Our Registration Story: The Nature Conservancy (TNC)

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Editor’s Note

This article was originally published by the Center for Charity Law (CCL) at the China Philanthropy Research Institute (CPRI) of Beijing Normal University. See the original here.



The Law of the People’s Republic of China on Administration of Activities of Overseas Non-governmental Organizations in the Mainland of China (ONGO Law) came into effect on January 1st 2017, and since then, its implementation has garnered significant attention from ONGOs and other stakeholders. In the past months, many ONGOs have successfully registered their representative offices with public security departments across the country. The successful registration of representative offices is a joint effort relying on the cooperation of many forces.

The TNC’s Story in China 

The Center of Charity Law (CCL) at the China Philanthropy Research Institute (CPRI) is holding a series of interviews with the Chief Representatives of successfully registered ONGOs to better understand their unique experiences and extract meaningful and transferable practices for the larger ONGO Law community to learn from and enable a smoother implementation of the law.

This time our interview is conducted with Ms. Joyce Ma, Chief Representative of the China Office of the Nature Conservancy (TNC). TNC successfully completed the registration of their Representative Office at the Beijing Public Security Bureau on May 19th, 2017.

Q:What is TNC’s story in China? When and why did TNC come to China?How does its mission in China relate to the general mission of TNC?

A: 1. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is a leading global conservation organization. Founded in 1951, TNC operates in 69 countries with its worldwide office in Arlington, Virginia. TNC has over 1,000,000 members and 3,700 employees, including 600+ scientists. TNC has helped protect more than 1,600 protected areas covering a total of 500,000 square kilometers of land, 8,000 kilometers of river sections, and more than 100 marine ecoregions worldwide.

2. Since its establishment, TNC has been emphasizing a science-based field conservation approach. We use a non-confrontational, collaborative approach in working closely with governments, the business community and others to carry out conservation constructively while accounting for community livelihoods so that people and nature can live in harmony.
3. TNC’s mission is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. As one of the most biodiversity-rich countries on Earth, China is of great significance to the overall mission of TNC. In 1998, TNC was invited by the Chinese government to enter China to carry out conservation work, first implementing conservation projects in northwestern Yunnan in China, one of the global biodiversity hotspots.

Q: What are some of your proudest projects in China? What are some major milestones that TNC has achieved over the years in China?
A: 1. After TNC entered China, we mainly carried out protection work in Yunnan in the early years. TNC worked with the Yunnan Provincial Government to develop the Conservation and Development Action Plan for Northwest Yunnan and explored a strategy to balance nature conservation and community development. TNC worked with local government agencies to develop a national park model, piloted on the ground in: Pudacuo, Shangri-la county; Meili Snow Mountain, Deqin county; and Laojun Mountain in Lijiang prefecture.

2. After nearly two decades of exploration in China, TNC has achieved remarkable results in areas such as lands, freshwater, climate change, oceans and cities.


In 2010, TNC cooperated with the Ministry of Environmental Protection to carry out the China Biodiversity Conservation Blueprint Project to identify 32 China’s terrestrial biodiversity conservation prioritized areas, which were incorporated into the China National Biodiversity Conservation Strategy and Action Plan (2011-2030). In 2011, with the support of the Sichuan provincial government, TNC worked with partners to create China’s first non-governmental land trust reserve in Old Creek, Pingwu County, Sichuan, one of the giant pandas’ critical habitats and incubated a local NGO — Old Creek Nature Conservation Center to be in charge of the daily management of this reserve. After the model was endorsed by the State Forestry Administration and the local government, it has been promoted in wider areas of Bayuelin of Leshan, Sichuan and Xihaicao of Heqing, Yunnan and other places. We will introduce and replicate this model to more areas in the future.

Climate Change

In 2007, TNC first successfully developed and implemented a project that secured gold medal class certification by CCBA (Community, Climate & Biodiversity Alliance). Later TNC continued to implement several gold medal-certified projects in Sichuan, Yunnan and Inner Mongolia planting more than 25 million trees on 13,300 hectares. It is expected that those projects will help sequester 3.2 million metric tons of carbon (CO2e).

Fresh water

In 2011, TNC participated in and supported China Three Gorges Corporation to change the traditional operation mode of the dam. We initiate an e-flows demonstration project for restoring fish resources on the Yangtze. In 2012, TNC entered into a Letter of Intent for the Yangtze-Mississippi Green Partnership on behalf of the U.S. Department of State with Yangtze River Basin Fishery Resources Management Commission – the first NGO-led partnership ever formed under the China-US Green Partnership Framework. Last year, TNC issued the “China Urban Water Blueprint”, which assessed the water quality of the water sources that supply water to 30 cities and towns in the country, and proposed ecosystem conservation based approaches to conservation of China’s urban water sources, including the introduction of the ‘water fund’ concept. Recently, TNC innovatively created China’s first trust-based small water source protection program at the Longwu Reservoir in Yuhang District of Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, thereby contributing to water source protection and drinking water safety in China.


In 2016, China launched the ocean initiative formally. The ocean initiative’s five-year plan is: to introduce and demonstrate typical coastal habitat restoration techniques and develop restoration toolbox; to promote the establishment of a coastal habitat restoration center, to mobilize social resources to participate in coastal habitat restoration, to promote the use of nature infrastructure as the government’s preferred solution for reducing natural disasters and recovering coastal ecosystem services.


Launched in 2016, the city initiative will seek to deliver policy recommendations on and demonstrate how world class sponge cities can be developed through our first pilot City of Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, for which an agreement for cooperation has been signed.

3. Through field conservancy work in China for nearly two decades, TNC has successfully transplanted our successful project and management experience in other countries and regions to China, and has accumulated a lot of valuable field experience of protecting China’s unique cultural and ecological environment. We have successfully integrated various social resources and summarized a set of ecological environment governance model suitable for China.

4. In China, eco-environmental protection is still a relatively new field. China currently has more than 2,700 nature reserves of different types and different levels, but many nature reserves still need to learn from foreign experience and lessons in terms of managing and planning for the protected areas. During our conservational work, many domestic environmental charities, nature reserves and government departments that have cooperated with us have asked whether TNC can provide services to them in terms of internal control system design, protected area planning, project design, personnel training and technical training, etc. Also, companies have asked us whether we can provide consultancy service in designing energy-saving emission reduction schemes and provide other scientific guidance to implement corporate social responsibility programs.

5. We believe that these services are of great value to our cause of environmental protection. If the relevant authorities allow us to charge a reasonable fee to cover the direct and indirect costs in providing such services, we are willing to share our international and domestic experience and scientific knowledge accumulated over the years to partners in China and mutually improve our ability to do good.

Pre-ONGO Law

Q: What was TNC’s legal status before the ONGO Law?

A: 1. In 1998, when TNC initially entered China, we operated in accordance with the Memorandum of Cooperation with the Yunnan Provincial People’s Government on the Proposal on the Project of the National Parks in the Northwest Yunnan River Basin. At that time, we registered TNC Yunnan Office with the State Administration for Industry and Commerce and our scope of operations were to carry out relevant non-profit activities based on the Yunnan government’s memorandum.

2. In 2010, TNC Yunnan Office submitted its documents for record to Yunnan Provincial Civil Affairs Department according to the Interim Provisions on the Regulation of Overseas Non-Governmental Organizations in Yunnan Province. Thus, our Yunnan Office became a documented ONGO representative office in Yunnan and it carries out biodiversity conservation work under the guidance of Yunnan Forestry Department. In 2017, TNC registered The Nature Conservancy Beijing Representative Office with the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau according to the ONGO Law.

Q: How closely did you follow the development of the ONGO Law? Did you participate in the legislative drafting process?

A: Since May 2015, when the National People’s Congress released the draft of the ONGO Law, we have spent a lot of time and energy to study relevant issues and have been actively engaged in discussions and coordination with our headquarters. We have not submitted any legislative suggestions to the authorities.

Registration Process

Q: How did you start preparing for your registration? How did you establish contact with  relevant departments? 

A: 1. After an in-depth study of the ONGO Law, we realized that the biggest challenge for ONGOs to register representative offices in China was to find a suitable PSU and obtain their consent. Therefore, we have been constantly communicating with potential PSUs since the second half of 2016. Ever since 2004, TNC has formally established a partnership with the State Forestry Administration of China. We have had a history of cooperation for more than 10 years and we know each other very well. So the State Forestry Administration agreed to be our PSU quite naturally. We are very grateful to the State Forestry Administration for their support for our work.

2. After confirming the PSU, the process of registering the representative office was proceeding smoothly, and our registered area of activities is nationwide. We are quite impressed with the enthusiastic, professional and conscientious assistance from the officers at the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau. We would like to express our heartfelt gratitude on this platform of “Shan Jian” to the State Forestry Administration and the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau for their support and acknowledgement of our work in China.

Q: How did you communicate with your headquarters overseas and within your field office? 

A: 1. From the second half of 2016, TNC China Program has been notifying everyone at the monthly meetings of the executives and the quarterly meetings of the staff on the implementing progress of the ONGO Law, the compliance measures that TNC needs to take, as well as the progress of our registration.
2. Our headquarters has been following closely about the impact of the promulgation of the ONGO Law on TNC’s activities in China and conducted a lot of discussion and research. In the process of application for registration of our Beijing Representative Office, they have also offered great support, and actively cooperated in providing the required materials.

Looking Forward

Q: What role would PSU play in your future work? What kind of help do you expect your PSU to provide for your work in the future? How is the communication with your PSU going?

A: 1. According to the ONGO Law, TNC Beijing Representative Office shall be subject to the dual management of our PSU (the State Forestry Administration) and the registration authority (the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau), especially at the end of each year, we need to submit to our PSU an annual plan for our activities in the following year. We shall also submit the annual plan to the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau following approval by the State Forestry Administration.
2. We will strictly comply with the requirements of the law. For all activities to be carried out in China by TNC, we will seek approval by the State Forestry Administration and file the record with the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau in advance according to the requirements aforementioned. If due to any special circumstances we need to make adjustments to our plan, we will promptly consult the State Forestry Administration and the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau and carry out the activities only after such adjustments have been approved.
3. As for matters that are not clearly specified in the ONGO Law, we will also consult the State Forestry Administration and the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau in advance to ensure that our activities in China are in compliance with Chinese legal requirements.

Q: Do you face any challenges in your future work? What issue areas do you expect the relevant departments to provide detailed and clear guidance on?

A: 1. It has only been a short period of time since the ONGOs took effect and we’ve encountered some practical problems. For example, like I mentioned earlier, many Chinese environmental NGOs, nature reserves and governments would like to seek field conservation planning consultancy and scientific guidance from TNC, and even Chinese enterprises would like to hire TNC to prepare emission reduction plans. We are ready to share our experience and expertise and we want to know whether charging reasonable fees for such professional service and consultancy (provided by us within our RO’s registered scope of business) to cover the direct and indirect costs incurred by us would count as “other funds legally acquired in the mainland of China” stipulated in the ONGO law.
2. When the representative office conducts various projects, it will accordingly need to sign contracts with various contracting partners. We are not sure in what name the representative office should sign its contracts and how it could issue relevant invoices to its contracting partners.

Q: What hopes do you have for the future in terms of ONGO Law implementation? Do you have any suggestions for the ONGO Law implementing authorities?

A: 1. The public benefit sector is an essential part for a society with a sound social security system. It is even more so for China, which is undergoing critical social changes and economic transformation. A healthy and vigorous public benefit sector not only balances efficiency and fairness, promote social stability, nurture civil society, but also has extraordinary significance for the construction of a socialist harmonious society.
2. Many ONGOs working in China are renowned internationally. Over the years, they have acquired rich and advanced project and management experience through conducting nonprofit activities around the world. They also value and have enthusiasm for public benefic undertakings in China. Since the implementation of the ONGO Law, the Chinese government has expressed an open and welcome attitude towards ONGOs’ activities in China. We have heard that as of now more than 200 ONGOs have successfully registered their representative offices at different levels of public security departments. It is foreseeable that in the near future, there will be more ONGOs obtaining legal status in China.

3. Certainly, registering representative offices according to the law is only a premise for conducting nonprofit activities in China in the long term. After registration, how the representative offices of ONGO shall carry out activities in accordance with the law and how relevant government departments oversee and supervise such activities of ONGOs will directly determine the effects of the implementation of the ONGO Law and whether ONGOs can healthily survive in China and contribute to the development China’s public benefit undertakings.
4. If these registered ONGOs can survive and develop in China, not only will China’s public benefit undertakings be greatly promoted, but also the increase and development of domestic charitable organizations will be greatly enhanced. It is important to know that due to the human resources and legal status limitations, most ONGOs tend to cooperate with domestic charitable organizations in the implementation of many specific projects in China. Such cooperation is a very valuable opportunity for both sides to learn from each other. In the past two decades of environment protection work, TNC has nurtured and incubated many domestic charitable organizations.
5. Therefore, we hope that legislative and administrative authorities can answer the questions we raised above soon and make clear the activities that ONGOs are allowed to carry out so that we can conduct activities in China strictly according to the provisions of Chinese law and make our contributions to the development of the public benefit sector of China.

Q: What did you learn during this process? What are some suggestions and tips you will have for the ONGO community? How do you think TNC’s experience can benefit other ONGOs?

A: 1. As an overseas NGO, we are obligated to comply with laws and regulations in any county where we conduct activities. The Overseas ONGO Law has only been effective for a short period of time while China’s Charity Law and its charitable sector are still in a key stage of reform and development. Therefore, it is understandable that we encounter some confusion and questions after registering our representative office.
2. It is an inevitable process. For the confusion and questions that may occur, we think ONGOs should communicate with their PSUs and the public security departments in a timely and active manner, ask for their advice on the specific situation and adjust their activities accordingly. As for those activities that relevant authorities cannot give certain directions on for the time being, ONGOs shall refrain from doing them and wait patiently for further notice from the relevant authorities.

3. According to our experience, our PSU as well as the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau are both very helpful and active in answering our inquiries, and whenever they can, are always willing to offer us their guidance and help us solve our difficulties. We believe that with the joint efforts, ONGOs can legally and robustly thrive under the Chinese law and make sustained contribution to the development of China’s public benefit undertakings together with their Chinese counterparts.

About the Chief Representative Joyce Ma

Joyce Ma is the Chief Representative of the Nature Conservancy Beijing Representative Office, overseeing all operations and management of TNC in China.
Prior to joining TNC, Ms. Ma worked as the Executive Vice President of Ericsson Northeast Asia and General Manager of China Unicom Business Unit, Human Resources Director of Ericsson Greater China, and President of Ericsson China Academy. She has acquired rich work and management experience.
After joining the Nature Conservancy, Ms. Ma introduced TNC’s experience of more than 60 years in protecting lands, fresh water, climate change, oceans and cities to China, and implemented projects in an innovative way to promote China’s sustainable development process.
She will lead a team of nearly 70 people to promote TNC’s projects in Yunnan, Inner Mongolia, Sichuan, Shanghai, Zhejiang project in larger arears and spread TNC’s environment protection work to other provinces in China.

In Brief

Following TNC’s successful registration in Beijing, chief representative Joyce Ma talks to the Center for Charity Law about her organization’s history in China, how it faced the challenge of registering under the new law, and its plans for the future.
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