China Uneasy with Growing Foreign NGOs

Nepalese and various NGOs proceed in a protest march to the Nepalese consulate in Hong Kong. (Photo: Mike Clarke / AFP-Getty Images)

China is becoming increasingly wary of the growing presence of foreign NGOs in the nation and warned against a "potential national threat" that may be posed by them.

The "Study Times" (Xuexishibao), the official newspaper of the Central Party School of China's Communist Party, recently ran a signed article by Professor Liqing Zhao titled "How to deal with foreign NGOs in China?"

Liqing Zhao is a researcher at the Institute of International & Strategic Studies in Beijing.

According to Zhao, while China appreciates the positive effects that foreign NGOs are bringing in its social development, it is also concerned about negative roles they are playing as well.

Foreign NGOs "undermine national security, destroy political stability, foster corruption, as well as propagate foreign practices [not suitable for China's national conditions]," he wrote.

Specifically, he warned that some foreign NGO bodies in China "spy on and gather information on China's military, political and economic information."

According to the piece, these foreign institutions in China use a variety of different names, including chamber of commerce, charity organizations, environmental NGOs, "development" groups as well as numerous "foundations."

It also emphasized that foreign NGOs have already spread into not just the grass-roots level, but also into universities, governmental organs, the Communist Party, and even the People's Congress.

"Not All Bad"

The researcher, on the other hand, also duly listed positive aspects of foreign nonprofits. These include bringing up China's overall social levels in the areas of medical research such as the AIDS vaccine project, raising awareness for socially underprivileged, public service, volunteerism and environmental protection.

The article also points out that foreign NGOs help China become closer to a "rule of law" society.

The Chinese government estimates that foreign NGOs annually bring in $100 million to $200 million dollars, which it acknowledges as "a contribution that cannot be dismissed."

However, most Chinese newspapers quoting Professor Zhang's report highlighted the negative aspects from the article, with titles such as "Foreign NGOs foster corruption" and "Foreign NGOs destroy political stability."

Only "China News" (Zhongxinwang) ran a positive title: "Foreign NGOs in China helpful for social development and promotion of a rule of law."

According to the Chinese media, the report is a compilation of a one-year investigation by the Public Security Bureau (PSB) and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). The PSB is the official name of the police body in China.

Yang Er'ru, a student at Tsinghua University in Beijing, who is currently involved in a China-Italy joint environment project at CASS said that the Chinese government's concern is justifiable.

"I think what the Chinese government is worried about is the misuse and distortion of facts by foreign NGOs. For example, an American NGO studying human rights conditions in China can discover a lot about China's human rights problems and later publish a report criticizing China based on its findings."

Thilo Diefenbach, a German scholar of sinology who is also currently working at CASS pointed out that Professor Zhang's observations could have been more persuasive with more concrete facts: "I would really like to know which NGO exactly fostered corruption in China. The report has many generalizations, lacking actual cases."

Both of these individuals were not involved in the "Study Times" research.

Foreign NGOs entered China as the nation had started to take opening-up policy in the late 1970s. Their number started to increase dramatically in the 1990s. However, the first officially registered foreign NGO in China was as late as in 1994 by an environmental group called "Friends of Nature."

Currently, there are some 1,000 foreign nonprofit organizations in China.

The Danger is Coming

Professor Zhang's report points out that in fact any view that lopsidedly regards foreign NGOs either as demons or angels, lacks in substance. He argued that China should give a more balanced view.

For example, he said, some foreign NGOs help China by introducing international experiences and financial assistance, but some fail to respect their Chinese partners enough. These NGOs are enforcing foreign practices in China, instead of helping Chinese choose their own ways for development.

"As of today, the negative influences [by foreign NGOs] are limited in scope. But they are here as a fact and we cannot neglect it. Importantly, they bear significant potential threats that may undermine the healthy development of the Chinese society," the report concluded.

This article was originally published in OhMyNews International.

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