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August 9, 2018

What More Can We Learn about Temporary Activities?

Since mid-2017, The China NGO Project has provided monthly updates showing some basic facts about foreign NGOs’ registered offices and temporary activities in China—where they are taking place, what countries’ NGOs are most represented, and what sort of work they are engaged in, among others. This snapshot, however, doesn’t go quite deep enough to answer some of the questions we hear from the community. This post aims to address, as best we can, some of your more detailed questions: how common is it for a temporary activity to cover multiple provinces? Are some provincial Public Security Bureaus (PSBs) more likely to allow cross-provincial activities than others? How many of all the temporary activities are just being done by a few big organizations? Are we seeing a drop-off in organizations filing for temporary activities, or in organizations deciding not to come back after holding one or two? Are groups able to successfully “renew” their year-long temporary activities to, in effect, implement a multi-year grant?

The following data, drawn from the Ministry of Public Security website, includes all temporary activities with a start date of June 30, 2018 or earlier, for a total of 800 activities. The number of data points here is still relatively small, making it difficult to talk about statistically significant differences, but there is value in exploring even this limited data and it may help predict trends over the longer term.

The data cutoff date is July 2, 2018; there may be additional temporary activities that started before June 30 but are not represented here because they were posted to the MPS website after July 2. Though the Foreign NGO Law went into effect on January 1, 2017, the first temporary activities filed under it did not take place until March 2017. Therefore, In this analysis, we have measured from March 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018. There is one temporary activity in this dataset that was carried out by multiple foreign NGOs. This data point may also slightly skew the number of “unique” foreign NGOs, but as it constitutes one half of one percent of the total number of activities, we left it in the data.

How Often Do Temporary Activities Take Place in More than One Province?

Any given temporary activity may legally take place in multiple provinces. Rather than submitting a separate filing in each province, the law mandates that the Chinese Partner Unit (CPU) file the temporary activity only in its home province (this is true whether or not the activity actually takes place in the CPU’s home province). This means that any given PSB office can allow a temporary activity that takes place in many different provinces, including activities that take place throughout all of China.

How frequently do temporary activities cross provincial boundaries in this way? The vast majority (716 of 800) of temporary activities take place in only one province.

Number of Provinces Covered Per Temporary Activity, March 2017-June 2018

It is unclear whether this distribution simply reflects the nature of the temporary activities that foreign NGOs have sought to carry out in China, or if it reflects hesitance on the part of provincial PSB offices to allow activities that take place outside of their own jurisdictions. If the latter is indeed a factor, might this hesitance change over time as authorities gain more experience and comfort with the temporary activity mechanism?

If it will, it is yet too early to tell. The average number of provinces covered per temporary activity fluctuates wildly from month to month, sometimes well above or well below the average of all months (2.67). Because the total number of temporary activities begun each month is relatively small (topping out thus far at 73), the implementation of just a few country-wide activities (those activities listed as covering all 32 province-level administrative units) in one month dramatically shifts that month’s average.

Average Number of Provinces Covered Per Temporary Activity, March 2017-June 2018

Of the activities that did cross provincial boundaries, they were allowed in just a handful of locations (Beijing, Guangdong, Shanghai, Gansu, Qinghai, Hubei, Jiangsu, and Anhui):

Average and Total Number of Provinces Covered Per Temporary Activity, by Filing Location, March 2017-June 2018

Notably, no multi-province activities were allowed in Sichuan, Yunnan, or Guizhou, even though they are among the most active provinces in terms of hosting temporary activities. Again, it is unclear whether this is due simply to the nature of the activities proposed in each province, or if it might also reflect provincial PSB offices’ unwillingness to allow activities that take place outside their jurisdictions.

How Many Temporary Activities Come from “Unique” Foreign NGOs?

Out of 336 unique foreign NGOs that had carried out temporary activities as of June 30, 2018, almost two thirds (217) had only carried out one temporary activity.

Number of Temporary Activities Filed Per Foreign NGO, March 2017-June 2018

However, the majority of temporary activities (585, or nearly three quarters of all temporary activities included in this dataset) were carried out by “repeat” foreign NGOs—that is, foreign NGOs that have carried out two or more more temporary activities. (Approximately one third of all unique foreign NGOs carrying out temporary activities in China are “repeat” foreign NGOs.) That means only 216 temporary activities, or just over one quarter, were carried out by foreign NGOs without any prior experience in doing so. At the same time, just seven foreign NGOs carried out over one quarter of all the temporary activities. These were: Grace Charity Foundation Limited (63 activities), Oxfam (50), World Vision (24), MISEREOR Foundation (24), Sowers Action (17), HIS Foundation (13), Fuhui Charity Foundation (13).

As with so much else related to the Foreign NGO Law, these numbers only show us what is above the waterline—we cannot see below the surface to activities that were perhaps in the planning stages but never made it to implementation. How many foreign NGOs wanted to file for and carry out temporary activities but were unable to find a CPU or otherwise fulfill the requirements of filing for the temporary activity? How many of the foreign NGOs that only carried out one or two activities have completely fulfilled their goals in China (i.e., successfully holding one or two “one-off” temporary activities, without trying and failing to file for additional activities)? How many plan to hold annual events, the second or third iteration of which is not yet reflected in the data at this early stage? And how many would have liked to carry out additional temporary activities, but found the process too expensive or daunting to consider doing again? Filing for a temporary activity can take inordinate amounts of time and money, meaning that foreign NGOs could have decided after a round or two of activities that they do not find the process efficient enough to continue.

A similar issue is that of barriers to entry. For foreign groups that have not yet attempted to file for a temporary activity but that have observed as others have done so, are the requirements enabling or hindering their ability or willingness to even attempt working China? One way to start to assess this problem is to look at the percentage of temporary activities conducted by “new entrants” (a foreign NGO that has never before filed for a temporary activity under the Foreign NGO Law) over time. As we can see, both the number and percentage of “new entrant” foreign NGOs peaked in January 2018 and has decreased since then:

Temporary Activities Filed by “New Entrant” Foreign NGOs Per Month, as Compared to Total Temporary Activities Per Month, April 2017-June 2018

Temporary Activities Filed by “New Entrant” Foreign NGOs Per Month, as a Percent of Total Temporary Activities Per Month, April 2017-June 2018

In some ways, this is not surprising—the new legal regime meant an entirely new system of tracking foreign NGO activity, which in turn meant that all foreign NGOs were “new entrants” to the temporary activity system in the beginning of 2017. The fact that temporary activity filings continued to climb throughout 2017 suggests that it took some foreign NGOs, Chinese Partner Units, or Public Security Bureaus (or all of the above) a bit longer to adapt to the new system and process initial filings. Now that Chinese Partner Units and Public Security Bureaus are familiar with the system, they may be more willing to initiate or allow additional filings by “repeat” foreign NGOs.

“New entrants” may continue to drop (or plateau) in the near-term for other reasons as well: some organizations may only have ever had plans to hold one, one-off event in China, and some organizations may cease holding temporary activities once they fulfill their true goal of establishing a representative office in China (in our data, we found approximately 30 organizations that appear to have done just that). Another possibility is that the number of unique organizations that have carried out temporary activities in China is approaching the total number of organizations that aim to do so. If that is the case, then the roughly 630 unique organizations that have carried out temporary activities and/or established representative offices make up the bulk of the foreign NGOs that we should expect to see operating in China in the near term. While we judge that there are likely more foreign NGOs seeking to work in China than these numbers would suggest, it is difficult to know for sure because we have no precise understanding of how many foreign NGOs were in China prior to the Foreign NGO Law.

The question remains, however, how much of each of these factors is contributing to the lack of “new entrants” in recent months and how much is due to high barriers to entry. In addition to financial resources and employee time, successfully navigating the temporary activity filing process requires assistance from a Chinese Partner Unit, making the process particularly onerous for small foreign NGOs or those without long-term relationships in China. The data provided on the MPS website (from which these charts are drawn) only shows those filings that were accepted by public security officials; it does not capture any filings that stalled out halfway through the process, nor does it give us any sense of how many groups assessed the new requirements and simply opted not to attempt a filing. This makes it very hard to understand how the new filing requirements are affecting foreign NGOs’ ability or willingness to work in China. Are foreign NGOs that are not solely or primarily focused on China still interested in carrying out non-profit work there? That is, does the law reduce the number of “one-off” foreign NGOs that might otherwise have tried to work in China?

Are Foreign NGOs Able to “Renew” Temporary Activities?

A key question for a number of foreign NGOs is how flexible the temporary activity mechanism truly is. For organizations that do not have the desire or means to establish representative offices but who have multi-year or otherwise regular or often-repeated programs in China, the ability to use the temporary activity process to implement these programs is crucial. Temporary activities are technically limited to one year in length but those involving emergencies (such as disaster relief and rescue operations) may be extended beyond that timeframe “where there is a need.” There is no explicit discussion in the law about how a foreign NGO with a non-emergency multi-year program might reliably implement it through the temporary activity mechanism. Several groups have wondered whether they would be able to file for a second year-long temporary activity that is substantively the same as the first (in the same location, with the same CPU) and carry on their work on the ground without any interruption. (For the purposes of this analysis, we will refer to this process as “renewal,” even though there is no formal renewal process specified in the law.)

Looking at the data, the preponderance of temporary activities appear to be “one-offs”—that is, projects or programs that do not appear to be long-term or repeated year after year. At least some foreign NGOs, however, have successfully re-upped their temporary activities to carry them out for a second iteration. The clearest example of a year-long program that was allowed for a second year is a MISEREOR Foundation program in Qinghai. Their first temporary activity ran from June 2017 to May 2018, and a follow-on temporary activity of the same name, in the same location, with the same CPU, began in June 2018 and will run through May 2019.

There are at least nine foreign NGOs that appear to have filed for a longer-term temporary activity (five months or more) after first successfully filing for a shorter activity of the same name. For example, Cornerstone Association Limited first filed for a 10-day temporary activity in the fall of 2017; a second filing shows the same activity in the same location running from January to December of 2018. There are even more examples (at least 15) of the same short-term temporary activities (shorter than one month) occurring in both 2017 and 2018. Based on their titles, we expect that a number of activities held in late 2017 or early 2018 may indeed be “renewed,” but their initial filing has not yet lapsed.

Looking at these “renewed” activities, we do not see a pattern based on filing location. This suggests that, at least based on the limited information we have so far, there are no provinces where it is clearly better or worse to attempt to “renew” an activity.

Even though the proportion of “renewed” activities is fairly low, there are many more examples of organizations carrying out the same activity in multiple locations. For example, the Hong Kong NGO U-Hearts has financial aid projects in multiple provinces.

Of course, because this data only shows successful filings, we cannot know if any “one-off” activities were actually designed to be renewed but did not make it through the filling process for the second time. Therefore, we do not have an accurate sense of what percentage of planned or attempted “renewals” are successful.

Is the temporary activity mechanism stable enough for foreign NGOs and donors hoping to fund longer-term projects in China without needing to establish a permanent presence there? Without additional information from each NGO in the MPS database, it is difficult to offer an estimate of how many of the total temporary activities represent more or less continuous multi-year programs. Perhaps the viability of this model will become clearer in the next year or two, but it is not certain at the present.

What Should We Be Watching Going Forward?

Based on what we see above, there are several key issues remaining as we head toward the end of year two of the Foreign NGO Law’s implementation:

  • Whether or not implementation differences between provinces will even out over time. It may be that certain provincial authorities are still feeling their way through a new bureaucratic process; it may also be that foreign NGOs will have to learn the informal rules of the road in each province and adapt to them—for example, foreign NGOs will simply know that they cannot get a cross-provincial project allowed in Yunnan province and will not bother filing for one.
  • Whether or not the temporary activity filing process itself has been or will be a significant barrier to entry for foreign NGOs without a significant stake tied to working in China. Watching the number of “repeat” foreign NGOs, the number of “new entrants,” and the number of foreign NGOs who appear to stop working in China after one or two activities may all be clues in this regard.
  • Whether or not the temporary activity mechanism proves to be reliable and flexible enough for risk-averse foreign NGOs to depend on to carry out multi-year projects in China. If not, will foreign donors shift to more one-year projects in China? Or will some donors decrease or stop their programs in China because the temporary activity mechanism cannot guarantee that two-year projects can be legally completed?

Kelly Ng contributed research.

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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...