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European NGOs and the Foreign NGO Law: 17 Case Studies on Real-World Effects of Implementation

The Asia Research Institute at the University of Nottingham recently published 17 case studies that help document the “intended and unintended consequences” of the Foreign NGO Law. These anonymized case studies are based on interviews conducted with leaders and employees of 24 organizations in Germany, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, and Italy.

What follows is the project’s key takeaways as well as the “short version” of each of the 17 case studies. Further information about the project, as well as complete versions of each of the case studies, are available on Asia Research Institute’s webpage for the project.

Key Takeaways

  1. All European NGOs appreciate the legacy of often twenty or more years of fruitful, horizontal cooperation with their Chinese partners. From a European perspective there was a big break with this positive legacy during the past few years. This process started already before the implementation of the Law in January 2017. All of our interviewees perceive the law as a threat to fruitful, trustful and meaningful EU-China cooperation.
  2. The future of Europe – China civil society cooperation is now uncertain and open. European NGOs would very much prefer to stay in China and even expand cooperation but, if forced, are prepared to leave.
  3. Regardless of the current hardships the majority of European NGOs currently active in China are still willing to offer what could be termed a 'challenging' gift of future cooperation. The challenge is double: First of all, they believe, to survive in a meaningful way, European-Chinese friendship must mature from acquaintance to true friend. Secondly, they challenge the framework conditions created by the new law and strongly recommend that China reconsiders the institutional framework. To flourish, fruitful and meaningful civil society cooperation needs a brotherly spirit of reciprocity within horizontal, trustful relations and enough space for autonomous decisions. Without sufficient breathing space EU-China civil society cooperation will first degenerate and then be a thing of the past.



1. Eroding Trust Networks

Case Study 1: Civil society trust networks are being replaced by centralised and strictly controlled party-state power hierarchies (complete case study available here)


Prior to the enactment of the Overseas NGO Law (henceforth: the law) in January 2017 this European organisation experienced—despite evident autocratic control—a period of inspiring and successful cooperation. This was made possible by a more tolerant rather than restrictive setting and, in this particular case, by a strategic partnership with a government-organised nongovernmental organisation (GONGO) which was one of the leading promoters of a Chinese way of civil society development.

Within this simultaneously restrictive and facilitative context this European organisation developed a broad, diversifed partnership structure including state agencies, GONGOs, think tanks, academic institutions as well as independent NGOs including grassroots organisations. Partnerships were developed more or less freely based on professional profle, afnity of interests and a joint engagement for common causes which sometimes implied the development of a shared narrative.

This institutional and organisational set-up enabled meaningful and fruitful dialogues. The portfolio consisted of two components: capacity building of Chinese civil society, in particular in the felds of environmental and climate policy, and facilitating Europe–China and global exchanges with civil society involvement. In both cases the benefts for Chinese civil society development were evident and visible.


Registration. The registration process under the new law has been rather complex, difcult and long. The Professional Supervisory Units (PSU) on the ofcial list have all been state agencies without afnity to civil society and were extremely hard to access, as contacts and details were not provided. At frst administrative procedures were unclear and burdensome, not facilitative. It took some time before a possibly suitable PSU was proposed. Though this PSU was approachable in the end, at the beginning it was not well informed and did not engage in a spirit of civil society action. Besides, the PSU did not match in terms of a shared vision, operational mode and agenda as well. After a long, burdensome process registration fnally succeeded.

Cooperation. Successful registration did not imply the start of meaningful cooperation. Only after a rather long time of several months organisational changes within the PSU facilitated the start of some meaningful, new projects, including civil society partners. Therefore the European organisation acknowledges that some slow and uncertain progress has been made during the past two years. Nevertheless the barriers and risks of cooperation in the new setting are still present and it is not yet certain that they will be able to overcome them to facilitate open dialogues.

There are two looming risks related to the law: First, the law erodes civil society trust networks by embedding them into centralised, strictly controlled party-state power hierarchies led by the Ministry of Public Security. Despite the claim of legal security, fairness and public transparency, the law's very general clauses allow arbitrariness. There is no efective legal security and transparency.

Second, the whole spirit of the law and also the spirit of cooperation have been poisoned by the omnipresent, vague security threats provoking the fear to touch onto something sensitive. Self-censorship is rife everywhere - with Chinese organisations and also foreign NGOs. Uncertainty and fear of not calculable risks and looming sanctions deter autonomous, self-conscious, courageous civil society action. The perception of the European organisation is that this deterrence efect is intended. The implicit, looming threats have eroded the quality of international dialogue platforms as participants are chosen with a bias towards loyal supporters issuing propaganda statements and the risks for independent minds to dare to speak out are high.


The China strategy of the European organisation has been to stay engaged in China for a longterm cooperation, building international bridges and facilitating dialogue. As the future of meaningful civil society cooperation is in doubt, the European organisation has started to conduct a thorough assessment of future options.

Criteria to be evaluated are the following: Can safety of staff and partners be guaranteed? Will the organisation be able to work in their strategic felds of expertise, and with partners they choose? Will it be possible to sustain authentic, fruitful dialogues without censorship? Will administrative costs remain reasonable? These criteria impose no values from the outside but include the most important intrinsic values of international civil society cooperation: protection of personal integrity, freedom of speech, and free choice of issues and partners.

EU-China relations beyond aid

In the past this European organisation made substantial contributions to facilitate and support the participation of Chinese NGOs in international fora, in particular in the field of climate policy. This was very promising because Chinese civil society participants came into dialogue with their international counterparts. Whereas in 2008 Chinese NGOs were newcomers and apprentices, now they are part of the mainstream and have become potential innovators. The recently launched People to People (P2P) formats are considered by the European organisation as not suitable to deliver a real dialogue, as they are often used as propaganda tools by the Chinese side. As an alternative the European organisation would advocate a reform of the EU – China architecture of cooperation by institutionalising the participation of both civil societies in all cases where this does make sense, on condition that these would be really open to civil society actors and not only party proxies.


2. From Innovator to Executor

Case Study 2: From innovative driving force and know-how carrier to that of a junior service partner reduced to the role of an executing agency? (complete case study available here)


This European organisation started its China cooperation programme when Chinese civil society began to take off at the turn of the century. It developed a portfolio with three pillars responding to different challenges and focused on different target groups: first, to inform the European public about the complex and contradictory developments in China to foster intercultural—and at the same time, a reflexive and critical—understanding of very different historical trajectories; second, to support dialogue and cooperation of European and Chinese NGOs, and third, to assist the fast developing Chinese civil society in quest for more advanced European civil society know-how. The NGO developed into one of the leading European actors of Europe–China civil society exchange and cooperation, first as one of the leading participants of an official EU–China civil society dialogue, then by launching its own NGO exchange programme.

There have been many achievements after the past years. They have been more narrow and specific in terms of the European public but outstanding in terms of intercultural civil society dialogue, mutual learning processes and networking. These achievements have been possible because there were more or less sacrosanct spaces of free giving and taking of trust and cooperation allowing more or less—despite the autocratic political setting—the free exchange of ideas and know-how between equals.

This gift of cooperation was not only acknowledged, it was responded enthusiastically by nearly all participants, in the first place by the rather young Chinese NGO participants. Though there was a gap of know-how at the beginning of the cooperation, because the European NGO had created the concept of the exchange programme and was the locus of perpetual innovation by learning from experience, the—continuously decreasing—gap of know-how was not translated into a power hierarchy as the know-how was shared between the civil society programme carriers equally.

Overall the programme was co-owned, co-developed and co-managed. It was just natural that the role of the Chinese partner in terms of programme development was increasing over time. This was an expected and natural part of the strategic planning on both sides. Nevertheless, though the intention was to share the know-how to equalise the existing know-how gap, for political reasons the real development after the enactment of the Overseas NGO Law (henceforth: the law) was rather different. The critical issue now is the deforming, excluding and de-owning impact of the development of a power hierarchy by the embedment of free, egalitarian civil society cooperation into the autocratic Chinese party-state hierarchy.


The NGO exchange programme is being continued but there have been mainly two critical effects of the law: first, a crisis of the successful, suitable and satisfying mode of prior egalitarian interaction and second, the poisoning of the trust networks grown by years of fruitful cooperation. There has been a crisis of asymmetrical interaction and power as cooperation developed from a horizontal, eye-level cooperation towards a hierarchically controlled power structure with the Chinese autocratic institutions, the Ministry of Public Security at the top, in the lead eroding the existing trust network. This did not happen in a visible, transparent way but was launched because of hidden choices at the top in terms of partners and issues, legitimised by a narrative of vaguely defined public security risks.

Because of the law and the accompanying political shift towards a new hierarchical power structure with the operative Chinese partner as gatekeeper the role of the European organisation was changing more gradually from being an innovative driving force and know- how carrier of the programme to that of a junior service partner reduced more or less to the role of an executing agency, in particular in China. The evidence for this is strong: in 2018 the European organisation registered for temporary activities, yet in a subaltern role as implementing organisation named by the European funder; the Chinese programme workshop in 2018 was organised without co-ownership of the European NGO, probably because it was not named in the registration papers; the Chinese partner insisted to have the final say on the selection of partners and felt pressured to streamline and censor the content of the exchange programme according to the official public security hysteria, e. g. by trying to exclude issues of social justice deemed as critical – a proposal that fortunately was not accepted by the European partners of the programme; presentations on the workshop were requested—but not allowed— to be pre-screened by Chinese public security. What had been a primarily horizontal, networking exchange programme based on a spirit of free thinking, free speech and free choice and joint working on solutions for international public goods was beginning to be transformed in a rather short time period into a hierarchical relationship with the Chinese partner as gatekeeper of the Chinese autocratic security state. It is not surprising that such a dramatic reconfiguration of the former relationship, contradicting the intrinsic spirit of civil society cooperation which requires trust and a minimum of substantial citizen freedoms, was accompanied by a severe crisis of interaction between the participating actors.

On the side of the European NGO there was a deep frustration about its expropriation as co-owner and effective co-manager of the programme, about the disrespect for its past contributions to the development of the programme and about the partial rejection of its full gift of cooperation. Where before there was the offer of hope and trust in a fruitful future cooperation appreciated by both sides, now the German term “gift” took on its different meaning: a poisoning of the relationship through doubts, disillusionment and mistrust sprouted because of a fertile ground of Chinese 'winner takes all' power play nurtured by suspicion, implicit hostility and enforced complicity and conformity.


Because of the mal-development of parts of the exchange program, in particular the erosion of co-ownership, during the last two years there are severe doubts that a meaningful, open and trustful exchange programme can be continued. Therefore the NGO has opted, as many European organisations, for an experimental approach. They are trying to test if and how far a meaningful cooperation can be continued. The available options for strategic organisational responses to the Overseas NGO Law are heavily dependent on the profile, goals and the resources of the respective organisation and the characteristics of its programme(s). In this case the available options are limited as the exchange programme because of its nature as programme of direct, personal, intercultural exposure cannot be externalised from China to other countries.

Therefore the short-term option in 2019 is to pursue the programme in an experimental way and to closely monitor and assess the program development at the end of the year. Another option of portfolio development pursued is to strengthen the already important engagement in terms of China-related activities in Europe: information of the European public by action research around Chinese civil society issues. The price of the total abandonment of the civil society exchange programme would be high, for the European and Chinese NGOs and for civil society cooperation with China in general. Regarding the political issue of European civil society cooperation with China this NGO considers and advocates options for collective action, e. g. the engagement of European nation states in interplay with the EU to secure favourable conditions of civil society cooperation with China, including sacrosanct spaces of free civil society cooperation between equals. To develop such a vision and strategy, the close collaboration of European civil society and European politics would be needed. First steps of such a dialogue and alliance have already been taken.

EU-China relations beyond aid

The NGO participated in different kinds of 'bilateral' (EU – China) and multilateral civil society cooperation activities. The NGO was involved in both phases of the EU–China civil society dialogue platform which was a very fruitful experience and initiative. It was also present in 2018 at C20, which in principle is considered of being a very useful platform for cooperation with global NGOs, including Chinese civil society. The advantage during the last event was that the spectrum of Chinese NGO participants was rather broad as e. g. Chinese LBGT NGOs were present, whereas in bilateral encounters there often is no opportunity to meet them. On the negative side the number of Chinese participants was so great that they majorized the other participants and tried to dominate the in a more or less Leninist style. This trend became visible when the Chinese NGOs issued a prepared general statement without any consultation with other international NGOs.



3. Partners as Unenthusiastic Enforcers

Case Study 3: Some Chinese partner organisations are more or less obedient implementers of the new restrictive law but often act as unenthusiastic enforcers (complete case study available here)


For nearly thirty years this European organisation has supported and financed what could be termed 'traditional' projects of civil society development cooperation, e.g. in the areas of poverty alleviation, local infrastructure and food security. They have implemented such without an office in China. During the past ten years there was a steady thematic shift from poverty alleviation to the support of the development of a Chinese civil society by capacity building a well as sustainable development.

It developed a broad and diversified partner landscape with thirty partners, about two thirds NGOs and one third universities and government-organised non-governmental organisations. Projects were demand-driven and issues and partners were chosen in free agreement. There was a gap of know-how but no power hierarchy: relations were between equals. While the European NGO was the donor, projects were co-owned, co-designed and co-developed.

The gift of trust and dedicated cooperation mostly was appreciated and often responded enthusiastically. As projects were tuned to meet local needs, local state agencies had a strong incentive to be open, cooperative and even supportive as the projects improved their poverty alleviation efforts. Nevertheless, sometimes there were conflicts and even sanctions, e. g. the blocking of financial transactions towards partner organisations considered as too assertive and for projects deemed as sensitive, but these were exceptions.

In this sense, and within the mentioned limits, the NGO after 2000 experienced for more than a decade a rather facilitating climate of civil society cooperation with China within a rather tolerant framework and a minimum of civic liberties, which are the preconditions of civil society cooperation.

Authoritarianism, or to be more precise, its softer in contrast to its harder varieties restricts freedom but at the same time allows segmented spaces of controlled freedom. These public spaces were a decisive factor accounting for much of the success story of international civil society development cooperation with China - and of Chinese development in general.


While this European organisation has an international presence in many developing countries it has made the conscious decision not to work through a representative offices. Yet after the enactment of the Overseas NGO Law (henceforth: the law) it had to start working with temporary permits. These were to be procured by the local NGOs to avoid administrative overstretch. The ability of Chinese partners to obtain temporary permits was also considered an excellent criteria to gauge the interest of the local NGO partners.

2018 was the first real test year with mixed results. In total the registration process was slow, rough and jolty. Often the local NGOs were badly informed and did not like to contact the new administrative counterparts, the relevant Public Supervisory Units (PSU) and Ministry of Public Security (MPS). As a result Chinese partners organisations have been seeking safe ground in terms of issues, partners and expressing 'loyal' behaviour. A small number of partner organisations withdrew from cooperation and a few even cancelled existing projects. In other cases the access of local NGOs to project finances on their bank accounts was obstructed. Additionally, the yearly permits did not match the project cycle of several years.

Because of the law and its highly selective toleration of issues according to the official agenda (which excludes all kinds of rights issues) and types of NGOs (grassroots or more autonomous NGOs) there is a broad feeling of insecurity and fear of sanctions. Most of the time such caution was due to the perceived political risks whereas in fact threats where applied selectively, both acting as a disincentive of cooperation. Some Chinese NGOs, in particular GONGOs, are more or less obedient implementers of the new restrictive law but often act as unenthusiastic enforcers.

Many Chinese partner organisations, probably most would like to give positive and acknowledging responses to the offered gift of continuing cooperation (finances, trust, cooperation, access to international fora) but do not dare doing so either publicly or privately. Such seemingly loyal responses are masked roles in a game under a heavy and existential autocratic threat. They are due to authoritarian political control and should not be misinterpreted as free and authentic choices. Nonetheless there are still a range of Chinese partners with which trust networks have survived and which are willing to test the limits. Some just react to the current shock and awe approach of the party-state by keeping silent for some time, by hibernating through the political winter and by trying to prepare a comeback under more favourable conditions.


Within this European organisation there is much concern about the barriers of civil society cooperation in the new context but no shock and despair as they had been well prepared for the engagement of the new law. Additionally, because of their global activities, there are alternative options in other poor and cooperative countries and no organisational need of a large China programme. In 2017 within its China programme there was already a strategic paradigm change from traditional development cooperation towards cooperation beyond aid as China no longer is a poor, developing country.

The strategic decision was to phase out completely traditional development cooperation in China with poverty alleviation as main pillar of cooperation. This means as well that they are in an excellent position to negotiate with those partners who still are interested in really engaged cooperation. The new strategic priorities and criteria include: focus on support of development of Chinese civil society and issues beyond aid where no big, unilateral financing is needed; selective focus on fewer, trusted strategic partners (less than ten) with overlapping goals and understandings; development of soft services beyond financing, e. g. capacity building and consultancy for Chinese civil society development; focus on issues where the NGO as a whole has strategic interests on a global scale which are pursued by other departments (migration, south – south) which would allow the potential development of new “business models”. The strategy of cooperation with Chinese civil society is clear. The offered gift is: free, eye level cooperation between equals on beyond aid issues. If this challenging gift would be rejected, disinvestment would be the only option.

EU-China relations beyond aid

The NGO has had no experience with national or European state-to-state dialogues but it supported the participation of Chinese NGOs in several international dialogue formats (Paris Climate Conference, C 20, exchanges on international migration), if this was part of the project application. In their perception, the way European and Chinese NGOs perceive their international roles, are different. Whereas European NGOs are motivated to pursue global public goods (clean environment, ecological and climate survival, peace, etc.), Chinese NGOs feel compelled to represent the perspective and interests of the Chinese nation state. This is a big challenge, because Chinese NGOs experience heavy loyalty conflicts. The hope is that they are learning, how to balance national interests with promoting and negotiating issues of international public goods from a global perspective. The NGO is well positioned and interested to accompany and support these international learning processes of Chinese civil society.



4. Talking-Point Exchanges

Case Study 4: It is now harder to have meaningful exchanges as Chinese participants often are officials repeating party-state ideology and policy positions (complete case study available here)


This European organisation is not a classical donor in the context and logic of development cooperation. The first priority of their China program has been to look at the relationship from a European perspective. They have launched initiatives and events which reflect on the question how Europe can and should respond to developments in China and to developing EU-China relations. This organisation started its distinctive China programme only in 2012. Previously its China activities had been part of an Asia-wide programme. The portfolio of this organisation is focused on two main tasks: First, to mine, sift, make available, publish and facilitate debate of the deep China knowledge of European firms and other economic stakeholders based on often long-term cooperation which is hard to tap. The second task is to elaborate, highlight and communicate the model of social market economy to their Chinese partners. European partners mostly are business associations and firms.

The organisation's flagship project in China highlights and promotes the social engagement of European firms in China. It is implemented in cooperation with a European-Chinese business organisation with a representative office and Chinese co-owners. The assumption for this configuration is that a partnership with an official Chinese state agency would erode the socially innovative approach of the project. It is a successful format; many companies have been participating; and the achievements and results are published both in English and Chinese.

The organisation is now deliberating how to upscale the issue of corporate social responsibility on a strategic inter-governmental level. There are also other projects facilitating an open, unbiased dialogue with Chinese partners about possible futures of China playing the neutral role of a bridge. In one project they mandated expert assessments of China’s possible future development options and scenarios, including liberalisation and democratisation options, but without taking sides. Instead they facilitated open debates with Chinese partners about the results.


The impact of the Overseas NGO Law (henceforth: the law) has been manyfold: first, registration by temporary permit has been slow, costly and a pragmatic but unsatisfying and provisional solution; second, it is hampering real, authentic, open exchange of ideas; third, there were many Chinese extra requests and fourth, the administrative costs of implementing the law are rather high.

Registration has been difficult, costly and tricky as they succeeded not with an official registration of a temporary permit but only with an informal, non-written approval. A critical issue was the need for a temporary permit registration in Beijing because of working with a Beijing-based partner, whereas the project was to be conducted in the Shanghai region. Besides, the Chinese side tried to use the registration procedure to introduce an official partner as supervisory agency which would have endangered the quality standards of the European organisation.

China activities are going on but it is now much harder to have meaningful exchanges as Chinese participants often are officials repeating official ideology and policy positions whereas other participants no longer dare to openly articulate their opinions and constantly refer to official framing and Xi Jinping philosophy. Additionally, the composition of the delegations has changed with the participation of more officials with a mandate to monitor and control the agenda and the performance of other participants.

At the same time there have been a lot of extra requests by Chinese partners for the promotion of exclusively Chinese-designed projects, with the aim to redirect priorities of cooperation according the Chinese party-state agenda and priorities, e.g. the Belt & Road Initiative. It looks like as if these developments have been strategically intended to deter projects driven by European interests and criteria and as if to switch and structure resources according to the Chinese official agenda.


Within the European organisation there is considerable feeling of frustration regarding the difficulties and registration and restricted focus and the decreasing scope and quality of the China engagement. The organisation has identified two red lines: 1. If the flagship project in China would no longer get registered though it is focused on the social engagement of European enterprises as a kind of role model in China and thus is not sensitive in political terms; 2. When meaningful exchanges are no longer possible.

In spite of these challenges the European organisation is well positioned to weather the storm of the new restrictive legal environment because of its particular strategic positioning: the main focus of their activities now is on facilitating open, ongoing strategic debates of European actors, in particular among business actors and other economic stakeholders how to respond to the development of China. Therefore, their main activities are based in Europe, not in China. Besides, they have and pursue the strategic option to facilitate China-related conferences outside but near China in states with a high proportion of Chinese citizens and a high connectivity to China. Therefore high-level conferences are planned to take place e. g. in Hong Kong and Singapore.

The European context and scene is facilitating this approach as most European enterprises are dissatisfied and insecure regarding economic relations with the often aggressive and unfair way China is rising, ignoring institutional international norms and standards (WTO) of economic cooperation based on fairness and reciprocity. For the first time since years there is a lively, urgent, strategic debate within the European business community and economic stakeholders to reassess cooperation with China and how to reposition European firms and the European economy as a whole towards China.

EU-China relations beyond aid

From the outset the European organisation's activities were 'beyond aid' and centered around European strategic interests, with a strong focus on economic interests: the aim was neither China watching nor China practicing but building bridges from Europe to China and opening doors for European strategic interests according international standards. There is much deep China knowledge created in long histories of close economic, scientific cooperation which is hidden and has to be unearthed. Making available this precious knowledge raises the quality of ongoing dialogue formats and is of great use for and ensures a deep, trustful and realistic cooperation despite of divergent interests.

This European organisation has had some smaller involvements regarding dialogue and cooperation in global fora on issues of global public goods, e.g. during G-20 and C20 meetings. In their view the only issue where Chinese and European interests are still aligned is climate policy cooperation. In this policy field sectoral dialogue formats might make sense. There have been some experiences with thematic dialogue formats including the Communist Youth Organisation but in the end the results were disappointing, as this partnership did not match.



5. Partners Set the Terms

Case Study 5: Chinese partners can dictate more or less the rules of cooperation and—though the European organisation is the funder—the price too (complete case study available here)


Despite being a late-comer to civil society exchange and cooperation this European organisation's China-related projects took off well. This organisation 'invested' trust in fruitful cooperation and money to support know-how transfer from Europe to China. The beneficiaries were both Chinese civil society organisations and party-state agencies in critical fields of policy reform. Such cooperation 'gifted' to China was highly appreciated by the Chinese side and accounted for an excellent reputation and a high attractiveness of its programmes for Chinese partners.

Before the enactment of the Overseas NGO Law (henceforth: the law) this organisation and its partners choose each other more or less voluntarily; there were a broad variety of partner organisations available, e.g. universities, leading governmental bodies, and NGOs. Because of their free choice based on mutual interest Chinese partners were eagerly engaged in a fruitful cooperation. Though there was initially a gap of knowledge and understanding as European know-how was transferred to China there was no corresponding asymmetrical power hierarchy as projects were co-owned and co-created. Horizontal trust networks with main partners developed as a consequence of collaboration. The key of fruitful cooperation was the temporary, conditional and not legalised tolerance of the specifics of civil society cooperation: Free giving and gift taking were exchanged between equals in 'semi-liberal' settings of 'small c' civil freedoms and within tolerated civil society spaces, facilitating meaningful debate, mutual understanding and the tolerance of diversity.

Political precondition of this 'semi-liberal' period of civil society cooperation was the Chinese policy of 'no recognition, no banning, no intervention' of unregistered grassroots and International NGOs (INGOs). As even in the years before the law some programmes were affected by authoritarian practices, e. g. restrictions and informal disincentives of participation, the European organisation was forced to gradually adapt their programmes to the more authoritarian framework conditions. The illiberal trend of Chinese politics made its imprint already before the enactment of the law.


The impact of the law on EU-China civil society cooperation—cooperation programmes with party-state agencies were only marginally affected—is manifold: First, the difficulties of registration for temporary activities meant that the implementation speed of cooperation projects slowed down considerably. Only one programme was successfully filed for temporary registration in 2018 as the administrative barriers for the other programmes were considered to be too high. Second, the transaction costs of cooperation have risen substantially including the efforts in terms of time, personnel, organisation units involved. Third, after registration the organisational culture and thematic portfolio of the European CSO and of the Professional Service Unit (PSU) of the Chinese partner organisation do not match. The CSO has a broad, diversified thematic portfolio and needs some flexibility to respond to changing situations – both typical NGO characteristics not shared by the PSU of the Chinese partner which is a party- state organisation. Fourth, the Law has in a negative sense 'empowered' the partner organisation. Its role changed from a facilitating service partner to that of a gatekeeper of the Chinese security state within an asymmetrical power relationship. Its attitude has changed from being mostly appreciative to being more demanding and controlling. The most decisive and threatening impact of the new Law is the integration of civil society cooperation as subordinate, strictly controlled practice and junior partner within a rigid, vertical state hierarchy dominated from the top by the Ministry of Public Security (MPS).

The consequences of this integration of civil society cooperation into strict state power hierarchies are manifold: censorship is applied to Europe–China civil society cooperation: issues can become excluded, even such normal issues as social justice; the Chinese partners are under pressure because of strict supervision from above. Such party-state induced insecurity makes them more risk-averse as possible sanctions could threaten their survival. Chinese politics and the Chinese partners can dictate more or less the rules of cooperation and, paradoxically—though the European CSO is the giver—more or less the price too.

The new rules of the game do not match the requirements of civil society cooperation in a European understanding as a process of voluntary giving and voluntary and acknowledging gift- taking. The gift of cooperation is no longer appreciated as an advance of trust and as mutual bridge building but it is screened with mistrust as the giver is suspected to be a potential enemy of public security. It needs to be acknowledged that there are still niches of trustful cooperation and meaningful debate and grey zones which can be used by both partners. Some Chinese partners are still authentically engaged. But the dominant picture and trend is the supremacy of rigidly controlled, censured integration and deformation of civil society cooperation by the Chinese autocratic, centralised party-state power hierarchy.


In the context of a deep crisis for European civil society interaction with China, the European organisation is forced to reconsider its China portfolio and strategy. A starting point is the paradoxical view that civil society cooperation with China for convincing reasons (essential for solution of global public good issues, support of the Chinese reform process etc) is still urgently needed and at the same time the realistic insight that the perspectives of civil society cooperation with China have deteriorated, as the spaces of cooperation, the common ground have been shrinking, are uncertain and contested.

The strategic response based on this evaluation is the advance of a skeptical, conditional hope that the continuation of civil society cooperation is possible as a 'challenging gift'. A challenging gift is the bet on a positive, appreciating response of Chinese partners towards the rebuilding of a common ground for civil society cooperation based on respect for differences, trust and meaningful dialogue. The premise of this offer is that the following red line will not be crossed: European values, criteria and standards continue to be part of the dialogue and cooperation.

EU-China relations beyond aid

This European organisation has not been directly involved in high-level People-to-People Dialogues and bilateral sectoral dialogues but only indirectly through its implementing partner organisations. The core interest and priority now is the strategic re-orientation and re-design of their overall programme, including the China programme.

With regards to China-related projects, survival strategies now have high priority and absorb a lot of attention and capacities—as in the case of other European NGOs, too—creating a collective action barrier. It remains an open question whether or not this collective action problem can be solved in the future, e.g. by groups of European stakeholders of civil society cooperation with China taking coordinated counter-measures aimed at pushing back against the highly illiberal Overseas NGO Law.



6. Fewer, Deeper Partnerships

Case Study 6: A strategic learning effect of the law has been for the European organisation to focus on fewer, more resilient and trustworthy Chinese partners (complete case study available here)


This European organisation started its cooperation with China as early as the middle of the nineteen-eighties. It therefore has a long history of engagement including deep China know- how and emotional engagement with the country; diversified, local and national trust networks; as well as an excellent reputation. The sectoral priorities have changed in line with China's fast transformation: starting with an exclusive focus on poverty alleviation, the organisation's portfolio later started to include activity areas relating to environment and climate, and lately has started to include a strong focus on support for marginalised social groups.

The organisation's 'business model' has been to co-facilitate, co-own and co-finance China- based activities without the support of a permanent representative office. At present there are about ninety projects being implemented in many provinces with a total budget of EUR 5 Million. Most of the European organisation's partners are Chinese grassroots NGOs. The volume, breadth and the bottom-up nature of their partners are signs that independent Chinese NGOs have welcomed the offer of cooperation and are appreciative of the support they receive. A decisive factor for this successful collaboration most likely was the supportive attitude of local governments because they also reaped significant developmental benefits from such activities.

The intrinsic values of civil society cooperation, e.g. horizontal cooperation, free choice of partners, genuine dialogue between equals, building of personal trust and of friendship and trust networks have developed well and are reflected in the volume, breadth but also the semi- autonomy and the bottom-up nature of their partners' work - all of this despite the autocratic political-institutional framework.

The Chinese civil society researcher Deng Guosheng has aptly pointed out that during what could be called 'semi-liberal' phase of cooperation the same 'hidden rules' were applied to grassroots NGOs and and their international partners: 'no recognition, no banning, no intervention' as long as state security and social stability were not threatened. For the European organisation the hidden rules of this period thus allowed for a fruitful cooperation. The question now is whether or not these rules are still valid and applied on the local level in the period of sharp authoritarianism at the national level.


The organisation's China programme continued in the years 2017 and 2018 with a little bit less steam. They experienced selective withdrawals by former partners. Temporary permits were obtained by local Chinese NGOs. In their experience the impact of the law varies according regions, administrative levels and sectors: provincial levels are more difficult than local governments where the local partnership structure has been more stable. Universities seem to have more stricter rules in terms of seeking foreign funding. Most partners—in particular grassroots NGOs—continue to be interested, open and engaged. At the same time they try to adapt to the new more restrictive framework conditions and are creative in terms of framing their projects in an officially accepted language.

On the operational level the European organisation is still experiencing open, dialogical communication. It hasn't been subject to excessive gate-keeping yet. Nevertheless, the organisation has not yet succeed in finding a suitable Professional Supervisory Unit (PSU). One of the possible PSUs does not fully match the new priorities and portfolio of the European organisation. Working with this PSU thus would pose a risk for future cooperation with marginalised groups. As the European organisation is an urgently needed funder for Chinese grassroots NGOs there has been no erosion of co-ownership. Up until now administrative costs have not yet risen but they will after the establishment of a representative office. Nevertheless, as the European organisation is convinced that a permanent local presence would be useful in this more challenging phase of cooperation, it has launched the registration process for a representative office in December 2017 which had not yet been approved twelve months later.


In stark contrast to most other European NGOs this organisation has not experienced major obstacles by the Overseas NGO Law (henceforth: the law) until now. This also means that there hasn't been a lot of disappointment or frustration to date. Up until now dialogue and cooperation has continued though regarding registration there are now unpredictable risks on the horizon. There are two possible reasons for this situation: a strategic repositioning prior to the enactment of the law and the still existing grey zone of interested and engaged grassroots which are well-connected with and known by the local governments, and therefore mostly not considered as risks to public security but as problem-solvers.

Because of the fast development of China there was a need of strategic reorientation and organisational adaptation even before the law came into force. The Chinese success story of poverty alleviation forced a shift in the strategic focus of cooperation from poverty alleviation towards support of marginalised groups. Nevertheless, the perception of some Chinese grassroots NGOs is ambiguous, as they are considered as both problem-solvers and—because of their relative autonomy—as potential trouble-makers. If what Chinese civil society researcher Deng Guosheng has called the 'hidden rules' of the local governments change in the future— either from within or by pressure from above—then the rather free, horizontal, trustful civil society cooperation would be threatened.

One strategic learning effect of the Law has been for the European organisation to focus on fewer, more resilient and trustworthy Chinese partner organisations. The organisation is convinced that it is important to continue support of Chinese grassroots NGOs and marginalised groups to encourage these groups, support the process of inclusion of the poor, marginalised groups and to consolidate the social capital accumulated by past civil society cooperation.

The organisations' red lines would be crossed if meaningful, free, horizontal, dedicated cooperation with grassroots NGOs and marginalised groups would no longer be tolerated. But the organisation hopes that this will not happen. Without continued international support financing of grassroots projects probably would dry out and the position of marginalised groups would be weakened. For all these reasons this European organisation is following Gramsci's strategic motto of 'pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will' and thus is willing to give it another prudent try.

EU-China relations beyond aid

This European organisation has not been particularly involved in different dialogue formats, which exception of the C20 in Hangzhou. This meeting was perceived as 'rather strange' and only offered few possibilities of free exchange of diverse experiences and ideas. The organisation's main focus is and remains to be cooperation with grassroots NGOs and marginalised groups.



7. Continued Engagement

Case Study 7: This European organisation envisages a permanent engagement with China: the current restrictions therefore are not a reason to disengage (complete case study available here)


This organisation has been working in China since 2015 and enjoys good Chinese government relations. Their engagement with China grew out of a Europe-China cooperation programme and focuses on capacity building. With the Overseas NGO Law (henceforth: the law) coming into effect the organisation approached a potential Professional Supervisory Unit (PSU). Although they had previously worked together the potential PSU had not been one of their main partners. Detailed discussions about registration began in January 2017 and the registered office was approved within six months.


Following registration this organisation has been able to continue with much of its previous programme of work although their cooperation with civil society organisations in China has had to be restructured. This organisation’s PSU is a Ministry and it is now clear that the majority of financial support they provide will benefit their PSU.

With the new law this organisation has found their work 'changed from every perspective'. The administrative burden was onerous and ensuring approval of activities had slowed down implementation of their strategy in China.


This organisation has made a long-term commitment to working in China. They understand the trend in China towards greater government control and less space for civil society. However, their work addresses an issue of global and domestic importance and developing legal capacity in China will help build a more accountable government. Registering as an overseas NGO provides them with an agreed framework for their operations and they hope to gradually expand their work.

EU-China relations beyond aid

This organisation operates in an area where there are many opportunities for multi-track diplomacy and they participate in an EU-China platform of experts. With a focus on building domestic capacity in China their strategy does not promote Chinese participation in international meetings.



8. Activities Ended

Case Study 8: This organisation can no longer continue its China- related activities and particularly regrets that the small grants programme has had to close (pdf version of this case study available here)


This organisation is an international NGO based in Europe. It was established over fifty years ago and supports a global network campaigning for the needs of sufferers, and their families, from a disease that can cause lifelong pain and disability. The organisation receives income from membership fees, corporate donors, trusts and foundations and individual donations.

The organisation's cooperation with China is relatively recent. They took their first steps in the country in 2011. Following a feasibility study on engaging with China, the organisation initially appointed a China-based coordinator to facilitate their work in-country. Although this European organisation had considered trying to work in China in cooperation with a GONGO, their organisational preference was to work with grassroots organisations. The organisation’s activities in China were focused on providing capacity building and small grants to support the development of patients’ groups. The patients’ groups were largely interested in raising awareness of the disease and the needs of sufferers and their families. Most of these activities took place around the internationally recognised day to mark the disease. Grants were provided directly in cash or via an organisation that was locally registered.

The organisation's activities in China were only a small element of their global programme. Prior to the enactment of the Overseas NGO Law (henceforth: the law) the organisation had no office or staff based in China. Activities were supported at a distance and through an experienced Chinese-speaking consultant who travelled periodically to China to meet with local beneficiaries.

Facing the prospect of the enactment of the law, this organisation already knew that it would not want to try to register an office in China. As the organisation supports sufferers around the world, its way of working does not include setting up its own local offices. As an international NGO with a global network, the organisation has always worked through supporting local membership organisations.

After studying the law, the European organisation expressed interest in applying to register temporary activities, but this proved impossible. To register temporary activities in China an overseas organisation must partner with registered local not-for-profit organisations. The patients’ groups supported by the organisation were not registered minfei organisations in China. They were, therefore, unable to support the registration of temporary activities with the European organisation.

The need to partner with registered Chinese not-for-profit organisations has been a major stumbling block for overseas organisations wanting to organise occasional activities in China. Many Chinese civil society organisations (CSOs) have no form of official registration or were registered as small commercial companies. Neither status is now acceptable to the authorities and CSOs have been under pressure to register with the Civil Affairs Bureau or cease their operations. As the Civil Affairs Bureau comes under increased pressure to monitor the work of Chinese CSOs, some local organisations have been told that they need to re-register with an office at a higher administrative level.

Faced with these obstacles, the European organisation decided to explore the possibility of being able to continue supporting their local beneficiaries through teaming up with other international NGOs that had been able to register in China. They approached ten to fifteen INGOs, broadly working in the same field, to see if cooperation would be possible. Most of the INGOs did not respond. One organisation, a fundraising platform, was initially positive. Unfortunately, they later concluded that the European organisation's individual grants were too small. Not only were small grants administratively burdensome, but the organisation’s own registration, apparently, did not allow them to make such small awards.

The European organisation commented that, prior to the enactment of the law, they were able to operate in a grey area where small grant giving was unregulated and appeared to be of little concern to the authorities. Since the law came into effect the organisation recognised the need to comply with the law. They have not made any further small grants and while the organisation's consultant used to make two to three trips a year to China, he made just one in 2017.


State of China-related activities. This European organisation has not been able to continue its programme of China-related activities. They particularly regret that the small grants programme, which had been expanding prior to the new law, has had to close. These small grants of between RMB 5,000 RMB to RMB 10,000 (around EUR 650-1300) enabled small patients’ groups to hold awareness raising activities, particularly around the time of the relevant World Day.

The small grants were part of a strategy to develop local ownership of activities and assist the development of patients’ groups around the country. Local patients’ groups were small scale with members often in full-time employment and with many other calls on their time.

This European organisation was able to provide seed funding and help provide some advice to new teams. The organisation has heard that some of the small groups they supported are continuing to mark the World Day. They are now trying to help link local groups to possible corporate sources of support in order to avoid the problems of funding from overseas NGOs. Corporate funding brings its own challenges as the priorities and interests of a company’s headquarters often differs with those of the China office. The disease which this organisation addresses is also not one that easily attracts donor support either in China or internationally.

This European organisation was probably not the kind of target the Chinese authorities had in mind when they chose to regulate the overseas NGO sector. Nevertheless, one intention of the law was to reduce the amount of overseas funding reaching Chinese civil society. Small grant funding and capacity building among patients’ groups and others living with disabilities have helped to empower these communities and increased their visibility. Many of these groups are still too inexperienced to identify alternative sources of support.

Impact of the law on Chinese partners. Prior to the enactment of the Overseas NGO law, this European organisation saw itself as a collaborator with its local partner organisations. Following the new law, the relationships could now be characterised more in terms of involvement in a network.

The organisation commented on the very limited capacity among the local groups in China. Often they consisted of just one or two people. While they had tried to invest in individual development, small teams were not very sustainable if someone dropped out due to ill health or other responsibilities. The organisation had observed that their local partners were unaware of the law and their consultant had had to explain it to them. If the groups did not understand the law and its implications, there was a risk that groups would be vulnerable to police investigations. Patients’ groups lacked the political awareness of more activist groups which were keen to find ways to continue working despite the new law.

This European organisation's partners were not service delivery organisations and did not want funding to provide direct assistance to patients. Their objectives were primarily to raise awareness of the disease and its impact on individuals. They did not engage in any policy advocacy despite the fact that access to treatment for the disease is poor. Aware of the political risks with policy advocacy, the organisation had not encouraged this development. Local groups had little understanding of campaigning and saw awareness raising as a personal issue. Their focus was on supporting themselves and each other. Many sufferers faced livelihood issues, particularly employment discrimination since the disease created a perception of weakness. Increased public awareness of the disease was important to counter prejudice and invisibility.

Although some umbrella organisations for disease-related patients’ groups can be found in China nothing currently exists for this disease. The groups supported by the European organisation were still too small to be networked. The headquarters of the organisation noted that the small patients’ groups in China had not gone through the same NGO development process as in other countries. Elsewhere groups used small amounts of seed funding to try things out, raise awareness and build their profile, enabling them to begin raising their own funds. The Chinese patients’ groups were, in contrast, ill prepared to identify domestic sources of funding.


This organisation has considered its strategy towards China at the Board level. The China programme, however, has always been a challenge. Funding has been difficult and it has been more difficult to identify an effective roadmap with tangible outputs compared to other countries. Even without the introduction of the law their programme in China was not straightforward. Unlike their work in other countries, the organisation has, also, not benefitted from a cheerleader for China at the Board level.

Although this European organisation's strategy includes a commitment to China, the country represents a very small part of their overall work. Their current approach involves trying to navigate the new environment while scaling down their level of engagement. Without an approved China programme staff were hesitant to support travel to the country, unsure whether even travel to China would constitute an activity under the law. This made it almost impossible to identify new opportunities.

The organisation has worried about the potential reputational risk from a misstep in China which may have led them to be overly cautious in interpreting the new law. They felt that without specialist knowledge of Chinese law it was difficult to understand what might be possible under the new law. It was particularly hard to identify what constituted an activity under the law and whether the provision of information and advice would be included.

As the organisation stopped the provision of small grants it was looking at other ways to provide support. In addition to helping patients’ groups identify other sources of funding the organisation was also looking to work more closely with health professionals. Members of this community had participated in World Day events and helping them to participate in international meetings might be a way forward. However, this European organisation also lacked the organisational capacity to identify people who could benefit from individual opportunities for international training or conferences.

EU-China relations beyond aid

This European organisation is an independent international NGO and does not seek engagement with governments at the national or Pan-European level. The focus of the organisation is providing practical and operational support to patients’ groups largely through a membership network; member organisations are expected to engage with their governments. The organisation is part of an international alliance of patients’ organisations and there is a possibility that this relationship has potential for engaging with China in the future.



9. Low-Key, Informal Meetings

Case Study 9: Under the new law informal meetings continue to be possible, but only with well-established Chinese contacts (pdf version of this case study available here)


This is an international campaigning organisation based in Europe.

Eight years ago, the organisation recognised that there was a growing China dimension to their work, but the organisation was not active in the country. Building on a project with a China component, one of the organisation's staff visited China for research purposes and to scope out the potential for cooperation. Staff continued to visit China approximately every three months and they began to establish contacts with relevant research and policy organisations. This European organisation identified the area of corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a potential entry point for greater cooperation. CSR was of growing interest to a number of companies and organisations in China and the organisation was keen to share its global campaigning materials with local audiences, particularly in the context of China’s global ambitions and impact.

The organisation engaged a Chinese consultant to conduct research, consult and engage with local organisations, but they did not encourage them to engage with the media. External communications, including media, were the responsibility of international staff. The organisation tried to develop a local social media strategy, but this did not prove very effective in the context of limited capacity and the changing nature of the Chinese media landscape. A more successful feature of their work was the development of an extensive email list and the online distribution of materials sharing the organisation's international work.

As the organisation became aware of the new Overseas NGO Law (henceforth: the law) they researched and consulted lawyers and colleagues in peer organisations regarding the law and its implications for their work in China. Prior to the enactment of the new law, they were approached by a Chinese government agency that said they would be the Professional Supervisory Unit (PSU) for one of the topic areas the organisation was working on. The agency invited the submission of the European organisation's relevant materials to start a potential registration process. The law requires overseas NGOs that wish to register an office in China to be sponsored by a relevant PSU.

The European organisation spent about six months preparing various materials for registration. They had pre-existing contacts with the Chinese partner organisation. Suddenly, however, the Chinese organisation stopped all forms of communication with its European partner and would not respond to emails or requests for meetings. The European organisation then took their papers to the Beijing Public Security Bureau responsible for INGO registration for assistance. The police requested clarification of their NGO status since they were not familiar with their particular type of legal entity. The European organisation is a registered not-for-profit company, but does not have tax exempt status in their principle country of registration. The police questioned whether the organisation was an NGO and suggested that they did not have to register under the new law. The organisation was obliged to obtain clarification of their NGO status from their own authorities.

At the time of interviewing, the organisation had not yet been able to identify a suitable PSU in order to register an office in Beijing. In pursuit of eventual registration, the organisation was planning to try and obtain permission to hold temporary activities. Finding partners willing to cooperate in registering and organising temporary activities would, they hoped, help them identify a potential PSU.

Like other organisations interviewed as part of this research project, this European organisation was surprised by the lack of clarity in applying the law to different types of not-for-profit organisations. While the law refers to overseas NGOs, the definition of NGO encompasses all not-for-profit organisations (an exception was later made for certain education institutions). Yet, Chinese police, it seems, had certain types of organisations in mind as the target for the new law and were unfamiliar with the varied types of not-for-profit legal entities found overseas.


State of China-related activities. Prior to enactment of the law, as part of a varied work programme, this organisation occasionally used to co-host meetings in China. With the new law in operation this type of activity can no longer take place without registering temporary activities. Organising conferences in China was not a key element of their strategy and there has been little impact from no longer holding such activities. They are, moreover, still able to attend conferences in China.

This European organisation understands the law in a broader context of declining openness to international contact and cooperation. They recognise the increasing difficulties officials face meeting with international NGO staff in the new climate and they have been more hesitant to reach out to their contacts in various Chinese ministries. A firmer legal basis, provided by registration under the law, will they believe, make it easier to meet with people in China and help them to contribute to the development of domestic policy.

Overall, the European organisation feels a sense of frustration. The lack of clarity, on the part of Chinese counterparts, regarding the registration and temporary activity permit processes as well as the associated bureaucratic burden has delayed and hindered their work in China. While many officials were polite and offered to help, Chinese agencies were ill-prepared for the task of registering such an array of organisations.

Impact of the law on Chinese partners. The European organisation has always worked independently and did not have long-term formal partnerships with Chinese counterparts prior to the law. The organisation enjoyed a range of working relationships with academics, industry groups, local NGOs, journalists and government agencies. Many of these relationships have been able to continue on an informal basis and they have been an invaluable source of information and support as Chinese and international organisations seek to navigate the new terrain.

Unlike many of the overseas NGOs that operated in China before the ONGO law, this organisation does not provide grants to Chinese NGOs or other partners. In the current, more restrictive environment, some China-based organisations have been wary of their contact with the European organisation and have wanted to avoid any formal collaboration. Although they are not able to commission new projects, many individual experts have been willing to share their knowledge and insights on an informal basis.

An impact of the law has been on the organisation's ability to establish new contacts. While the organisation has been able to hold a limited number of informal meetings with existing contacts, the organisation's lack of official status in China has made it difficult to initiate meetings with new contacts. The organisation also observed that their lack of registration had made it more difficult to obtain formal invitations to meetings in China. The organisation was grateful to a major European diplomatic mission for helping to facilitate their participation in a bilateral meeting with China, although their China consultant was not allowed to take part. Informal meetings continue to be possible, but only with well-established Chinese contacts. Occasionally, in the event of this organisation being invited to present in formal meetings, overseas-based staff travelled to China to attend, in part because of perceived risks for the China consultant associated with the law. The lack of legal status in China was also having an impact on the organisation's ability to formally participate in programmes involving government related bodies and diplomatic missions.

Uncertain prospects for registration and the closing space for international cooperation had also become a source of stress to the organisation as they consider the wellbeing of their Chinese consultant and other contacts.


The senior leadership team of this European organisation keeps their China engagement under regular review. They pay particular attention to risk assessments of how China intends to enforce the law and identify precautions that may help mitigate the impact of the new law. The organisation is used to operating in complex political environments: they continue to try and monitor political changes in China and the impact of new ministerial appointments on their areas of particular interest.

Setting up a registered office in China would be a significant cost to this European organisation. One-off and recurrent expenditure on a registered office are an important consideration for a medium-sized NGO. Costs include not only office rental, but also legal services, increased administrative overheads and the time spent in negotiations and preparing reports. For this organisation, these costs need to be set against the potential for programmatic benefits. Whatever the outcome of their efforts to register, China will, however, continue to be a component of the organisation's global campaigning.

The organisation has not yet defined the red lines in its approach to registration in China. The organisation is still feeling its way and is still unclear whether it can identify a potential PSU. It recognises that any PSU will have their own expectations about the relationship, but they find it difficult to anticipate what these may be in the absence of any meaningful discussions with a potential PSU.

This Euorpean organisation is currently taking the approach that if they cannot register an office they will pursue temporary activity registration, assuming the police recognise their not-for- profit status and they can identify organisations that will sponsor them. The organisation acknowledges that China is too big and important a country in its area of interest to ignore.

EU-China relations beyond aid

This organisation enjoys a constructive relationship with the European Union and several member state governments. The organisation operates independently and does not seek to participate in dialogues or general civil society forums unless they are directly relevant to their campaigning objectives.



10. Commercial Success

Case Study 10: For this organisation the provision of theatre education services on a commercial basis has enabled them to continue their China engagement (pdf version of this case study available here)


This European organisation is an inclusive social arts organisation that promotes diversity and challenges social exclusion. The organisation began life in the 1970s performing in local church halls before expanding into theatre education and moving to a permanent home. The organisation has a global reputation for creativity and high-quality performances, leading the way in offering truly inclusive theatre to young and adult performers. Funding for the organisation comes from ticket sales, income from training, grants and sponsorship. It is a registered charity and enjoys the support of high profile patrons.

As part of its mission to see a society that celebrates diversity and enables everyone to thrive the organisation has taken their work abroad. A US-based offshoot now exists thanks to the enthusiasm of an American family that wanted to share their approach to theatre in the USA. The organisation does not have a formal international programme and their involvement in China grew out of a chance encounter. Several years ago, the organisation presented their work as an arts organisation and social enterprise at a conference in China. The presentation piqued the interest of one of the Chinese participants who came from a Chinese NGO working with children on the autistic spectrum.

The European organisation was excited and intrigued by their first trip to China. They also recognised that attitudes to diversity and inclusivity in China were behind those now more mainstream in Europe. An inclusive approach to the arts is at the heart of the organisation's work and they were determined that this strong ethos would need to be reflected in any work in China. They rejected the idea of restricting their China project to children with disabilities. The Chinese NGO accepted the challenge and identified a mainstream primary school with which they could cooperate. Several rounds of discussions resulted in an invitation to visit central China and mount a joint production.

Despite a range of challenges, including being filmed in rehearsals by a Chinese TV company with a very different agenda, the organisation was able to stage a performance of musical theatre involving children of all abilities. To the delight of the European organisation, all the Chinese parents were enthusiastic about the inclusivity of the production.

With the first event a success, it was agreed to return with a more ambitious project. In the second year the organisation worked with a group of young Chinese performers to develop an English-Chinese storyline and songs. The performance that followed collaborative workshops was on a much bigger scale than in the first year and was very well attended. The audience responded with huge enthusiasm and the performance was also very well received by local government officials.

The local authority initially showed interest in furthering the relationship and visited the organisation in Europe. The European organisation had hoped to develop their work in collaboration with the Chinese NGO, but the local organisation lacked resources and staff capacity to invest in advancing the relationship and there were practical difficulties in bringing Chinese colleagues to Europe, including arranging visas. The European organisation also lacked funds for this area of work. New sources of funding would have to be found that would, ideally, also cover salaries but statutory arts organisations seemed uninterested. When officials on the Chinese side failed to respond on their return to China, the European organisation concluded that their China venture was probably over.

Nevertheless, for the European organisation the engagement with China had already brought benefits to both sides. Chinese participants and audiences were exposed, for the first time, to the joy and possibilities of an inclusive approach to the arts. In a country where the socially excluded and people living with disabilities are largely invisible and their needs ignored, inclusive theatre offered new prospects for challenging stereotypes and discrimination. For the organisation's staff, working in a culturally very different context was a huge learning opportunity. Working outside their usual comfort zone stretched the organisation’s creative staff in new ways.

The European organisation did not follow closely the twists and turns of Chinese politics and the closing space for civil society. In 2015, as news of the proposed new Overseas NGO Law spread (henceforth: the law) it was not active in China although still open to future engagement.


State of China-related activities. Without an organisational and strategic commitment to engaging with China, the European organisation had depended on ad hoc interest and contacts from the Chinese side. When Chinese local government officials seemed to lose interest, the organisation believed its China engagement had come to an end. A chance meeting with a representative from a European performing arts management agency, however, recently opened up new opportunities. The agency had noted the growing interest in creative education in China and saw an opportunity to promote theatre education. The agency believed that this would be most promising at the primary school level in China where children face less exam pressure and there would be time for extra-curricular activities.

The first introduction to a prospective new Chinese partner was not a huge success. It soon became clear that the local partner did not plan to adopt the organisation's approach to inclusivity. The local partner was more interested in the commercial possibilities of reselling the European organisation's approach to theatre education to Chinese middle-class parents in search of new experiences for their children.

An introduction to a second partner has been more promising and the European organisation is now providing theatre education on a commercial basis in collaboration with a Chinese education company. The Chinese company works with a number of schools, including a charitable boarding school for disadvantaged girls. The school caters to girls from rural areas including orphans and left-behind children and from the outset there was an interest in encouraging the girls to tell their own stories.

The new law is an obstacle for the European organisation in pursuing a not-for-profit model of cooperation in China with values and a social mission at the core. For the organisation to operate under the new law it would either have to register an office, with all the cost implications of a permanent presence, or identify a suitable Chinese not-for-profit organisation that would be able to file applications to register temporary activities. The law provides little opportunity for international organisations to explore new relationships, particularly in areas, such as inclusive arts, where China lacks counterpart organisations.

For the Chinese authorities, the notions of not-for-profit and a social mission are unfamiliar concepts and are often treated with suspicion. For the European organisation the law hinders rather than thwarts further engagement with China. For the time being, a commercial relationship enables the organisation to continue to promote an inclusive vision for the arts in China while also offering development opportunities for its own staff.

Impact of the law on Chinese partners. The Overseas NGO Management Law has had no direct impact on the European organisation. Although as a not-for-profit organisation and registered charity they would appear to fall under the ambit of the new law, the organisation is also a registered company and has been able to structure their engagement with China on a commercial basis.

For the European organisation the provision of theatre education services on a commercial basis has enabled them to continue their engagement with China. In the short term this has been mutually beneficial. The organisation has not had to undertake the costly and burdensome requirements of trying to register an office in China or finding local partners willing and able to sponsor the registration of temporary activities.

They have also been able to charge salaries as well as direct costs unlike the earlier hand to mouth arrangement with a Chinese NGO. A commercial relationship has its limitations and the European organisation is trying to reinvent their status as service provider to the Chinese company in terms of a more collaborative, co-creating relationship. In the longer term, the organisation doubts that the role of service provider will satisfy the organisation. The relationship with the European arts agency is one, now, of partnership where both sides can brainstorm new opportunities of engaging with China.

The new law is unhelpful for overseas charities, such as this European organisation, that want to explore longer term engagement with Chinese counterparts. For this organisation it is still unclear how far they can sustain a satisfactory collaboration in China within a commercial framework.


This European organisation's engagement with China has been championed by a senior member of staff who has been involved from the outset. He has welcomed the development opportunities engagement with China has provided to his colleagues. By working in China staff have had to operate in a very different cultural context. This provides a valuable learning opportunity which challenges staff to re-examine the very purpose and nature of their work. The development opportunities for staff have helped to ensure board level support for the work in China. As an arts organisation with an ethos of social inclusion, they also provide diversity training to companies and the China experience has provided valuable support for that aspect of their work. Contacts in China have also resulted in fee-earning work in Europe delivering theatre education, through workshops and summer schools, for Chinese students.

Some staff in the organisation have questioned the decision to engage with China because of the political situation in the country and the nature of the regime. Others have argued, that the activities, provided by the organisation, are empowering for the Chinese children and will help to broaden their outlook and support for diversity. The organisation acknowledges that its work with primary school age children is less political than the work it normally does at the secondary level and they have not encountered any opposition in China. Most not-for-profit organisations that engage with China are familiar with these tensions and the organisation recognises that there are no easy answers.

This European organisation engages with arts organisations in several countries around the world and the cooperation takes a number of different forms. The organisation acknowledges that its engagement with China is driven by one person and would cease if he left or the project became too difficult.

EU-China relations beyond aid

This organisation has not been involved in any broader bilateral or European level of engagement with China. They have not sought to position their work as cultural ambassadors although, like most arts organisations, they are open to opportunities that may bring new funding. Financial support is a perennial concern. As a social arts organisation promoting diversity they are not considered mainstream enough in Europe to benefit from long term support from most arts funders.

The organisation's initial work in China was supported by a grant from a German foundation. They have also received British and European arts funding. The organisation is also interested in pursuing the possibility of commercial sponsorship from companies active in China. However, while inclusion is now a priority for many companies in Europe, this may not yet be the case for sponsorship in China.



11. Less Adventurous Partners

Case Study 11: Local partners have become less adventurous in their project designs and their appetite for overseas funding has cooled (pdf version of this case study available here)


This European organisation has a long history of engaging with China. It supports bilateral cooperation and has been a leading proponent of engagement with China in the arts, public policy, law and governance. The organisation works closely with a range of counterparts in China including universities, government and party organisations. On the European side participants include lawyers, academics, parliamentarians and policy makers.

The organisation engages with China through both technical cooperation and policy dialogue. Most of the organisation’s activities involve engaging with official Chinese counterparts including from within universities and think tanks. The organisation does not engage, to any significant extent, with those working 'outside the system' (tizhiwai). Providing access to European expertise and experience is welcomed by Chinese counterparts. The organisation also provides Chinese partners with valued access to high level and influential officials and experts on the European side. This European organisation is, above all, a facilitator of engagement. The organisation receives some core funding from government and is supported by a number of institutional donors on a project basis. The organisation also raises sponsorship for certain activities from the corporate sector. Funding for bilateral political dialogues comes from both the Chinese and European side. The organisation enjoys good relations with a number of influential Chinese organisations in the sphere of international cooperation. The organisation’s staff travel frequently to China, but they have not established a formal office there. The organisation has not had or sought a legal status in China.

Although the organisation is a not-for-profit organisation and would appear to fall under the remit of the Overseas NGO Law (henceforth: the law), the organisation is not seen as a foreign NGO by partners in China. The organisation's status in China reflects some of the ambiguities inherent in the interpretation of all Chinese law. For the organisation's local partners, the organisation is not a target under this law and it is not in anyone’s interest to identify the organisation as an NGO. That Chinese counterparts do not feel obliged to treat the organisation as an NGO may reflect the organisation’s almost exclusive focus on working 'within the system'. Conversations with several European organisations, as part of this project, indicate that the Chinese authorities seem prepared to interpret the law flexibly when it is in their interest. This organisations acknowledges that these circumstances may change in the future, but for the time being they are able to take advantage of the situation.


State of China-related activities. At the time of our interview, this European organisation reported that it had largely been able to continue with its planned programme of work following the introduction of the Law. Like many other organisations, they have experienced delays in securing approval for international events in China and they have noted increased scrutiny of invited participants. European experts have, nevertheless, continued to be able to travel to China to participate in technical discussions and the sharing of European practice on a range of technical, though not politically contentious subjects. In order to continue engaging with Chinese counterparts, the organisation selects interlocutors from the European side with care, briefs and accompanies participants in China.

Although the organisation has been able to take advantage of a certain amount of policy ambiguity regarding implementation of the law, the issue of registration has come up in relation to the recruitment and location of staff. While the organisation does not currently have an office in China any future plans to base a senior member of staff in China would likely require registration under the law.

Impact of the law on Chinese partners. The organisation's working relations with party and state institutions seem to provide other Chinese partners with sufficient confidence that they can continue their cooperation with this European organisation. None of their local partners or counterparts has expressed any nervousness or reticence about their relationship with the organisation.

Nevertheless, the organisation has noticed that the approval process for new projects has become more onerous for local partners. This includes funding as well as the content and identity of participants in activities. Project approval has become much more problematic for universities. In contrast, official partners in the bilateral political dialogue seem to face no such problems. Many Chinese partners demonstrate an increased awareness of risk and have become more cautious, particularly with respect to the transfer of funds to support activities.

A few Chinese partners have shown little concern for or understanding of the risks to activities from the external environment, such as the challenge of organising activities at politically sensitive periods. Nevertheless, Chinese organisations that are able to ask for project approval from the relevant authorities do not face the same level of risk as those independent grassroots organisations which know they have no standing to request approval for an activity. For these organisations, politically sensitive antennae are essential when planning events.

Although the organisation has been able to continue holding activities in China it has experienced some operating difficulties as a consequence of the new environment for overseas NGOs and its lack of registered status. Bank transfers, notably, have become harder with increased paperwork for local partners. The organisation has also encountered a greater degree of scepticism towards the benefits of engaging with foreign organisations in general, if not necessarily towards themselves. Overall, the organisation has observed that the law seems to have had a 'dampening effect'. Local partners have become less adventurous in their project designs and their appetite for overseas funding has cooled. The organisation also reflected on whether it had become more cautious in response to the less welcoming programming environment. They would like to be more ambitious, but sensed increased cautiousness both in Europe and China.

This European organisation also has the impression that the funding climate for engagement with China has deteriorated. Donors seem to be adopting a wait and see attitude towards the impact of the law and the closing spaces for international cooperation. Support for engagement with China is being reconsidered by many donors in light of the new, less open environment. In several fields the organisation has noted the closure of international funding programmes with no Chinese government funding coming on stream to plug the gap for local partners. This will, inevitably, result in reduced opportunities for policy innovation in China and leave many legal and policy issues unaddressed.

Reflecting on the likely impact of the law, the organisation observed that Chinese professional supervisory units could be expected to act increasingly as gatekeepers for projects and funding by overseas NGOs in much the way that organisations, such as CICETE, the China International Centre for Economic and Technical Exchanges under the Ministry of Commerce, have managed funding for China from United Nations agencies.


Engagement with China is at the heart of the organisation's work and, if this work were no longer possible, the organisation would likely cease to exist. With good government contacts, the organisation is also able to engage in bilateral discussions at a very high level. The bilateral political dialogues address a need for engagement on China’s part which, in turn, seems to enable continued cooperation on technical aspects of law and policy.

At present the organisation intends to continue engaging with China and to try to negotiate mutually acceptable ways of cooperating in a less hospitable environment. The organisation continues to try and frame cooperation in terms of cooperation on matters of shared interest. Time spent thinking about the relationship and the direction of their engagement with China has increased in recent years.

The organisation has been exploring new contexts in which to engage with China including under the Chinese policy of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The organisation does not see this as a retreat from some of the current challenges of working with China, but as a constructive way of broadening their work into new areas. The organisation has no plans to broaden its geographic remit. The organisation has not identified red lines with respect to its China engagement. Challenges are assessed on a case by case basis. For this European organisation, ensuring continued access to funding continues to be the main limitation on the level and nature of its engagement with China.

EU-China relations beyond aid

This European organisation has long played a role in helping to facilitate a range of bilateral civic and commercial engagement with China. Some of these programmes are under review. The organisation does not, however, have a mandate to engage at the Pan-European level. Neither is the organisation active in any transnational networks or forums which would bring together Chinese and European participants, although it does so informally as part of technical cooperation projects.



12. Complete Closure

Case Study 12: As a result of the law this organisation's China programme was closed and European staff in China had to leave the country (pdf version of this case study available here)


This European NGO is engaged in international cooperation. It undertakes projects in the fields of human and worker rights and socio-economic development, including promotion of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The organisation also promotes solidarity between workers in Europe and developing countries to advance its mission of peace, democracy and respect for human rights. The organisation is rooted within local communities in the European country where it was founded and it works closely with the trade union movement to promote development cooperation that respects the rights of workers. Its international cooperation projects partner with local trade unions or labour groups.

This European organisation was working in China for about a decade prior to the introduction of the Overseas NGO Law (henceforth: the law). The earliest work in China provided financial support to grassroots organisations and other civil society organisations (CSOs) that were offering paralegal services and working in policy advocacy, empowerment and capacity building for civil society.

The organisation worked closely with experienced Hong Kong-based groups that could facilitate establishing contacts. Early initiatives helped Chinese activists to network in the fields of environment and disability. In more recent years the organisation chose to focus on labour issues and expand their level of support.

The organisation's work on labour issues led to the organisation working with academic partners, including Beijing-based think tanks, as well as grassroots labour groups. The majority of the labour groups were based in southern China where foreign investment had stimulated the expansion of labour-intensive manufacturing attracting large numbers of migrant workers from inland China. To implement its labour rights programme in China the organisation employed European consultants with strong language and China backgrounds. In the relatively more liberal period preceding adoption of the law this was an effective cooperation model providing a close degree of support to grassroots groups and flexibility in responding to new opportunities. Like many other international organisations with a presence in China, European staff were in China on study visas. The costs associated with corporate registration had led the organisation to decide against registering prior to the new law. Like other international organisations in China at that time this had not been a problem.

As information on the law became available the organisation considered the implications for their work in China. A number of factors led them to conclude that it would be very hard to register as an overseas NGO. First, research into the law and consultations with colleagues suggested that it would be difficult for an organisation with an explicit social justice and human rights focus to register. It was widely believed among NGO activists in China and overseas that one of the objectives of the new law was to cut off funding to the most independent and active CSOs in China and curtail the activities of the international organisations that supported them. Second, the organisation had already been experiencing a number of difficulties with its operations in China. Meetings in China had been disrupted by the police, local partners were harassed and the police had removed documents.

The year 2015 was a turning point for human rights and labour activism in China. In March, five feminist activists were detained for 37 days. Three months later two staff from independent campaigning NGOs were held for a similar period of time and on July 9th the authorities began to detain and interrogate large numbers of 'rights defence' lawyers in a crackdown which became known as ‘709’. In December, the authorities in Guangdong detained five prominent labour activists.

The events of 2015, and the continuing repression in 2016, led this European organisation to decide against attempting to register as an overseas NGO, at least for the time being. Chinese staff working in partner organisations were detained and local partners were experiencing difficulty withdrawing funds sent from overseas. The crackdown on many Guangdong based activists started to undermine the province’s reputation for a degree of tolerance towards civil society. The organisation concluded that without registration the organisation would have to cease working in China. European staff would be unable to work safely in the more restrictive environment and could not obtain new visas without a registered office.


State of China-related activities. This European organisation was sad to no longer have a China programme as a result of the law. European staff in China had had to leave the country and the programme manager at the head office in Europe, also with a personal background in China, was sorry to lose the valued personal connections.

Reflecting on the impact of their decade of engagement with China, the organisation believed the most significant result was in terms of increased capacity on labour rights and the participation of activists and grassroots groups in wider networks.

For the organisation, itself, the main benefit was building a bridge between European and Chinese workers and contributing to a more globalised approach to labour rights.

Impact of the law on Chinese partners. Without being able to register as an overseas NGO in China, the organisation's Chinese partners lost a valued source of financial and technical support. Their local partners were mainly small independent CSOs. If they had any legal status it was as registered companies. The new charity law in China, introduced the year before the Overseas NGO Law, made it very difficult for commercial companies to undertake not-for-profit work. Without registration as a not-for-profit organisation under the Ministry of Civil Affairs local partners could not apply to work with the organisation through registering temporary activities. In the more repressive environment following introduction of the new law collaborating with international organisations in holding activities was a high risk endeavour.

The organisation enjoys strong relations with European trade unions and, on this basis, the organisation had sought, early on, to establish a relationship with the All-China Federation of Trades Unions (ACFTU). However, it soon become clear that a relationship based on very different values would be difficult. For this European organisation freedom of association was a fundamental principle. Under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party the ACFTU is obliged to advance the Party’s interests. The Chinese government made clear its opposition to freedom of association with its declaration with respect to Article 8, the right to form and join trade unions, when it ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The organisation's trade union sponsors have sought to engage in a dialogue with the ACFTU through the ILO’s annual meetings in Geneva.


This European organisation recognises at the board level that there is a need for continued engagement with China in the area of labour relations. As part of a more globalised approach to labour rights and an expression of international solidarity, they accept the need to monitor the activities of European companies in China as well as the actions of Chinese companies in Europe. Chinese companies are very active in buying European enterprises and are now significant employers of European workers. One of the organisation's Hong Kong-based partners is now coming to Europe to engage on labour issues and the two organisations are exploring new forms of engagement in Europe.

China is, however, not the only country where the organisation experiences difficulties. They have also observed the shrinking space for civil society and labour rights in other Asian countries where they are active, including Nepal and Pakistan.

The organisation retains a low level of engagement with China. They recognise that the ACFTU is not a monolithic organisation and there may be scope, at some point in the future, to establish relationships at the local level. Establishing such relations, however, requires time and resources and the organisation has no budget to invest in development. Without some new project funding it is very difficult to find a way forward. The organisation feels it is caught up in a vicious circle of related challenges brought about by the law, the lack of new funding and the consequent lack of capacity. Taken together, these factors make it very difficult to explore new forms of engagement with Chinese labour.

EU-China relations beyond aid

The organisation observed that grassroots groups in China have had little opportunity to participate in broader EU-China civil society meetings. Although most of the organisation's work in China has been funded by the European Union the organisation has never been invited to participate in any bilateral dialogue or forum. The organisation is active in a number of international networks involving labour unions and they are currently exploring how to bring Chinese colleagues into these networks.



13. Cooperative Atmosphere Persists

Case Study 13: An atmosphere of cooperation still exists and the European organisation believes the local partners want it to succeed and continue their good work (complete case study available here)


This European organisation started cooperation with China in the 1990s based on the personal engagement of committed individuals. The portfolio of the organisation has since focused specifically children’s education, support for local schools, social care work with orphans and support for poor families in rural areas of Western China. It has been working in this field for about 20 years. Before the Overseas NGO Law (henceforth: the law) came into force, the organisation was working in a so-called ‘grey zone’ together with local government organisations.

It was working in Gansu with the Bureau of Education (Tianshui) and in Shaanxi partly with the Women’s Federation. Now the European organisation is successfully registered in Gansu and at the time of writing was applying for an extension of this registration for the children support activities which are undertaken in Shaanxi. This small support project includes around 20 children.

At the time of writing, the NGO waiting for an answer and are still supporting them ‘unofficially’ during this period. Prior to the registration the had been able to support children through a friendly cooperation with local authorities based on mutual respect and recognising mutual benefits.

One can say that during this period of successful cooperation a pragmatic policy of 'no recognition, no banning, no intervention' was applied to enable the organisation's programmes to address these urgent humanitarian social issues and educational needs of children. As a result there have been many achievements in terms of numbers of children who have had the chance to receive primary and middle school education, increased capacity of local schools and enabling orphanaged children to have a better life.


The registration has not had significant impact on the organisation's activities. However, due to high administrative efforts and paper work required, some impacts could be expected in the future programmes. The organisation has only a very small structure and administration, and there is a lot of paper work to submit on a continuous basis, many approvals to wait for and some extra costs involved, including an office in Tianshui, new accountant as staff members, and many trips to the capital Lanzhou. At the time of writing, there is not yet a completely clear picture, what the additional costs will be incurred and extra efforts due to the new procedures will be. Until now the additional costs have been mainly the rent of a small office in Tianshui and an office in Baoji, Shaanxi province, where the two Chinese employees of the organisation live, the salary of an accountant, and many trips to Lanzhou for the local manager to manage the administrative aspects of the registration.

The assessment of the law on the relationship with local partners has to consider the longstanding partnerships in Gansu with the local partners, especially the local Civil Affairs Bureau. This partnership started two decades ago with the sponsorship of a center for street children and orphans. The local Civil Affairs Bureau did not interfere with the organisation's education initiatives and actions in the various villages. Then, almost ten years ago, the European organisation started to work with the Tianshui Bureau of Education, which has always been a friendly and supportive partner, recognising the important contributions of the CSO to local educational attainment.


At the time of writing it is too early to say which direction the activities and engagement will take. One issue that is causing a problem under this new set up is the fact that the European organisation is not allowed to raise funds in China, as highlighted above.

The organisation has retreated on anything so far and continues with the previous programmes and agenda. This is mainly because the organisation helps orphans and extremely poor children to go to school and support them as far as they can go in their studies, an ongoing issue in the rural areas of Gansu and not a political issue. So far there are no red lines which have been crossed and repositioning was not required.

The organisation does not have the option, and has not considered, establishing a local representative offices in any other country. Due its very location specific programmes focused only on China, this is also not a viable option. Local presence is required to continue projects and deliver positive outcomes for the communities.

EU-China relations beyond aid

The organisation has not been directly involved in high-level People-to-People Dialogues or bilateral sectoral dialogues, not even indirectly by implementing partner organisations. Because the organisation is focused specifically on small projects in rural areas, there is little awareness of EU-China relations and the CSO did not participate in any initiatives which have taken place over the years.



14. Caution But Continuity

Case Study 14: While there is generally now more cautiousness about working with INGOs, none of its partners fear political trouble or have withdrawn from projects (complete case study available here)


This international NGO based in Europe is an independent development and humanitarian organisation which works in over seventy countries across the world, including in Africa, the Americas, and Asia. It was founded over eighty years ago to advance children's rights and equality for girls and has a proven track record of helping tens of millions of girls and boys every year across the world.

The portfolio for the work in China has not been very different than from other countries, while taking into account the specific Chinese conditions, focusing on children’s rights and equality, delivering childhood and community development. The organisation started in the mid-1990s to improve the lives of the most vulnerable children. It has been implementing programmes in many provinces, cities and autonomous regions including Shaanxi, Ningxia, Yunnan, Anhui, Sichuan, Qinghai, Hunan, Beijing and Jiangxi.

Main achievements to date have been contributions to children’s rights and community development with many improvements on local level, especially in rural areas in various provinces across China. Some of the areas of work include ensuring the most vulnerable children have a healthy start to their lives, providing quality pre-school education, preventing violence by supporting children and stakeholders to build safe schools and communities, and preparing adolescents for adulthood by supporting them to gain life and financial skills and helping migrant women to get good jobs.

The cooperation has been valued highly by Chinese partners, including official government associations and local partners. Beyond the direct positive impacts on the lives of children, families and communities, the development of organisational capacities and individual capabilities of partners and strong trust partnerships have been the main legacies of this long phase of cooperation.


This international NGO (INGO) is operating in many developing countries. Since 2017 it has started rolling out a five-year strategy which is linked to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The INGO is working and financing local partners for implementation is the standard mode of operation in many countries, including China. The INGO is now officially registered as legal organisation on provincial level with the provincial Women’s Federation branch. It was not a long or complicated process and the registration completed fairly quickly. The previous partners on local level offered support and are all linked to the All China Women’s Federation on national level.

While the registration is on provincial level, the international organisation has the permission to work across provincial boundaries and implement activities in nine different provinces across China. In terms of relationships with partners, the Overseas NGO Law (henceforth: the law) does not seem to have driven a change. While there is generally now more cautiousness of working with INGOs, none of its partners have expressed that they fear political trouble or have withdrawn from projects. Possibly the reason is that the INGO’s work on children’s rights and development is not considered a sensitive issue by the government and the INGO work contributes to China’s development goals. What is new is that the INGO and the local partners have to find a way to work with the Professional Supervisory Units (PSU) regarding the many administrative obstacles.


The new Law has affected the internal discussion about the organisation's future China engagement and strategy. For the future work of the INGO in China, there is a degree of uncertainty on the European side, both in terms of pragmatic day-to-day operations of project planning, implementation and financial planning, but also about what is going to be possible and tolerated and what not.

There have been internal discussions about localization between the European side and Chinese staff members. This would mean also registering as local Chinese NGO, not as INGO, with a local board and local directors, thereby setting up a dual identity. The rationale behind this potential new approach is to increase the acceptance of the INGO work among Chinese government officials. The law forced some harder conversation about political independence as an organisation. For the INGO it is important to stand as an independent organisation. This independence is particularly important when it comes to agenda setting. The motto is 'constructive engagement, when in disagreement critically challenge'. One of the key challenges is not being able to work with public mobilisation that can be used in other countries. The PSU as gate keeper for projects raises important questions about ability to affect change. Internally there are ongoing conversation about the freedom to operate, but this is not necessarily a new conversation which only started with the new law. The INGO is, at the time of writing, engaged in a strategy process to identify the future direction of China engagement. There will be ongoing follow ups with senior leadership and the local project teams.

EU-China relations beyond aid

Some of the organisation's senior leadership have some limited engagement and experiences with national or European state-to-state dialogues. However, this is only sporadic and not in a strategic or structured way. The organisation is engaged in a range of international people-to- people dialogues including human rights dialogues, C20 and other international civil society forums, but the Chinese teams and partners have not been involved in these exchanges and dialogues. The European INGO staff would like to engage their local teams more into global developments and debates, or if this is not possible, at least do not want to cut off local team from global discussions.



15. Forced to Change Tactics

Case Study 15: Campaign-style and investigative research and reporting is no longer possible, despite having had positive policy impacts previously (complete case study available here)


This organisation is an international environmental NGO with headquarters in the Netherlands and has been working in China for about fifteen years through an office in Beijing. It has been successfully working on a range of topics relating to environment, climate change, sustainable development, industrial pollution and protection of endangered species. In this wide field of environmental protection and sustainability, the main impact have been achieved through activities of policy advocacy and campaigning.

This INGO has, so far, not been able to find a supervisory unit and, therefore, is not yet registered. Having said this, the organisation was able to register several temporary activity permits, as of August 2018, in total eight temporary activities have been registered, two from last year (2017), six from this year (2018). The Chinese partners are Shanghai Institution of International Studies (SIIS), Tsinghua University and China Association for NGO Cooperation (CANGO). These three permits are about projects on climate change, air pollution and human health, and protecting the Antarctic.


Under the new framework of the Overseas NGO Law (henceforth: the law), this INGO has shifted its activities to environmental education, awareness raising, capacity building, or technical research with academic partners. Under the law there is no opportunity for advocacy work. Previous campaign-style and investigative research and reporting which included naming and shaming of big polluters and emitters, in some cases powerful state-owned enterprises, is not possible any longer – although this work in the past received attention by Minister Xie Zhenhua and contributed to policy changes with direct positive impacts on the ground. Similarly, work on heavy metal pollution of old industrial sites, which included taking samples of contaminated soil and water in specific sites, is not longer possible. Furthermore, helping local communities against pollution not possible.

The overall relationship with the Chinese partners since the implementation of the law continues to be good. After 2017 the INGO had to secure one key Chinese partnership to help apply for the temporary permit, deal with supervisory departments and carry out the activities. This is quite a new experience and change in operations for the INGO. Before 2017 the INGO mainly implemented the projects through their own staff. Now the INGO has to invest additional resources to look and find for Chinese partners, get approval from their supervisory unit and file the project records with the police.

It is not an easy process to find a Chinese partner to work with the INGO throughout the whole process. It is even more challenging for the supervisory unit of our Chinese partner, usually a government department or big research institution, to approve the projects because they have to take responsibilities for the foreign CSO and the outcomes of the projects.


Despite the difficulties faced so far, the INGO has decided to continue working in China and to respect the law. It will continue to focus on the output of the projects and how to make the environment better. The INGO will discuss with Chinese partners and the supervisory units of the various temporary activities about the approaches and different framing if the need arises.

At the time of writing it is too early to say which direction the activities and engagement will take. The CSO has not retreated on any particular topic, but the way and methods the various environmental topics are approached has changed as a result. Most importantly, the environmental watchdog function of INGOs is not possible anymore. So far, there are no red lines which have been crossed and repositioning was not required. The INGO has decided to stay and continue its work and try to push for opening civic space in the future. The international head office has been very supportive and intends to keep the Beijing representation.

It would not be possible to do the work from an office elsewhere outside of China, even from a Hong Kong office. To make a difference it is necessary to have local representation, use the temporary activities to prove to the authorities that the INGO is a good organisation which brings benefits for environmental governance and sustainable development. High level politicians see the INGO not as a threat, but as a useful actor to push for green transformations. But many ministries see INGOs as additional burden and potential risk (ministries as supervisory cannot take any fees from the INGO). They have a lack of staff and capacity, there is no benefit for the ministries to act as supervisory organisations.

EU-China relations beyond aid

The INGO has not been directly involved in high-level EU-China People-to-People Dialogues or bilateral sectoral dialogues. Having said this, due to its international reach, the Chinese colleagues have frequent exchanges with European colleagues. They also participate in international events and conferences, for instance the annual climate change negotiations of the UNFCCC.

The INGO believes that attention by other governments such as the EU member states and external push on Chinese government can help INGOs gain registration - from previous experience the diplomatic engagement with China on the INGO registration has proven to be useful. There is hope that the European Union can raise the issue to China at some high-level political dialogues. It is important to provide names of some key INGOs in the conversation and make it explicit which INGOs requires support to complete registration.



16. Closing the Doors

Case Study 16: China is closing the doors: For International NGOs the opening up period of China seems to have stalled and reversed (complete case study available here)


The small European organisation has worked on Chinese European exchanges and dialogues for many years on a range of topics. It was launched as an independent initiative in 2005. Over the years it raised the interest and active participation of many public and private institutions on both sides in Europe and China. The organisation operated as an informal process without legal status and no membership structure. It focused on society-to-society dialogue processes to take up common challenges facing Europe and China.

These exchanges and dialogues identified opportunities to strengthen the cooperation between European and Chinese societies on issues such as climate change, sustainable urbanisation and global development models. Representatives of all sectors and of all social and professional backgrounds joined these events and in most cases freely discussed subjects of concern and issues that are common to our contemporary societies. Participants’ individual experiences were the starting point of debates which continued through the Internet, as well as at regular meetings organised alternately in China and in Europe.

The organisation previously was not registered in China and did not have a representative office. It worked on a project to project basis together with other Chinese organisations, including government-organised non-governmental organisations (GONGOs), think tanks and universities to organise the exchange and dialogue activities. It did not have any specific long term partners which were dependant on funding from this European organisation.


The registration was raised several times in the past, but the organisation never pursued the registration and focused on organising dialogues and events. A small office was rented in Beijing to coordinate activities on the ground. Before the new Overseas NGO Law (henceforth: the law) this was no issue and not being registered did not affect implementation. Now with the new law, the organisation does not have any prospect of registering. The cost issue and administrative burden of registration has been a major barrier. As a result the Beijing office has been closed. As the organisation is based in Europe, the law does not directly apply. The organisation has not attempted to register, due to the nature of the work the likelihood of finding a supervisory unit is close to zero. Furthermore, there are no specific local activities or projects in China.

However, the law still impacts the way the organisation can operate and for now the organisation is not able to continue its previous work, especially political dialogues. Although the majority of activities took place either in Europe or in Hong Kong, the new political climate, the law, and other restrictions on travel of Chinese academics and experts make it nearly impossible to organise open dialogue events with leading academics and officials as they will not get official approval to participate. Approval for academics with official duties takes more than one year for approval, but it is unpractical to start organising invitations more than one year in advance. This is not directly linked to the law, but to wider restrictions posed on travel of government officials and party members.

The law has not affected any of the previous partners as such. However, some individuals who cooperated with the organisation in the past, are experiencing restrictions on international travel and international engagement. This is not as a result of the organisation's activities, but due to the harsher political climate and state control. This European organisation developed some very strong relationships build on mutual trust that developed over the years. The strengths of individual relationships have been at the core of the cooperation model, but the current political climate has even had impacts on these long standing relationships between key individuals.


The new law has significantly impacted this organisation's ability to continue its work, especially political and cultural dialogues. The law has affected the wider topics of opening up, institutional reform and democratization of China, which were some of the topics of many discussion fora. These are topics which cannot be discussed freely, especially not by Chinese officials and academics whose participation was essential for the former dialogues.

The organisation's future China engagement and strategy is highly uncertain. For the future work of this European organisation in China there do not seem to be any options as any type of activity requires official permission and approval. There even is a high degree of uncertainty if any type of activity with meaningful Chinese participation can be held in Europe.

In conclusion it can be said that the future engagement and existence of the organisation is highly uncertain. The latest activity updates on the organisations website dates back to late 2016, no new initiatives and programmes have been initiated since then.

EU-China relations beyond aid

Based on the organisation's experiences of the past, the European Union and Europe’s civil society could play an important role and positively influence Europe-China relations, for example through people-to-people dialogues. However, one of the main issues is that Europe has not a united voice in its engagement with China, each country has a different position and speaks with a single voice. The different countries also have very different understanding of China, different objectives, and without common understanding and a common position it is difficult to have a united voice. The EU-China relationship should not only be about doing business together, but needs cultural exchanges and dialogues. Europe could do much more in this respect, however, Europe has become too inward looking, rather than engaging China proactively, promoting cultural exchange, dialogues, and civic rights and democratic values.



17. Aligning Priorities

Case Study 17: The aim of the European organisation is to be completely in line with Chinese government objectives (complete case study available here)


This European organisation supports agricultural cooperatives and farmer organisations in developing countries in becoming more professional and productive. The organisation provides socio-economic development worldwide including in countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia through locally based approaches, so that agricultural cooperatives and organisations can be considered more trustworthy, provide high quality services to their members and develop into full-fledged trading partners.

The specific approach of this organisation consists of working with local cooperatives, a peer- to-peer approach (the so-called Agripool-network) and connecting global knowledge and business network. When the organisation started their work in China it was a small scale pilot project. At that time there were many international NGOs, some of which were registered as NGOs or companies while others were not registered at all. In 2016, when the information about the Overseas NGO Law (henceforth: the law) became known, the organisation was working on rural development projects but was not registered at the time. Local authorities and partners advised the European organisation to wait with registration, because the new law was already being discussed. The advice they were given, based on the draft law seen by local authorities, was to wait and register with the new law once it was being implemented, in order to avoid having to go through a new registration procedure once again. During this time the organisation already started expanding their work in the province, thereby already submitting project descriptions to local authorities and establishing contacts and expanding partnerships.


Through the registration process the organisation deepened their relations with the Chongqing Agriculture Commission as its Professional Supervisory Unit (PSU), including visits and delegations coming to Europe, and other types of exchanges. The organisation always had a good relationship with all Chinese government agencies involved in the work. One important aspect which helped was good understanding of local culture and practices and to anticipate different kinds of unexpected twists, and to do what is expected.

After the registration many procedural practices have stayed the same. For example, prior to project missions to go to project locations it is required to send a copy of the passports of the experts who go there before hand. Some aspects of the cooperation have become easier, to implement the projects has become smoother because before they had to register every project separately. The registration process has somehow deepened the relationship between the organisation and the local administrations which now serve as its PSU because they did a lot of work for the European organisation. Through this they showed that the work of the organisation is valued and local government wants the organisation to continue their engagement.


Once the law was in preparation, the internal deliberations of the European organisation about their future China engagement were about up-scaling and expanding, or stopping. However, these deliberations were not only related to the new law, but also about the 'business case' for the organisation's China engagement. The decision was made to increase their engagement with China and take it to the next level. The registration therefore was part of this process. With this hurdle taken, the organisation is ready to engage further and deepen existing networks and partnerships.

Working in rural areas there is some distance to the central bureaucracy in Beijing, the experience of the European organisation is that in the work with local partners there is some more freedom to decide which projects to implement. While the organisation's strategy is largely in line with the government’s rural development strategy, there are also some innovations such as promoting that cooperatives are self-supportive and practice grassroots democracy based on 'one member, one vote' principles. All of this is also according to the Chinese law for cooperatives, so there is nothing illegal in promoting this type of self- government.

EU-China relations beyond aid

This organisation has not engaged in specific Europe-China civil society dialogues. There is no knowledge and no specific ideas about EU-China multi-track diplomacy, the organisation is just focused on their rural development projects in China. Some of the bilateral exchanges the organisation is aware of, although they never directly participated, are the main issues of these bilateral discussions focusing on cooperation topics like agricultural investment, import and export, trade barriers and intellectual property (IP) rights.

Last Updated: October 29, 2019