China: Amend draft law on 'foreign NGO management' and ensure space for independent civil society


A draft Chinese law would further restrict the independence of non-governmental organisations in the country and significantly impede their ability to provide critical social services and undertake activities to promote human rights and the rule of law.

(Geneva/Washington DC) – A draft Chinese law would further restrict the independence of non-governmental organisations in the country and significantly impede their ability to provide critical social services and undertake activities to promote human rights and the rule of law, ISHR said today.

An amended draft of the Foreign NGO Management Law, released publicly on 5 May, retains the most problematic provisions of an earlier version of the law and fails to adequately take into account serious concerns raised by both domestic and international civil society and by major governments.

Civil society organisations play a key role in China, complementing efforts by government and mass organisations and extending access to public goods like education and healthcare. They also play a key role in providing disaster relief to vulnerable communities, particularly those deep in China’s hinterland. In recent years, NGOs have collaborated effectively, including with all levels of government, to respond to displacement following natural disasters or to improve educational outcomes for the children of internal migrants. In light of the nascent Chinese philanthropic community, and the ongoing evolution and capacity-building of domestic grassroots organisations, external partners have become lifelines for many local and even national NGOs. The draft law would fundamentally undermine these relationships, and in so doing call into question the very survival of independent civil society.

According to some international NGOs, this may be exactly the point. Human Rights Watch notes that, 'this law is clearly part and parcel of a larger effort to limit, not facilitate, the work of independent organizations'. 

The new draft contains a range of problematic provisions that would constrain the independence of civil society organisations: from arduous and opaque approval processes for registration and project activities; to incursions on private property and information under the guise of 'supervision' by public security authorities; to extensive sanctions ranging from fines, to deregistration, to detention.

ISHR is particularly concerned with the vagueness and breadth of provisions which can give rise to the imposition of sanctions, including 'political' or 'religious' activities, 'subversion of state power' and 'spreading rumors'. Similarly vague provisions have long been used to stifle and criminalise the work and activities of human rights defenders in the country and there is little reason to believe that the Chinese government will exercise more restraint in levying these ambiguous provisions against foreign NGOs.

One change to the second draft, touted as a positive move by Chinese media, enhances the ability of foreign NGOs to establish branch offices. In the initial draft, a foreign NGO was only allowed to establish one representative office, or to conduct 'temporary activities' in partnership with a limited set of (government-approved) Chinese partners in lieu of representation. The second draft allows for some exceptions to this rule, at the discretion of the State Council. The China Daily reports that this change came in response to concerns by some localities with a stake in facilitating the continued work of foreign NGOs in high-priority areas – namely, science and technology. 

However, other concerns raised publicly and privately by Chinese experts and human rights organisations, as well as foreign governments, appear to have gone unheeded.

According to the US State Department: 'We consistently emphasize [that] respect for rule of law, independent judiciary, free flow of information, and robust civil society are really critical… that’s a message we give [the Chinese government] constantly.' Similarly, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Assembly, Maina Kiai, as early as 2011, noted significant concerns with the ability of Chinese defenders and organisations to engage in peaceful demonstrations or to associate freely without facing harassment or intimidation.

The Chinese government must meet its obligations under international law to protect and promote human rights. As regards the role of civil society, it has further commitments, particularly as a member of the Human Rights Council, which adopted a resolution on protecting civil society space by consensus in September 2014. That resolution specifically applauded the role of civil society in contributing positively to economic, social and cultural development, reaffirmed the importance of respecting the right of civil society organisations to access resources, and emphasised the need more broadly for an enabling environment free from hindrance and insecurity.

Rather than seeing civil society as an enabling partner in this endeavor, however, China consistently acts to undermine the independence of civil society organisations. The restrictions on foreign NGO engagement in China have the potential to eviscerate the increasingly diverse and impactful local NGO community. They also contribute to a worrying global narrative that vilifies the influence of 'foreign agents' and seeks to narrow the role of civil society to furthering vaguely defined national interests.  

The international community must support the calls from within and outside China for a substantive revision of this law that would be in line with international human rights norms. All stakeholders, including governments, civil society, religious organisations – and even multinational corporations who conduct charitable work and community outreach in China – must make clear that onerous and restrictive regulations contained in the draft law have no place in a country that seeks to be a credible partner in social and economic development on the global stage.

Contact: Sarah Brooks, East Asia Programme Manager, on


  • Asia
  • Freedom of expression, association and assembly
  • Human rights defenders
  • China