The Pacific Implications of China’s Proposed NGO Law

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If the aim of China’s strategy in the Pacific is to foster trust and deepen collaboration, Beijing’s proposal to toughen supervision of international development organizations could compromise its relationships with key regional partners.

Back in April, the National People’s Congress heard the second reading of the “Overseas NGO Management Law,” which NPC spokespeople identified as necessary for “safeguarding national security and maintaining social stability.” The draft law was back in the news last week, drawing criticism from a range of international human rights groups arguing that it amounted to a violation of free association and effectively shrunk the already too-small space for freedom of expression in mainland China.

The new law is designed to accomplish a variety of objectives. It increases government oversight of foreign groups by requiring that they obtain approval from an appropriate supervising entity, extending the already dense and burdensome registration requirements for foreign charities and foundations. It also precludes Chinese groups from accepting any funding from unregistered foreign partner organizations and from conducting activities on behalf of unregistered overseas partners, including those based in Hong Kong and Macau. Those found in violation of the new regulations face closure, the possible detention of staff, and fines of up to 50,000 RMB (approximately $8000).

Most worrying of all, the legislation transfers responsibility for the registration and supervision of foreign NGOs from the Ministry of Civil Affairs, which previously oversaw all matters related to the management of foreign and domestic social organizations, to the Ministry of Public Security. The move effectively brands global non-profits, churches and charities such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Doctors Without Borders, and the Salvation Army as security threats, and escalates action taken against them to the same level as counter-terrorism efforts.

The consequences for humanitarian efforts in China could prove disastrous, but the implications extend well beyond China’s domestic development. Indeed, they undermine the great strides China has made toward improving its image internationally and in promoting itself as a fair and reasonable partner in development cooperation.

News of the draft law for foreign NGOs should be especially disconcerting for New Zealanders, whose government now collaborates with China’s on a variety of development projects throughout the South Pacific region. The centerpiece of this engagement is Te Mato Vai, a water infrastructure project based in Rarotonga. Since 2006, New Zealand has partnered with China and the Cook Islands in upgrading the outdated network at a cost of NZ$60 million ($40.5 million).

Beyond the expected health benefits, the project holds significance as a regional first in collaborative aid. Never before has China worked together with a traditional donor to deliver assistance to the South Pacific. Te Mato Vai serves as a trust-building exercise, with the New Zealand Aid Programme hoping to “lay the foundations for further co-operation on development issues across the region.”

But the draft law could threaten such co-operation. China’s suspicion of foreign NGOs undermines the very trust Te Mato Vai seeks to achieve. At a time where China’s image still lacks international confidence, it gives reason for New Zealand to be equally suspicious. The law suggests China might prefer to leave the project as a one-off rather than become a model for development. Unless China can match the newfound trust extended by foreign partners, it could tip the precarious balance against the possibility of future collaboration.

Stephen Noakes and Victoria Brownlee, University of Auckland

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