Mainland NGOs are decrying Guangdong's lead as the first province to ease registration requirements as a limited move, despite kudos from Beijing and pro-government academics.
Li Liguo, the minister for civil affairs, said the other provinces would follow Guangdong in doing so, Caixin Media reported. Last November, Guangdong said it would allow NGOs to directly register with the civil affairs ministry from July 1.
NGOs previously had to find a government department to act as a patron before they were able to register. Due to the rigorous rules, more than 1 million NGOs are not registered, according to Li.
However, easing the registration rules would 'largely encourage society's vitality and enhance its functions', Li said.
Official figures show that only 460,000 NGOs are registered.
Beijing has been tightly regulating the NGO community because of its suspicions about foreign-funded and rights lobby groups. As such, it is difficult for NGOs to find government patrons, as they would be held responsible for the NGOs' misdeeds.
NGOs that are unable to find government patrons have to save enough funds to register as companies or suffer the legal consequences.
Zhao Shukai, a researcher at the Development Research Centre of the State Council, said Guangdong's initiative would foster the development of NGOs, which would provide services to the needy that are not covered by government programmes. But Lu Jun, director of Beijing-based Yirenping, an NGO that specialises in anti-discrimination and legal aid, told the South China Morning Post that the move to ease NGO registration was limited, compared with Beijing's strict control over NGOs.
'We have been subjected to so many restrictions that are not just about registration,' Lu said. 'On the mainland, it's really difficult for independent NGOs to register with the government.
'Their activities are strictly limited to the places where they have registered, and those who offend the authorities will have difficulties passing their annual licence inspection.
'Furthermore, the authorities have placed so many obstacles for Chinese NGOs that receive funds from international charity projects.
'They include requiring their foreign partners to visit China in person for the legal procedures, and there's also foreign exchange controls.
'Many NGOs are forced to pay hefty taxes as they are categorised by the government as 'private sector non-companies' rather than NGOs.'
Wang Yongchen, convener of Green Earth Volunteers, an environmental NGO, said the NGO community had been urging the government to relax its controls over NGO registrations for many years.
'Many NGOs that are not recognised by the authorities are forced to operate underground and lack legal protection,' Wang said. 'Although the government has a long way to go in terms of supporting the development of NGOs, the easier registration process is at least a friendly gesture.'