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August 18, 2021

Overseas NGOs and Foundations and COVID in China

Using a Securitized Framework in a Time of Crisis

The COVID crisis that enveloped Wuhan, Hubei province, and some other parts of China in late 2019 and early 2020 might, in another era, have encouraged China to temporarily relax constraints on international aid and engagement. In the current Chinese political environment, such relaxation of constraints wasn’t going to happen. China accepted some overseas aid at the beginning of the COVID crisis, but almost entirely on the restrictive political and legal terms laid down in the Overseas NGO Law and framework enacted in 2016.

In two other major disasters, China’s response had been different. In 1976, when the Tangshan earthquake hit, killing hundreds of thousands of people and destroying a major city in Hebei province, an autarkic China in the midst of bitter political struggle before Mao Zedong’s death rapidly and forcefully declined overseas aid. It was a different China 32 years later in 2008, when the Wenchuan earthquake destroyed parts of Sichuan, killing at least 69,000 people, injuring hundreds of thousands more, and levelling homes, schools, and hospitals across a wide area. Wenchuan occurred at a time of civil society expansion and policy rivalry about the constraints over both domestic charitable organizations and the large number of overseas organizations that sought to work with China. China welcomed significant overseas assistance after Wenchuan. That welcome had to be brokered by rapid but careful national policymaking, particularly in the absence of national rules for work by overseas NGOs and foundations in China. In 2008-2009, China received Wenchuan-related aid from about 170 countries and more than 20 international and regional organizations, as well as about $8 million from the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund. That assistance was facilitated by special relaxed regulatory measures adopted by the Ministry of Civil Affairs and other agencies. While overseas aid was welcomed in the wake of Wenchuan, it had to be approved, there had to be a local partner, and distribution usually had to be done by that local partner. And the range of local partners was not unlimited—for the most part, the local Chinese partners receiving overseas aid in the wake of Wenchuan had to be vetted and approved by the state.

By 2020, the situation in China was quite different in political and regulatory terms from 2008. Chinese policy toward overseas NGOs and foundations had hardened, culminating in 2016 with the enactment of the Overseas NGO Law and its strict constraints on the work of overseas (including Hong Kong and Taiwan) NGOs, foundations, think tanks, and other nonprofits in China. A resurgent and suspicious central government now had a full-fledged, hard-edged regulatory regime in place to manage COVID-related aid. By early 2020, the Overseas NGO Law had been in place for three years, implemented on a national basis by the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing and province-level and lower public security bureaus throughout the country. That framework mandated a “two masters” system: For each overseas NGO and foundation seeking to work in China, a professional Chinese partner organization must approve work plans, and the relevant public security unit must also approve the organization’s plans and presence in China. This framework generally allowed overseas NGOs, foundations, and other nonprofits to be active in China only through representative offices or (often renewable) “temporary activities” projects.

Unsurprisingly, China used that existing Overseas NGO Law framework under public security control to deal with offers of assistance in early 2020 to help with the COVID outbreak in China. Unlike after Wenchuan, significant new regulations and policies were not enacted to govern import of overseas aid—the existing, comprehensive, restrictive framework for overseas NGOs and foundations served to govern this process and limit the role that these organizations could play. In that new environment, China was generally offered and expressed a preference for immediate relief and supplies distributed through approved local partners, rather than assistance that raised policy questions and sought to expand participation in policymaking.

Within those constraints, a number of overseas groups were active with donations and programs in the early months of the COVID outbreak. Overseas giving platforms and intermediaries (which largely did not exist for aid to China in 2008) brought in millions of dollars. One of the largest donation intermediaries, the San Francisco-based Give2Asia, raised about $10 million for China COVID relief in the first several months after the outbreak in Wuhan. Give2Asia was aided in raising and distributing those funds because it had already been fully registered under the Overseas NGO Law to work in China. The aid directed through Give2Asia went almost entirely to and through large local Chinese NGOs that were already approved partners. But this work was not within Give2Asia’s 2020 work plan that had been submitted to its professional supervisory unit and its regulatory public security unit in 2019. Channeling that aid to domestic, already vetted NGO partners required “expedited approvals” from both agencies. Those approvals to send aid came very rapidly. That pattern was repeated in other cases, including the Gates Foundation and other donors, NGOs, or intermediaries.

Most of the larger donations appear to have come through a relatively small number of registered offices rather than through the “temporary activities” provisions of the Overseas NGO Law framework. For example, the China Medical Board, registered with an office in China since 2017 under the Overseas NGO Law Law, committed $2 million to support its Chinese partners in COVID relief, equipment, capacity building, and research. The Gates Foundation, also registered in China since 2017 under the Overseas NGO Law, committed $110 million in early 2020 for COVID-related relief and research.

In addition to large donations from groups with registered offices in China under the Overseas NGO Law, a significant number of donations for COVID relief and recovery also came from organizations who received approval for more limited “temporary activities” projects in this area. The Ministry of Public Security website for temporary activities, made available in English via the ChinaFile NGO project, lists well over 100 COVID-related temporary activity projects approved in 2020 and early 2021. Those ranged across the world—from the Brazil-Guangdong Natives Association to the China Enterprises Chamber of Commerce in Malaysia, and many countries and organizations in between. Approvals began as early as January 23, 2020, indicating rapid facilitation by both partner organizations and public security. Many of these donations went to organizations in Hubei, where the COVID outbreak was centered, but many others went to Guangdong, where many of the donor organizations have their roots.

For the Chinese political and public security leadership, the Overseas NGO Law securitized framework has held up well under both non-crisis and crisis conditions. It has served to enable aid to flow into China that China could vet, approve, and limit in advance, constraining and channeling that assistance to relief and services through approved domestic partners and avoiding the chaotic vitality of the post-Wenchuan era or the autarky of the post-Tangshan time.

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Mark Sidel is Professor of Law and Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Doyle-Bascom endowment) and consultant for Asia at the Washington-based International Center for Not-for-...

This article was originally published by The European Institute for Chinese Studies (EURICS). It is based on a talk in the EURICS/IFRAE/Université de Liège webinar series “China in a Time of Pandemics: Politics, Culture and Society,” and expanded from “Party, State, Civil Society and COVID-19 in China,” by Mark Sidel and Ming Hu, Nonprofit Policy Forum, March 2, 2021.