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August 10, 2017

Comparing Recent NGO Laws in Russia and China

Do Russia’s Laws Foreshadow China’s Future?

Over the last several years, Russia and China have developed strikingly parallel laws on the management of foreign NGOs and foreign support of domestic civil society. While regular visitors to this site are familiar with the 2017 Foreign NGO Law in China, they may be less aware of two similar laws in Russia: the 2012 law on “foreign agents” and 2015 law on “undesirable” organizations.

Briefly, the 2012 Russian law requires any domestic NGO that receives foreign funding and engages in broadly-defined “political activity” to register with the Russian Ministry of Justice as a “foreign agent.” Registering as a “foreign agent” subjects an organization to increased restrictions and reporting requirements, but if an organization fails to register itself, it could face steep fines or closure. A related law, passed in 2015, allows Russian government officials to determine if a foreign organization is “undesirable” (essentially, a threat to national interests), subjecting it to administrative and criminal penalties and effectively banning its operation if it is found to be so. As of August 9, there are 87 organizations on the list of “foreign agents” (although 162 organizations have historically been labeled as such) and 11 organizations listed as “undesirable,” including the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute, and the Open Society Foundation.

Much can be learned from comparing these two laws on foreign organizations and foreign funding of civil society in Russia to the Foreign NGO Law in China. This post focuses on their similarities and differences in development, intent, and effect on civil society.

The Laws Are Similar in Motivations and Timing

The two countries have both framed these laws in terms of national security. In addition, both are closely aligned with leadership transition in the two countries: the return of Putin to the presidency in Russia and the rise of Xi Jinping in China. Besides explicit language in all of the laws about legal ramifications for groups deemed threatening to national security, the timing of the laws is also suggestive. In winter 2011-2012, mass protests erupted against the planned presidential “switch” between Medvedev and Putin, and electoral fraud in the 2011 Duma elections. After Putin returned to the presidency in May 2012, the Duma passed several laws to deter protest and restore order, including the “foreign agent” law. As relations with the West strained over the conflict in Ukraine, the Duma passed further restrictions on foreign organizations in the 2015 law on “undesirable” organizations.

Similarly, as Deputy Director of China Labour Bulletin and expert on Chinese civil society Shawn Shieh suggests, the shift in NGO management in China accompanies the rise of Xi Jinping and might even be connected to the first meeting of the National Security Commission in April 2014. The Foreign NGO Law sends a clear signal about underlying suspicion of foreign organizations by moving registration from the Ministry of Civil Affairs to the Ministry of Public Security. The passage of the law and its implementation also coincide with Swedish human rights activist and NGO worker Peter Dahlin’s forced confession on state-run television, a public campaign against divulging national secrets to foreigners, and an announcement of a reward for information on foreign spies. In both countries, fears of foreign influence and of civil society organizations’ undermining national security during a time of leadership transition help explain these laws.

Both Create an Atmosphere of Uncertainty

The laws have created considerable uncertainty through their ambiguity, which has affected the atmosphere for international-domestic civil society partnership in Russia and China.

This has led to self-censorship or self-limiting behavior for both domestic and international groups. Domestic groups have grown more cautious about affiliating with foreign organizations or accepting their funding. Some international foundations and other foreign groups have preemptively left, including an initiative of the American Bar Association in China and the MacArthur Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation in Russia. Although some groups have changed their behavior, others have been able to continue operating or to register without a problem. As recent analysis has shown, the Chinese government has been particularly welcoming of foreign trade organizations and organizations that provide public services like education, health, and disaster relief. Both countries’ leaders have stopped far short of completely blocking foreign assistance to civil society, suggesting that they instead intend to shape the sector to encourage groups supportive of state goals, while marginalizing more controversial or oppositional groups.

Russia Rushed to Pass the Law, China Took Its Time

The two countries’ laws differ in the speed with which they were rolled out and adopted. The Russian law on “foreign agents” swiftly sped through the legislative process in the spring, was signed by Putin in May, and went into effect in November 2012, although it was not widely enforced until the spring of 2013. The “undesirable” organization law moved much more quickly from passage in May to enactment in June and enforcement in July 2015. By contrast, the Chinese Foreign NGO Law took nearly 16 months to pass and included a round of public comment. Although not all concerns were addressed between the draft and final law, changes were made in consultation with affected actors. International organizations operating in China might take some measure of reassurance from this relatively deliberative and careful lawmaking process, certainly in comparison to groups operating in Russia.

Russia’s Public “Blacklist” vs. China’s Public “Whitelist”

The laws also differ in their motivations for keeping a public list of those in compliance. Since the Russian law is about identifying threatening foreign elements within civil society, Russian lawmakers essentially keep a public “blacklist” of “foreign agents” and “undesirables.” Originally, even organizations that successfully contested the “foreign agent” label or closed down remained on the register, with a column indicating that the status had been “suspended.” The law was amended in February 2015 to allow the NGOs to request removal, but the emphasis on public blacklisting remains a key part of the laws in Russia. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Public Security in China highlights those international organizations that have successfully registered under the law with a public “whitelist” of those NGOs in compliance. To underscore continued interest in certain kinds of international cooperation, the first foreign NGOs registered (including many trade associations) were feted with a certificate approval ceremony and media attention in January 2017. As the law continues to roll out, we may receive more information on denials of registration or violations of the law, but for now the Chinese government is focusing its publicity on the good behavior of both foreign NGOs and public officials under the new law. This may be an indication of China’s continued interest in working closely with international partners, while Russia has taken a strict stance against foreign influence and continues to close itself off from the West.

What Can We Learn from Differences in Implementation and Enforcement?

The first six months of implementation under the Foreign NGO Law suggests that Chinese leaders are hoping to persuade foreign NGOs to comply and continue their operation in areas that support state stability. However, we know little about which organizations might be refused registration or what will happen to organizations found in violation of the law. In the years since the Russian laws passed, domestic NGOs have been mired in court cases disputing the “foreign agent” label and many have closed as a result of debilitating fines, reducing the number of NGOs operating in Russia in certain areas like human rights and environmental protection. As noted before, several international organizations have left either because of or in anticipation of being labeled “undesirable.” This not only reduces funding options for domestic groups, but it also either dissuades them from working with the remaining international groups operating in Russia or persuades them to avoid any broadly-defined “political” activity if they do accept foreign grants. While some groups can weather the increased financial or administrative burden from the law and continue working as before, many more organizations will be forced to close. While Chinese leaders have yet to make similar moves for widespread enforcement, the Russian case nevertheless provides a warning of state intentions regarding certain elements of Chinese civil society.

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Elizabeth Plantan is a Ph.D. Candidate in Government at Cornell University. Her doctoral research examines state-society relations under authoritarianism, with a focus on environmental civil society...