WI Law In Action Podcast: Mark Sidel on Governmental Restrictions of NGOs in China

WI Law in Action podcastOn the latest episode of the WI Law in Action podcast from the UW Law Library, host Kris Turner interviews UW Law School’s Doyle-Bascom Professor of Law and Public Affairs, Mark Sidel on recent trends in China and elsewhere to restrict foreign investments, grants, and donations to nonprofit and philanthropic organizations.

Our conversation focuses on two recent articles by Prof. Sidel: “Overseas NGOs and Foundations and Covid in China” published in EURICS, July 2021 and “Securitizing Overseas Nonprofit Work in China: Five Years of the Overseas NGO Law Framework and Its New Application to Academic Institutions” in USALI Perspectives, November 2021. Below are a few excerpts from our discussion.

Sidel on how has China’s policy toward non-profit, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has changed in recent years:Photo of Mark Sidel

China’s always been very careful about the work that oversees non-profit organizations, nongovernmental organizations, NGOs do in China, whether it’s organizations that provide resources like the Ford foundation or organizations that work directly on the ground, like Oxfam or Save the Children or World Vision or other groups like that. China has been at times cautiously welcoming of those groups. At other times, like in the past 10 years, they’ve been somewhat more suspicious of the activities of those groups. And over the past decade in China, China has been leery particularly of organizations that try to promote democracy or rights advocacy in China, from abroad. And beginning about 10 years ago, and very specifically about five or six years ago, China began employing more legal means to restrict, to constrained, to control the work of these non-government organizations, both those that are directly active in China and those that provide resources to local groups in China. So the change in policy in the past six, seven years, the past 10 years since Xi Jinping came to power in China in 2012 has really been in one direction, which is to control, to constrain, to narrow the scope that foreign organizations can play in China.

Sidel on what prompted China’s change in policy toward NGOs:

In China, what has prompted this over the past six or seven years, particularly, but more broadly over the past decade is a sense that some of the organizations that operate from abroad are going beyond charity. They’re going beyond relief work. They’re going beyond humanitarian work. They’re trying to build the capacity. In some cases, at least according to the Chinese government, they’re trying to build the capacity of critical actors in the countries themselves to try to bring about reforms, or may even maybe a view of some, bring about a change in government… And China’s very much opposed to organizations going beyond the charitable role into anything that approaches advocacy or helping Chinese groups advocate for human rights and things like that. It is the more authoritarian places, China, Vietnam, India, and other countries, and other regions of the world that are particularly concerned about American and European, especially non-governmental organizations and foundations coming in and doing this kind of work.

Sidel on the restrictions placed on foreign organizations in China:

They have to get virtually every activity and every change of activity approved by the Chinese government. Every such foreign organization has to have a domestic partner organization, which in fact, which in effect is assigned to watch over what it does and to approve on a step by step basis, almost everything they do in China. So from the perspective of the Chinese government, the Chinese communist, this controlling policy perspective has been quite successful in narrowing the work that foreign organizations can do into a collection of activities, charitable activities, which is acceptable to the government.

Sidel on the impact of these restrictive policies:

We are seeing over time, and it’s impossible to know whether it will continue for years and years or at some point, whether there’ll be a change, but we are seeing a gradual disengagement of China from the world and of the world from China. If you think back to 10 or 15 years ago, the range of interaction in the nonprofit world, in the university and academic world in a variety of business contexts between the outside world in China was exceptionally strong, exceptionally engaged…. So one legacy of this process is that we’re just seeing less contact. The groups that I work with, the conferences that I go to. We used to have a lot of Chinese colleagues coming to that. We used to have more Chinese visiting scholars coming to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and other institutions that is all more difficult now. So the raising offenses, the raising of walls on both sides, although I happen to focus more on the Chinese side of this, that’s an ongoing legacy of these controls and constraints and restrictions…

I think this process of separating China from the world and the world separating from China is ongoing and absent some change in, for example, the bilateral relationship between the United States and China or other bilateral relationships or the international situation. I don’t see changes to these frameworks occurring in a positive direction in the coming years. Having said that there is tremendous pent up demand in the United States, in China, in Europe and other parts of the world for continued and strengthened collaboration with China. So there are those on both sides of that wall, if you will, who would like to be able to do more with each other, those constituencies will always be there, but it’s been very difficult over the past 5, 6, 7 years over the past 10 years altogether. And I don’t anticipate any short term or medium term significant change for the better.

Sidel on similar limitations of foreign investments in nonprofits and philanthropic organizations in other countries:

In most cases, these restrictions on the work of foreign organizations are not so much following China’s lead as they are authoritarians with similar worldviews. And they are concerned about human rights organizations from abroad. They’re concerned about human rights ideas from abroad… There is no doubt that places like Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, and other places have looked with interest at the Chinese experience in recent years. And the ways in which China over a period of about now six years has successfully cored and constrained the overseas NGO and foundation community, and is allowing it to stay in China, but only allowing it to do the exact things that the government wants it to do. There is interest in that experience and in the success from the Chinese perspective or the Chinese government perspective, the success that China seems to be having in constraining those organizations.

To read more of  Professor Sidel’s scholarship, see his profiles on SSRN and the UW Law School Digital Repository.