Recently, an influential think tank and NGO called Beijing Transition Research Institute (北京传知行社会经济研究所) was shut down by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, bringing issues related to NGO registration and management back into the spotlight. From the basic definition of NGOs, it is clear that Chinese NGOs face three major challenges: 1) There are NGOs, and there are government “NGOs,” identified most easily by their tendency to begin their titles with “China,” ie China Red Cross, China Charity Federation, etc. The latter benefit tremendously from their government background; 2) If an NGO does not downplay its organizational nature when conducting activities, it is often viewed as anti-government and illegal; 3) Groups that identify as non-profit are often viewed suspiciously– if a group does not bring in a profit, it must have political intentions.
In the current situation, things are even more complicated. NGOs not only carry out research and activities on a number of sensitive topics such as environmental protection, labor, and rights protection, but they also seek collaboration with individuals, businesses, and foundations in implementing these projects. Some organizations whose work is too sensitive are unable to register as NGOs, and must instead register as businesses. A large number of NGOs currently register this way. However, this causes two problems – first, businesses are subject to a large number of taxes, including sales tax, income tax, and management tax. Second, when organizations engage in work such as research, investigations, and service provision with an NGO identity, they are vulnerable to being shut down by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, as in the case of Chuanzhixing. Although there have been some major reforms in NGO regulation recently, including a significant relaxing of the requirements for registration, organizations whose work falls outside of the specified boundaries of social welfare, charity, and social service, particularly, political, legal, and religious organizations, will continue to face difficulties in registration and will remain sensitive to the “whims” of the government.