The slogan for the 2008 Beijing Olympics was “Beijing Welcomes You.” Now, seven years later, a draft law targeting foreign institutions — including universities, museums, athletic and cultural groups, professional associations and all nonprofit social organizations established outside of mainland China — makes clear that Beijing has become much less welcoming.
The draft “Foreign NGO Management Law,” released last month, is part of a package of legislation that includes strict laws on national security and antiterrorism. With this slate of broad and far-reaching statutes, President Xi Jinping, who evidently feels Communist Party rule is vulnerable to ideas from the outside world, is aiming to be the toughest leader since Mao.
If the NGO draft becomes law, the international cultural, educational and technical exchanges that have become commonplace and so essential to China’s astonishing development may come to a grinding halt.
Under the proposal, foreign-based nonprofit organizations would need to be vetted by China’s security police before they conduct activities in China. The law does not define “activity,” so security agencies will have free rein to decide whether to put a stop to an organization’s plans in China — and there is no provision for independent review of their decisions.
The roots of the draft law go back at least two years to when the Communist Party circulated an internal memorandum titled “Document No. 9,” warning of the dangers of Western values and advising cadres to be vigilant against seven particular ideas, known as the “seven unmentionables.”
The list of unmentionables displays a mistrust of outside influences that starkly contrasts with notions of a modern China building soft-power prestige around the world. Among the forbidden topics were: Western constitutional democracy, universal values, civil society, neoliberalism, Western media, “historical negation” and questioning the meaning of Chinese slogans such as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
Document No. 9 further asserted that “Western anti-China forces and domestic ‘dissidents’ also incessantly carry out infiltration activities in our country’s ideological sphere, and challenge our mainstream ideology,” and that “Western embassies, media organs and nongovernmental organizations act within our borders under all kinds of names to spread Western values, and foster so-called anti-government forces.”
The draft law defines NGO expansively to cover any nongovernment, nonprofit “social organization” based outside of mainland China, including those in Hong Kong, Macao or Taiwan. Perhaps the law would only be selectively enforced against those organizations seen as credible threats to political security, but all covered organizations would operate under the constant threat of being shut down and penalized.
Even a single lecture by a Harvard professor, an art exhibit by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, an act of charity or humanitarian disaster relief by the Red Cross, an athletic competition, a performance by a high school marching band, or a scholarship offered to a Chinese student could fall under the purview of the law — so long as the event is carried out within China by, or on behalf of, a foreign nonprofit.
The registration process itself is cumbersome, and as a result many organizations will likely either forgo activities in China or get lost in a labyrinth of bureaucracy. Those that successfully register local representative offices, or get permits for temporary activities, will be subject to police searches of their offices, computers and financial records.
One of the most chilling parts of the draft, Article 59, extends to activities outside China’s borders. Any of the following vaguely defined actions, if attributed not only to a representative within China but also to a foreign organization abroad, would be a violation: subversion of state power, undermining ethnic harmony, spreading rumors, or “other situations that endanger state security or damage the national interest or society’s public interest.”
In other words, if a student group on an American campus protests against Chinese government treatment of Tibetans, the university could be barred from activities in China, and its representatives in China could be detained and prosecuted.
Outsiders do not yet know how rigid or broad the law’s enforcement would be, but it’s telling that enforcement would be carried out by the police, not by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, which regulates domestic organizations. The message is clear: Those seeking access to China must beware the party line.
Beijing has previously retaliated against governments that met with the Dalai Lama or that permitted the awarding of prizes to advocates of political reform in China. It has blocked news outlets, restricted electronic communications and denied entry and work visas to journalists based upon the content of their reporting. Now attention is turning to foreign nonprofit organizations.
The role of foreign engagement in aiding China’s economic and social progress over the past 35 years is unquestionable. It was the post-Cultural Revolution policy of reform and opening up, championed by Deng Xiaoping, that paved the way for China’s achievements through greater integration with the world economically, socially and culturally.
There is still time for China’s leaders to revise this draft. The National People’s Congress has invited public comment on the proposal. If the draft only reflects the views of a faction within the party, as many believe, responses from the public, including foreigners, could be influential. Those people who wish to see China continue on its path of peaceful engagement should come forward and be heard. The comment period for the draft law ends June 4.
The drafters of this law do not understand how China has benefited from its opening up. All they see are sinister “foreign agents” instigating change. It would be a mistake for China, and unfortunate for the rest of the world, if its leadership caves in to its most radical elements and tells the world that, while foreign investment is welcome in China, foreign ideas are not.
Ira Belkin is executive director of N.Y.U. Law School’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute. Jerome Cohen is the institute’s co-director and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.