BEIJING — US leaders and interest groups have sharply criticized a new law in China aimed at controlling and limiting the work of foreign nongovernmental organizations in the country, saying it will lead to the deterioration of ties between the Chinese and people from abroad.
The statements critical of the law, which was passed Thursday, reflected disappointment that China did not make more changes to previously released drafts, despite the outcry from foreign groups and governments that harsh wording in those versions provoked. More than 7,000 foreign nongovernmental groups operate in China, according to the state news media.
“The United States is deeply concerned that China’s new law on the management of foreign NGO activities will further narrow space for civil society in China and constrain contact between individuals and organizations in the United States and China,” the White House said in a statement Thursday.
“Recognizing that a vibrant civil society is a cornerstone of stability and prosperity, the administration has expressed strong support at every level for the role of civil society in China,” it added. “We urge China to respect the rights and freedoms of human rights defenders, journalists, business groups, development professionals, and all others who make up civil society, including by protecting the ability of foreign NGOs to operate in China.”
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, issued his own statement, saying he was “deeply concerned” that the law would “negatively impact important people-to-people ties between our two countries and the development of civil society in China.”
Kerry said he had been regularly raising concerns about the law to Chinese officials since an early draft was released last year.
“The final version of the new law contains certain improvements from the original draft,” he said, adding that “it also creates a highly uncertain and potentially hostile environment for foreign nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations and their Chinese partners that will no doubt discourage activities and initiatives.”
The most burdensome requirements of the law are that foreign groups must find official Chinese partners and that the groups must register with the police, who will be permitted to examine every aspect of their operations, including their finances, at any time.
Leaders of foreign groups in China say many local organizations will, out of aversion to risk, avoid taking responsibility for foreigners and their activities.
The law says that academic groups and hospitals should abide by “relevant national laws,” prompting the question of whether the new law would apply to them. However, Xinhua, the state-run news agency, mistranslated the phrase in an English-language article, saying the law stated that those kinds of groups need only abide by “existing regulations.” This was among the “eased restrictions” compared with those in earlier drafts, it said.
The American Chamber of Commerce in China also expressed disappointment with the law, saying it would harm a “huge number of NGOs” with which it works, Reuters reported.
“Treating foreign NGOs as primarily a security threat undermines not just the ability of those organizations to benefit China, but also the ability of companies to do business here,” James Zimmerman, the chairman of the chamber, was quoted as saying.
Foreign nongovernmental groups run programs across the spectrum of Chinese society, on issues including gender equality, environmental protection, and legal assistance. The police are especially wary of some initiatives, like those that support an independent judicial system or press freedoms.
The new law is to go into effect Jan. 1. It will also apply to groups from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. Many foreign groups have already begun asking how the police will carry out and enforce the law and have started looking for official Chinese sponsors, though the law does not specify who will qualify as a sponsor.
Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, dismissed criticism of the legislation during a regularly scheduled news conference in Beijing on Friday, arguing that it would strengthen the rule of law.
Hua also suggested that compromises had been made.
“China fully solicited opinions and suggestions from all sides at home and abroad and made changes to relevant articles,” she said. “We hope that relevant countries respect China’s legislative sovereignty.”