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Last updated 20 June 2016
Update: The last few months have seen two of the most important legislative developments in the sector in many years with the passage of the Charity Law in March and the Overseas NGO Law in April. Both of these laws are part of a general trend towards greater regulation as part of President Xi Jinping’s effort to strengthen the “rule of law.” The Overseas NGO Law is also part of a slew of national security related laws that reflect a greater concern with both internal and external security. The National Security Law and Counterterrorism Law were passed last year, and the Cybersecurity draft law is now being reviewed.
The new law governing overseas NGOs was passed on April 28 at the 12th session of the Standing Committee of the 12th National People's Congress by an overwhelming margin and will go into effect January 1, 2017. The final version of the law bears a slightly different name from the previous drafts: Law on the Management of Overseas NGOs' Activities in Mainland China (境外非政府组织境内活动管理法)i. Here we use the term Overseas NGO, rather than Foreign NGO, because the Chinese term is meant to include not only foreign NGOs, but also NGOs established in territories which are considered by the Chinese government as part of China: Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan.
In the second half of 2016, revised regulations are expected regarding the registration and management of China's three main types of NPOs: Social Associations (SAs), Civil Non-Enterprise Institutions (CNIs), and Foundations. (See "Pending NGO Legislative / Regulatory Initiatives" below for more information).
Civil society and its accompanying legal framework have become considerably more complex in China in recent years. The range of nonprofit, philanthropic and other social organizations (hereafter, civil society organizations or CSOs) has expanded rapidly, as have their fields of activity, including their partnerships with the government and business sectors. CSOs of various kinds are moving gradually but steadily from the margins of society into the mainstream.
Management of the emerging civil society sector by Communist Party and state agencies remains restrictive but also has been unable to keep up with the growth of CSOs. As Yu Keping, a well-known scholar who has written extensively on civil society, points out, the actual space for CSOs in China is much larger than the institutional space allowed by formal laws and regulations .
Many CSOs in this space are managed in a considerably less intrusive way than others. These include a large number of organizations that provide social services or conduct other work that the state supports and that are not perceived as threats to the state. But groups engaged in advocacy, legal aid, labor rights and religion are often more closely monitored by Party and state authorities. Over the years, a number of organizations have been harrassed and even closed down, and many civil society activists (including lawyers, journalists, academics, bloggers) have been detained, tried and imprisoned for their peaceful activities.
The legal framework to manage this highly differentiated process of state control – in which some organizations are supported and facilitated and others are repressed – has its origins in China’s 1982 Constitution and in an array of regulatory documents promulgated and enacted since the late 1980s. These regulate the full range of legally-registered non-profits which the Chinese refer to generically as "social organizations" (shehui zuzhi, 社会组织) "Social organizations" are separated into three major categories: social organizations (shehui tuanti, 社会团体) which are the equivalent of membership associations and include many trade and professional associations; civil non-enterprise institutions (minban fei qiye danwei, 民办非企业) which are the equivalent of nonprofit service providers; and foundations (jijinhui, 基金会). China is a civil law jurisdiction with very strong political and executive authority; judicial activity plays very little role in the treatment of civil society groups.
In an effort to improve its regulatory capacity and coordination with CSOs, the government has since the late 2000s begun to revise the legal framework governing CSOs, fundraising and charitable donations, and worked with local governments to carry out experiments in these areas that will inform national legislation. It has also made "social management innovation" [shehui guanli chuangxin] a focal point of its 12th Five Year Plan (2011 - 2015). "Social management innovation" here refers to improving the party-state's ability to manage and coordinate with a range of CSOs and other non-state actors to address common goals. In recent years, there has been a flurry of activity among local governments across China to “innovate” by lowering barriers to CSO registration, contracting social services to CSOs, building programs and platforms to coordinate, support and incubate CSOs, and creating more detailed regulations and standards to guide the development of the CSO sector.
The administration of Xi Jinping, who became president of China in March of 2013, reaffirmed these reforms in the important November 2013 Third Plenum Decision of the 18th Central Committee. Instead of “social management innovation”, the Decision used the term “social governance,” which was seen as a favorable sign because it emphasized the state’s partnership with CSOs in governing, rather than its management of CSOs. Months before the Decision came out, however, the new administration had already embarked on a sustained clampdown on certain elements of China’s civil society. This move sent a signal that any reforms were intended to apply to certain categories of CSOs, such as social service provision and economic and trade associations, but not necessarily to civil society actors engaged in advocacy, ethnic minority affairs, religion and other more sensitive areas.
Taken together with other policy statements and actions, these seemingly contradictory initiatives can be seen as part and parcel of a broader effort to rectify and rejuvenate the party and society in order to strengthen the party-state and its relationship with the masses. Thus, the Xi administration is also launching an unprecedented anti-corruption campaign that has ensnared high-level leaders such as Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang, a campaign to encourage ideological orthodoxy in state agencies, universities, the media and the blogosphere, and a rule-of-law campaign emphasizing greater adherence to rules both inside and outside of the Party. These campaigns are overlaid with a veneer of nationalism that stresses the importance of national sovereignty and security and reflects both China’s growing power in the world and its growing insecurity as it faces more “mass incidents” inside its borders and renewed territorial challenges on its periphery in places like Xinjiang, Tibet, the South China Seas and Hong Kong.
CSOs, in short, have been caught up in the larger struggle by the Xi administration to craft a stronger party and a stronger China. These developments constitute a top-down effort by the party-state to mold a “civil society” in its own image - the party would actually prefer to use a term like “social sector” or “people’s society” - that does not have a strong value preference for what the government perceives as Western-style individual freedoms and rights. These party-building priorities are reflected in the Charity Law and Overseas NGO Law that were rolled out one after another in early 2016 and constitute the biggest legislative developments in the nonprofit sector in the history of the PRC.
 “Civil Society in China: Concepts, Classification and Institutional Environment” in Deng Zhenglai, ed., State and Civil Society: The Chinese Perspective (Singapore: World Scientific, 2011)
|Organizational Forms||Social organizations (shehui tuanti), civil non-enterprise institutions (minban fei qiye danwei), and foundations (jijinhui). The last category includes two types of foundations: public fundraising and non-public fundraising foundations. In addition, there are many different types of informal CSOs: those registered as businesses; those attached to a legal organization; small community-based organizations; rural cooperatives; religious organizations; and networks..|
|Registration Body||Ministry of Civil Affairs and local Civil Affairs Bureaus|
|Barriers to Entry||
|Barriers to Activities||
|Barriers to Speech and/or Advocacy||The Government has discretion to limit speech and advocacy for specific organizations and types of organizations and for specific cases that might be seen to negatively impact national security.|
|Barriers to International Contact||Organizations are sometimes required to report international contacts to authorities and sometimes to seek approval for visits, international cooperation, foreign donations, etc. They are also discouraged from working with or receiving funding from overseas organizations which are engaged in "democracy promotion".|
|Barriers to Resources||There are restrictions on fundraising and networking. With the exception of public fundraising foundations, CSOs are not allowed to engage in public fundraising. CSO networks are also a sensitive issue. A number of networks have emerged in recent years but they are all informal in nature. Approval is also required for receipt of external resources.
A 2009 regulation requires CSOs to go through more paperwork to transfer donations from overseas organizations into their bank accounts.
|Barriers to Assembly||Assembly Law and Implementing Measures contain vague and restrictive provisions; 5 days advance notification requirement; spontaneous assemblies not permitted; onerous obligations and liabilities on organizers; excessive time, place, and manner restrictions.|
|Population||1,367,485,388 (July 2015 est.)|
|Type of Government||One-Party State|
|Life Expectancy at Birth||Male: 73.38 years (2015 est.)
Female: 77.73 years (2015 est.)
|Literacy Rate||Male: 98.2% (2015 est.)
Female: 94.4% (2015 est.)
|Religious Groups||Buddhist 18.2%, Christian 5.1%, Muslim 1.8%, folk religion 21.9%, Hindu < .1%, Jewish < .1%, other 0.7% (includes Daoist (Taoist)), unaffiliated 52.2% note: officially atheist (2010 est.)|
|Ethnic Groups||Han Chinese 91.6%, Zhuang 1.3%, other (includes Hui, Manchu, Uighur, Miao, Yi, Tujia, Tibetan, Mongol, Dong, Buyei, Yao, Bai, Korean, Hani, Li, Kazakh, Dai and other nationalities) 7.1% note: the Chinese government officially recognizes 56 ethnic groups (2010 est.)|
|GDP per capita||$12,900 (2014 est.)|
Source: The World Factbook. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2009.
|Ranking Body||Rank||Ranking Scale
(best – worst possible)
|UN Human Development Index||90 (2015)||1 – 182|
|World Bank Rule of Law Index||42.8 (2014)||100 – 0|
|World Bank Voice & Accountability Index||5.4 (2014)||100 – 0|
|Transparency International||83 (2015)||1 – 168|
|Freedom House: Freedom in the World||Status: Not Free
Political Rights: 7
Civil Liberties: 6 (2016)
|Free/Partly Free/Not Free
1 – 7
1 – 7
|Foreign Policy: Fragile States Index
||83 (2015)||178 – 1|
International and Regional Human Rights Agreements
|Key International Agreements||Ratification*||Year|
|International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)||No||--|
|Optional Protocol to ICCPR (ICCPR-OP1)||No||--|
|International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)||Yes||2001|
|Optional Protocol to ICESCR (OP-ICESCR)||No||--|
|International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)||Yes||1981|
|Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)||Yes||1980|
|Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women||No||--|
|Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)||Yes||1992|
|International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICRMW)||No||--|
|Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)||Yes||2008|
* Category includes ratification, accession, or succession to the treaty
The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (1982, as amended) includes the following relevant provisions which relate to the nonprofit, charitable and philanthropic sector:
The People's Republic of China is a socialist state under the people's democratic dictatorship led by the working class and based on the alliance of workers and peasants.
The socialist system is the basic system of the People's Republic of China. Disruption of the socialist system by any organization or individual is prohibited.
All power in the People's Republic of China belongs to the people.
The National People's Congress and the local people's congresses at various levels are the organs through which the people exercise state power.
The people administer state affairs and manage economic, cultural and social affairs through various channels and in various ways in accordance with the law.
The People's Republic of China governs the country according to law and makes it a socialist country ruled by law.
The state upholds the uniformity and dignity of the socialist legal system.
No laws or administrative or local rules and regulations may contravene the Constitution.
All state organs, the armed forces, all political parties and public organizations and all enterprises and institutions must abide by the Constitution and the law. All acts in violation of the Constitution or the law must be investigated.
No organization or individual is privileged to be beyond the Constitution or the law.
The state maintains public order and suppresses treasonable and other criminal activities that endanger state security; it penalizes criminal activities that endanger public security and disrupt the socialist economy, as well as other criminal activities; and it punishes and reforms criminals.
All persons holding the nationality of the People's Republic of China are citizens of the People's Republic of China.
All citizens of the People's Republic of China are equal before the law.
The state respects and guarantees human rights.
Every citizen is entitled to the rights and at the same time must perform the duties prescribed by the Constitution and the law.
Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.
Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief.
No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion.
The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state.
Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.
The People's Republic of China protects the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese nationals residing abroad and protects the lawful rights and interests of returned overseas Chinese and of the family members of Chinese nationals residing abroad.
Citizens of the People's Republic of China, in exercising their freedoms and rights, may not infringe upon the interests of the state, of society or of the collective, or upon the lawful freedoms and rights of other citizens.
It is the duty of citizens of the People's Republic of China to safeguard the unification of the country and the unity of all its ethnic groups.
Citizens of the People's Republic of China must abide by the Constitution and the law, keep state secrets, protect public property, observe labor discipline and public order and respect social ethics.
It is the duty of citizens of the People's Republic of China to safeguard the security, honor and interests of the motherland; they must not commit acts detrimental to the security, honor and interests of the motherland.
National Laws and Regulations Affecting Sector
Some of the key national laws and regulations affecting the sector are as follows. This list is by no means complete. For additional information, see Ministry of Civil Affairs and U.S. International Grantmaking.
- Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (1982, as amended, see selected provisions above)
- Law of the Red Cross Society of the People's Republic of China (adopted by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, October 31, 1993)
- Regulations on the Registration and Management of Social Organizations (adopted by the State Council October 25, 1998, currently in revision)
- Interim Regulations on the Registration and Administration of Civil Non-Enterprise Institutions (adopted by the State Council October 25, 1998)
- Interim Regulations on the Registration and Administration of Public Institutions (adopted by the State Council October 25, 1998)
- Public Welfare Donations Law (adopted by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress June 28, 1999)
- Law of the People's Republic of China on Individual Income Tax and Detailed Rules for the Implementation of the Individual Income Tax Law of the People's Republic of China (as enacted in 1999 and later amended)
- Provisional Measures Regarding the Management of Social Welfare Organizations (issued by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, April 10, 2000)
- Trust Law of People’s Republic of China (adopted by the Standing Committee of the Ninth National People's Congress April 28, 2001)
- Non-State Education Promotion Law of the People’s Republic of China (adopted by the Standing Committee of the Ninth National People's Congress December 28, 2002)
- Circular of the Ministry of Finance on the Relevant Issues Concerning the Preferential Taxation Policies for the Poverty-Relief and Charity Donation Materials Imported for the Purpose of School Education. (issued by the Ministry of Finance, March 10, 2003)
- Regulations on the Management of Foundations (adopted by the State Council March 8, 2004, currently in revision)
- Regulations on the Administration of Names of Foundations (issued by the Ministry of Civil Affairs June 23, 2004)
- Accounting System for Nonprofit Organizations (issued by the Ministry of Finance September 2004)
- Reply of the State Administration of Taxation on Tax Exemption of 33 Permanent Representative Offices of Foreign Enterprises, such as the Beijing Representative Office of the Ford Foundation (issued by the State Administration of Taxation June 11, 2004)
- Measures for the Information Disclosure of Foundations and Measures for Annual Inspection of Foundations (issued by the Ministry of Civil Affairs January 12, 2006)
- Enterprise Income Tax Law of the People’s Republic of China; Provisional Regulations of the People's Republic of China on Enterprise Income Tax and Detailed Rules for the Implementation of the Provisional Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on Enterprise Income Tax (as enacted in 2007 and as amended)
- Notice of the Ministry of Finance and the State Administration of Taxation on the Policies and Relevant Management Issues Concerning the Pre-Tax Deduction of Public Welfare Relief Donations (promulgated January 18, 2007)
- Measures for the Administration of Donations for Disaster Relief (issued April 28, 2008)
- Notice of the State Administration of Foreign Exchange on Issues concerning the Administration of Foreign Exchange Donated to or by Domestic Institutions (issued by the State Administration of Foreign Exchange December 25, 2009)
- National Security Law (adopted in July 2015)
- Counterterrorism Law (反恐怖主义法, sometimes translated as the Anti-Terrorism or Counterespionage Law) (approved December 2015 and went into effect on January 1, 2016)
- Charity Law (慈善法) (promulgated March 16, 2016 , goes into effect on September 1, 2016)
- Law on the Management of Overseas NGOs’ Activities in Mainland China (境外非政府组织境内活动管理法) (promulgated April 28, 2016, goes into effect on January 1, 2017)
The Anti-Domestic Violence Law (反家庭暴力法, also translated as the Domestic Violence Law) was approved by the NPC Standing Committee in July 2015—the same session in which the National Security Law was approved—and went into effect on March 1, 2016. The law is one of the few pieces of legislation in which we can see the contribution of civil society groups, which have pushed for this law for the last decade. It has been in development for years and its passage makes an issue that was long viewed as a private matter a responsibility of the state.
An Environmental Law was approved by the 12th NPC on April 24, 2014 and took effect in 2015. It lowered the barrier for NGOs to file public interest lawsuits. A previous draft had only allowed a few NGOs to file public interest lawsuits, but the final draft contained more liberal language that allowed any NGO registered with Civil Affairs at the city level or above to file a public interest lawsuit. That interpretation was later affirmed by the Supreme People’s Court. Soon after the Environmental Law went into effect, two well-known grassroots environmental NGOs filed a public interest lawsuit in Nanping city, suing four individuals for harmful mining activities in the area. That lawsuit was accepted by the Nanping Intermediate Court on January 1, 2015.
Pending NGO Legislative / Regulatory InitiativesIn late May 2016, the Ministry of Civil Affairs released for public comment drafts of the regulations governing the registration and management of two of the three types of nonprofits or "social organizations" in China: Civil Non-Enterprise Institutions (which will now be renamed Social Service Organizations), and Foundations. A draft of the regulations for the third type of social organization – Social Associations – is expected to come out later this year. For an update on the significance of these regulations, see 2016: the Year of Regulation and a New Future for Civil Society?.
There are three legal forms of CSOs in China:
- Social Organizations (SOs) (shehui zuzhi, 社会组织)
- Civil Non-enterprise Institutions (CNIs) (minban fei qiye danwei, 民办非企业)
- Foundations (jijinhui, 基金会)
In addition to these legal forms, there are also CSOs registered as for-profit businesses, and unregistered CSOs. Some unregistered CSOs gain legal status by attaching themselves to another legal entity, such as a Social Organization (shehui tuanti) or a Public Institution (shiye danwei) (including, for example, a university or research institute). Neither CSOs registered as businesses nor unregistered CSOs are considered to be CSOs in a legal sense, but they are voluntary, non-governmental, non-profit, self-governing organizations in an operational sense. They are mission-driven, nonprofit organizations founded by and governed by private individuals. Many are funded by foreign governments and embassies, international organizations and foundations, and are required to justify the non-profit nature of their activities in their reports to funders.
Together, these three legal forms of CSOs, along with the informal CSOs, are the closest equivalent to what we understand to be non-governmental, non-profit organizations. A substantial portion of the legal CSOs – in particular, Social Organizations and Foundations – were either created by the government or have close ties with a particular government agency, and are often referred to as government-organized NGOs (GONGOs). In contrast, the informal CSOs generally are more independent.
The key registration body for most organizational forms in China is the Ministry of Civil Affairs. In certain cases CSOs may also register and operate as for-profit businesses, and those do so through the State Administration for Industry and Commerce.
Public Benefit Status
Chinese law distinguishes between nonprofits that have a public benefit purpose and those that serve other purposes. The Public Welfare Donations Law confers public benefit status on two categories of organizations: "public benefit social organizations" and "public benefit nonprofit institutions." CSOs with public benefit status are eligible for tax exemption, but they are also subject to stricter government supervision [Public Benefit Donations Law, Chapters 3-5].
According to Article 10 of the Public Welfare Donations Law, "public benefit social organizations" are legally established foundations, charitable organizations, and other social organizations founded to promote public benefit undertakings. Article 3 lists which activities qualify as "public benefit undertakings" :
. Disaster relief, poverty alleviation, assistance to the handicapped, and assistance to social organizations in needy circumstances;
. Education, scientific, cultural, public health, and athletic undertakings;
. Environmental protection and construction of public facilities; and
. Other public benefit undertakings promoting social development and progress.
"Public benefit nonprofit institutions" are legally established educational institutions, scientific research institutions, health institutions, cultural institutions, public sports institutions, social welfare institutions and others that carry out public benefit undertakings and are not-for-profit.
It appears that all foundations, some social organizations, and most public institutions have public benefit status. CNIs can also obtain public benefit status and accept donations under the Public Welfare Donations Law. However, informal non-profits that are registered as businesses or unregistered are not eligible for tax exemption even though operationally, they are nonprofit and have a public benefit purpose. Some of China's best-known independent, public benefit CSOs fall into this category.
Barriers to Entry
There are extensive barriers to entry based in policy, practice, and regulation. Registration procedures are complex and cumbersome, with extensive documentation and approval requirements. Organizations are required to operate under a system of “dual management” in which they must generally first obtain the sponsorship of a “professional supervising unit” such as a government ministry or provincial government agency, then seek registration and approval from the Ministry of Civil Affairs in Beijing or a local civil affairs bureau, and remain under the dual control of both agencies throughout their organizational life. In practice, it is not easy to obtain such sponsorship, particularly if a social organization lacks good connections in the government or is operating in sensitive sectors such as advocacy, legal aid, labor, religion and ethnic minority affairs.
Broad prohibition clauses bar the registration of groups that are perceived to oppose the state and/or Party. For example, the Regulations on the Registration and Management of Social Organizations (1999) prohibit registration of organizations that fail any part of this test: “Social organisations must observe the constitution, state laws, regulations and state policy; must not oppose the basic principles of the constitution, harm the unity, security or ethnic harmony of the state, or interests of the state and society, or the lawful interests of other organisations or citizens, or offend social morality.” Other broad provisions give the state wide discretion over which organizations are allowed to register.
The “dual management” requirements and broad prohibition clauses apply to all types of organizations, including social organizations, foundations, and other groups. But the barriers to entry do not end there. For example, the Regulations on the Registration and Management of Social Organizations (1999), the governing document for the largest subsector of Chinese nonprofits, also stipulate that applicant organizations must comply with a wide range of other requirements and undergo a lengthy application and approval process. Such applicants must have at least fifty individual members or thirty institutional members; a fixed location; staff with qualifications appropriate to the professional activities of the organisation; minimum assets of 100,000 RMB (currently US$9,500) for national organizations and 30,000 RMB ($2,800) for local organizations; and must supply the registration and management agency with a wide array of organizational documents. Government agencies may rely on a wide array of reasons to deny registration. Furthermore, the Regulations on the Registration and Management of Social Organizations (1999) and the Interim Regulations on the Registration and Administration of Civil Non-Enterprise Institutions (1998) both stipulate that SOs and CNIs cannot establish branch organizations or offices in other regions. SOs and CNIs get around this provision by registering their branch office as a separate organization.
After registration, organizations may seek approval in a separate process for an official seal and to open a bank account. Separate permissions must be sought from the relevant government management agencies to establish a branch or subsidiary of the group; to modify their registration or to amend their charter; to change their legal representative, and for other purposes. The government is provided with broad discretionary authority to close social organizations.
In the face of the “dual management” system, the difficulties in negotiating registration and approval, onerous reporting requirements and the opportunity for frequent government intrusion into organizational matters, many Chinese social organizations of various kinds either register as a for-profit business, or operate without formal registration. According to the Interim Measures for Banning Illegal Non-Governmental Organizations, these informal nonprofits are formally illegal, making them even more subject to state discretion and control.
Over the last few years, local governments have been experimenting with ways to lower barriers to entry by reforming the dual management system for certain categories of social organizations. In most cases, this reform involves doing away with the requirement for social organizations to obtain the sponsorship of a professional supervising unit. In 2013, high-level officials have signaled that the central government will also be issuing similar reforms at the end of the year. These reforms are discussed in more detail in the section above on Pending NGO Legislative/Regulatory Initiatives.
 Regulations on the Registration and Management of Social Organizations (1999), Art. 4
Barriers to Operational Activity
Barriers to operational activities can be raised or lowered by the authorities at their discretion, depending in large part on how their activities are viewed by the party-state. Generally, nonprofits engaged in social services and philanthropy tend to be viewed more favorably than nonprofits engaged in advocacy and legal aid. For some forms of organizations, such as social organizations or civil non-enterprise organizations, the government has authority under relevant regulations to bar the establishment of more than one such organization in its field in any particular locality as a way to prevent what is viewed as duplication, overlap, and competition and to maintain ties between such groups and their governmental sponsors. 
The government may also intervene in the appointment of directors, trustees or senior staff; narrow the boundaries of the work that organizations may engage in by reference to the government-approved original organizational application or charter; govern the banking arrangements of various kinds of charitable groups in detailed ways; undertake investigations of operational activities and terminate organizational activities through application of tax laws; and undertake other restrictions on operational activities. Even for registered organizations that have no issues with the state, reporting requirements can be quite burdensome, particularly for small organizations. The regulatory framework allows for significant government intervention and interference. Strong security forces, such as the Ministry of Public Security and other groups, intensively monitor organizations of particular sensitivity for the Party and state.
Over the years, a number of methods have been used to restrict and control the operational activities of certain nonprofit groups with some being harassed and others being closed down temporarily. For example, 2007, the civil society publication, Minjian was closed down, and another, China Development Brief, stopped publishing for a few months. In 2010, the Open Constitution Initiative (Gongmeng), a Beijing-based public interest law research and advocacy group, was placed under tax investigation arising from a donation from an American organization, several of its core personnel detained, and eventually closed as a result of the alleged violations of tax regulations. A reading through the Pending Legislative/Regulatory Initiatives above will yield other examples.
 See, e.g., the Regulations on the Registration and Management of Social Organizations (1999), Art. 13(2).
Barriers to Speech / Advocacy
A gap between constitutional freedoms for speech and assembly and the more restrictive provisions of special regulations and legal frameworks provides the state with significant discretion to limit speech, assembly and advocacy for specific organizations and types of organizations. The government can also prohibit advocacy, and actions such as lawsuits, in cases that it deems harmful to national security.
Such barriers are implemented through administrative decrees (such as the regulations governing social organizations and other kinds of groups), as well as criminal and administrative regulation and barriers to participation in policy debate and formulation that may favor government-affiliated groups or may restrict policy advocacy by defining it as outside the organization’s ambit of approval or its charter. Direct barriers to organizational activity, such as those discussed above, may also restrict speech, assembly and advocacy.
As an example of such barriers, in 2013, a number of activists were arrested for “unlawful assembly” in calling on government officials to publicly disclose their personal assets. Among them were Xu Zhiyong, one of the founders of the NGO, Gongmeng (Open Constitution Initiative) which advocates for constitutionalism and rule-of-law reforms. Later that year, there were broader restrictions placed on social media, with the detention and arrest of some high-profile bloggers, including billionaire entrepreneur, Wang Gongquan, who was a supporter of Xu’s.
The recent sentencing of Xu to four years in prison for "gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place" was a reminder of the high barriers to speech and assembly in China. Days before Xu's sentence was announced, 78 scholars, journalists and lawyers issued an Open Recommendation to Conduct Constitutional Review on the "Law of the People's Republic of China on Assemblies, Processions and Demonstrations".
Barriers to International Contact
There appear to be relatively few barriers to international contact in the regulatory framework for particular kinds of organizations, such as the regulations governing social organizations (shehui tuanti), foundations (jijinhui), civil non-enterprise institutions (minban fei qiye danwei), and quasi-governmental public institutions (shiye danwei).
However, particularly at the provincial and sub-provincial levels, organizations of all kinds are often required to report international contacts to authorities and, in some cases, to seek approval for certain kinds of visits, international cooperation, foreign donations, and other contact with foreign organizations or donors. They are also discouraged from working with or receiving funding from overseas organizations which are engaged in “democracy promotion”.
The participation of international NGOs in public affairs in China is a sensitive matter that is monitored by security agencies. The State Security Ministry established an office several years ago to monitor both domestic and international NGO affairs. Multiple written or unwritten rules can affect international contacts, and they may emerge relatively suddenly.
International NGOs have long had a difficult time registering in China, and the large majority of international NGOs are registered as a business entity, or unregistered and work quietly through Chinese partners.
Barriers to Resources
In general terms Chinese organizations seeking external resources (such as foundation grants, direct gifts, and other resources) must obtain approval from their appropriate regulatory agency (such as a bureau of civil affairs at the provincial level) for such transactions. Organizations may also need approval to establish bank accounts in some cases. The laws and regulations governing the key forms of nonprofit and social organizations do not address issues of foreign funding in detail but other law and regulation makes such resource mobilization generally subject to state approval.
In early 2010, for example, the PRC State Administration of Foreign Exchange issued a formal notice, Notice 63 on Issues Concerning the Administration of Foreign Exchange Donated to or by Domestic Institutions that requires many domestic nonprofit organizations to comply with new and more complex rules for receiving and using foreign donations. These include, for certain kinds of organizations, an application attesting to the authority of the domestic organization and the foreign donor; the domestic group’s business license; a notarized donation agreement between the domestic group and the foreign donor organization with the purpose of the donation prescribed; and a registration certificate for the foreign nonprofit group. The Notice spurred significant concern in both domestic NGO and foreign nonprofit circles and its implications are still being worked out. Many nonprofits have been able to continue accessing foreign funds, but some organizations have experienced difficulties especially in cases where funding is coming from foreign organizations, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, the Open Society Institute, and the International Republican Institute, that are perceived as sensitive because of their “democracy promotion” work. 
There is as yet no detailed domestic fundraising regulation, but generally speaking public fundraising, which is understood to mean fundraising through the media, in public spaces and online, is restricted to a small number of organizations. These include government agencies, such as the Ministry of Civil Affairs, officially designated organizations such as the Chinese Red Cross and China Charity Federation, and one type of foundation. The 2004 Regulations on the Management of Foundations creates two categories of foundations: public fundraising foundations and non-public fundraising foundations (hereafter referred to as “public” and “private” foundations respectively). Only public foundations have the authority to engage in public fundraising. Private foundations are funded by a major gift from a company or family, and can accept donations through private channels, but cannot engage in public fundraising. Other nonprofits, such as SOs or CNIs, are also not allowed to engage in public fundraising.
 English text of Notice 63, Chinese text of Notice 63.
Barriers to Assembly
Both the Assembly Law and the Implementing Measures contain vague and restrictive provisions, and give enforcement authorities a great deal of authority and discretion. For example, Article 12 of the Law prohibits assemblies that might “oppose cardinal principles in the Constitution,” although those principles are never specified. The Law also makes it difficult to hold assemblies related to territorial and ethnic minority issues. There is also a broad clause prohibiting assemblies that will harm “public security and public order,” without any qualifying provisions.
Maximum Numbers of Participants
There is no maximum number of participants in the Assembly Law, but various local regulations may define a specific limit. In Beijing, NGOs cited 50 and 200 as ceilings that they have heard of by word of mouth, but they could not cite specific regulations containing those limits. A 2002 Human Rights Watch report titled “Dangerous Meditation: China’s Campaign Against Falun Gong” states that “On November 24, 1999, the Ministry of Public Security issued new public assembly regulations prohibiting gatherings of 200 or more for mass cultural and sporting activities, such as concerts, sports meets, and public exercise sessions such as qigong practice without explicit police approval, citing an article, "China to regulate mass gatherings," from BBC Worldwide Monitoring (November 24, 1999). It is important to note, however, that Article 2 of the Assembly Law states that the Law “does not apply to recreational or sports activities, normal religious activities or traditional folk events.” This suggests that there may be additional regulations issued at the local level by Public Security offices concerning other types of assembly.
Article 8 of the Assembly Law states that “the responsible person(s) must submit an application in writing to the competent authorities five days prior to the date of the activity.” The regulatory authority is required to give a response two days prior to the activity. According to Article 9:
… after receiving an application for an assembly, a procession or a demonstration, the competent authorities shall inform the responsible person(s) in writing of their decision to grant or not to grant permission two days prior to the date of the activity applied for. If no permission is granted, the reasons thereof shall be given. Failure to serve notice within the time limit shall be construed as the granting of permission.
The Assembly Law does, however, provide for last-minute applications in the event of an unexpected occurrence. Article 9 states:
If an assembly, a procession or a demonstration is truly necessitated by unexpected occurrences, a report must be made immediately to the competent authorities: upon receiving the report, the competent authorities shall immediately examine it and decide to grant or not to grant permission.
The law does not address counter-demonstrations. However, spontaneous assemblies are not permitted. Article 29 of the Assembly Law states:
In a case where no application has been made for an assembly, a procession or a demonstration in accordance with the provisions of this Law or no permission has been granted for the application or where it is conducted not in accordance with the starting and finishing time, places and routes permitted by the competent authorities, when the disbanding order is disobeyed and public order seriously undermined, the person(s) responsible for, the assembly, procession or demonstration and the person(s) who is directly responsible shall be investigated for criminal responsibility in accordance with the provisions of Article 158 of the Criminal Law.
Obligations of Organizers
The Assembly Law places a number of onerous obligations and liabilities on the organizers of assemblies. For example, Article 25 of the Assembly Law states:
The person(s) responsible for an assembly, a procession or a demonstration must assume responsibility for maintaining the order thereof and strictly guard against participation by others. The person(s) responsible for an assembly, a procession or a demonstration shall, when necessary, appoint special personnel to assist the people's police in maintaining order. The personnel responsible for the maintenance of order shall wear identification marks.
In addition, Article 28 of the Assembly Law states that “the police may punish by warning or by criminal detention of not more than 15 days the organizers if the assembly involves one of the following circumstances:
(1) failure to make an application in accordance with the provisions of this Law or to obtain permission for the application; or
(2) failure to act in accordance with the purposes, manners, posters, slogans, starting and finishing time, places, and routes permitted by the competent authorities, and disregard of instructions to stop acting without permission.”
The government has used excessive force in breaking up assemblies. The most notorious example is the protests that occurred in the spring of 1989 in various cities in China, culminating in the June 4 crackdown on protestors in Tiananmen Square Beijing. To this date, it is unknown how many civilians were killed in that crackdown.
There was also a brutal reprisal against Falun Gong demonstrators in the fall of 1999 after they staged a silent vigil outside of Zhongnanhai, where the top Chinese leaders live and work. Human rights groups and other journalistic and academic studies report that Falun Gong practitioners in China are subject to a wide range of human rights abuses. Tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands are believed to have been imprisoned extrajudicially, and those detained are subject to forced labor, psychiatric abuse, torture, and other coercive methods of thought reform at the hands of Chinese authorities.
More recently, the state has used force to break up demonstrations over land seizures and corruption in rural areas.
Restrictions on Participants
A number of articles in the Assembly Law address various criminal and other sanctions that participants can face. As but one example, Article 30 states:
Those who disturb, break into or undermine by other means an assembly, a procession or a demonstration held in compliance with law may be punished by the public security organ by warning or by criminal detention of not more than 15 days; if the circumstances are serious and a crime is constituted, they shall be investigated for criminal responsibility in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Criminal Law.
In addition, Article 15 of the Assembly Law states that “No citizens shall, in a city other than his place of residence, start, organize or participate in an assembly, a procession or a demonstration of local citizens.” This means that a person residing in one city cannot start, organize or participate in an assembly in another city.
Article 34 of the Assembly Law also states that foreigners need approval by “the competent authorities” to participate in an assembly held by Chinese citizens.
Time, Place, and Manner Restrictions
Articles 23 and 24 of the Assembly Law place restrictions on holding assemblies at certain places or times.
Article 23 states as follows:
No assembly, procession or demonstration shall be held within a peripheral distance of 10 to 300 meters from the following places, with the exception of those approved by the State Council or the people's governments of provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the Central Government:
(1) premises of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, the State Council, the Central Military Commission, the Supreme People's Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate;
(2) places where state guests are staying;
(3) important military installations; and
(4) air harbors, railway stations and ports.
The specific peripheral distances from the places listed in the preceding paragraph shall be defined by the people's governments of provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the Central Government.
In addition, Article 24 states that “The time for holding an assembly, a procession or a demonstration shall be limited to 6 a.m to 10 p.m., with the exception of those held by decision or approval of the local people's governments.”
Although there are no content-based restrictions, Article 12 prohibits assemblies that will harm “the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state” and instigate “division among the nationalities.” This discourages assemblies related to ethnic minority issues, particularly those connected to regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang where there has been vocal dissatisfaction with Communist Party governance.
Many CSO representatives perceive the Assembly Law as largely irrelevant. They noted that they would not apply to hold an assembly in the first place because they know they would be turned down. In addition, the police would then have a record of who they were, which could cause trouble for them later.
At the same time, assemblies and demonstrations do occur in China, but generally not because the organizers have applied and been approved to hold the assembly. In October 2012, large anti-Japanese demonstrations were held in Beijing and a few other cities. While it was never clear who organized the demonstrations or whether the organizers had applied, it was suggested by a number of people that the demonstrations had been in part organized and had the support of the government. Also in October 2012, a Beijing gay rights NGO conducted an AIDS walk along a section of the Great Wall that involved hundreds of participants. The organizer did not apply to hold the walk. Instead, the organizer held the walk with the cooperation of a government-run AIDS foundation. These examples suggest that assemblies organized by government or quasi-government organizations have more leeway and are not bound by the Assembly Law.
|UN Universal Periodic Review Reports||Universal Periodic Review: China|
|Reports of UN Special Rapporteurs||China|
|USIG (United States International Grantmaking) Country Notes||USIG: China|
|U.S. State Department||2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: China
Advancing Freedom and Democracy Reports, 2009: China
|Fragile States Index Report|
|IMF Country Reports||China and the IMF|
|International Commission of Jurists||Not available|
|International Center for Not-for-Profit Law Online Library||China|
News of importance to the nonprofit sector will be updated on a continual basis in China Development Brief’s column, A View from the Top. See also, China Development Brief Directory of 250 Chinese NGOs and accompanying report.
While we aim to maintain information that is as current as possible, we realize that situations can rapidly change. If you are aware of any additional information or inaccuracies on this page, please keep us informed; write to ICNL at email@example.com.
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Pray for Gao Zhisheng on Easter (April 2014)
The changing face of service society (May 2013)
'Spring' in the air for NGOs? (April 2013)
Government's NGO funding peaks in 2012 (February 2013)
NGOs praised for role in fighting HIV/AIDS (November 2012)
State to tighten oversight of international NGOs (September 2012)
Activist and artist Ai Weiwei loses appeal on tax evasion charges (September 2012)
China's door "wide open" to foreign NGOs (September 2012)
NGOs get boost from Shenzhen register reforms (August 2012)
Changing climate for religious NGOs? (July 2012)
Charity Law submitted to State Council (June 2012)
China keen to scale down EU human rights talks (June 2012)
Law to give new start to embattled charities (June 2012)
Will pressure make Chinese aid more transparent? (March 2012)
Charities open to religious groups (March 2012)
China develops law on philanthropy (October 2011)
Social groups may get right for litigation (October 2011)
China human rights group blocked from EU-China dialogue (September 2011)
China jails veteran democracy activist (September 2011)
New breakthrough for grassroots charity groups (August 2011)
Chinese civilian NGOs seek charity legislation (August 2011)
Carefully cultivating NGOs (July 2011)
China to ease NGO registration policy (July 2011)
China seeks to expand modern philanthropy (May 2011)
Biden, Clinton lecture China on human rights (May 2011)
End the silence on Ai Weiwei (April 2011)
China's human rights crackdown - interactive guide (April 2011)
EU and US urge China to free Ai Weiwei (April 2011)
Crack down on Egypt-inspired protests in China (February 2011)
Experts assess the progress of civil society in China (February 2011)
Civil Society News from China-Wire
Nonprofits in China, Harvard University’s Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations
NGOs in China
China Philanthropy Blog
China Foundation Center
The foregoing information was prepared by Shawn Shieh, Deputy Director of Development and Operations, China Labour Bulletin (HK). Dr. Shieh may be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.