International NGOs Worry over Finding Sponsors

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China’s new law on the management of international NGOs is soon to come into force – and leading NGOs working in the country worry that an unenthusiastic bureaucracy may present obstacles to acquiring legal status.


August might normally be a holiday month, but for overseas NGOs working in China it has been anything but relaxing. The Law on the Management of Overseas NGOs’ Activities in Mainland China is going to come into effect on the first of January next year, and since publication in April it has attracted widespread attention internationally and been raised in high-level talks between China and both the US and Germany. The details of how the law will be enforced are still being worked out, and one key element, a “directory of professional supervising units” – bodies allowed to act as official sponsors of overseas NGOs – is due to be published in September or October this year.

China will have a dual registration system for managing overseas NGOs: to have legal status in China, they need to have an appropriate government department act as a professional supervising unit (a “sponsor”) and register with the public security authorities at provincial level or higher. The new law requires the NGOs to find a sponsor before registering, making this key to forming a legal entity. The sponsor is then vividly if unofficially referred to as the NGO’s “mother-in-law”.

The current timetable gives overseas NGOs practically two months to find a sponsor and complete registration. Sze Pang Cheung, Executive Director of Greenpeace East Asia, says that for many years the Chinese government has given tacit consent to the activities of many overseas NGOs in China. And for those NGOs the biggest hurdle to acquiring legal status is not so much political – it will be overcoming the bureaucratic obstacles to registering in accordance with the rules.

Unmotivated mothers-in-law?

Although the law says sponsors provide standards and safeguards, past experiences show that the government departments lack the incentives or requirements to take on this role with any enthusiasm.

These bodies should ensure the NGO is qualified for its role, monitor its activities and help other authorities investigate any breaches of the law. Managing NGOs brings extra responsibilities, but no benefits, says Sze, and there are worries the NGOs could cause problems. So for the sake of a simpler life, they are likely to avoid doing so.

But if NGOs are unable to register due to bureaucratic passivity, what is the point of the new law?

Comparisons can be made with the Foundation Management Regulations of 2004. As of the end of 2015 only 29 representative offices of overseas foundations had registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs due to difficulties in finding sponsors. Statistics show that currently 7,000 overseas NGOs are active in China.

If the bulk of those NGOs fail to find a sponsor, the impact of this law meant to manage their activities will be greatly reduced. For the NGOs themselvesthe matter of greatest concern is whether the detailed rules on sponsors will include incentive mechanisms or binding requirements.

Workload is another matter that may discouragegovernment departments taking on this role. Many interviewees mentioned that if sponsors are set up by sector (such as environmental protection or poverty relief) and there are a large number of overseas NGOs working in a certain sector, checking application documents could involve large amount of time and would require specialist knowledge and staff. It may be necessary for central government to provide staff and funding to help overcome resistance from ministries and other bodies. And although China’s leaders recognize the importance of the law, those who actually implement it may not – creating a barrier to that implementation.

Unclear rules

Many NGOs spoken to worry that being able to find a sponsor depends too much on their access and ability to maneuver, rather than based on clear rules. Some overseas NGOs have long-term cooperative relationships with government bodies and strong financial backing – so they aren’t worried. But many less affluent and unknown smaller organisations working locally on community development, disaster relief, women and children’s issues may never come into contact with ministry officials. Suddenly having to build a relationship with a government body and clear the bureaucracy is a huge challenge.

Some overseas NGOs have therefore made proposals regardingthe “directory of professional supervising units”. One is to widen its scope to include NGOs with government backgrounds (GONGOs), major industry associations and national foundations alongside ministries and other government bodies. These “bridge” bodies have a better understanding of overseas NGOs and would be better able to provide services and supervision. Howard Liu, Oxfam’s China Programme Director, said that this is common internationally – for example the relationship between the Hong Kong Council of Social Services and Hong Kong NGOs. This would also solve the problem of management across different sectors. Many NGOs do not work in one single sector – for example Oxfam works on poverty relief, education, migrant workers, climate change and women’s issues. It would be hard to find a single government body that could manage all areas. But better matches might be found among GONGOs or national foundations.

Also those interviewed reminded policy-makers of the importance of policy continuity. In 2009 the province of Yunnan issued provisional rules for the management of NGOs, intended to be a pilot for a national system, requiring them to submit a file to the authorities.Meanwhile some overseas NGOs have signed memoranda of understanding (MOU) with governments at multiple levels. Liu said the new law shouldn’t wipe the slate clean – those NGOs that have submitted files or signed MOUs should not have to start all over again. This may lead to a management vacuum for a certain period, which would be a step backwards.

Hoping for communication

Those bodies to be listed as sponsors are going to be faced with overseas NGOs that they are unfamiliar with.

Zhao Zhonghua, World Animal Protection’s chief representative in China, said that as a service provider the government needs to research and familiarize itself with NGOs – and this is particularly the case with the sponsors. For example some overseas NGOs are foundations – but may not contain the word “foundation” in their names. Therefore the sponsor needs to have a certain understanding of the sector.

And China’s “mothers-in-law” may actually benefit from contact with overseas NGOs. Zhao explained that some overseas NGOs working in China have consultative status with the UN and close links with the public of many countries. China’s government bodies could, by acting as sponsors, deepen their understanding of international society and increase the country’s soft power. If the law is implemented in an appropriate manner, it could be a second opening up to follow that of the 1980s. He suggests the sponsors should have targets for the number of NGOs to manage, with officials being evaluated on their success in achieving that target. And training shouldn’t just focus on the day-to-day business of acting as a sponsor– it should also make them realize the wider value of that role.


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