Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

Draft law may test resilience of Chinese civil society

Reading Time: 5 mins
Chinese police stand next to a roped-off plaza near the Shanghai Museum in Shanghai, 27 June, 2015. (Photo: AAP)

In Brief

In May 2015, a draft of China’s new Overseas NGO Management Law was leaked to the media. The proposed new regulations tighten state control over international non–government organisations (NGOs) working in China. Under the new law, international NGOs would come under the authority of the Ministry of Public Security and would be required to have a Chinese ‘supervisory agency’.


  • A
  • A
  • A


  • A
  • A
  • A

Many international commentators see this law as a blow to civil society in China. After all, this policy is in line with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s overall mission to suppress foreign influence and internal dissent, as seen in a range of actions from banning the television comedy ‘The Big Bang Theory’ to controlling the Chinese blogosphere. More ominously, it comes at the same time as reports that grassroots NGOs are being harassed by Chinese police and their members arrested on dubious charges.

But China watchers prophesying the rise or fall of civil society have been wrong in the past. No one predicted the recent explosive growth of the Chinese NGO sector. NGOs were almost nonexistent in China in the early 1990s but, by 2013, there were over 500,000 registered organisations, plus another 1.5–2 million unregistered ones.

The relationship between Chinese law and the health of the country’s civil society is far from straightforward. In the last two decades, the Chinese government’s position on NGOs has ranged from unsupportive to hostile. Regulations promulgated in 1998 and 2004 made it difficult for organisations to register and almost impossible for them to solicit donations legally. As a result, most Chinese NGOs operated in a legal gray area, vulnerable to state sanction. Yet during this same time period, the Chinese NGO sector not only increased exponentially in size, but also grew in influence and impact. How do we reconcile this contradiction?

While the Xi Jinping regime has been quite consistent in its desire to suppress foreign influence in China, its policies toward domestic NGOs have been more mixed. Certain NGOs and activists have suffered harassment and arrest, but the government has also promulgated new laws that make it easier for domestic NGOs to operate in China. In 2013, new regulations made it much easier for organisations to register and become legally compliant. In the same year, the new Environmental Protection Law gave NGOs the power to file lawsuits against firms (even state firms) when they uncover environmental violations.

This last case is especially relevant for the current situation: an earlier, weaker draft of the Environmental Protection Law drew the loud disapproval of NGO members and other environmental activists, and in response the Chinese government substantially revised the law. The Overseas NGO Management Law is also still in draft form and it could likewise potentially be revised.

At least in the case of domestic NGOs, there has also been a substantial gap between law and actual practices on the ground. Before the 2013 revision of registration laws, the majority of Chinese NGOs were, technically, legally noncompliant. The law for international NGOs was even less clear. These legal realities failed to stop the NGO sector from flourishing. They also failed to prevent many Chinese NGOs from developing mutually beneficial relationships with Chinese government officials and departments.

To understand how illegal NGOs can build partnerships with the government, we need to let go of our view of the Chinese state as a monolithic actor, an octopus–like entity with tentacles reaching everywhere throughout the country. Yes, the Chinese government is an authoritarian single–party state. But it is also a conglomeration of many departments, offices, bureaus and officials, who have competing agendas and sometimes outright conflicts with each other. Chinese NGOs do not develop relationships with ‘the government’, but instead with specific departments or bureaucrats.

Nor should we assume that the power dynamic between an NGO and a government organisation always favours the latter. My own research has revealed that connections with powerful officials or offices can give NGOs substantial leverage over government departments further down the hierarchy. They can also give Chinese NGOs protection from state interference and harassment.

Significantly, they provide Chinese NGOs with a way to access state resources and influence government practices and policies. For instance, a Chinese NGO will design an effective model of how to solve a given social problem, and then persuade a state department to adopt and implement it on a large scale. These tactics have led to transformative campaigns in rural education, disability services and environmental protection, and have encouraged citizens to engage in volunteerism.

The Chinese NGO sector is vibrant, messy, inconsistent and, above all, innovative. Chinese social entrepreneurs have found ways to overcome many obstacles – including a powerful, paranoid state and oppressive laws – to fulfil their visions of transforming society. This new law may test civil society in China, but I wouldn’t count on it being derailed.

Carolyn L. Hsu is Associate Professor of Sociology at Colgate University.

7 responses to “Draft law may test resilience of Chinese civil society”

  1. China has undertaken unprecedented economic reforms as well as other reforms from a planned economy to a market economy and so far it has been very successful overall. The nature of reforms at that scale means something may be illegal today but becomes legal and normal tomorrow. Unfortunately there are uncertainties in that process, resulting in some people have become reformist heroes and some become law breakers (leaving aside those who have been deliberately corrupt).
    Further, China has been used to ruling by people as opposed to ruling by law, although it seems the Chinese government and leadership are moving towards more ruling by law.
    It is true that the Chinese president has been advocating self-confidence and self-proud of the communist party, the Chinese system and Chinese people, with implications for overseas influences. The leaked draft law concerning overseas not-government organisations should be considered in that context.
    It is not necessarily all negative. For example, are the French wrong in terms of advocating their culture and creating some barriers for Hollywood products?
    Further, if it is true that the Chinese government has made it difficult for the Chinese to register non-government organisations, it should not be too surprising for it to make it difficult for overseas NGAs. The Chinese government is used to having controls over people and that has probably not changed as much as its economic system.

    • Thank you for your comment. I do think that China has been moving toward a rule of law. (Karla Simon’s work in that area is very helpful.) This is why even a draft of the new law is a big deal now, for people both inside and outside the PRC.
      It isn’t surprising at all that foreign organizations would view a law that potentially constrains their actions in a negative light. (Hollywood studios don’t like those French laws either!) Nationalistic or patriotic rhetoric and policies are always going to be more appealing to citizens than to outside observers.
      The real question is what does this mean for civil society in China? There is research that shows that foreign NGOs and foundations can have positive effects on domestic NGOs (providing new ideas, resources, networks,and training), but also some negative effects (influencing NGOs to do things a certain way to get foundation grants, rather than because it is the NGO’s original vision.)

      • The Chinese government and its leadership probably do not wish to see foreign NGOs as a source of the so called colour revolutions that might happen in China. Domestically, they probably do not wish to see another Falungong type of NGO to appear to pose a threat to them. They wish to retain control or have control over NGOs to their advantage as opposed to being a threat to them. But it will be a fine balancing act so NGOs can be thriving and have their positive roles in China, I hope.

        • But do you think that a fear of a “color revolution” is realistic? The circumstances in China seem so different. Most significantly, if polls are correct, the majority of citizens in the PRC are generally satisfied with overall government performance. In the countries with “color” revolutions, people were discontent with their leaders because of mismanagement, poor economic performance, and corruption.
          Also, why would international NGOs matter? I don’t think people in China are so naive that foreigners could trick them into rebelling against their own government if they didn’t want to. Sure, they might seduce a few people, but not many. Chinese people don’t need foreigners to teach them to look critically at their own government. They are quite capable of doing that on their own. When an official is corrupt, they complain loudly. But most conclude that the government is doing a good job overall.

          Besides, most of the INGOs that operate in China are not advocating anything rebellious. They are environmental protection groups, or organizations that help disabled people or build hospitals or schools.

          • Well, consider the Taiping Rebellion. There are a lot of not so sophisticated people in China. That combined with mindless foreign worship among certain segments of the population does need to be guarded against. Consider even cosmopolitan Hong Kong, where a significant segment of the population is anti anything mainland.

  2. This is great and true about domestic NGOs, but what about the foreign organisations (including business associations, education institutes, etc) about whom this draft law concerns and with whom partnerships or collaboration may be more sensitive for officials who can provide protection to domestic groups?

    • There is every reason for foreign NGOs to be concerned that they will be dealing with more strictures and scrutiny, at least in the near future. What is not clear is how onerous these constraints will be, or whether they will be temporary or more long-lasting. Until they know what the situation will be, they should invest in building good relationships with Chinese government officials. Guanxi is the most useful resource in China, especially during conditions of uncertainty.

Support Quality Analysis

The East Asia Forum office is based in Australia and EAF acknowledges the First Peoples of this land — in Canberra the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people — and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.

Article printed from East Asia Forum (

Copyright ©2024 East Asia Forum. All rights reserved.