You are here

September 15, 2017

Is the Foreign NGO Law a Blessing in Disguise?

Many foreign NGOs working in China view its newly adopted Law on the Management of Foreign NGOs as a threat to their work and say the law may force their organizations to leave the country. Yet, at least for the work I am familiar with—namely, the promotion of human rights and rule of law—the law might ultimately prove beneficial. It could encourage NGOs to rethink current strategies and embrace new ones. In particular, it might inspire foreign NGOs to employ one currently underutilized tool to counter the growing indifference to the plight of human rights victims in China: enlisting the help of businesses and universities.

Foreign NGOs engaged in rule of law and democracy in China multiplied in the 1990s thanks, in part, to generous funding from the U.S. government and the European Union. From 2008 to 2012, I directed one such program in Beijing on behalf of PILnet: The Global Network for Public Interest law, a New York-based NGO. We created programs that educated lawyers and students about the field of public interest law as it is practiced in the West. One of our signature events was the Public Interest Summer School, which we hosted with Peking University and Wuhan University. The two-day conference featured local Chinese lawyers and professors, as well as foreign experts, speaking about how law could be used as a tool to help marginalized populations: people with disabilities, gay and lesbian citizens, farmers who fell victim to environmental disasters.

Other foreign NGOs, such as International Bridges to Justice, established offices in the country to train defense lawyers in the art of vigorous advocacy. The National Resources Defense Council, another New York-based organization, set up a Beijing office which, among other efforts, has worked to develop civil society participation in pollution reduction. Foundations such as the Ford Foundation helped create an association of law teachers in China to bring clinical legal education to students.

My experience maintaining PILnet’s physical office in the mainland had costs which went beyond paying the rent. During my tenure, members of our Chinese staff were constantly harassed by security personnel who frequently asked them “out for tea” to explain why they were working for a foreign organization that received money from the U.S. State Department. In one instance, a couple of agents crossed provincial boundaries, arriving at an employee’s father’s workplace and asking him in front of his colleagues why his child was working for an American organization. In addition to exposing our own staff to such risks, we may have unwittingly made the authorities suspicious of Chinese civil society leaders with whom we interacted, inside and outside of our office.

The rationale for these educational and organizing activities within China may have had force in the 1990s and early 2000s, when China was still relatively undeveloped. This was a time when large numbers of people in China were only beginning to gain access to the Internet, before hundreds of thousands of Chinese students went abroad to study at Western colleges, before China achieved its spectacular economic successes. This was a time when China’s hunger for Western knowledge and expertise meant the government was willing to tolerate the unregulated presence of foreign NGOs.

Times have changed. China now has its own experts. The need for Western groups to have a physical presence in the country to conduct trainings, meetings, and bring in foreign experts is not as great as it once was.

There is a bigger threat to the development of human rights in China, however, than a lack of training opportunities for Chinese legal professionals. That is growing international complacency about human rights violations committed by the Chinese government. The Western world’s increasing indifference to China’s human rights situation was exemplified when Chinese authorities released from prison the critically ill Liu Xiaobo, who died shortly thereafter. Chinese law expert Jerome Cohen wrote,

The world community had largely forgotten Liu Xiaobo. The People’s Republic, through its economic prowess, its assertiveness in the South China Sea and its inability to bring North Korea to heel has managed to divert international attention from its vicious attack on the country’s human rights lawyers and others who have sought to follow Liu Xiaobo’s courageous example in promoting freedoms of expression.

Western businesses and universities have flocked to the country to set up joint ventures with domestic companies and local governments. Indeed, U.S. universities have received hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies from the Chinese government to set up campuses in China. CEOs and college presidents have frequently remained silent in the face of the Chinese government’s campaign against dissent. When -business leaders remain silent about human rights abuses, it’s little wonder that the general public starts to lose interest as well.

To be taken seriously, human rights needs to be seen not just as a concern of special interest groups and persecuted minorities. Respect for human rights is everyone’s business. This principle needs to be embraced and publicized by a range of societal actors, including large businesses and universities and other opinion leaders. To this end, NGOs with China expertise can play an important role in the battle against indifference by using an underutilized tool to keep human rights center stage in the world community: the UN’s “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.” Adopted in 2011, the Guiding Principles recognize the critical role businesses play in protecting human rights. According to the Guiding Principles, an enterprise’s corporate responsibility entails making a clear and public policy commitment, implementing due diligence processes, and providing or cooperating in the creation of remedies for human rights violations committed by their business partners. In the China context, this would mean that businesses need to make commitments on public platforms such as annual reports and company websites to uphold human rights. The Guiding Principles also say that the due diligence process needs to be ongoing. In light of a government crackdown on the human rights community, ongoing due diligence would require companies to identify the campaign as a human rights harm and to propose means of mitigating this harm. For example, it might be feasible for university presidents to make a joint public statement calling for fair trials for arrested activists. (To put this in context, nearly 80 university presidents issued a joint statement recently opposing President Trump’s travel ban. In the 1980s, more than 180 universities opposing apartheid agreed to divest in whole or in part their investments in companies that did business in South Africa.)

If companies and universities adhered to the Guiding Principles it would be less likely that the world community would forget about such people as Liu Xiaobo. Some foreign NGOs that may no longer be able to work inside China because of the new NGO law can still make a vital contribution. They should come together and develop a strategy for engaging the business world in making China a more just place.

Support ChinaFile

Rob Precht is President of Justice Labs, a career mentoring website for public interest lawyers, and he is the former China Country Director of PILnet: The Global Network for Public Interest Law....