This article originally appeared on ChinaFile’s The China NGO Project.
As we greet 2019, we have now seen two full years of Foreign NGO Law implementation in China. If foreign NGOs thought that 2017 had a “crossing the river by feeling for stones” sense to it, 2018 was the year that registration and filing processes became more regularized, for better or worse. Looking back to compare registration and filing data for the first two years of implementation, it is clear that the biggest difference between 2017 and 2018 was simply the number of foreign NGOs engaged in either process. New foreign NGO representative office registrations declined and levelled out in 2018, while temporary activity filings rose significantly. Other than these changes in overall numbers of new offices and activities, the profile of foreign NGOs working in China remained much the same—largely the same several provinces host most of the representative offices or temporary activities, and largely NGOs from the same several countries make up the bulk of foreign NGOs working in China—and they are largely working in the same several sectors favored by the Chinese government.
Data cut-off date: January 14, 2019
Update and corrections: The figures in these graphics have been updated to reflect data available as of January 14, 2019. We have also corrected 2017 temporary activity figures in the activity location and sector graphics. Text in the temporary activity section of this article previously erroneously stated that 190 temporary activities were initiated in 2017; this has been corrected to 509. The percentage of temporary activities carried out by Hong Kong- and U.S.-based organizations has also been corrected.
Representative Office Registrations
As might be expected, the pace of representative office registrations slowed over the course of the past two years. Foreign NGOs registered a total of 303 representative offices in 2017 and 133 representative offices in 2018 (these totals include multiple representative offices of a single foreign NGO). This reflects several initial bursts of registration activity followed by a period in which most groups who wish to register in China have either already done so or have found themselves stymied in the process.
In the first half of 2017, Public Security Bureaus (PSBs) throughout China registered an average of 24 representative offices per month. In the second half of 2017, this average increased to 27. In the first half of 2018, PSBs registered only an average of 14 representative offices per month. From the beginning of July through the end of December 2018, this average dropped to 9. Barring significant changes in the registration system—such as a major expansion of the number of eligible Professional Supervisory Units (PSUs), or a high-level government order mandating existing PSUs to sponsor more foreign NGOs—we anticipate registrations will continue at their current, leveled-off pace.
REPRESENTATIVE OFFICES REGISTERED IN 2017 AND 2018
Beijing and Shanghai continued to be the two provinces (or province-level administrative units) registering the most foreign NGOs, though each registered significantly fewer NGOs this year than last. The number of new Beijing registrations in 2018 saw a 62% decrease from 2017, while Shanghai’s registrations decreased by 72% (as compared with a 55% decrease across all provinces). Guangdong and Sichuan, both hosting a relatively large number of foreign NGOs with 24 and 23, respectively, nearly kept up 2017’s pace of registrations in 2018. Yunnan’s registrations showed a steep decline in 2018, down from 22 last year to only 3 this year. Notably, prior to 2017, Yunnan had been the testing grounds for foreign NGO regulations similar to the eventual Foreign NGO Law, so it is possible that Yunnan adapted quite quickly to the Foreign NGO Law and completed most of its registrations faster than other provinces.
REPRESENTATIVE OFFICES REGISTERED IN 2017 AND 2018, BY PROVINCE OF REGISTRATION
Foreign NGOs registering in 2018 reflected a narrower range of home countries, as the bar chart below shows. Foreign NGOs from the United States and Hong Kong continued to dominate the ranks of registered NGOs. U.S.-based NGOs made up 24 percent of registrations in 2017 and 26 percent in 2018; for Hong Kong-based NGOs, these figures were 19 percent and 17 percent, respectively.
REPRESENTATIVE OFFICES REGISTERED IN 2017 AND 2018, BY LOCATION OF NGO HEADQUARTERS
The sectors in which newly-registering foreign NGO representative offices are working appeared largely the same across the past two years. Trade-related issues are the most common areas of focus, while education, international relations/exchange, youth, and poverty alleviation are also fairly well represented. (Note: each office can have multiple fields of work; therefore, totals in this chart are higher than totals in previous charts.)
FIELD(S) OF WORK FOR REPRESENTATIVE OFFICES REGISTERED IN 2017 AND 2018
Temporary Activity Filings
The pace of temporary activity filings is the inverse of the representative office trend: after a slow start, the number of temporary activities initiated every month has been on an upward trajectory. Foreign NGOs initiated a total of 509 temporary activities in 2017, with an average of 27 new temporary activities per month in the first half of the year and 58 new temporary activities per month in the second half. In 2018, foreign NGOs initiated 850 temporary activities, averaging 54 new activities per month in the first half of the year and 87 per month in the second.
This trend is likely due to PSBs’, foreign NGOs’, and Chinese Partner Units’ increased familiarity and comfort with the filing process. Because it has taken so long for temporary activities to really take off under the new system, we are not sure how long this upward climb will continue. 2019 should offer a clearer sign of how much more latent capacity there is in the system for additional temporary activities.
TEMPORARY ACTIVITIES INITIATED IN 2017 AND 2018
Guangdong and Beijing continued to play host to the greatest number of temporary activities, with Guangdong the site of nearly 250 activities in 2018. (Note: temporary activity location is separate from temporary activity filing location; one temporary activity is only filed in one location but can be carried out in multiple locations.)
TEMPORARY ACTIVITIES INITIATED IN 2017 AND 2018, BY ACTIVITY LOCATION
As with representative offices, NGOs from Hong Kong and the United States make up the bulk of groups carrying out temporary activities in China. Hong Kong-based groups accounted for 48 percent of temporary activities filings in 2018, down 8 percentage points from 2017. U.S.-based groups made up 18 percent of filings in 2018, roughly the same as 2017.
TEMPORARY ACTIVITIES INITIATED IN 2017 AND 2018, BY LOCATION OF NGO HEADQUARTERS
With the exception of trade-related issues, the fields of work represented in temporary activity filings are broadly similar to those of representative offices. Education-, poverty alleviation-, and youth-related activities are the most common.
FIELD(S) OF WORK FOR TEMPORARY ACTIVITIES INITIATED IN 2017 AND 2018
Foreign NGO Law a Successful Control Mechanism
These figures indicate that, by Beijing’s lights, the Foreign NGO Law has been largely successful in allowing provincial Public Security Bureaus to act as gatekeepers for foreign NGOs seeking to work in China and funnel their activities toward the government’s preferred ends. It is not surprising that, after two years, the profile of foreign NGO activity in China hews very closely to Beijing’s notions of what constitutes “undertakings of benefit to the public” and gives a wide berth to anything that might be considered threatening to “national reunification and security or ethnic unity.”
As always, what these Ministry of Public Security figures do not show is the number of foreign NGOs that have been unable to register a representative office or file for a temporary activity. These sorts of “rejections” generally happen before any paperwork actually hits the PSB’s desk, meaning that they are not reflected in the government’s figures. Therefore, we do not have a precise understanding of exactly which groups, proposing which activities, have been tacitly barred from legally working in China.