New China NGO law giving wide powers to police termed draconian

The law allows police to question NGO officials, search their residences and seize files and equipment.

In order to assert its control over foreign non-governmental organizations, China has passed a law to keep them under close police supervision.

While officials claim this move would help the groups, critics say this is the latest attempt by the authorities to pre-emp the anticipated threats against the ruling Communist Party.

The law passed by the National Legislature states that foreign non-governmental organizations should not threaten the national security and ethnic unity of China. The law enables the police to question NGO administrators, search their residences and facilities and seize files and equipment.

The US and European officials and business and academic organizations have rigorously criticized the new law. They have said China's move to curb the freedom of NGOs will restrict the operations of a wide number of groups which in a way will affect the growth of its civil society and bring hindrance in the path of exchanges between China and the rest of the world.

The new law includes a clause that the police have the right to blacklist "unwelcome" groups and to stop them from operating in the country. If the groups carry out any kind of violations like illegally obtaining unspecified state secrets to "spreading rumors, slandering or otherwise expressing or disseminating harmful information that endangers state security", they can be blacklisted by the police.

According to the AFP, the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders referred to the law as "draconian" and said that it allows the police to exercise "daily supervision and monitoring" of foreign NGOs. The law will have "a profoundly detrimental impact on civil society in China," the organisation said.

The group stated that the most dangerous facet of this law is that the police have been given the right to end foreign NGO-organized activities "that they deem to endanger national security". Although, this term have not been clearly defined in the law. They also said that this will also ensure the police to closely monitor all the funding sources and expenses of the foreign organizations which might be very intimidating for them.

As China struggles with environmental pollution and healthcare challenges including mental health problems NGO services assume greater significance.

However, the final version of the law has simplified many of the restrictions included in its earlier draft which included exemption of foreign schools and medical facilities, and academic and research groups in natural sciences and engineering technology.

It has also permitted foreign NGOs to set up multiple offices in China and has removed restrictions on hiring volunteers and staff. Now they wouldn't have to reapply to seek permission every five years for their operation.

But in order to limit the influence of the groups, the law bans the foreign groups from setting up regional chapters, recruiting members from among the public at large or raising funds within China. This will lead to closer financial scrutiny and requirement of submission of annual reports with detailed information of their financial, spending activities and changes in personnel.

"You are here to do deeds, not to build up your troops," Guo Linmao, a legal inspector for the legislature, said at a news conference following the law's passage.

The legal inspector assured that the law is primarily aimed at welcoming foreign non-governmental groups in China and to help them in promoting their activities and to protect their lawful interests. The restrictions have been made in order to filter out those organizations which might be harmful to China's national security and interests in the name of NGO work.

"Despite a relentless crackdown on domestic legal aid and civic society groups, international organizations working on human rights issues are welcome in China, as long as they comply with Chinese laws," Guo added.

He said the law has shifted all the rights to the police under the Ministry of Public Security in part as Chinese police already have the responsibility for managing and overseeing foreign nationals.

US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that the law has sent a "terrible signal" to NGOs which are acting for the benefit of China and its people.

Secretary of State John Kerry commented that he was deeply concerned about this as he believed the law would hurt people-to-people ties between the US and China by creating a "highly uncertain and potentially hostile environment" for such groups.

A number of overseas organizations have tied up with Chinese academic and social groups. But some of them still tend to operate in a legal gray area which might leave them vulnerable to this suppression by security people.