New law could hit research collaboration, exchanges

China’s new draft law on ‘managing foreign NGOs’ has sparked alarm in academic circles with many overseas universities fearing it could have a severe effect on collaboration with Chinese institutions and research organisations by bringing their activities under the remit of China’s national security authorities.

The current version of the draft law being considered by China’s National People’s Congress, or NPC, and released for public comment in early May would mean new regulations for the formal registration of foreign non-governmental organisations of all kinds. It would require them to have an official Chinese sponsor for their activities; and it would curb their ability to raise funds within China.

“At a very minimum it will definitely slow down research collaboration,” said Ira Belkin, a law professor and director of the US Asia Institute at the New York University School of Law. In future such collaborations would need “multiple levels of approval” by Chinese authorities, he told University World News.

The current draft NGO law says that overseas NGOs shall obtain prior approval from designated Chinese sponsors if they plan to carry out any permanent or temporary activity in China. Failure to comply could subject foreign organisations and their Chinese partners to criminal penalties.

“As the law stands now, it is clear that foreign universities are not exempt,” Belkin noted.

A dozen US universities, and a number of US and European professional organisations, business groups and NGOs have filed critical comments with the Chinese government on the draft law as part of the public comment process which ended in June.

Harvard University said in its comment on the law that “universities should not be treated as non-governmental organisations and should not be subject to its provisions which, if implemented, could inadvertently make future transnational faculty and student collaborations more difficult, and therefore less frequent”.

Jeffrey Lehman, vice-chancellor of New York University Shanghai, or NYU Shanghai, said in written testimony to a recent US congressional foreign affairs subcommittee hearing that the proposed NGO law “would seriously undermine the ability of universities like NYU to operate in China according to principles of academic freedom”.

Prior approval

Within China there have also been misgivings. Cai Fang, vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, expressed concerns in official Chinese media that overly strict rules on international NGOs would hamper “academic communication” between China and other countries.

Once the law forbids Chinese organisations from receiving unapproved funding, it will create barriers for Chinese mainland universities engaged in joint research programmes with foreign universities, Cai has said.

Experts say the term ‘foreign NGO’ is defined so loosely, it could include lectures by guest professors, and conferences within China by foreign universities.

Funding to universities, including scholarship funding for Chinese students by foreign foundations and raising donations from Chinese alumni, could potentially fall foul of the law.

While joint projects with a Chinese partner university, particularly the more prestigious Chinese institutions, are unlikely to be affected – top Chinese universities are in practice likely to be allowed to sponsor foreign organisations, according to experts – hundreds of less formal academic exchanges with China take place each year and many academics, particularly China scholars, make ad hoc visits to China or give impromptu lectures and these could be seen as illegal.

Foreign values

The law is mainly designed to guard against the infiltration into the country of “foreign values”, including in universities, and a curb on “interference in Chinese national affairs”.

Belkin said the draft law includes a “catch all” phrase that could curb “anything not in the national interest or [that] is a threat to national security”, which could also place limitations on academic subject matter.

In an opinion published by Belkin with fellow NYU Law School Professor Jerome Cohen in The New York Times on 1 June, the two law professors wrote: “If a student group on an American campus protests against Chinese government treatment of Tibetans, the university could be barred from activities in China, and its representatives could be detained and prosecuted.”

“The message is clear: those seeking access to China must beware the party line,” they wrote.

Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, Wilson Center in Washington DC, notes that China already blacklists foreign scholars if their findings or even the focus of their research is seen as a threat to the party state and that if such activities come under the remit of national security bodies, it will create a new atmosphere of fear within universities.

China has made it clear that the activities of foreign universities in China must be carried out according to Chinese laws “but how that is implemented could change with the [political] season”, said Daly.

Academics in Hong Kong whose universities have collaborations with Chinese institutions said they could foresee a situation where some international NGOs would fail to get approval under the new law, because Chinese universities might regard sponsoring certain overseas academics as too politically risky.


But Daly said China would also have to balance such a draconian law with its need for Western technology and know-how.

“China does want Western knowledge and expertise of [Western] universities. So there is a tension there. There is a contradiction between this desire to restrict freedom and China’s desire to be a leader in the digital economy. China wants innovation, particularly in finance and technology.”

Any clampdown that could affect its access to innovation from the West “would be at odds with this policy”, Daly said.

Other experts have noted that the Chinese authorities already treat NGOs whose work relates to human rights or the rule of law or political issues differently from others.

Chen Zhu, vice-chairman of the standing committee of the NPC, told Chinese media in March the legislation was necessary, but at the same time "wolves" and "sheep" should be treated differently.

He said the authorities should more precisely distinguish "good" organisations from the ones controlled by “antagonistic forces” and has suggested that a positive list of allowed activities and a negative list of forbidden activities should be made clear in the law to avoid ambiguity.

The government could “cherry-pick” the activities it approves of, Belkin said.

Real targets

“Perhaps the law would only be selectively enforced against organisations seen as a threat to national security, but all organisations would have to operate under a constant threat of being shut down,” Belkin said. “The problem is that everyone is speculating who the real targets are. No one really knows.”

Experts also note how swiftly official attitudes can change and areas that were not sensitive previously can becomes so. Many cite the recent detention of five women’s rights activists on the eve of International Women's Day, as they planned a publicity campaign against sexual harassment on public transport.

There is no official timetable for the law’s approval by the NPC but experts say it could by the end of the year.