The Pros and Cons of China's NGO Laws

The latest iterations of China’s Charity and Foreign NGO Management Laws, discussed during the recent National People’s Congress, present an interesting paradox. On the one hand, the laws, in total, will create a less free civil society and severely reduce the influence of foreign actors on the domestic affairs of China. On the other hand, if the laws are implemented as designed, they will provide a more accountable and predictable home-grown civil society.

Both laws follow the global wave of new regulations, from Russia to Ethiopia, governing social organizations’ behavior. In the Chinese version, the section of the recently-passed Charity Law (article 109) looking at “endangering national security or the public interest” is particularly alarming. This aspect of the law can be used by state authorities to justify investigating or closing the operations of social organizations who are perceived by the state to threaten the legitimacy of their activities.

This is an affront to those who see it as one of the main roles of the civil society sector to act as a check and balance to the state. While this function has been largely subdued in contemporary China – where the majority of social organizations currently operating in China are social and welfare oriented non-state providers, and not overt activists – the hope, notably among Western observers, has been a move toward this antagonistic model.

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