Trans-Pacific View

The Future of NGOs in US-China Relations

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Trans-Pacific View

The Future of NGOs in US-China Relations

Insights from Travis Tanner.

The Future of NGOs in US-China Relations
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Kentaro Iemoto

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. Asia policy.  This conversation with Travis Tanner, president of the U.S.-China Strong Foundation based in Beijing, is the 80th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Explain the impact of China’s new Law on the Management of Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations’ (NGOs) Activities in China.  

China’s new foreign NGO management law officially went into effect on January 1, 2017. The new law requires that all foreign NGOs (excluding those in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan) either carry out activities under the supervision of a Chinese government sponsor, register a representative office with the Ministry of Public Security, and submit regular activity reports to Chinese government authorities; or conduct temporary activities in partnership with a Chinese public organization under a temporary activities permit.

There is still uncertainty around the law as only a handful of organizations have successfully registered, most of which were already registered under older regulation. The lack of clarity surrounding some of the guidelines and specifically how the law will be enforced has many organizations in a holding pattern awaiting further clarification.

Given that the law went into effect less than two months ago, it is difficult to assess its impact and much of its impact will ultimately depend on how it is implemented. Many observers worry the law will be used to constrain or even expel foreign organizations that work on issues viewed by local authorities as too sensitive. In fact, several NGOs have already decided to leave the country. On the other hand, some believe the law may limit the discretionary power of the Ministry of Public Security because it will provide the long missing framework, series of procedures, and responsibilities for regulating foreign NGOs.

What is the role of NGOs, such as the U.S.-China Strong Foundation and others, in strengthening U.S.-China cooperation?  

NGOs have and will continue to play a critical role in enhancing and strengthening the U.S.-China relationship. The NGO community serves as an important ballast for the relationship. The more voices, the greater the web of people-to-people ties, and the more levels of cooperation between the two nations — all help to minimize the potential for conflict and increases the incentive to maintain stability. At the U.S.-China Strong Foundation, in addition to encouraging more Americans to learn Mandarin and study in China, we help raise awareness and educate the next generation about why it is so important that Americans and Chinese understand one another, their cultures, their languages, politics, and economies.

Identify significant challenges and opportunities that Chinese homegrown NGOs face.

Chinese NGOs are also operating in a new regulatory environment featuring China’s new “Charity Law” that went into effect on September 1, 2016. The legislation expands and legitimizes the space for Chinese NGOs to carry out activities and provide services in China. In addition, the new law allows non-profit groups to legally register and raise funds to support these activities and to encourage more charitable giving by enhancing tax incentives.

China’s civil society has made significant advancements over the past several decades and many NGOs deserve credit for playing a key role in achieving this success, including combating rural illiteracy, providing public health services, campaigning for legal reform and making strides to protect the environment, among other causes.

However, challenges remain. Many local officials do not fully understand the safeguards provided under the new law. Further, they are suspicious of NGOs and possess the ability to stymie NGO activity. Finally, navigating China’s broader political environment – one that threatens to clamp down on activity or discourse deemed politically sensitive by the government – means NGOs must act with caution and avoid becoming involved in sensitive issues.

How are social media and technology serving or hindering NGOs’ effectiveness?    

Social media has provided incredibly powerful platforms through which NGOs connect with stakeholders, build communities and engage new audiences. Specifically, it has given organizations like the U.S.-China Strong Foundation a larger microphone through which we share our mission and encourage young Americans and Chinese to connect and get to know one another. Our organization has a robust network of U.S.-China Strong Student Ambassadors and a growing U.S.-China Alumni Network, both of which rely heavily on social media to support, educate, and connect future leaders in U.S.-China relations. The more avenues we have to encourage Americans to learn Mandarin, study in China, and pursue China-focused careers, the better.

How might the Trump administration’s evolving China policy affect the future of American NGOs in China?

The U.S.-China Strong Foundation is a nonpartisan organization steadfastly committed to its mission of strengthening U.S.-China relations by investing in a new generation of leaders who have the knowledge and skills to engage with China. In the face of current political change, it is even more critical that NGOs like the U.S.-China Strong Foundation work to facilitate cross-cultural understanding between our two nations and our people. The relationship between the United States and China is the most consequential in the world. Simply put, the stakes are too high for us not to work together, for us not to understand one another. U.S.-China cooperation is critical to resolving the challenges facing the world today, whether it be climate change, risk of global health pandemics, terrorism, or nuclear proliferation. We will continue to work diligently to encourage more young Americans to learn about China and understand its importance not only to the United States but to the world.