China has right to regulate NGOs, but should recognise the positive role they play
Adversity tends to provide opportunities for non-governmental organisations to demonstrate the worth of a vibrant civil society to the mainland. Examples include their role in helping mobilise a humanitarian response to the Sichuan earthquake disaster in 2008. Another is the battle against HIV/Aids, in which civil society, being unofficial, is less sensitive than government to prejudice driven by fear and ignorance. Granted, these are one-off cases. But, day to day, a rapidly developing economy like China's leaves plenty of scope for NGOs to cover gaps in essential services and address social problems.
However, a solution to one problem continues to elude them. That is official unease about NGOs' foreign origins or indirect foreign funding. Increasingly, Beijing has tended to view them with distrust as potential vehicles for foreign interference and has not gone out of its way to encourage them.
That situation is unlikely to get any better under a draft law on the management of foreign charities that has just been through a public consultation. If enacted in its present form, according to experts in the field, it would drive many groups away and harm domestic NGOs that rely on them for funding.
Hundreds of foreign NGOs, some with close connections to their governments, are active on the mainland. It is estimated that the funds channelled by foreign parent groups amount to hundreds of millions of US dollars each year. Analysts said the decision to subject them to police oversight showed that foreign NGOs were viewed as potential subversive forces that could threaten national security.
Professor Chan Kin-man, a sociologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said he expected a number of international NGOs would fail to get approval because few government agencies would want to take the political risk of sponsoring a foreign organisation.
Given that some NGOs have close connections with their governments, China has a legitimate interest in their operations. NGOs should aim for transparency and accountability.
Regulation is not necessarily a bad move if it provides a healthy environment for NGOs' development. On balance, China stands to gain from creating a positive framework for NGOs to contribute to civil society, not least by helping to maintain social harmony through providing relief and redress to those who have fallen by the wayside of rapid progress.