Children read donated books during a charity event in a kindergarten for the children of migrant workers on the outskirts of Beijing, May 2011.
Jason Lee / Files / REUTERS

China’s new law on foreign nongovernmental organizations, passed in late April, will regulate how such groups operate for the first time in the country’s history. When the Overseas NGO Management Law goes into effect in January 2017, nearly 10,000 groups in China will have to register with the Chinese police and find domestic groups willing to partner with them. Some will not be able to stay in the country; others will voluntarily depart rather than try to navigate the stricter rules.

Chinese officials have long regarded civil-society groups with suspicion. The overseas NGO law, however, should not be viewed as simply a government move to clamp down on that sector. Along with a domestic charity law that China passed in February, the NGO measure is a symbolic attempt to raise China’s global status and to strengthen domestic charities working on issues approved by Beijing.

China’s leaders want foreign groups to operate on China’s terms rather than according to the longstanding international norms set by the West. As China’s legal system grows, Beijing believes that it should set such rules at home and have a greater role in setting some of them abroad. In this respect, the overseas NGO law is related to Beijing’s broader efforts to expand its role in international institutions such as the United Nations and to take the lead of new ones, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

The practical consequences of the overseas NGO law, meanwhile, are clear. Many Chinese government agencies will probably continue to welcome overseas assistance, as they have for years. But Beijing will restrict the help they receive to narrowly defined charity efforts, leaving less room for an independent civil society.

A NEW FRAMEWORK

China’s NGO sector has grown rapidly over the past two decades. Today, the country hosts hundreds of thousands of legally registered domestic NGOs and quasi-government organizations, thousands of unregistered foreign organizations, and many more domestic groups that are registered as for-profit businesses or not registered at all. Although Chinese authorities started to discuss the need for a legal framework to regulate NGOs more than a decade ago, they did not pass any laws to govern the sector until this year.

In March, Beijing first reshaped the NGO sector by passing a law that empowers domestic charitable organizations. The Charity Law, as it is known, focuses on groups dedicated to antipoverty efforts, disaster relief, environmental protection, and public health, among a handful of other areas. The measure, along with a number of regulations that followed it, make more charities eligible to raise funds from the public and eliminate the onerous dual registration system under which they had to receive approval from both a supervisory department within a relevant government agency and China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs. The law does not cover legal, political, or religious organizations—the cornerstones of an independent civil society, as that concept is understood in the West. Its vision of acceptable charitable activity is narrow.

Doctors working for a charity group perform an operation in Xining, China, October 2006.
Doctors working for a charity group perform an operation in Xining, China, October 2006.
BOBBY YIP / REUTERS

China’s relative lack of quality public services is a sore point for the government, and allowing domestic organizations to help out—by, for example, providing medical care in underserved communities—is one way to address that problem at no cost to the state. In 2002, Xi Jinping, then the governor of Fujian Province and now the president of China, echoed this logic by praising charitable activities as a way to “better promote social security and protect social stability.” By growing the domestic charity sector, Chinese leaders are betting that they can replace many of these services while controlling the risks that an independent civil society might pose to the party’s authority.

Even as they push away civil society groups and foreign organizations, China’s leaders are increasingly accepting the validity of what many such groups seek to achieve: not just better services, but a more accountable and transparent government. Instead of relying on independent organizations to achieve these goals, however, the state is pursuing them on its own. In 2014, China passed a law that will make its budget process more accountable; this year, its State Council called for higher levels of public consultation in the policymaking process.

Local officials have also increased their support for domestic grassroots groups under direct government supervision. As the political scientist Jessica Teets has noted, Beijing’s city government offers grants to nonprofit groups and funds programs that train employees of domestic NGOs in grant-writing and project-management. The central government, meanwhile, is hoping to turn some of the businesspeople who became fabulously rich during the country’s boom years into a new class of philanthropists. Since 2005, the Ministry of Civil Affairs has hosted a prestigious annual Charity Awards event; in 2015, the ministry nominated more than 100 people, companies, and projects for recognition.  

Despite such efforts, China’s charitable sector has a long way to go before it can replace the contribution foreign groups have made to the country’s development. Funding is one major problem: according to a report released by the UN Development Program in May, the total amount of charitable giving in China in 2014 was less than five percent of the United States’—and most of it came from businesses, not individuals. What is more, the legal structure surrounding China’s domestic NGOs remains underdeveloped, and the rules that govern private charitable donations and tax exemptions are still incomplete. Most of China’s NGOs have never been registered as such; according to a 2011 study by Teets, many Chinese charity groups have struggled with or resisted regulations or grants that required significant structural changes. . 

Until China’s domestic charity sector can close these gaps, some of the country’s government agencies will likely look to foreign assistance, especially in support of poverty alleviation and environmental protection, both of which have risen to the top of Beijing’s agenda. As a result, some foreign NGOs will likely be welcome for the foreseeable future—as long as they stick to working strictly within the sectors laid out in the Charity Law. The Chinese state can thus claim a symbolic victory and control Western-style civil society without losing the benefits of foreign contributions.