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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). Photo:

Song Zhibiao (宋志标). Photo:

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》

If the link become unavailable, use this one.



Response to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Accusation against Yirenping

By Beijing Yirenping Center, April 14, 2015


On April 14, Hong Lei, the Spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), stated publicly that our organization, Beijing Yirenping Center (BYC), “has allegedly violated the law, and will be punished.” Our organization’s response is as follows:

1.  We welcome MOFA in its open discussion on BYC, as this is an improvement upon the break-in raid into our office, in the early hours of March 24.

2.  BYC will take the accusation from MOFA seriously. We will hire legal counsel to respond in accordance with China’s laws, as well as pursue the March 24 office raid.

3.  Since BYC’s founding in 2006, we have been the target of rigorous “solicitude” from various departments and levels of the police force. We have reason to believe that, should BYC have broken the law in any way, the police would have raised the issue long ago, rather than leaving it to be picked up by the foreign affairs agency. The fact remains that no one in the police force has ever pointed out any illegality in BYC’s work; on the contrary, across the board they see BYC’s work as meaningful. We are now unsure which of these two divergent opinions to believe.

4.  We have noticed that, starting last year, other anti-discrimination groups in China have run into a series of crackdown that is without legal basis or warning. In July 2014, Zhengzhou Yirenping, an organization whose mission is eliminating discrimination against disability, was raided; in March 2015, Weizhiming, a Hangzhou group whose mission is eliminating gender discrimination, saw the same thing happen.

5.  As the first professional public interest group against discrimination in China, BYC has, in collaboration with many other players, consistently pushed the envelope on anti-discrimination and promotion of equal rights. After many years of hard work, the concept of “anti-discrimination” is increasingly gaining currency within the entire society. In the communique issued after the 4th Plenary Session of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, “the elimination of all employment discrimination” was also raised. The government declares the intention to fight discrimination on the one hand, and on the other raids the office of anti-discrimination organizations and makes accusation of “illegality.” It is hard for people to know whether the government policies are real, uniform or consistent.

6.  The “Five Feminist Sisters” just released are all peers and good friends of BYC, and three of them either are or used to be our colleagues. They were arrested without justification by the police for organizing a legal education drive to fight sexual harassment on public transportation, and we joined everyone else both in China and abroad as a matter of course to protest these arrests and to advocate for them. On April 13, we were relieved and overjoyed at their release. However, we do not flatter ourselves that BYC had made any out-of-the-ordinary contribution to the advocacy campaign, nor can we prove that the March 24 raid of our office and the MOFA accusation constitute “retribution” against us.




China accuses prominent NGO of ‘breaking the law’, Reuters, April 14, 2015

China Raids Offices of Rights Group as Crackdown on Activism Continues, New York Times, March 26, 2015.


(Translated by China Change)

Chinese original, not yet available on the web.


Chinese Government Moves to Limit and Eliminate Public Service NGOs: the Case of Liren Rural Libraries

By Song Zhibiao, published: November 17, 2014

Editor’s update: Liren Rural Libraries announced its closure on September 18, 2014.


One of the Liren Libraries.

One of the Liren Libraries.

The Liren (literally: “cultivating talents”) Rural Libraries, which is devoted to aiding rural students to broaden their reading horizons and expand their learning opportunities, has met with the worst crisis since its founding. Its official Weibo revealed that, at the end of August, eleven Liren Rural Libraries, one after another, have undergone official reviews by such local agencies as the Education Bureau, the Culture Bureau, and the Culture and Sports Bureau. Two of the libraries have already been notified by their partner schools that the schools were terminating their cooperation with the libraries.

In additional comments, Li Yingqiang (李英强), who previously served as a responsible person for the Liren Rural Libraries, said: “In 2011, they closed one library; in 2012, five; and in 2013, three. We didn’t fight back for our rights, nor did we cry foul. We just continued operating libraries where we could. From 2014 to the present, they have already closed five libraries.” This, I’m afraid, may not be the end of the matter, and the Liren Libraries should perhaps prepare themselves for dissolution.

As an educational public service organization, Liren had earlier been questioned about another of its projects — study tour summer camps. These summer camps organize young students to go on study tours, and they employ scholars as guidance counselors. As such, these summer camps have been well received. Soon after their formation, however, they found themselves in trouble and were forced to adjust their program in light of government surveillence.

Several years after public service organizations flourished, they are now becoming sensitive targets subjected to government review. Through territorial jurisdiction and the division of government duties, the government has developed comprehensive means to keep tight control over the public service NGOs. Through qualification review and then through monitoring their sources of funding and their activities, all types of public service organizations are being watched and controlled, be they NGOs with government backing or grassroots organizations not associated with the government system.

Liren Rural Library

Liren Rural Library

Since this year, special reporting requirements have been set up for public service organizations that obtain foreign funding, invite foreign guests, and so on. Based on the logic of the official reviewers, public service organizations are channels by which foreign forces enter China. By assuming these foreigners have ulterior motives, the reviewing officials treat them as enemies; and the reviews deter the development of these public service organizations. As this model of government control continues to expand, an organization such as Liren Library, that embraces ideals of social improvement, bears the brunt of the official reviewers’ suspicions.

In the eyes of government monitors, who see enemies everywhere, the ideals that the Liren Rural Libraries cherish are incomprehensible, and its modus operandi is even more suspicious. Beyond the control of the educational authorities, Liren convenes students of all ages, thus breaking an old taboo. The guidance counsellors who take the students on study tours are mostly liberal intellectuals who influence the students with new ideas that are likely to provoke a backlash from the government’s brainwashing apparatus.

The Liren Rural Libraries are ensconced in towns and schools where volunteers are recruited to perform routine maintenance, instead of handing the libraries over to the schools to be the custodians. This of course is seen by the inflexible education officials as precisely the type of action taken to invade their sphere of influence. When one  Liren Library was in trouble and investigated by the government, it would cause other Liren Rural Libraries elsewhere to be subjected to similar scrutiny by local governments, thus placing the entire Liren project on a very shaky footing.

During these past few years during which Liren has come under hostile government scrutiny, Liren has kept a low profile. Liren’s move to take corrective action in accordance with government requirements, moreover, is one reason that Liren has been able to continue its activities for a period of time. But as the work of public service NGOs is increasingly politicized, Liren’s setbacks are not entirely unexpected. We can very well expect that, sooner or later, Liren will have to cease its programs altogether due to the ever-tightening grip of government repression.

Li Yingqiang (李英强)

Li Yingqiang (李英强)

After taking measures to eradicate the “seven perils” [ideas perceived by the communist party to be subversive to its rule], various sectors and fields have all engaged in self-review and self-correction against such warnings. They have also quickly formed mechanisms for stability maintenance based on each sector’s characteristics, and between them, they have quickly formed a grid network of surveillance. With its ideological stand and its operation model that greatly challenge the existing order of education that aims at conforming to the communist ideology, Liren Rural Libraries is bound to find itself mired in difficulties.

The series of premeditated government harassments against Liren Rural Libraries in recent weeks further proves that the path of using civil society as a moderating force to change China is also short-lived and dead-ended. As for those organizations whose main mission is to advocate ideas, they are seen as a direct ideological threat, and their survival is even more precarious.

That the public service NGOs in China are no exception to government suppression is not pessimism, but a fact.

Because of this fact, the public service sector will become even more divided; boundaries of public service will be more clearly defined; avoiding challenging the existing political authorities will be accepted and observed as a rule for survival. This harsh environment will force public service organizations to adjust and adapt. Those unwilling to compromise will perish.

Having not enjoyed a spring, public service organizations in China now find themselves in deep winter, and a large part of the public domain, which is weak in China to begin with, has thus collapsed.



Rural Library Chain Closes, Citing ‘Tremendous Pressure’, the New York Times sinosphere blog, September 22, 2014.

Official website of Liren Rural Libraries is still live.


Song Zhibiao (宋志标) was a commentator with the Southern Metropolis Daily in Guangzhou and has been well-received for his commentaries on current affairs in China until May 2011. He is now an independent commentator and, by self-description, a media watcher.


(Translated by Ai Ru)

Chinese original