China’s Overseas NGO Law: Next Steps for Associations
Originally published in ASAE's Associations Now Plus.
Now that China's new overseas NGO law is in effect, nongovernmental organizations operating there have a new set of requirements to comply with. While many provisions of the law remain fuzzy, several first steps for associations have become clear.
China's new law governing nongovernmental organizations—formally, the “Law of the People's Republic of China on the Administration of the Activities of Overseas Nongovernmental Organizations in the Mainland of China”—was approved by the National People's Congress in April 2016 and became effective on January 1, 2017. One of its main purposes is to regulate foreign NGOs that engage in sensitive political activities, such as promoting human rights, democracy, and labor rights. However, due to its broad definition of “overseas NGOs,” many professional associations established overseas are also subject to the law.
Associations with an existing presence or planned activities in mainland China have new compliance obligations to fulfill. While some details remain uncertain, those organizations should be taking several actions now.
The new law requires overseas NGOs to register with the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), China's law enforcement agency. There are two registration options.
Permanent presence. An overseas NGO with a permanent presence in mainland China must register an established representative office after approval by the appropriate professional supervisory authority—sometimes referred to as the government sponsor or professional supervisory unit (PSU). The MPS issued a list of PSUs in December to help organizations identify their appropriate professional supervisory unit, although the document currently is available only in Chinese.
The PSU list is organized by NGO categories, such as economics, education, cultural, public health, technology, and so on. Each category contains a number of subcategories and activities corresponding to the appropriate PSUs. Convincing a government agency to act as a sponsor could be challenging, so organizations considering the representative-office registration option may benefit from reaching out to any existing contacts they have with the listed agencies.
Temporary presence. An NGO carrying out temporary activities in mainland China must submit documents to the MPS through a Chinese partner at least 15 days before the activities begin. A Chinese partner could be a Chinese state organ, people's organization, public institution, or social organization. For NGOs considering this registration option, it is advisable to identify reliable Chinese partners willing to submit the temporary-activities filing to the MPS. One of the required documents is a written agreement between the NGO and its partner, so the parties should set forth their obligations regarding the filing process in the agreement.
For overseas NGOs conducting minimal activities in mainland China that do not involve sensitive political issues, registration might not be necessary. For example, sending a speaker to a private technical-writing workshop hosted by a local Chinese professional association would probably not require registration. On the other hand, cosponsoring an international conference with 300 attendees in Beijing's convention center downtown would likely require registration as a temporary activity.
Some activities may be exempted from the law under Article 53, which provides that “overseas schools, hospitals, natural sciences and engineering technology research institutions, or academic organizations wishing to engage in exchanges and cooperation with schools, hospitals, natural sciences and engineering technology research institutions, or academic organizations in mainland China shall do so in accordance with relevant regulations of the state.” Foreign professional associations that have existing collaborative programs with these kinds of organizations in China should reach out to contacts and inquire if the new law's limited exclusion provision applies.
Several terms and provisions under the new law remain unclear, including two that are relevant to many professional associations.
Prohibited activities. Article 28 of the new law prohibits overseas NGOs from “recruiting members/developing membership” in mainland China. Although the term “recruit members/develop membership” isn't well defined, it implies actions that go beyond relaying information about membership. The new law does not prohibit Chinese citizens from becoming members of a foreign NGO.
Associations should use a conservative approach, refraining from openly recruiting members in mainland China until the MPS provides clarification. Organizations might consider offering products and services as subscriptions instead of membership or using licensing arrangements to make content available in the Chinese market.
Branch organizations. Article 18 of the new law prohibits overseas NGOs from establishing branch organizations. Again, the key term, “branch organizations,” is not clearly defined; it could be interpreted as a fully registered legal entity or a casual group or something in between. For organizations without existing Chinese chapters, the more conservative approach is to wait and see how the MPS implements and interprets the new law before taking steps to formally establish any local Chinese chapters.
Despite the law's general prohibitions against recruiting members and establishing branch organizations, it provides an exception when the government otherwise approves these activities. Overseas NGOs preparing to register representative offices with the MPS may want to discuss their concerns about developing membership and establishing branch organizations with potential government sponsors.
The new overseas NGO law is not intended to target professional associations or discourage them from conducting activities in mainland China. In fact, Article 3 explicitly states that overseas NGOs may engage in activities in the areas of economy, education, science, culture, health, sports, and environmental protection, as well as poverty and disaster relief. During this transition period, however, organizations with current or planned activities in mainland China should start having conversations with established contacts to find out the appropriate next steps and make any necessary adjustments to their organizational plans.
To help NGOs with the registration process, China's Ministry of Public Security has published the following resources online:
Guide for the Registration of Representative Offices and Submitting Documents for the Record Temporary Activities of Overseas NGOs. This handbook, available in English, provides procedural guidance concerning the registration process. Registration forms may also be downloaded here.
Online Service Platform for Overseas NGOs. The platform enables registered users to submit and update NGO registration applications, annual plans, and temporary-activity filings and reports. Press releases and other announcements are also posted here. To create a registered account and to access the platform's e-filing features, a cellphone number issued in China is required. At this time, the platform is available only in Chinese.