What Do American Students Have to Do with The Changing NGO Laws

The recent change in law regarding the governance of domestic and foreign NGOs in China is particularly interesting to me because I interned at an NGO as part of my college coursework.

Working at an NGO definitely had a positive influence on my studies and continues to be a venue for foreign students to enter the work force in China today. Approximately 20% of my study abroad class had an internship at an NGO. Indeed, whenever I hear about an American expat in China or glance at their LinkedIn, they are or have previously been employed by an NGO.

Because of these realities, I think young American students in China will have a first row seat for witnessing these legal changes play out because of their tendency to be employed by NGOs. But I am also afraid that the positive influence that NGOs currently have within Chinese society will be dampened and the view from within will be much more grim than the one I witnessed a few years ago.

What Are NGOs?

Chinese NGOs, or “non-governmental organizations” are analogous to the United States’ non-profits.  They are organizations aimed at promoting public welfare through research, education or services. More broadly, NGOs include organizations like endowments, foundations and think tanks.

My Experience at YHDRA

The domestic NGO that I personally worked for, Yunnan Health and Development Research Association, was founded in the 1980s to provide relief to migrant workers suffering from the epidemic of HIV/AIDs in Yunnan. During that time, there was no one organization able to effectively deal with the overwhelming health needs and so the NGO stepped in to pick up some of the slack by researching, providing education, and treatment. Since then, YHDRA continues to advocate for health needs of the people by teaching sex education to community members, conducting water sanitation research and more.

In order to exert this positive impact on community health, YHDRA, received overseas funding through various grants at the time. Previously, they had received funding from the Asia Foundation and were conducting talks with the Hong Kong based CCOUC during my tenure there. Applying for and receiving outside financial assistance is a necessity—as an organization that has its sights solely set on providing health and educational services and carrying out research, they do not have the time or the resources to conduct regular fundraising activities. Imagine providing services while also conducting commercial activities on the side—talk about a drain on manpower, not to mention a potential conflict of interest. In this way, foreign philanthropic foundations become a critical resource for the NGO to carry out their services for public welfare. 

The Changing NGO Laws

The new laws recently put in effect put all foreign NGOs under the control of the Public Security Bureau (the police) and give the PSB free reign to enter their office, examine their documents, and scrutinize their finances. Foreign NGO’s will be required to find a domestic sponsor, an unlikely risk to take on organizations promoting labor rights, human rights, or other controversial subjects. Even if a sponsor is found, the PSB will be unlikely to authorize their registration. Additionally, NGOs that accept funding from suspect foundations are more likely to come under scrutiny. In this article, the New York times cites the national Endowment for Democracy and Open Society foundations as particularly suspicious sources of funding for domestic NGOs.

China’s reason for the crackdown is a fear that foreign NGOs are secretly importing western ideals and promoting democracy in order to undermine Chinese socialist society. For example, this academic paper (in Chinese) I found online cited the political uprising in Tunisia as an example of the invasive influence of  western style democracy.

I did some research to find out if there were any specific cases of NGOs being indicted of subversive activity or explicitly threatening national security. I was unable to find anything concrete, which was confirmed in this Washington Post article. It seems that realistically, this legal rigamarole will be used to apply leverage to suspicious foreign NGOs for doing anything the CCP doesn’t like under the guise of “protecting national security.”

Foreign Students and NGOs

Despite the Chinese government’s suspicious regard of NGOs, they continue to be a very attractive to American students. I had a very positive experience working there, which was a fact not lost on my program administrators. During the process of searching out an internship position, my teachers and counselors constantly encouraged us and later cohorts of students to seek out positions at these organizations.

Because the NGO sector is so attractive to study abroad students in China, I think these students are perfectly poised to watch the situation of foreign NGOs in China change as this new law is implemented more fully. I sincerely hope that the view is a positive one and does not unduly hamper the efforts of foreign NGOs who aim to be a positive influence on society.


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