People keep asking me the above question. Generally, it comes in one of two forms. The first is: are Chinese authorities liberalizing or tightening their controls over domestic and foreign civil society organizations in China. The second is: what are the interesting topical areas to focus on for organizations that want to do work in China.
Two recent speeches by Ministry of Civil Affairs (MOCA) officials on January 31, 2007 shed some additional light on these topics, the first by MOCA Vice-Minister Jiang Li, and the second by the director of MOCA's Bureau for the Management of Civil Society Organizations, Sun Weilin. Highlights include:
- The State Council's Standing Committee is currently reviewing the revisions to the 1998 regulations governing social organizations. Sun's speech notes that MOCA has already submitted these to the State Council's Standing Committee.
- Chinese authorities are moving ahead with the creation of a new "rating" system for civil society organizations. Experimental projects have been launched in a number of different regions and areas.
- MOCA officials are making strong efforts to increase their work with rural professional economic associations. This follows emphasis in the Party's "No. 1 Document" for 2007 regarding the importance of these organizations.
- Chinese authorities continue to supress and root out illegal, unregistered civil society organizations.
So, to return to the initial two questions. First, are Chinese authorities loosening or tightening their restrictions on civil society organizations?
Chinese authorities have clearly taken additional steps to curtail civil society organizations in the past two years. Monitoring and harassment of these groups has increased, and there has been a "virtual paralysis" on the registration of new groups, as the Congressional-Executive Commission on China noted in the civil society section of its 2006 Annual Report.
But Chinese authorities are undecided on how to proceed. Expected revisions to the 1998 regulations have languished for five years. There seems to be some serious internal debate inside the Chinese bureaucracy on exactly how to manage these organizations. Earlier MOCA versions of the draft regulations apparently would have done away with the requirement that civil society groups have a Party or government sponsor organization in order to register and obtain legal status. But State Council officials appear to have vetoed these proposals, as as the Congressional-Executive Commission on China noted in the civil society section of its 2005 Annual Report. The sponsor organization requirement is one of the key devices by which Chinese authorities keep a check on the development of independent Chinese civil society organizations.
In all likelihood, whenever the regulations do issue, the sponsor organization requirement will be retained. Media reports on the MOCA draft have noted as much. It's also likely that the sponsor organization requirement will be expanded to include foreign NGOs operating in China as well. Sun's speech notes that the revised regulations "severely need to come out, in order to respond to challenges presented by foreign civil society organizations." Moreover, when Chinese authorities revised their regulations on foundations in 2003, the sponsor organization requirement was extended to cover both foreign and domestic groups. (For more information, see the article on page 110 of the April 2004 issue of the International Journal of Civil Society Law) It seems likely that the newly issued foundation regulations would serve as a template for future revisions to the corresponding 1998 regulations governing social organizations and non-governmental, non-commercial enterprises.
The second question: what are the interesting topical areas to focus on for organizations that want to do work in China. Take a good hard look at the rural professional economic associations. Chinese leaders have particularly emphasized the importance of resolving rural problems, and have specifically indicated a degree of openness in working with these groups. Since one of the main problems faced by Chinese farmers is a lack of organizational structures to use to defend their collective interests, the development of these groups is a particularly interesting and positive. Of course, how it plays out in practice remains an open question.