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July 9, 2018

Video Policy Brief: German NGOs and the Foreign NGO Law

Asia Dialogue recently posted a series of “video policy briefs” looking at implementation of the Foreign NGO Law in China. Each video looks at a different country or aspect of the Law’s implementation. The following is focused on German groups’ experiences under the Foreign NGO Law. The original post is available on the Asia Dialogue website.


Until around 2012, German NGOs valued a rather open and trustful atmosphere of cooperation with Chinese NGO practitioners based on free speech. When interviewing German NGO leaders this year they told us—and I quote—“the atmosphere of cooperation was poisoned by China’s Overseas NGO Law.”

Depending on their profiles and strategies, German NGOs have developed different coping strategies. Two NGOs applied to register a Representative Office; one of them succeeded. Three NGOs are working with permits for temporary activities. 2017 has been a grace period for them; the first real test will be in 2018. In two cases registering for temporary activities has been rather difficult.

Successful registration does not necessarily imply the continuity of meaningful cooperation. There is still a lot of uncertainty: Chinese partners were reluctant to cooperate with German NGOs under the new law; politically acceptable public spaces and issues have been shrinking; and some Chinese partner organizations used the opportunity to take over project ownership. EU-China dialogue forums have become increasingly official, narrow, manipulative, and mechanistic. Administrative costs have often risen exponentially. Climate politics is the only field where European and Chinese interests are still aligned.

Whereas in the past Chinese NGOs joined international cooperation platforms in the spirit of mutual respect, during the C-20 in Hangzhou a free exchange of ideas was not possible. At the follow-up event in Hamburg, Chinese participants used Leninist tactics to promote authoritarian norms at a global conference on civil society.

To conclude: German NGOs are currently re-evaluating if meaningful cooperation is still feasible and are considering their strategic options. All would like to continue to engage China. But what are their options when the Chinese state wants to reduce the sectoral focus and the number, capacities, and performance of International NGOs?

Horst Fabian is an independent researcher and EU-China Civil Society Ambassador.

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Related Video Policy Briefs

British NGOs and the Foreign NGO Law,” with Nicola Macbean

French and Dutch NGOs and the Foreign NGO Law,” with Patrick Schroeder

Including Civil Society in EU-China Relations,” with Andreas Fulda