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January 10, 2018

Has the Foreign NGO Law Changed the Work of Foreign NGOs in China?

The advent of the Foreign NGO Law in January left many wondering what it portended for foreign NGOs’ work China. How many foreign NGOs would be able to register? Where in the mainland would they be able to operate? And how might the new registration and filing processes change the kind of work foreign NGOs would be able to carry out legally?

The first two of these questions have now been answered, at least partially. Data from the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) shows that a total of 461 foreign NGOs have either registered one or multiple representative office(s) or carried out one or multiple temporary activities between January 1 and December 15, 2017. Of these, 250 foreign NGOs successfully registered at least one representative office and 204 carried out at least one temporary activity. (Note that some foreign NGOs both registered representative offices and carried out temporary activities, meaning they have been counted twice in the preceding numbers.) In terms of geographic scope, 105 of the 293 registered representative offices are permitted to work throughout mainland China, whereas only 13 temporary activities that began by December 15 were nationwide in scope.

Yet, it is difficult to know what kind of change these statistics represent. Historical data about foreign NGOs operating in China is spotty: estimates for the number of foreign NGOs that had been working in China before 2017 range from 1,000 to 7,000. We have even less information about where these thousands of NGOs had been working—or in which sectors. Thus we have little quantitative basis to assess how the Foreign NGO Law might be affecting international groups’ work in China.

In an attempt to establish such a basis for comparison, The China NGO Project turned to China Development Brief (CDB), a non-profit focused on civil society in China that maintains a directory of NGOs operating there. From CDB’s directory, we compiled a list of all the international organizations whose CDB entry included information about the organization’s “sector” of work. From this list of 366 relevant entries, we coded each for the NGO’s field of work and geographic area of operations, based on the “sector” and “region” information provided in the directory. Separately, we coded the MPS-sourced data for field of work and geographic scope based on the descriptions of the NGOs’ activities on the MPS website. We combined representative office and temporary activity data to make this dataset more comparable to the CDB dataset. We also removed organizations that work only on trade-related issues (as trade-only organizations were not represented in the CDB directory). This left us with a list of 339 relevant NGOs from the MPS-sourced data. We used these two sets of data—the coded CDB data and the combined MPS data—as the basis for our comparative analysis. Though this method isn’t a perfect before-and-after comparison tool, it can help us make an educated guess at how foreign NGOs’ work—or at least the public representations of that work—may have changed since the Foreign NGO Law went into effect.

Table 1. Foreign NGOs’ Fields of Work, as Represented in CDB and MPS Data

Several of these categories appear to differ markedly between the CDB and MPS data, which is likely due to artifacts of data collection and labelling. For example, in the Chinese version of the CDB directory, many NGOs described their work using a pithy phrase in Chinese (“三农与扶贫”) that translates roughly to “agriculture, rural residents, rural areas, and poverty alleviation.” Without more specific information, we coded these groups as working on agriculture, rural issues, and poverty alleviation, even if they may have only been working in only one of those fields. Similarly, the CDB directory often used one sector category that combined gender (women’s) issues and LGBTQ issues; one that combined arts and culture, religious issues, and ethnic minority issues; and one that combined labor issues and migrant issues. In each of these cases we erred on the side of over-inclusiveness, perhaps artificially inflating these numbers in the CDB data. Infrastructure did not appear as a sector category in the CDB data, likely reflecting the fact that it simply was not included as a separate category in CDB’s collection effort.

Other large differences between the CDB and MPS data reflect the manner in which the MPS has defined and regulated the non-profit sector under the Foreign NGO Law. Industry associations are indeed run as non-profits, but for most people, the primary association with “NGO” is charitable work. While trade and industry associations are lumped in with other foreign NGOs in China under the Foreign NGO Law, they were not included in the CDB directory. The numbers for sports and tourism groups reflect the same phenomenon. Though a few foreign NGOs were coded under “international relations/exchange” in the CDB data, their small number again likely represents the self-selection mechanism at play for “NGOs” who were included in CDB’s directory.

Other differences, while still partially an artifact of data processing, probably also represent notable shifts in China’s non-profit sector. “Technology,” “urban issues,” and “energy” did not appear in the CDB directory, but they are emerging sectors of non-profit work.

Finally, one major difference between the two datasets is likely the result of both data processing and significant changes in how foreign NGOs choose to represent their work in China. What we have chosen to call “civil society capacity-building” in our coding scheme encompassed a wide range of labels in the CDB data, including “capacity building/research/support/information,” “community development,” and “social innovation/social enterprise.” By filing all of the NGOs under these categories under “civil society capacity-building,” we likely inflated the number of groups coded as such. We suspect, however, that this difference might also reflect changes in how foreign NGOs describe their work in the new environment; we code MPS data based on the information provided on the MPS website, which was likely drawn from NGOs’ application materials and worded in such a way as to reassure Chinese authorities about foreign NGOs’ benign intentions. Therefore, this discrepancy probably hints at a change in how foreign NGOs are choosing to represent themselves, even if it does not tell whether the NGOs’ work itself has altered.

Setting aside all of these somewhat problematic categories, we can take a closer look at the foreign NGO fields of work that are most directly comparable across the CDB and MPS data:

Table 2. Selected Foreign NGOs’ Fields of Work, as Represented in CDB and MPS Data

From these data, it appears that particular fields have seen a spike in foreign NGO engagement in 2017—or at the very least, a spike in the number of NGOs who have been able to successfully file or register under the new legal regime. These more popular fields are disaster relief, education, health, and youth, which also happen to closely align with ongoing government efforts to improve quality of life for its poorer citizens. Unexpectedly, however, elder care does not seem to have fared as well under the Foreign NGO Law, despite the fact that it is also a relatively high priority for the government. Environmentally-focused groups, meanwhile, appear relatively frequently among active NGOs this past year, but they are still much fewer in number than were represented in the CDB data.

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Owing to a lack of clarity (or, in many cases, missing entries) in the CDB data, we have a much smaller set of usable data related to the locations of foreign NGOs’ work. We marked unclear or missing CDB location entries, which make up over a third of the CDB data, as “unknown.” Further, many NGOs had “nationwide” listed as their area of operation, though it is unlikely that all of these groups were truly operating in every province; more likely, given that there was no legal or administrative approval process tied to one’s listing in the CDB directory, the selection of “nationwide” reflected a relatively broad but not absolutely all-inclusive geographic scope. (Though “Xinjiang Bingtuan” is not included in any entries in CDB’s data, it is also the least-tagged in the MPS data.)

Table 3. Foreign NGOs’ Areas of Operation, as Represented in CDB and MPS Data

The high number of “unknown” areas of operation in the CDB database makes any confident comparison hazardous. Still, we can (cautiously) glean a few tidbits of information from these figures. The fact that several of the most popular places for foreign NGOs to work, including Beijing, Guangdong, Yunnan, and Sichuan, are consistent from the CDB to the MPS data tells us that those areas are indeed relative hotbeds of foreign NGO activity in China, and are not simply popular under the new legal regime because they happen to have smoother registration and filing processes. At the same time, however, it does appear that fewer foreign NGOs, relatively speaking, are able to work in Tibet under the Foreign NGO Law. Given that Chinese authorities continue to perceive Tibet and Tibetan issues as highly-charged and threatening, it is certainly not a surprise that Tibet might be one of the places where authorities find the Foreign NGO Law a useful tool to minimize foreign non-profits’ presence—if, indeed, increased restrictions on foreigners’ travel to Tibet don’t hinder NGOs from applying to work there in the first place.

Methodology Notes

Using both the Chinese- and English-language versions of the CDB directory (there is some overlap between the two, but they each contain some unique entries), we compiled all the international organizations listed and removed any duplicates. This produced a list of 399 foreign NGOs, which we then reviewed and tagged with one or more “fields of work” based on the “sector” designations provided in the CDB directory. If the directory only listed “other” as the NGO’s “sector,” we removed it from consideration. We also removed any entities that were U.N.-related organizations, foreign embassies or consulates, or any entities obviously entered into the CDB directory after the Foreign NGO Law went into effect (the vast majority of entries showing such metadata were input between 2011 and 2014). That left us with 366 organizations that we used as a “baseline,” against which the 2017 MPS data could be compared, to take a closer look at how the Foreign NGO Law might be affecting the type and location of international non-profit work in China.

Of course, this method could not create a perfect tool for comparison. First, the CDB directory is not comprehensive; though there may be fewer than 7,000 foreign NGOs in China, the number is certainly more than the 366 we have included in our data from the CDB directory.

Second, the CDB directory does not distinguish between “representative offices” and “temporary activities”—that is a distinction that exists only under the Foreign NGO Law. This means that we cannot draw direct, one-to-one comparisons for “representative offices” and “temporary activities.” However, in order to make the CDB and MPS data more comparable, we combined the MPS representative office and temporary activity data into one set, essentially creating a database of all the foreign NGOs that have gone through some MPS process to work in China between January 1 and December 15, 2017. We removed any foreign NGOs that are only engaged in trade-related work (such as industry associations), to better match the sort of data contained in the CDB directory, leaving us with 339 MPS entries to use for comparison.

Third, as CDB’s directory is opt-in, the NGOs who choose to be represented there are more likely to engage in work Beijing does not consider controversial, and thus be comfortable publicly listing their work, meaning that it is not a representative sample of all the types of foreign NGOs historically present in China. It also means that data provision and collection was not complete for all NGOs.

Fourth, the CDB database does not indicate whether an NGO was still present in China when the Foreign NGO Law went into effect. It’s simply a snapshot of foreign NGOs that wished to have their information included in the database at some point between 2011 and 2016. Some of the NGOs included in the directory may have stopped working in China well before the Foreign NGO Law went into effect.

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Jessica Batke is ChinaFile’s Senior Editor for Investigations. She researches China’s domestic political and social affairs, and served as the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research...
Chen Qi Hang was an intern with ChinaFile. He is a junior at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, a new liberal arts college jointly founded by Yale University and the National University of Singapore (NUS...