Chinese central authorities have indicated official approval for the mainland operations of one of the largest Taiwan-based Buddhist civil society organizations, the Tzu Chi (Ciji) Foundation.
Chinese authorities included Tzu Chi among the limited number of organizations and nations invited to send personnel to participate in the relief efforts following the devastating May 12 earthquake in western Sichuan, according to a May 16 International Herald Tribune article. Earlier this year, Chinese authorities approved Tzu Chi’s application to establish a foundation in mainland China, the first such foundation (as opposed to a representative office) whose legal representative was not a mainland Chinese resident.
Official approval of Tzu Chi’s application may represent 1) a cautious step toward increasing the legal space available for some civil society organizations to address pressing domestic problems in China and 2) an opening aimed at improving cross-strait relations.
The Ministry of Civil Affairs (MOCA) granted Tzu Chi legal approval to establish a foundation in mainland China earlier this year under the 2004 Foundation Regulations, according to a February 27 statement made by a spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, and a February 28 China Post report. The spokesman noted that this marked the first time legal status had been granted to a foundation whose legal representative was not a mainland Chinese resident.
The decision contrasts with the relatively more restrictive official Chinese attitudes toward civil society organizations that have predominated for the past several years. Since 2005, Chinese authorities have taken steps to curtail the operations of foreign and domestic civil society organizations in China, warning against the use of civil society organizations by "hostile Western forces" to "combat" or "infiltrate" China. This led in 2006 to what one Western expert on Chinese civil society termed a "virtual paralysis" of official registration by civil society organizations in China.
Given this, what explains the Chinese government’s decision to grant Tzu Chi's application to establish a foundation? First, Chinese authorities may view Tzu Chi, a Taiwan-based Buddhist organization with a long track record of social and humanitarian work around the world and in mainland China, as less threatening than organizations that receive Western funding, or that focus on more politically sensitive civic or social issues.
Second, official approval of a well-known Taiwan-based civil society organization to establish a foundation in mainland China may be a component of official efforts to improve cross-strait relations. The Chinese announcement preceded the March 28 presidential election in Taiwan, and was raised in a comprehensive press conference regarding preferential mainland policies toward Taiwanese residents.
Third, the decision may reflect a cautious step by Chinese authorities towards allowing Taiwanese, Hong Kong, and foreign civil society organizations to register and obtain legal status subject to the same restrictions facing mainland Chinese organizations. The Chinese government statement notes that the State Administration of Religious Affairs will serve as the official sponsor organization for Tzu Chi. The sponsor organization requirement is the key element of the regulatory system Chinese authorities rely on to limit the growth of an independent civil society. MOCA officials have periodically suggested that regulatory changes are under consideration that will apply the same registration requirements to foreign and domestic organizations.
Existing 1998 Chinese civil society regulations do not currently provide clear channels for non-mainland organizations to register and obtain legal status in China. In 2004, Chinese authorities issued the Regulations on the Management of Foundations, which do allow non-mainland (jingwai) foundations to register "representative offices" in China, provided that they obtain approval from a recognized Party or government sponsor organization. The regulations also charge MOCA with the authority to evaluate and approve any application to establish a foundation whose legal representative is not a mainland Chinese resident. Approval of Tzu Chi's application appears to be MOCA's first decision to approve such a foundation.