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May 23, 2018

Will 2018 Be the Year of a Silent Foreign NGO Exodus?

Despite People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) officials’ statements to the contrary, it is clear that 2017 was more of a “soft launch” for the Foreign NGO Law, a year of ambiguity and improvisation for both foreign NGOs and for the public security authorities tasked with overseeing them. Though the law went into effect on January 1, 2017, key questions about its implementation remained unanswered even as foreign groups were supposed to already be in compliance with them. Public security officials still had to design several of the processes by which foreign NGOs were meant to operate and educate other government bureaucracies on what the Foreign NGO Law’s provisions meant for them.

And then there was (and still is) the issue of Professional Supervisory Units (PSUs). As we’ve previously noted, finding a willing PSU remains a substantial challenge for a number of foreign NGOs who wish to maintain an on-the-ground presence in the mainland. Foreign NGOs must have an initial agreement with a PSU before they submit their registration paperwork to public security authorities, meaning that some NGOs are unable to formally apply for a representative office because they cannot complete the requisite first step of finding a willing PSU. Political caution as well as bureaucratic concerns are dissuading more potential PSUs from stepping forward; as of May 1, 2018, a majority of foreign NGOs in China had registered with only a handful of the total number of government agencies permitted to serve as PSUs. Though there are undoubtedly a number of foreign NGOs that will likely never successfully register because Chinese authorities deem their work too politically sensitive or threatening, the PSU problem seems to be a much broader systemic issue that is impeding even organizations whose mission statements are in line with Chinese government priorities.

This process of finding a PSU has been challenging enough that at least one foreign NGO told The China NGO Project that it has chosen to leave China. The NGO indicated that it was simply too difficult to convince its funders to keep providing support while the NGO continued to struggle to find a willing PSU. Per the strictures of the Foreign NGO Law, the NGO had been unable to carry out its normal work while seeking to register, which made funders leery.

The key question is how many foreign NGOs in China are similarly affected by the PSU problem. What proportion have left China, or are at least seriously considering leaving? This is very difficult to know, given the dearth of statistics about foreign NGOs in China prior to 2017. Based on our work here at The China NGO Project, we can attest that many foreign NGOs are reluctant to publicly share their experiences of trying to register or file under the Foreign NGO Law, and we judge that most organizations—even those on the brink of departure from China—would remain reticent to speak about their decisions to leave. This means that we may not fully understand who has left China for some time.

As of May 1, 2018, just over 300 unique foreign NGOs had established one or more representative offices in China. Whatever proportion this represents of the total number of foreign NGOs previously working in China, it is far less than one hundred percent. Some groups managed to hang on through an uncertain first year and gain official status in 2018; some may well continue to do so in the future. But we suspect that some number of foreign NGOs will begin the process this year of quietly packing up and heading out of the P.R.C., stymied by a registration process that depends on the political courage or bureaucratic initiative of Chinese government agencies in an environment that doesn’t necessarily incentivize either.

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