Guangdong has loosened controls on eight categories of NGOs, allowing them to register without a 'patron' government agency.
While the move indicates a change in the official stance on non-government organisations, analysts warn that those focusing on human rights or politics will continue to be oppressed.
A draft rule on further 'fostering, developing and managing social organisations', scheduled to take effect from July 1, says social organisations will be able to register directly with the civil affairs authorities without the backing of a government agency.
By 2015, most social organisations should be able to provide public services and products with just the government's authorisation, the draft says.
Finding a patron is the biggest hurdle for NGOs, particularly rights advocacy groups, because administrative departments are worried about being held responsible for NGOs' actions. Many rights groups have had to register as companies.
Under the new rule, government agencies in fields including industry, trade, commerce, charity and social services will no longer play the role of 'administrator' but be 'advisers' in the registration process.
'The core of the reform of social organisation management lies in lowering the registration threshold of these organisations and simplifying the process,' the Yangcheng Evening News quoted Liu Hong , head of Guangdong's civil affairs department, as saying.
There have been calls from academics, domestic and foreign NGOs and even foreign leaders for years urging the easing of government controls of NGOs because of the indispensable role they play in building up civil society. The central government emphasised the concept of 'social management' for the first time this year in its 12th five-year plan.
Guangdong is the first province to move towards a more open stance. Cities including Shenzhen and Chengdu have been experimenting with loosened NGO registration rules in recent years. Since April, Beijing has been experimenting with allowing four categories - commercial, charity, social welfare and social service - to register directly with the civil affairs bureau.
Tsinghua University professor Jia Xijin, who specialises in NGO studies, praised the Guangdong government but warned political or rights groups might still find themselves oppressed.
'In other words, it will be the area last opened up,' Jia said. 'Government still keeps the power of selection and control by requiring NGOs to seek approval from administrative agencies because all the other objective criteria can be met, especially by mature NGOs.'
Organisations that specialise in charity, social aid or social welfare, such as children's rights group, will be the most likely to benefit from the new policy. Community-based organisations are also likely to be favoured by government because they are small and easy to control.