Chinese migrant workers clean drinking-water tanks at a recycling center in Beijing’s Changping district. Water conservation and migration are among the roughly 200 activities sanctioned by Chinese authorities. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
China Unveils List of Activities Permitted for Foreign Nonprofits
  • Wed, 12/21/2016 - 18:33

Updated Dec. 21, 2016 7:46 a.m. ET

BEIJING—After months of uncertainty for foreign nonprofits, China released a list of activities the groups will be allowed to pursue under a controversial new law, with a surprising number of activities falling in potentially sensitive areas such as legal services.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has waged a fierce campaign against foreign influences in the country, and the law is widely seen targeting groups working in areas such as human rights and rule of law.

Groups working in legal services are nonetheless required to be sponsored and supervised by the Ministry of Justice, which veteran legal-reform advocates describe as hostile to nonprofits.

Foreign groups had waited months for the list, released by the Ministry of Public Security on Tuesday. They now have just 10 days to try to register themselves before the law goes into effect on Jan. 1. Many have already dialed back their programs out of fear they won’t be able to register in time.

Experts say foreign groups with a long-term presence in China number less than 1,000, and most of these operate in a legal gray area.

The law, passed in April, requires foreign nonprofits with permanent programs in China to register with police and submit to the supervision of a local agency, among other restrictions. Chinese authorities have said the law is necessary to bring order to a largely unregulated sector.

Chinese authorities have jailed, detained or interrogated dozens of human-rights lawyers since mid-2015, accusing them of colluding with foreign civic groups to sow democracy and undermine the Communist Party. Western diplomats and nonprofit staffers have said they fear groups working in the field would be thrown out under the new law. Governments including the U.S. have criticized it as designed to bring civil society to heel.

Given that background, it was surprising to see a few potentially sensitive fields included in the list of approved activities, said Anthony Spires, a civil-society scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. On paper, he said, “it opens up space for legal-rights groups to continue to do some of their work, at least.”

A foreign staff member of one international rule-of-law nonprofit questioned whether the Ministry of Justice would be willing to sponsor foreign nonprofits’ activities. “They’re very conservative,” the staff member said.

The Ministry of Justice, which has worked with foreign groups in the past, including on a program to improve access to legal services in remote areas, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The roughly 200 activities sanctioned by authorities range from water conservation and disaster response to vocational training and human migration. While the vast majority are in fields considered safe politically, the list also included activities in gender equality and disability rights, areas that along with legal work have drawn increasing scrutiny from the government.

Mr. Spires and other experts said the scope of activities allowed under the law won’t become clear until supervisory agencies begin accepting, or rejecting, requests for sponsorship.

Nonprofit staff members earlier expressed hope that the list of supervisory agencies would be dominated by Chinese nongovernmental organizations, such as think tanks and professional associations familiar with nonprofit work. Instead, nearly all of the approved supervisory agencies are government agencies, which nonprofit staff said are risk averse and likely to refuse to sponsor all but the safest of foreign organizations.

The publishing of the list means nonprofits can finally submit materials for registration, though given the time crunch, several groups are planning to temporarily suspend their programs to avoid operating illegally come Jan. 1.

It isn’t clear how the Ministry of Public Security plans to treat groups, likely to number in the hundreds, that don’t manage to register by the deadline. The ministry hasn’t responded to requests for comment about the law.