The China-Russia NGO Crackdown
Image Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office, Kremlin

The China-Russia NGO Crackdown


Over the past few years, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have commenced nationwide crackdowns on civil society. Authorities are attempting to cripple non-government organizations (NGOs) with foreign patrons or partners. Which factors drive Russian and Chinese decision-making? Are the two nations acting independently, learning from each other, or even collaborating with each other? Most importantly, what are the ultimate objectives of leaders in Moscow and Beijing? 

Securing Secrets and Spotting Spies

President Vladimir Putin signed a controversial new treason law in July 2012. Russia’s previous law defined high treason as threatening the state through “espionage, disclosure of state secrets, or any other assistance” to foreign nations or organizations. The new law expands the definition to prohibit “financial, technical, advisory, or other assistance” in pursuit of damaging Russia’s security, especially its “constitutional order, sovereignty, and territorial and state integrity.”

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Critics argue that Russian authorities are using the law to target domestic NGOs and activists who share documentation of human rights abuses – including open source information – with foreign governments; intergovernmental organizations, such as the United Nations and the Council of Europe; and international organizations. “Russia is tightening the noose around groups that are critical of the government, propose reforms, and promote human rights,” asserted Human Rights Watch Europe and Central Asia Director Hugh Williamson. “The government seems intent on suffocating prospects for independent scrutiny.”

Prominent human rights lawyer Pavel Chikov also criticized the new treason law, arguing that its sheer breath could enable Russian authorities to “target absolutely legal, lawful activities of nongovernment organizations, civic activists, journalists, and even businesspeople.” Yet, during a meeting with the Russian Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, President Vladimir Putin insisted that the NGO law was meant solely to “ensure that foreign organizations representing outside interests, not those of the Russian state, would not intervene in our domestic affairs. This is something that no self-respecting country can accept.” He added that he does not believe “there is anything in this law that contradicts democratic development in our country.”

Moscow began inspecting hundreds of NGOs in early March 2013. According to Human Right Watch, “at least 55 groups received warnings not to violate the law and at least 20 groups received official notices of violation directly requiring them to register as ‘foreign agents.’” The Russian Ministry of Justice and prosecutor’s office subsequently “filed at least 12 administrative cases against NGOs for failure to abide by the ‘foreign agents’ law and at least six administrative cases against NGO leaders. Additionally, the prosecutors brought civil law suits against six NGOs for failure to register under the law.” Domestic human rights groups attempted to fight the new law, but were largely unsuccessful. By October 2014, at least six NGOs decided to cease operations rather than allow Moscow to label them as “foreign agents.” The government nevertheless continued to insist that the term did not possess negative connotations and was not mean to “persecute or discredit” NGOs.

On  June 4, 2014, Moscow signed into law amendments that gave the Ministry of Justice authority to single-handedly register any NGOs accepting foreign funds and involved in “political activity” as “foreign agents.” It has since garnered the ire of civil society actors by registering 16 NGOs as “foreign agents” without their consent. Human Rights Watch maintains a comprehensive list of NGOs registered as “foreign agents” as well as information regarding those legally threatened or prosecuted by the government.

Back in the People’s Republic of China, the official media reacted favorably toward the new law. CCP mouthpiece The People’s Daily stated:

Last year, following the Russian national Duma elections, mass protests and a chaotic situation took place inside Russia. Putin…. pointedly said that some foreign powers attempted – through their “foreign agents” in Russia – to use NGOs to disrupt the elections. Putin said that some “opposition politicians are just like jackals and scavengers, obtaining funding from foreign embassies and consulates.” He stated that these anti-Russian people want to turn Russia into a destabilized problem country.

Before signing the new “NGO Law,” Putin met with Russian State Duma legislators on July 19th [2012], where he called for democratic development    on the basis of existing laws. Putin stated, “Don’t be afraid of democracy. We must understand that democracy is different from a state of anarchy. Of course democracy implies a rule of law. [If we] fail to comply with existing national laws, democracy cannot exist.”

Imitation as Flattery?

Two years after the passage of Russia’s high treason law, China’s National Security Commission (NSC) began to officially investigate foreign NGOs. A notice posted on the Yuncheng City, Shanxi Province government website on June 17, 2014 (since removed) stated that “according to requirements outlined by the National Security Commission of the CPC, a nationwide probe into overseas NGOs and their activities will be carried out between May and the end of July, to prepare for the strengthening of regulations in the future.” Authorities will use the results of their investigations to facilitate the strengthening and standardization of NGO management in China, with the ultimate goal of “safeguard[ing] the security of the national political system and social stability.” A number of NGOs confirmed that security officials approached them to conduct surveys, resulting from their work with foreign patrons or partners.

Prominent Maoist website Utopia – which provides insight into the left-wing faction of the Chinese Communist Party – spoke out in praise of both the Russian crackdown on NGOs as well as China’s own recent efforts to constrain their activities. In a June 2014 essay, Utopia called upon the government to “guard against malicious Westerners who seek to split China with the help of local funding recipients.” Author Chen Jia argued that “In today’s China, U.S. proxy forces nurtured by NGOs are already powerful, spread out among government organs, academies and higher learning institutes…. The forces have already misled Chinese economic policy-making, causing huge losses and posing substantial political risks.” Leading NGOs, such as the National Endowment for Democracy and the Ford Foundation, allegedly further U.S. “global hegemony” and commit “gross interference” in China’s internal affairs. It also argues that American NGOs use their relationships with PRC universities, the Academy of Social Sciences, and other research institutions to cultivate careful relationships with Chinese scholars. These individuals “become spokesmen for the United States in China, misleading people regarding socialist economic policy and subverting the Party’s ideological sphere.”

The essay references a People’s Liberation Army film that accuses Western governments, NGOs, and Chinese dissidents of attempting to undermine the CCP through the spread of so-called American values. A video produced by the Chinese military, Silent Contest also condemns continued American support for the Dalai Lama and Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer, who the Chinese blame for unrest in ethnic minority regions.

Utopia describes “foreign penetration by U.S. NGOs” as part of an “American global strategy” to meddle in the affairs of foreign countries. It cites United Russia parliamentarian and former FSB Director Nikolay Kovalyov, who argued that American NGOs are simply attempting to create a disorderly situation in Russia by agitating for another color revolution.

This fear is mirrored in China, whose leaders watched the fall of the Soviet Union and subsequent “people power” movements with great anxiety. The abortive February 2011 Jasmine Revolution caused the Chinese Communist Party to crack down further on political dissidents, foreign journalists, and the Internet in a successful attempt to thwart regime change. Such concerns arise in Silent Contest, which “bemoans the fall of the Soviet Union and warns that China faces a similar fate if it fails to counter Washington’s nefarious efforts to infiltrate Chinese society.” Consequently, as the Hong Kong protests garnered international attention and support, The People’s Daily published a strongly worded editorial that warned against holding similar protests in China: “As for the minority of people who wish to initiate a ‘color revolution’ inside China via Hong Hong, they are simply daydreaming.” 

As China completed its nationwide investigation into NGOs, retired People’s Liberation Army Major General and former military attaché to Russia Wang Haiyun published an article on foreign agents, their proxies, and the specter of a color revolution in the PRC. Wang continues to hold a number of influential positions. He serves as vice chairman of the History of China-Russia Relations Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, senior consultant with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and as a senior advisor to the China Institute of International Studies, a think tank attached to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In an op-ed for the Global Times, General Wang asserts that although many scholars and officials believe that a color revolution could never take place in China, they must in fact remain on guard against constant “mass incidents that target the government.” Arguing that “the conditions for a color revolution have already been brewed,” he accuses the United States and Japan of not only attempting to contain China, but also colluding with individuals within the PRC to foment “social disturbances” or spark a color revolution to topple the Chinese Communist Party. “Chinese authorities should eliminate the danger brought by pro-Western agents when easing social conflicts and striking at corruption. We can learn from Russia by introducing a “foreign agent law,” so as to block the way for infiltration of external forces and eliminate the possibilities of a color revolution.”

The Utopia essay praises Putin’s “highly effective” NGO law. Chen Jia argues that after the Russian President accused Western countries of funding extremist elements in Ukraine and ultimately overthrowing the government, Putin recognized that Russia also faced the same threat from the “foreign interests” backing NGOs. “Today’s Russia is always alert in regard to NGOs, because the harm they do cannot be overlooked.” The essay concludes that Russia’s serious treatment and management of NGOs serves as useful inspiration for our country.” It urges the Chinese National Security Commission to “arrest officials and intellectuals who have clearly been infiltrated by foreign forces,” in order to prevent the United States from “succeeding in its peaceful transformation of China” while “defend[ing] Chinese socialism.”

It thus appears that Beijing has indeed turned west for answers, but not as far west as leaders in Washington would like. According to Chinese researcher Chen Min, an outspoken former Southern Weekly columnist and visiting fellow at Columbia University, the CCP has “reportedly sent agents to Russia and Central Asia to study how to prevent” a “color revolution.” Chen, who is better known by his pen name, Xiao Shu, argues that “Xi Jinping has clearly shown he is fond of Putin. Xi doesn’t want to go back to Mao’s path, but he doesn’t agree to Western democracy, either. So Xi will follow the third path – Putin-style democracy, a controllable democracy – by shutting down the NGOs that are not submissive and supporting NGOs that are useful to government.”

Similarly, during a speech at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia, former White House National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley expressed his fear that Vladimir Putin is privately arguing to Xi Jinping that the United States and its Western allies are “seeking to destabilize and change both governments; that it is this effort that is responsible for the instability and demonstrations in both Ukraine and Hong Kong; that the agents of this Western effort are civil society groups, NGOs, free media, and dissidents; that these “agents of foreign influence” must be stamped out in both Russia and China; and that the United States and its allies need to be confronted at nearly every turn.” Hadley argues that these ideas are not simply “fanciful,” but rather supported by “the fact that Chinese authorities seem to be adopting some of the same tactics against NGOs, the media, and dissidents” as Putin. 

Although it is difficult to ascertain the precise extent to which Russia and China are in dialogue, both governments believe that limiting the influence of civil society will enhance their ability to stifle dissent in the name of stability and ultimately regime longevity.

From Russia With Love: The SPECTRE of a New Chinese Law?

Approximately twenty governments worldwide have either already placed restrictions on NGOs receiving foreign funds, or are in the process of doing so. These crackdowns overwhelmingly target NGOs promoting human rights or democratic development. Rather than seeking to enhance transparency or bolster effectiveness of NGOs, these new laws are meant to weaken them.

China now appears ready to pass its own legislation. A draft foreign NGO management law was recently submitted to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee. According to Vice Minister of Public Security Yang Huanning, “overseas NGOs will have to register with and be approved by Chinese authorities if they want to set up representative offices in the mainland or temporarily operate on the mainland for a certain program.” He added that “the bill aims to regulate the activities of overseas NGOs in China, protect their legal rights and interests, and promote exchanges and cooperation between Chinese and foreigners.” The law would regulate, manage and supervise how foreign NGOs in China conduct their operations and engage in fundraising. Authorities at all levels of government “are obligated to provide policy consultation, assistance and guidance for overseas NGOs so that they can effectively and legally operate.” NGOs that fail to follow the new law will face punishment. As if to emphasize the urgency of the legislation, The Beijing News stated that the Guangxi Academy of Social Sciences estimates that there are 6,000 foreign NGOs in China, 40 percent of which are American. Conversely, a Tsinghua University report estimates that 10,000 foreign NGOs are currently operating there.

Guangzhou City recently passed a law regulating local NGOs, which came into effect on January 1, 2015. The draft law originally stipulated that the city would ban organizations that received the majority of their funding from overseas or otherwise had close links to overseas institutions. Authorities removed the provision following public outcry. The final version indicates that NGOs receiving overseas funding and donations should “report to regulators 15 days before they accept the money. The groups must provide details regarding their activities, personnel, funding and location when organizing projects with the participation of foreign partners.” Regardless, the local government may well pressure NGOs not to accept substantial foreign funding, which could place severe financial strains on their ability to operate and eventually force them to close.

Once passed, the national laws will enable China to crack down further on foreign NGOs. Many such NGOs have hitherto registered as businesses to avoid the cumbersome NGO registration process. The registration process is so difficult, in fact, that some domestic and foreign NGOs operate illegally in China. Organizations that work with sensitive populations, such as sex workers or drug addicts, face particularly close government scrutiny.

Prominent Chinese human rights activist Zeng Jinyan argues that “fears of collective expression and action – rather than individual acts of political criticism or protest – greatly influence state policy.” Authorities in Moscow and Beijing are clearly leaving nothing to chance. A toothless civil society that can barely bark, let alone bite, cannot counter authoritarian overreach.

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