In April 2022, the world watched as Shanghai, China entered one of the strictest pandemic lockdowns. Although COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, due to the Chinese government’s strict “zero-tolerance policy,” this was the first outbreak that was met with such severe measures. The city-wide lockdown culminated in various online protests, such as the “Voices of April” audio recordings of Shanghai residents and their frustrations with a nearly two-month-long lockdown. This lockdown resulted in the city’s 25 million residents' home confinement with limited access to food, daily necessities, and even medical care.
At times of crisis when communities can no longer rely on domestic support, people often turn to outside groups, such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to step up. However, since 2017, the role of foreign NGOs has dramatically dwindled in China. China’s long-term approach to controlling and limiting foreign influence on civil society has resulted in some serious immediate costs.
How it All Started
NGOs, along with businesses, have a long and unique history in China. Although there are earlier accounts of missionary and service group presence, most NGOs, schools, foundations, and trade associations began appearing in the late 1970s after China’s “Opening Up” policy. This period created ripples in China’s social structures, especially during the 1990s as many international NGOs made significant contributions to China’s economic and social growth in areas like humanitarian aid, poverty alleviation, education, environmental protection, and rural development. Unfortunately, due to the lack of uniformity in registration rules during this time, it is difficult to estimate how many foreign groups existed and what role they played. However, the local relationships and projects they built helped cultivate an interesting civil society within China’s authoritarian regime.
What most strengthened NGO activities in China were the natural consequences of economic liberalization, which was also occurring at this time, and resulted in commonly seen social ills like income inequality, rural migration, and disease outbreaks. As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was adapting to its new role and working with global players, a space was created for NGOs to move large amounts of resources and capital to help their missions.
The Chinese government at this time was much more flexible with the different foreign players involved as they brought much-needed economic and social support that would help China’s economy and society catch up with its neighbors, such as the other East Asian Tigers: Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. Organizations that were often more favorable were those that could bring considerable attention and manpower such as the Asia Foundation which worked with the State Council’s Science and Technology Commission to hold China’s first international computer seminar in 1979.
This opening-up period still came with its regulations and rules, but the general ambiguity and lack of legislation on foreign NGOs in China can be seen as a stimulus for many of the stricter regulations seen today. This period witnessed much progress but also bred suspicion and mixed feelings in the Chinese government regarding certain foreign groups that focused on more politically sensitive subjects like human rights, labor rights, and religious freedom. The historical legacy has led to harsh laws like the 2017 Overseas NGO law as a firm stand by the Xi Jinping Administration to revisit this gray area and crack down on the impact that foreign NGOs have on civil society.
The Overseas NGO Law
For the almost 7,000 foreign NGOs previously operating in China, the 2017 NGO law has taken preemptive steps in defining and limiting an organization's operations in the country. This new law also requires groups to register with the government through an extensive and exhausting process that is often made more difficult depending on the type of organization at hand. Although it is stated to be a 60-day process, in reality, many organizations have needed six to 12 months to complete the Representative Office registration. Likewise, the new law also allows the Chinese government to halt organization activities under ambiguous clauses, like “endanger national unity, security, or ethnic unity,” “harm national interests,” and “constitute illegal activities involving the operation or funding of religious activities.” Furthermore, they also allow Chinese government offices to access private information or detain employees; these measures all limit and undermine the activities of many humanitarian organizations.
Organizations that have worked for years in China with projects including training criminal lawyers and advocating for greater protection of women’s and LGBT rights are suddenly discovering that they are unable to register. At the same time, it is hard for many critics who do not see this as a political ploy by the Xi Administration to further stem distrust and prejudice against foreign organizations. This law follows a trend and was the third set of laws, along with separate counter-terrorism and national security legislation and institutionalized police powers over communications technology and the internet, implemented under Chairman Xi to gain more control over civil society.
East Asian NGOs Leaving and the Unprecedented Future
This law has not meant that all NGOs have left—many are still trying to persevere under the plethora of new challenges such as this new law and the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the slow and growing phenomenon of foreign NGOs leaving China on their own is interesting. In early 2019, the Chinese Foreign NGO Project recorded five foreign NGOs de-registering with the Ministry of Public Security Office (MPS). Of important note is China’s closest neighbors and economic partners leaving as well. Out of the groups to leave, many have been East Asian NGOs that focus on providing social and economic support to China. For example, some notable East Asian organizations that have left as of June 1, 2022, include South Korea’s Northeast Asia Foundation For Education And Culture, Japan’s Kyoto Industrial Support Organization 21, and Taiwan’s Cross-Strait Exhibition Association.
This phenomenon is puzzling and noteworthy for several reasons. From one side, it is baffling why these organizations that have been able to register successfully through the 2017 Overseas NGO law process would leave so shortly after going through the lengthy process and similarly why these organizations are not necessarily “politically sensitive,” or related to human rights within China. International NGOs play an important role in general for whichever community they serve including providing resource support or cultivating civil society. Primarily, East Asian organizations have played a historically significant role in China. Some of the first businesses and non-profit organizations were first implemented by East Asian players like Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong. Following the increase in foreign investment and businesses moving to China, many companies created foundations and brought over their own religious or popular cultural symbols. For those who hope to liberalize and open China’s civil society in the future, these organizations are necessary to look into. East Asian organizations are also favorable and influential in China due to their often shared history and regional interests.
It does not appear that international NGOs in China will have relief anytime soon as they must adjust to the new law and to the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is at these daunting and challenging times that communities need NGOs the most. Although a global pandemic and an ongoing invasion by Russia are unexpected challenges, they require foreign NGOs to innovate and adapt to the challenge of staying. This is especially true for East Asian organizations because as China’s role as a global superpower increase along with Sino-US tensions, it will be these non-governmental organizations that play a role in supporting humanitarian and civil needs.