domestic political needs, growing centralization of power within the Communist Party, an international environment China sees as increasingly hostile, and the isolation created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Every organization working in China must contend with this reality. As frustrating as the current environment may be for international NGOs, the risks and challenges are greater for the vast number of Chinese organizations and individuals living through this same moment. The relative ease with which foreign NGOs operated in China prior to the Foreign NGO Law may have been an aberration, rather than the norm. Arguably, foreign NGOs were permitted an outsized role during a transitional period of domestic development that has now passed. In this new environment, foreign NGOs need to rethink their role.

I believe NGOs play an essential role in the creation and maintenance of networks through which information, knowledge, understanding, and empathy among peoples and nations is strengthened. Against a backdrop of growing insularity, civil society—including foreign NGOs—must remain as engaged as possible.

As the representative of an American rights-based social justice foundation with operations in many challenging contexts around the world, I don’t think of our mission in terms of compromise. We have an obligation to keep working with partners who aspire for discourse and engagement with the world. We have an obligation to learn how our partners envision progressing toward more equity and human dignity. And we have an opportunity to support and elevate these aspirations, and to keep alive the conversation between visions of social justice in China and the rest of the world.

There is no simple, generic answer to the question of whether to leave or stay in China. Without doubt, the working conditions for non-governmental organizations in China have worsened since 2016. But the extent to which their core missions have been affected varies immensely. Not only do NGOs work in different fields, they also have vastly divergent long-term organizational strategies. This was the case even before the adoption of the Foreign NGO Law: Some advocacy-oriented organizations tempered their usually outspoken approaches for the sake of working in China from the outset; meanwhile, major service-oriented NGOs approached government and business stakeholders cooperatively simply because it suited their mission—in China and globally. The most drastic impact of the changes since 2016 has been on organizations that benefited from vast legal grey areas prior to 2016, supporting Chinese grassroots civil society or cultivating trusted relationships with local officials and government agencies as drivers of bottom-up social change.

While each organization needs to make its own decisions regarding its presence in China, NGOs have a responsibility to establish internal mechanisms for regular, honest, and strategic (re-)assessments of related costs and benefits. Crucially, such self-assessments need to include a global China perspective that takes implications for NGOs’ work in other countries (notably the Global South) into account. These implications may be negative—as the Communist Party tries to monitor and influence China discourse abroad and uses foreign businesses and NGOs as pressure points. But it can also be positive: Representatives in Beijing can greatly facilitate engagement with Chinese state and business actors operating in third countries.

Organizations that do choose to end their presence in mainland China and/or Hong Kong should devise alternative strategies, including virtual formats or on-the-ground engagement with Chinese stakeholders overseas: Even without a formal representation in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), there can be no “China exit” for globally-operating organizations in a world where Chinese actors and policies have such tremendous influence on virtually any issue related to NGOs’ missions.

Looking at the sector as a whole, I would strongly urge civil society organizations working on China as well as outside observers to value the perspectives of both those who stay and those who leave, while strengthening coordination and exchange between them against the backdrop of polarized China discourses in the U.S. and Europe. It is actually a good thing if NGOs continue to explore a range of different China strategies, with some working hard to stay engaged on the ground for the long term and others focusing on more autonomous China work outside of the PRC. What should worry us instead is U.S. and European decisionmakers’ lack of interest in civil society expertise altogether and the increasing pressure in our societies to take sides rather than explore complexities and accept compromises.

Finally, I don’t think NGOs should bear responsibility for “sustaining international exchange with China.” True, track-two diplomacy can have benefits where official diplomatic relations sour. But democratic societies should not regard NGOs as tools of their foreign policy. Rather, democratic governments should stand up for civil society’s freedom to operate transnationally as a matter of principle. This means that continued non-governmental exchanges between Chinese and Western citizens and organizations should be seen as intrinsically valuable, not as merely instrumental for mending government-to-government ties.

If international NGOs bear any responsibility for sustaining exchanges with China during these particularly challenging times, it is one born of their own missions. Trade and industry associations will make their own calculations as to the costs and benefits of continuing engagement with China. Obviously, many of those groups have decided it works to their members’ benefits to maintain strong links to Chinese industry and government and have registered under the Foreign NGO Law with relatively little difficulty.

For NGOs working on rights-related issues, their directors, boards, staff, and other stakeholders have to weigh the pros and cons of continuing to try to work in China. While a number of groups have departed, others have concluded that the benefits are worth the extra work and the risk of running afoul of the law’s restrictions. These are also, typically, groups that have the financial resources required to meet the demands of the law and the political support within China needed to keep going. For some of these groups, operating within the parameters of the law allows for continued engagement with many long-standing Chinese partners. These relationships, in some cases, were built over decades of intensive ground-level cooperation. For these organizations, continuing to work in China is an investment in their future there, and some are, perhaps, hoping for a day when they can renew previous activities and partnerships.

Most importantly, staying in China has allowed some NGOs to continue providing encouragement to people—ranging from iconoclastic intellectuals to the most disadvantaged in Chinese society—who may not otherwise find support in the country itself. Maintaining a presence in the country provides a connection to the outside world for local partners, staff, and others who appreciate the expertise and approaches that foreign NGOs are uniquely positioned to champion in China. Yet the decision to stay is not a choice undertaken lightly. Some of the Law’s provisions are vague at best, and groups who remain have to be vigilant not to cross political and legal “red lines” that could lead to criminal punishment.

The question of mission compromise is somewhat subjective, at least for NGOs with broader missions and visions. If an organization’s goals require a long-term investment, then sticking to the course makes sense, even if some short-term programmatic goals need to be sidelined for a period of time. Others with more immediate, practical, or political concerns may find their work impossible to continue on-site. Some may find a way to work on the same issues from outside mainland China, while others may leave to work elsewhere.

A remaining question, with a likely pessimistic answer, is whether potential new entrants to China would be well-advised to stay clear. It seems to me that few rights- or advocacy-oriented groups that don’t already have a presence in China will want to risk venturing in now under the Foreign NGO Law. Without pre-existing internal political support, and without a clear view of the landscape inside, I would be hard-pressed to encourage newcomers to test the waters at this stage.

There is no doubt that these have been years of increasing repression and increasingly severe restrictions in China. This has caused some overseas NGOs, foundations, and other charitable organizations to end their programming in China; to move their bases elsewhere; to try to operate in China from outside the mainland; and, in a number of cases, to remain in China under much more restrictive programming conditions and enhanced surveillance and approval requirements under the Foreign NGO Law.

The Chinese Communist Party and state do not believe in the freedom of nonprofit and philanthropic organizations to operate where they feel that they can make a positive difference. But those of us who are committed to developing civil society do believe in that freedom, which we should honor by having confidence in the ability of overseas nonprofits to make principled choices in China. If some organizations choose to leave China under the current repressive conditions, we should honor that choice. At the same time, we should also honor the choice that some other organizations are making to continue their work in China under the very difficult circumstances there in these years. The choice to stay is not forever. The NGOs, foundations, and other nonprofits that have stayed are well aware of the deteriorating situation in China, and in most cases are continuously assessing whether they can act in positive, albeit very limited, ways.

American nonprofit organizations faced these choices at another time, in the wake of the killings and repression following the Tiananmen protests. That era is not directly comparable to our current situation; China’s current ever-increasing repression and restriction has lasted far longer and gone deeper than in the years after Tiananmen. I lived in China then, working in the Beijing office of an American nonprofit organization that has played an important role—before and after 1989—in China-U.S. relations and in supporting academic and policy work and international exchanges in China.

The decision to stay is never forever. But the decision to leave is also deeply fraught. Some organizations may choose to stay, doing whatever useful work they can and hoping for better times when their Chinese colleagues can once again work productively with their overseas counterparts. For some of those organizations, leaving might be perceived by colleagues in China as abandonment, with their decision to do so likely making future work very difficult or impossible. For other organizations, leaving China or ending China-related programming is the only logical choice under the current conditions.

Either way, we should certainly recognize the difficult and repressive environment these organizations and their Chinese partners face. At the same time, we should fully honor the difficulty and complexity of the choices they face—and their rights to make those choices under the values of nonprofit and philanthropic freedom that we cherish even when China does not.

The Foreign NGO Law is part of China’s suite of national security laws. The law imposes costly administrative demands on overseas NGOs that want to register, but with the police as gatekeepers to setting up and maintaining a registered office in China the main challenge has been political rather than bureaucratic.

The law signaled a new relationship between the Chinese authorities and the international community. International not-for-profit organizations that had been active in China for decades were forced to reassess their role. While international engagement with China had never been easy, many officials had attended overseas NGO activities, even on politically sensitive issues such as human rights. The People’s Republic of China accepted organizations not only for the financial resources they brought, but for the doors they opened to international networks, ideas, and experience.

The law has been a huge challenge to organizations such as The Rights Practice whose mission is the advancement of human rights. As a charitable organization, we cannot compromise on this mission. Our approach is founded on a profound commitment to supporting people in China to know their rights. By this, we mean human rights that are universal and grounded in respect for the inherent dignity of each person. The Foreign NGO Law has not ended this work, but it has required us to rethink our ways of working.

The Foreign NGO Law is an anti-human rights law. It has contributed to the closing of civic space and affected the ability of groups inside and outside China to promote and defend human rights, a right in itself protected by international law. The law undermines fundamental rights in China to freedom of expression, assembly and association, and participation in public affairs. International organizations that are able to register and continue working in China have an obligation to undertake human rights due diligence regardless of their mission.

The influence of the law has arguably been felt most by Chinese civil society, in particular grassroots groups that have been unable to register as domestic non-profits and lack official support. These include groups working on a multiplicity of human rights from freedom from torture to the rights of migrant children, persons with disabilities, and women workers. Overseas funding and even contact with international organizations have become toxic, yet many of these groups remain committed to their missions, exploring new ways to fund their activities and how they can work effectively—and safely—in such a constrained environment.

The rupture in international exchanges with China will be difficult to repair post-pandemic as the Chinese Communist Party doubles down on ideological purity. Overseas funders may query the value of trying to work in such an inhospitable climate, but we owe an effort to continue to those who place their faith in human rights. International NGOs need resolve and vision to meet the authoritarian challenge to global exchange and civil society. We cannot walk away.