China's Charitable Turn?

How Beijing Is Redefining the NGO Sector

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.


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

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