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September 25, 2017

Progress in Implementing the Foreign NGO Law

After a slow start, the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) and its provincial Public Security Bureaus (PSBs) seem to be finding their stride in implementing the Foreign NGO Law with the rate of registering representative offices and filing “temporary activities” quickening over the last few months. As of August 22, the MPS Overseas NGO Office website shows a total of 185 representative offices, of which around 88 (48 percent) were registered just in the last three months. The representative offices were registered in around 20 of China’s 32 provincial-level units, with the highest number concentrated in Beijing, Shanghai, Yunnan, and Guangdong. Because some NGOs have registered more than one representative office, the actual number of foreign NGOs that have registered in China is somewhat lower than 185. Most of these NGOs are from Hong Kong, the U.S., Japan, Germany, and South Korea, and fall into two main groups: 1) NGOs and foundations working on development issues such as education, health, disaster relief, poverty alleviation, and the environment; and 2) business and trade associations. For the latest data, see The China NGO project’s tables charting these areas.

The progress made in the last few months also shows that the MPS authorities have made some headway in getting Professional Supervisory Units (PSUs) to agree to sponsor foreign NGOs interested in registering a representative office. Finding a willing PSU has been a major stumbling block to registration in the past. NGOs such as the Nature Conservancy, Ford Foundation, Asia Foundation, Give2Asia, Environmental Defense Fund, and the Heinrich BÖll Foundation, to mention some prominent examples, had been unable to register under the 2004 Foundation Management Regulations in large part because they were unable to find a willing PSU. Over the last few months, all of these NGOs have found a willing PSU and successfully registered. In some of the more challenging cases in which the NGO worked in multiple issue sectors, the MPS was able to bring in new PSUs that had not been on the original PSU directory to sponsor these NGOs. The most notable of these is the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC) which is serving as the PSU for the Ford, Asia, Heinrich BÖll, Konrad Adenauer, and Rosa Luxemburg Foundations, as well as Give2Asia.1

The MPS website also shows that foreign NGOs filed for 228 “temporary activities” with the large majority of these being filed in the last four to five months. Here again, some NGOs have filed for multiple temporary activities (Oxfam Hong Kong alone has filed for more than 30), so the actual number of NGOs that have filed successfully is well below 228. Most of these activities are being filed in the western and southern provinces of Sichuan, Guizhou, Guangdong, and Yunnan, followed by Shaanxi, Beijing, Gansu, and Anhui. The NGOs filing these activities mostly come from Hong Kong, the U.S., and Germany. In contrast to NGO representative offices, which have been in both the trade/business and development sectors, the large majority of NGOs filing temporary activities work on development issues concentrated on youth, education, poverty alleviation, health, disaster relief, capacity building, environment, and disabilities.

There is of course still a great deal of work ahead for both the MPS and foreign NGOs. While the numbers of NGOs that have registered representative offices and filed temporary activities may look promising, they are far less than the actual number of foreign NGOs working in China, which official sources estimate at around 7,000. Given the amount of time required for the MPS and provincial PSBs to create the infrastructure, coordinate with other relevant departments, and train staff, it should not be all that surprising that only a few hundred NGOs have succeeded. Finding willing PSUs remains a problem as only a handful of the eligible PSUs are sponsoring foreign NGOs. On the NGO side, some are in the process of preparing their paperwork, but an even larger number are simply playing a wait-and-see game and finding ways to work around the law. There is still a significant grey area for NGO operations. We’ll see how much and how fast that will change following the 19th Party Congress in October.

  1. The CPAFFC was founded in 1954 as a national GONGO (government-organized NGO) specializing in foreign affairs. Over the years, it has cooperated with numerous NGOs, participated in civil society activities, and acted as a catalyst for developing China’s relationship with the world. Since its establishment, CPAFFC has formed friendly relationships with over 500 non-governmental organizations from over 150 countries.

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Shawn Shieh has 15 years of experience working to strengthen civil society and social movements in China and the Asia-Pacific. In 2018, he founded Social Innovations Advisory, Ltd. (SIA), a...

A version of this post originally ran on Shawn Shieh’s blog, NGOs in China.