China tightens grip on NGOs with new laws

29 April 2016

China's parliament has passed a controversial law governing foreign non-government organisations, Xinhua state news agency said on Thursday, giving wide powers to the domestic security authority and prompting criticism from Amnesty International.

The law is part of a raft of legislation, including China's counterterrorism law and a draft cyber security law, put forward amid a renewed crackdown on dissent by President Xi Jinping's administration.

The law, which is set to come into effect on 1 January 2017, grants broad powers to police to question NGO workers, monitor their finances, regulate their work and shut down offices.

Earlier drafts of the law had faced criticism from NGOs and foreign governments, which said it was too vague in its definition of what constituted actions that harmed China's national interests and could harm the operations of social and environmental advocacy groups, besides business organizations and academia.

That ambiguity largely remained in the final version of the law, and officials who briefed reporters on the implications of the law on Thursday would not provide specific examples of actions by NGOs that constituted such violations.

"If there are a few foreign NGOs, holding high the banner of cooperation and exchange, coming to engage in illegal activities or even committing criminal acts, our Ministry of Public Security should stop it, and even enact punishments," said Guo Linmao, an official with the National People's Congress Standing Committee, in a briefing.

The law also includes complex registration requirements for foreign NGOs that critics have said are meant to stifle the groups' ability to work.

The White House said on Thursday it was "deeply concerned" about the law, and urged China to respect the rights and freedoms of defenders of human rights, journalists and others.

The law could "further narrow space for civil society in China," Ned Price, a US National Security Council spokesman, said in a statement, adding it may constrain contacts between individuals and groups in the United States and China.

Amnesty International called the law fundamentally flawed.

"The authorities - particularly the police - will have virtually unchecked powers to target NGOs, restrict their activities and ultimately stifle civil society," William Nee, a China researcher for the group, said in a statement.

The German Embassy in Beijing said the law adopted some positive changes including the deletion of an expiry clause on registration licenses. But it said overall it remained too restrictive.

"The law continues to focus strongly on security and contains numerous approval and documentation requirements, as well as other norms restricting activities," it said in a statement.

Chinese officials said Beijing welcomes law-abiding NGOs to work in the country, but intends to punish those which harm Chinese security interests or social stability, without defining what that could mean.

"I'll use a colloquial expression," Guo said. "If you're in trouble, ask the police for help - if you haven't broken the law, what are you afraid of?"

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