, BEIJING, Apr 29 – China’s Communist-controlled legislature passed a controversial law Thursday imposing new restrictions on foreign non-governmental organisations — a measure met with “deep concern” in Washington.
The law gives police wide-ranging powers over overseas charities and bans them from recruiting members or raising funds in the country.
“The United States is deeply concerned that China’s new Law on the Management of Foreign NGO Activities will further narrow space for civil society in China,” US National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
“We urge China to respect the rights and freedoms of human rights defenders, journalists, business groups, development professionals, and all others who make up civil society, including by protecting the ability of foreign NGOs to operate in China,” he added.
The new law was approved almost unanimously by a committee of the Communist-controlled National People’s Congress (NPC), spokesman He Shaoren told reporters, with 147 votes in favour and only one against.
At least 1,000 foreign NGOs are thought to operate in China, including development charities such as Save the Children, advocacy groups including Greenpeace, chambers of commerce and university centres.
The law, which comes into force in January, gives police the right to approve the registration of all foreign NGOs, according to a text distributed by the NPC.
Police will revoke the registration of any organisation which “damages national interests” or “threatens society’s interests,” it said.
Any groups committing actions deemed “separatist” or “subverting of state organs” will also be banned, as will those which “spread rumours”.
“There have been some foreign NGOs which have planned or carried out activities threatening the stability of society and national security,” NPC official Zhang Yong told reporters at a briefing. He did not give details.
The law does not give a clear definition of an overseas NGO but is likely to cover foreign charities and business associations, and also applies to groups based in Hong Kong and Taiwan, although international schools and hospitals are exempt.
“Our initial reaction is disappointment that the public security agencies in China are going to be managing the registration process for NGOs,” said Jake Parker, vice president for China operations at the US-China Business Council.
The law comes as President Xi Jinping oversees a crackdown on civil society, which has seen scores of lawyers, academics and activists detained and dozens jailed.
Several have been imprisoned on charges of “subverting state power,” or “separatism,” for what their advocates say is merely expressing opinions critical of the ruling party.
At the NPC briefing, official Guo Linmao dismissed concerns over police supervision, saying: “Ordinary folk have a saying: If you have a problem, call the police, if you haven’t broken the law, what are you afraid of?”
– ‘Very real threat’ –
Overseas NGOs will have to hand annual work plans and financing details to a Chinese government agency, and will be forbidden from recruiting “members” in mainland China, barring special permission from the State Council, China’s cabinet. They will also be banned from fundraising in mainland China.
China’s state-run media in recent years have accused foreign organisations of undermining national security and trying to foment “colour revolution” against the ruling party.
China in January arrested and deported a Swedish human rights activist who had trained Chinese lawyers, and foreign NGO staff working on legal issues report an increasingly restricted environment.
Foreign diplomats have previously written to China’s government to express fears over the law.
“We are also deeply concerned about the provisions in the draft Law on Foreign NGO Management,” Hans Dietmar Schweisgut, the European Union ambassador to China, wrote in a letter earlier this year seen by AFP.
“Unless the law undergoes serious revision… it is likely to hinder people to people contacts, academic exchanges and commercial activities, all crucial elements of our bilateral relationship,” he added.
Rights groups decried the law’s passage on Thursday.
“The authorities –- particularly the police -– will have virtually unchecked powers to target NGOs, restrict their activities, and ultimately stifle civil society,” said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International.
“The law presents a very real threat to the legitimate work of independent NGOs and should be immediately revoked.”