China’s Overseas NGO Law: Further Philosophical Thoughts

A few weeks ago, I wrote about trying to understand China’s perspective on the recently-passed Overseas NGO Activity Management Law in Foreign Affairs. I mostly talked about practical consequences, but the law raises further, more philosophical questions — the kind of questions that no editor in their right mind will allow to be casually introduced in a 1,200 word article. And thus God invented the follow-up blog post.

Part of the difficulty of interpreting the law is that there is good reason to be deeply conflicted about foreign NGO activity anywhere in the world. Overseas NGOs made major contributions to China’s development; in part due to their success, foreign NGOs such as the Global Fund have now rerouted much of their development aid to poorer, less-developed nations. China has become both a recipient of foreign assistance and a provider, as more Chinese NGOs are going abroad. Lifting China’s status as an equal global player was part of the motivation of the law: as Peking University’s Jin Jinping argues, Chinese groups operating abroad “face the restraint of local laws in the countries where they are operating.” Overseas groups in China, therefore, should do the same. By codifying the rules of NGO activity, the overseas NGO law tells foreign NGOs: if they want to operate in China, they have to play by China’s rules.

This is an inevitable stage of NGO development across national borders and political systems. The Catholic priest and radical writer Ivan Illich famously argued in 1968 that all volunteer activity abroad was to “pretentiously impose” a foreign set of values on a country. Volunteers should focus on problems within their own societies, rather than go elsewhere. Regardless of a volunteer’s intentions—and why he titled his argument “To Hell with Good Intentions”—Western volunteers abroad are “salesmen for a delusive ballet in the ideas of democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise.” (In this framing, China’s push for its NGOs to go abroad is its own form of the opposite push: selling a delusive ballet in the ideas of non-democracy, hierarchical governance, and state intervention. I call it “Good Intentions with Chinese Characteristics”)

Overseas NGOs in China are not immune to the criticism of imposing external ideas onto local conditions, despite their good intentions. As political scientists Jessica Teets and Carolyn Hsu note, “In China, Western foundations ran training programs for Chinese NGO members to teach them ‘best practices,’ by which they mean their own practices.” In the past, the authors note, overseas funding has been tied to training methods and organizational structures that don’t always match local conditions in China. Quoting an activist interviewed by civil society scholar Anthony Spires, “For many years, I’ve been subjected to training on ideas like democracy, transparency, and so on. These ideas are great. At the same time, though, we are a very poor grassroots NGO, and we’re moving further and further away from our first goal of serving people with AIDS.

A typical response to Illich’s take-down of the condescending do-gooder mentality is that foreign volunteers can still be useful if they only provide what the local people want: volunteers who contribute labor to a project spawned, designed and managed locally could hardly be imposing any external values. Illich himself was not only interested in rejecting ideas; he created a training school for missionaries to get do-gooders to question the idea of “doing good.”

The listen-to-locals argument, however, focuses on individual choices rather than political structures in the recipient country. How foreign organizations operate is increasingly dictated by sovereign rules that may not mesh with an NGO’s stated values.

Any state can act to restrict the power of foreign NGOs within its borders. Strong, central authoritarian regimes in both China and Russia have now cracked down on foreign NGOs and funding, but so have democracies such as India. “Hostility to NGOs [….] is getting more intense and pervasive in [Asia]—including among democracies. Tighter regulation is leading to a clampdown on outfits that governments dislike,” reports The Economist. Israel recently passed a bill requiring more transparency from foreign-funded NGOs, which critics claim is meant to selectively pressure groups that support Palestine. Supporters say that these foreign-funded groups “exploit Israeli democracy and manipulate the judicial system to further their political agendas.”

In China, who are the locals? Foreign NGOs in China can only contribute to what the government — and particularly the central government, as represented by the Ministry of Public Security — allows. There is no guarantee, in either theory or practice, that what the Ministry of Public Security deems safe and good for China represents what the people want. Foreign NGOs could very easily want to contribute to a locally-designed and managed project but be rejected under the premises of the new overseas NGO law; or, the projects approved by the state police may not actually be what the local people want.

China’s size also makes it difficult to determine how “local” the needs of local people really are. “The mountains are high and the Emperor is far away,” the famous saying goes: the further you get from Beijing, the less likely things are to adhere to what’s being said at the top. Even provincial or city-level officials, which cover huge tracts of land, are far removed from what is happening in towns and villages. A village in rural Yunnan province is far closer to Hanoi than Beijing, in distance, appearance, and traditional customs; yet the decision for approving foreign NGOs will ultimately lie in the hands of central or provincial officials. In theory, foreign NGOs providing what higher-level security officials deem worthy are at risk of imposing another set of foreign values on local populations — those of China’s upper levels of government — by subordinating their own.

There is also the possibility that overseas NGOs, operating anywhere in the world, displace domestic groups and prevent local organizations from building capacity. Nobel prize winner Angus Deaton has made this case forcefully in the past: foreign aid, he argues, could hinder the ability of recipient countries from creating the institutions needed to serve their own people. As long as China’s central leaders viewed NGO groups with suspicion and made it difficult for any groups to grow, this criticism was not particularly relevant to China. The passage of the Charity Law, however, calls this into question: simplified registration and more space for domestic groups to operate in non-sensitive areas could create more space for grassroots NGOs to step into roles previously occupied by foreign groups and foreign funding.

The main question being asked about China’s law is whether China’s public security authorities will allow foreign NGOs to operate. Perhaps it is worth asking whether foreign NGOs will, or should, want to operate. For NGOs that support democracy, international human rights and general charity, playing by China’s rules may not be easy to swallow.