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April 24, 2017

How to File for a Temporary Activity

Here’s How One NGO Did It

As we explain here, China’s Law on the Management of Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations’ Activities in the People’s Republic of China (Foreign NGO Law) allows for two major categories of activity for Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations (foreign NGOs) who wish to operate in the mainland. Groups can either register an office in China, or they can file paperwork to notify the authorities of what the law calls “temporary activities.”

The text of the law provides very little information on the definition of “temporary activities” or how groups can successfully apply for them or carry them out. Unlike the registration procedures for setting up a “representative office,” which are enumerated in great detail in the Ministry of Public Security’s guidelines from late last year, many of the mechanisms and rules for holding temporary activities have remained unclear. As a case study, The China NGO Project has interviewed a group that successfully filed for and held a training program early this year in southern China in conjunction with a university as its Chinese partner unit.

According to the Foreign NGO Law, all foreign NGOs without a permanent presence in China must file “temporary activities” paperwork with public security before carrying out any programs, projects, or events or making grants in mainland China. This paperwork must be submitted through a Chinese partner unit—a domestic public or social organization—which works with the foreign NGO to implement the activity. The law describes the type of paperwork required—materials showing the foreign NGO’s legal establishment, a written agreement with the Chinese partner unit, proof of the activity’s funding sources—but does not provide a great deal of specificity about what types of documents are considered acceptable to meet these requirements. For example, neither the law itself nor follow-up guidelines explain what constitutes “proof of funding” for an event.

In recounting its experiences with the new filing process, the first NGO to successfully register for and carry out a temporary activity stressed that a willingness to educate Chinese partner units was key. Given how new the law is and how uncertain many aspects of implementation remain, even an established or enthusiastic Chinese partner unit is often as much in the dark as foreign NGOs themselves are. The NGO said that it provided its partner unit with links to the foreign NGO law, to the Ministry of Public Security’s main foreign NGO portal, and to required forms and documents. The NGO also assisted in filling out forms and writing up contracts.

Another insight from this case: local Public Security Bureau (PSB) officials themselves may not be fully aware of the new reporting requirements. The NGO said that when its Chinese partner unit first contacted its local PSB to submit its temporary activity paperwork, the PSB official seemed not to know what such paperwork was for.

Coordination with Chinese Partner Unit

Document preparation and coordination with the Chinese partner unit was the most time-consuming part of the process.

The preparation for this temporary activity took approximately four months, with most of the time taken up in coordination and discussion with the university acting as the NGO’s Chinese partner unit. As part of the university’s internal approving process, the partner unit first secured approval from its department head, the school head, and then the university’s international office before filing with the PSB. In the course of this iterative approval process, the Chinese partner unit asked the NGO multiple times to provide additional information about funding and personnel. This included detailed breakdowns of how all activity funds were to be used in China, bank account details, a document affirming the source of funding for this particular activity, as well as biographies of everyone working for the NGO in its home offices. The foreign NGO had no direct interaction with the PSB, at the request of its Chinese partner unit.

The NGO was sympathetic to its Chinese partner unit’s numerous requests for additional information, suggesting that the Chinese partner unit was simply trying to ensure that all its bases were covered bureaucratically, internally, before it formally submitted the paperwork. The NGO thought that providing relatively detailed information up front might help this process move faster in the future. The NGO emphasized that it thought its partner unit’s persistence was key in a successful filing and event.

The NGO is also currently filing for two separate temporary activities in two additional cities, but these filings are also moving forward slowly. The NGO also noted that these two new PSB offices have levied slightly different documentation requirements thus far—such as different standards for notarization and authentication of documents—but stressed that this may simply be due to idiosyncratic workflows. The NGO thinks it is possible that such differences may even out as the process continues.

Successful Event Carried out

The event was a success, even if financial transfers were slow.

The NGO said that once the paperwork had been filed, its training program proceeded without incident and didn’t differ from similar events the NGO had organized in the past.

The NGO’s greatest concern was its Chinese partner unit’s ability to withdraw funding for the event from its bank account. The new law does not permit foreign NGOs to spend funds in China for temporary activities; rather, all funds used for a temporary activity must first be transferred to the Chinese partner unit’s bank account. Given that neither the PSB nor the bank has any experience with fund transfers under the new law, the NGO was concerned the process might prove cumbersome—it described the partner unit’s ability to withdraw the transferred funds from its bank account as the “real test” of whether or not the activity had been sanctioned and whether the new funding process could function. In anticipation of possible obstacles, the NGO initially only transferred a portion of the program funding to see if the Chinese partner unit would be able to withdraw the money from the bank before attempting to transfer the rest. In fact, this initial transfer of funds did not appear in the partner unit’s bank account until about two months after the NGO initiated the transfer—which was also after the temporary activity had taken place. In the meantime, the NGO showed its partner unit its money wire confirmation, giving the partner unit enough confidence to front the amount needed to carry out the activity. Eventually, both the initial transfer and the follow-up transfer did make it to the partner unit’s bank account and were successfully withdrawn.

All the foreign citizens intending to take part in the activity successfully obtained visas and were able to participate in the event. On the advice of the Chinese partner unit, they traveled to China on tourist visas rather than on business or other visa types requiring an invitation letter. The NGO was unsure if this was recommended only because no one was available during the Chinese New Year holiday to issue formal visa invitation letters. The law does not specify what type of visa foreign participants in temporary activities should obtain.

After the event, the NGO wrote up a report describing the activity as required by law, which its partner unit then submitted to the PSB.

Logistical Hurdles Will Slow Down Work

The NGO is planning to hold additional temporary activities in China this year, but the pace and number of its activities has decreased due to logistical hurdles under the new law.

The NGO noted that it is planning to hold fewer events in China this year because of the logistical challenges related to temporary activity filings. While its potential Chinese partner units—schools and universities with which they have solid, long-standing relationships—are generally willing to work with them under the new law, the additional paperwork and attendant planning difficulties mean that neither the NGO nor the partner units have the bandwidth to maintain their former pace of events. This is leading the NGO to scale back the scope of its activities. For example, the NGO might have previously brought an outside speaker to several universities over the course of one trip to China, but under the new system the NGO will simply arrange one event at one university per trip.

More Bureaucracy May Mean Greater Predictability

Going forward, attention to detail will be required, but may result in a more predictable working environment.

The NGO is taking a conservative approach to its future temporary activity filings, being as specific and targeted as possible in each filing, and submitting separate filings for each city in which it plans to hold activities. The NGO’s Chinese partner unit advised the NGO to only file for one program at a time, rather than try to include multiple programs or trainings in one filing, which is how it plans to proceed for the near term. The NGO also said it has created an internal procedure to manage the paperwork associated with these filings, anticipating that clear records and an established modus operandi will reduce the time it takes to file for future activities.

The NGO posited that the new law, though slowing down the pace of its activities this year, might offer some protection against the vagaries of bureaucratic politics in the future. The NGO has experienced last-minute event cancellations in the past due to disagreements between various Chinese government offices, and it remarked that, in this sense, the new system might actually be “more secure” as implementation of the new law becomes more routine.

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