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ABA closes office in China while it measures the impact of new restrictions on NGO activities

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In the wake of a new law threatening criminal prosecution of foreigners engaging in human and legal rights work in China, the ABA Rule of Law Initiative closed its Beijing office in December.

China’s detailed regulation of nongovernmental organizations, which went into effect Jan. 1, is the most comprehensive statutory crackdown on foreign influence among an increasing number of countries seeking greater control over civil society, including Egypt, India, Pakistan and Russia, says Mark Sidel, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison.

Clearly targeting legal activism for reform, the law says foreign organizations must “not threaten China’s security or national and ethnic unity” and shall not engage in “political activities.” They must register with police, get Chinese sponsors and submit detailed plans for projects. Their financial records will be audited by Chinese accounting firms.

The Law on the Management of the Activities of Overseas NGOs Within Mainland China lists a number of reasons for revoking NGO registrations, such as “inciting resistance against the enforcement of laws and regulations” and “other activities that undermine state security and harm national interests or societal public interests.” The law says that those responsible for NGOs attempting to “undermine national unity or subvert state power, or commit other such crimes” will face criminal charges.

Implementation is a moving target: “The state will establish mechanisms to manage” the NGOs, and thus the question of which activities might constitute crimes and how oversight and enforcement might work remained a mystery in the weeks after the law went into effect.

The ABA ROLI office moved to Hong Kong, an autonomous territory where government controls are a bit more relaxed, when it closed its office on the mainland. As of late January, the ABA was planning to pursue registration in China for the association as a whole, “including the rule of law and rights-related educational and exchange work undertaken by ABA ROLI, in addition to the diverse programming conducted by other ABA sections and entities,” said Elizabeth Andersen, an ABA associate executive director and ROLI’s director, in a written statement provided to the ABA Journal. She noted that the initiative has worked with government agencies, courts, civil society organizations, universities and bar associations in China for nearly two decades and is “eager to continue with these collaborative efforts.”

“We remain optimistic that the ABA’s application will be approved, and that ABA ROLI will be able to continue its important work in areas such as criminal justice, environmental protection and domestic violence, among others,” Andersen said.


While stitching together various general areas of legal work as prohibited in such a way that it targets activism in religious and political-social matters, the law welcomes other kinds of help from NGOs in areas including “the economy, education, science and technology, culture, health, sports, environmental protection and in areas such as poverty alleviation and disaster relief.”

While the Chinese government estimates that 7,000 NGOs are operating there (other estimates put the number closer to 1,000), the greater uncertainty and concern falls on an estimated 30 to 40 groups, such as ABA ROLI, that work on legal rights and advocacy in China, says Sidel, who studies law and policy relating to NGOs working in China and other countries.

“Foreign NGOs in China face difficult choices right now,” Sidel says, noting that some are cutting back activities until they have a better understanding of what will be permitted under the new law. Others are lying low, not starting new activities but keeping current ones in place, and still others in less sensitive fields are working at getting registered.

China has been seeking to limit the possibility of political dissent in other ways as well. China’s pushback on activist lawyers had been sporadic for a number of years, but became more forceful and focused after President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.

He also has taken a direct hand in pressuring the nation’s news media to heed the will of the Communist Party and is doing the same with colleges and universities, insisting that they infuse the curriculum with Marxist ideology.

This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Pressure Points: The ABA closes office in China while it measures the impact of new restrictions on NGO activities.”


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