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China Law Could Trigger NGO Exodus

This undated photo at an undisclosed location provided to AFP by the 'Chinese Urgent Action Working Group' shows Swedish human rights activist Peter Dahlin. Chinese state media on January 19 accused Peter Dahlin, detained amid a crackdown on outspoken lawyers, of inciting "opposition to the government", publishing a "confession" from a detained colleague.

China is drafting a new law that when passed will impose tough restrictions on foreign non-government organizations or NGOs. Analysts say the government sees some foreign NGOs as security risks, and is creating a set of laws and procedures that give it more power to investigate them.

At least one major foreign NGO, ActionAid, has wound down its operations, leaving behind only a token presence in China. Several other western NGOs are looking at plans to pull out of China as well.

The recent detention of Swedish NGO worker, Peter Dahlin, is not helping either.

“The government’s draft law indicates that dealing with foreign NGOs is linked to the question of “national security” and therefore a top priority. The recent case of the Swedish NGO activist Peter Dahlin has reinforced that message,” said Kristin Shi-Kupfer, director of Politics, Society and Media Research Area at the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) said.

Western infiltrators

China has often raised concerns that Western political forces are trying to infiltrate Chinese society through NGOs and spread ideas about western style democracy.

Peter Dahlin, the Swedish NGO worker, has been shown on government controlled television allegedly confessing to breaking the law and using foreign funds to "instigate confrontations" in Chinese society. Western sources have described it as a “forced confession.”

According to the draft law, all NGOs must register with security authorities, who will then supervise their activities. The law has specific provisions addressing what it calls “endangerment of national security” by NGOs and possible violations by them against “national morals, values and customs”.

“Such categories offer huge spaces for political interpretation and therefore to ban activities of foreign NGOs or for further punishment,” Shi-Kupfer said.

The draft law also imposes restrictions on activities by foreign NGOs to raise funds in China. This provision may discourage many foreign NGOs, who have begun to tap local funds as an alternative source given rising difficulties in raising funds abroad, sources said.

Color revolution

Robert Lawrence Kuhn, author of two books on China’s leadership, said the party does not want to take chances and permit the spread of Western ideas at this time when the country is going through a major economic slowdown and social transformation.

“China’s Communist Party feels that western NGOs played an important role in the fall of Communist governments in Eastern Europe, though there were other reasons as well. The party wants to be capable of dealing with such NGOs at this time of social transition,” he said.

Scott Kennedy, director of the Project on Chinese Business and Political Economy at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies says “China's leadership believes the color revolutions were in part caused by foreign NGOs, and they want to avoid the fate of other toppled authoritarian governments.”

Internal resistance

But the draft law is also facing some mild resistance from individuals within the Communist Party, who point to the major contributions made by foreign NGOs in areas like caring for handicapped children and reducing poverty in remote and neglected parts of the country, analysts say.

Some Chinese officials have also expressed concerns that the task of supervision may lead to excesses, forcing foreign NGOs with good track record to leave the country.

“If the draft isn't substantially altered, it will spell the end of many NGOs operating in China and have hugely negative consequences for Chinese society,” Kennedy said.