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Bias and Ignorance Explain Reaction to China’s Draft Foreign NGO Management Law

Jul 30 , 2015

“We seem to think that if we Americans don’t provide it, there can be no balance or peace in Asia,” writes Ambassador Chas Freeman, next to Dr. Henry Kissinger, the most thoughtful and authoritative American diplomat to have specialized in U.S-China relations.

Freeman’s insight into American attitudes would apply also to civil society in Asia, including China:  That is, if America–through its NGOs, educational, and news organizations–is not providing it, civil society cannot develop or exist.

However absurd, such a notion is unfortunately the reality.  But the problem runs deeper.  It is, as Kissinger wrote in his latest book, World Order, the overarching American bias that refuses to fully accept the legitimacy any political, social, or economic system that does not style itself after or seek to emulate that of the West, and most especially of the United States.

Further, it is the haughty presumption that there is only one possible or acceptable evolutionary path for developing civil society, and that path is the one previously taken by the West.

This bias is the only way to understand the reaction of many of America’s reputed China scholars and opinion-leading media like The Washington Post to China’s foreign NGO management law.

A July 5 editorial asserts: “…the reality is that China simply cannot fulfill all the needs of its citizens, and there has been plenty to do.  Over the past two decades, all kinds of nongovernmental organizations have sprung up, many funded from abroad, helping with health care, business and environmental protection and filing other needs.  While China has often refused to formally register these groups, they have operated anyway, in a sort of legal gray zone….

“Now, China has put forward a draft law that could potentially wipe out these organizations, both those supported from overseas and homegrown. The law would require all NGOs to be vetted by China’s security police, require them to find an official government ‘sponsor’ and subject them to intrusive inspections, controls and hiring rules.”

The Post asserts:  “The draft law appears to reflect a drive by President Xi Jinping to purge Western ideas and values from contemporary China…”

The widely followed Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations, in an article entitled, “Poisoning the Well of U.S.-China Relations” published in CFR’s Asia Unbound blog  on July 8, writes that “China’s national security commission is … drafting legislation to severely regulate foreign-based nonprofits for fear that Western governments will use these organizations to undermine the Communist Party….”

Conflating the NGO this issue with the previously announced, and then suspended, draft cyber-security law and the separately proposed anti-terrorism law, Economy belittles China’s leadership, suggesting Beijing is targeting and scapegoating foreigners in pursuit of short-term, tactical self-interest.

 

Such commentary betrays both the bias referenced above and an appalling lack of understanding of the actual condition and trends of civil society organizations in China.

It also evidences, as Kissinger notes, a psychological tendency of American elites, convinced of the moral superiority of progressive American “universal values,” to deny of the legitimate authority of other sovereign countries to monitor and control potentially threatening ideas, persons, and organizations within their own borders.  Such a mindset leads to a perspective and agenda of extraterritoriality, wherein all countries—to be deemed legitimate—must accept and adopt policies dictated by the United States.

This is deeply hypocritical. As the revelations of American cyber sabotage against several countries, including China, by Edward Snowden have taught (see The Washington Post, August 30, 2013), charges by American representatives or groups of intrusive treatment are likely to be “the pot calling the kettle black.”

In just one recent case, an article entitled “U.S. Screening on Foreign Projects Roils Aid Groups” in the July 11 The New York Times reports that:

“A new federal screening program designed to ferret out terrorists working for government backed nonprofit organizations is drawing sharp criticism from groups that say the vetting is overly intrusive, undermines their mission, and may endanger the lives of their employees. The Partner Vetting System, run by the United States Agency for International Development, requires for the first time that nonprofit organizations collect detailed personal data — including biographical information and bank account numbers — on each officer, board member and vital employee associated with aid projects funded by the United States.”

What is the actual situation of civil society and NGOs in China?  Carolyn L. Hsu, an associate professor of sociology at Colgate University, has made civil society in China her major field of research. Writing in the July 2 East Asia Forum, Hsu observes that:

“…China watchers prophesying the rise or fall of civil society have been wrong in the past. No one predicted the recent explosive growth of the Chinese NGO sector. NGOs were almost nonexistent in China in the early 1990s but, by 2013, there were over 500,000 registered organizations, plus another 1.5–2 million unregistered ones.

“…the government has … promulgated new laws that make it easier for domestic NGOs to operate in China. In 2013, new regulations made it much easier for organizations to register and become legally compliant. In the same year, the new Environmental Protection Law gave NGOs the power to file lawsuits against firms (even state firms) when they uncover environmental violations.”

An expert of civil society in China, Karla W. Simon, chairperson of the International Center for Civil Society Law, noted in a paper delivered to the Forum on Governance and Management in China (Edmonton, Canada) on August 16, 2013 the great importance of the “principle established at the 18th Party Congress in the autumn of 2012 that there should be the widest participation of all persons and nonprofit organizations NPOs in managing national, social, economic and cultural affairs” (my italics).

Simon draws attention to the Twelfth Five Year Plan for 2011-2015 adopted by the National People’s Congress in March 2011 which called and provided guidelines for governmental departments to “outsource” services to NGOs and NPOs.

Concludes Simon:  This “small government/big society policy,” represented a “fundamental shift for China.”

An objective and fair appraisal of China’s new NGO management law would highlight its importance, indeed, necessity, in advancing the goal of broadening citizen participation and the roles of NGOs established by the 2011 NPC and being written into China’s development plans.

China has boldly charted its own path to a smaller government/bigger society development model.  The fair assessment would be praise, not censure.

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