Pounding Mentors to Death: China’s Draft Law on Foreign NGO Management

By Song Zhibiao, published: May 17, 2015

We present you the second commentary out of China on the draft law. The first one, by Dr. Wan Yanhai, one of China’s NGO pioneers, briefly examines the operational path of Chinese NGOs from early 1990s to the present, and how the three recent laws will dead-end rights advocacy NGOs in China. This, it turns out, is what Xi Jinping means by “governing the country according to the law.” – The Editor


Among draft laws currently under a second reading in China’s National Congress of People’s Representative is the People’s Republic of China Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations Management Law (a bilingual version). What’s the merit of this law? Chinese legal professionals specializing in the public interest have given their verdict: Very Bad. Since in China law is not made to be your “shield” [1]  of protection, such dissent is unlikely to be heeded by those who govern the country. Foreign NGOs have even less of a say in this, because naturally this is an “internal affair” that foreigners should not interfere with.

The purpose of the draft law is crystal clear: to set up a system to review and approve foreign NGOs’ work in China. It does not pretend to hide its political motivation, and, in key provisions, it reflects what the authorities have been doing already. The heart of the matter is to cut off foreign NGOs’ financial support for grassroots Chinese civil groups. Also, the government entities entrusted to regulate foreign NGOs’ activities are expanded to include all agencies with national security responsibilities.

In terms of legislative positioning, the draft law tucks punches in a defensive appearance. Chinese grassroots public interest groups and individuals, whose livelihoods are associated with foreign NGOs, are too humble to be written into the provisions, but they are clearly targeted. We can foresee that the overseas resources for their line of work will continue to dry up and become further drained.

Looking back at the past 30 years, foreign NGOs helped the emergence of NGO public service in China, such as the early environmental groups, and are instrumental in creating diverse types of public interest work as well as the eco-system in which the work has been done. In addition, the methods and models supplied by foreign NGOs have helped shape Chinese domestic NGOs and expanded them over the last 20 years. Foreign NGOs have been our mentors. Period.

The most distinguished contribution of the foreign NGOs is that they have successfully helped built China’s grassroots NGOs. Because of the support of the foreign NGOs, these public interest groups, lacking proper legal identity and unable to obtain resources from the government, have been able to survive on half a breath. Not surprisingly, members of these grassroots NGOs have become the driving force of China’s public service NGOs. There is no denying that foreign NGOs have been their tutors.

As the nascent Chinese NGOs received assistance and tutelage from foreign NGOs, the former have gradually built capacities over the last decade to tap domestic resources. In the last few years, the native NGOs have shown signs of maturity and strength, developing in parallel with foreign NGOs. As a result of the rapid transformation of the native NGOs, a trend has emerged in which government-sponsored NGOs and private NGOs have been competing but also cooperating with each other.

The growth and evolution of Chinese native NGOs can be looked at from many angles. It should be noted though that it has become a rule of thumb among native NGOs to depoliticize themselves and stay away from the red line of “sensitive issues.” In so positioning themselves, they have indeed been able to garner resources and make strides in their professional fields, but this self-limitation has also aggravated the ecological imbalance of Chinese NGOs with rights advocacy NGOs being singularly endangered.

Foreign NGOs end up being the ones who have persevered to do work in areas where domestic NGOs wouldn’t dare or are unwilling to do. The Chinese NGOs’ tendency to stay away from politically risky programs made foreign NGO funding in these areas stand out. To stop this tendency, the Chinese government has continuously pressured and encouraged domestic NGOs to stay away from sensitive issues so as to minimize the scale of demand and supply. With this new law though, the government is out to debilitate the source of funding altogether through legislation.

Against such a backdrop, the political intent of China’s draft law of Foreign NGO Management, now in its second reading, is conspicuous. It seeks to legally limit foreign NGO’s activities and programs by putting clamps on them and by directing their resources elsewhere. In this, the Chinese government’s design is equally conspicuous. That’s why this draft law is a product of utility at the expense of legislative quality.

When it comes to the specific application of this law, it is less about reducing the activities, or the number, of foreign NGOs in China, and more about forcing them to withdraw, even more quickly than before, from supporting civil society groups working on rights advocacy. Since it is very difficult, if not altogether impossible, for these Chinese advocacy NGOs, who have hitherto depended on foreign NGOs for funding, to find other sources of funding inside China, the domestic NGO scene will further deteriorate and have less diversity. That means it will be easier for the government to exert tighter control.

The Chinese domestic NGOs are not ready to take up the baton from the foreign NGOs. In particular, the capacity for serving public interest is still far short of where it needs to be, and the gap left by the foreign NGOs’ absence cannot be filled, not because there is a shortage of money but because there is a shortage of courage. Overall, the existing imbalance of China’s public interest NGOs will become much worse.

Foreign NGOs have in the past 30 years provided mainland China with two things – the values and the methods – as they poured in resources. The former has indeed grown and spread, while the latter has been remade with Chinese characteristics. In the long term, the draft law will ultimately stem the import of values, making them ill-fitting and out of place in native NGOs. That is where the law ultimately is heading to, beyond cutting the funding supply.

Saturday, May 9, 2015


[1]From the Human Rights in China website: In response to a question about which law the foreign journalists who were roughed up by police on February 27,2011, violated, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Jiang Yu (姜瑜) said on March 3, 2011: “Don’t use the law as a shield” [”法律不是挡箭牌”]. Jiang made the statement at a regular press conference during which foreign journalists tried to obtain clarity about laws and regulations that govern them. Jiang went on to say: “The real problem is that there are people who want to see the world in chaos, and they want to make trouble in China. For people with these kinds of motives, I think no law can protect them.” – Translator


Song Zhibiao (宋志标) was a commentator with the Southern Metropolis Daily in Guangzhou and well received for his commentaries on current affairs in China until May 2011. He was suspended that month for his article commemorating the third anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquake. Last year he was fired again from another state media outlet in Guangzhou for writing for a Hong Kong media outlet. He has been a media watcher and public commentator on WeChat. 



A translation of the draft law (bilingual)

A Slow Death? China’s Draft Foreign NGO Management Law, Elizabeth Lynch, May 10, 2015.

The Future is Already Present? How the Draft Foreign NGO Management Law Could Be Applied, Elizabeth Lynch, May 11, 2015.

One Love: How Foreign NGOs & Governments Should Respond to China’s Draft Foreign NGO Law, Elizabeth Lynch, May 12, 2015.


(Translated by China Change)

Chinese original: 宋志标《境外NGO法案:乱拳打死师傅》

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One response to “Pounding Mentors to Death: China’s Draft Law on Foreign NGO Management”

  1. […] comments are currently being collected. In a critique of the draft law translated at China Change, Song Zhibiao wrote that the “pounding to death” of foreign “mentors” would s…, particularly those engaged in rights […]

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