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January 25, 2021

A Look Back at Foreign NGOs in China in 2020

2020 saw something of a lull in foreign NGO activity in China. According to Ministry of Public Security data, fewer foreign NGOs registered new representative offices or initiated temporary activities than they had in the previous two years.

Of course, in a year where China and the rest of the international community had to contend with successive waves of a global pandemic, it is not surprising that foreign NGO activity in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) decreased. What remains unknown is how much of the dip in activity is attributable to the pandemic and how much to an increasingly rancorous international environment, or to tightening political controls within the PRC itself.

Despite the major upheaval in global commerce, travel, supply chains, and basic human interaction caused by COVID last year, the patterns of permitted foreign NGO activity in China remained clear. Industry associations and trade groups continue to make up half of all registered foreign NGOs in China. And, as in past years, about 50% of groups filing for temporary activities are working on education-related projects. Even with the flood of COVID-related donations last year, these two fields clearly dominate among groups able to successfully work in the PRC. This will likely continue to be true even after the world has largely recovered from the pandemic.

Representative Offices

The PRC registered only 49 representative offices in 2020, or an average of about four offices per month. This is down from 82 offices registered in 2019, 127 in 2018, and 291 in 2017. Foreign NGOs from Chile, Poland, and Romania registered offices in 2020, making them the first organizations from their respective countries to do so. Overall, the number of different countries or regions represented by new offices shrunk compared to previous years; NGOs from 20 different countries or regions registered offices in 2020, compared to 29 in 2017, 25 in 2018, and 27 in 2019.

The China NGO Project classified over half of 2020’s new representative offices as related to industry associations or to trade promotion, more or less in line with the overall trend since the Foreign NGO Law went into effect in 2017. This sector of work remains by far the most common among foreign NGOs in China.

Eight representative offices de-registered in 2020, all of them in the latter half of the year. (Three additional representative offices have de-registered so far in 2021.) These NGOs come from a variety of different countries, did work in China ranging from disaster relief to trade promotion, and were scattered widely around the country—that is, these de-registrations themselves offer no obvious sign that certain types of NGOs are systematically being pushed out of the PRC.

Temporary Activities

The number of temporary activities initiated by foreign NGOs in 2020 decreased significantly as compared to 2019: 767 in 2020, versus 1,020 in 2019. 2020’s figure is still higher than the first year the Foreign NGO Law was in force and organizations were still navigating the filing process. (NGOs initiated 509 activities in 2017.)

The number of unique countries represented by these NGOs, however, continues to increase every year. NGOs from 39 distinct countries or regions filed for temporary activities in 2020, up from 29 in 2019, 25 in 2018, and 24 in 2017. The following countries saw NGOs file for temporary activities for the first time in 2020: Brazil, Cambodia, Aruba, Chile, Fiji, Israel, Kenya, Liechtenstein, Mexico, Panama, Venezuela, and Zambia.

As should be expected during a global health crisis, activities related to health spiked in 2020, with The China NGO Project classifying 25% of activities as health-related—double the previous year. At least 137 temporary activities filed in 2020 referenced COVID in some way, making up around two-thirds of all temporary activities we tagged as related to “health” this past year. Many of the filings for these activities aimed specifically to provide personal protective equipment or other such goods.

Otherwise, larger trends held mostly steady: About half of temporary activity filings were education-related, as they have been in previous years, and we labeled roughly 20% of activities as having to do with poverty alleviation. (One activity can have multiple sector labels.)

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