Read the German version of this article here
The new law that will drastically change China’s relationship with the rest of the world bears an innocuous title: "Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations Management Law" (NGOs).
In the future, according to the law, all foreign organizations are subject to an examination by the Chinese public security bureau before they are allowed to become active in China. What activities are allowed is left to the discretion of the security forces. This places any exchange with foreign countries under the reserve of state security, no matter whether it concerns development aid, panel discussions or concerts. It would be a carte blanche for monitoring and harassment at any time, everywhere.
What’s more, internationally operating NGOs not only may be held accountable for activities in China, but also for their conduct in other countries. This means a security authority must determine only that the object is "subversion" or the "spreading of rumors" and the NGO will face sanctions.
If, for example, a group of students on a university campus in the West protest against Chinese policy in Tibet, Chinese authorities could expel the university from China that allowed the protest and prosecute its representatives in court. Accordingly, scientists, business representatives and diplomats are reacting with shock and outrage over the new law.
Foreign NGOs have always been monitored, but now the government also wants to crack down on the local NGOs. In the future, they must include a party cell in their organization. The Chinese government apparently is in the process of shifting from control of civil society to an attack on it.
China isn’t alone in this. Everywhere in the world, NGOs are being targeting by the powerful.
We currently are experiencing an anti-emancipatory, participation-hostile attack that goes far beyond the importance of individual NGOs. What is being contested is simply what values should apply in the world and who decides them.
In Russia, NGOs have been forced for two and one half years now to register as agents if they accept donations from abroad. The el-Sisi government in Egypt has begun a campaign of harassment that calls activists "the worst in our history." The vaguely defined "threat to national interests" and "public order" can be punished with lifelong imprisonment if the accused received money from abroad at any time.
In the meantime, democracies feeling under pressure also are taking the autocratic route. The climate for international NGOs in India has noticeably worsened under the nationalistic government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been in office since May 2014. A report by the inland secret services makes the social and environmental activities of NGOs responsible for the loss of two to three percent of economic growth – an absurd figure that only substantiates the extent of governmental distrust of non-governmental activism.
In Hungary last summer, President Viktor Orbán railed against human rights groups, calling them "activists financed from abroad" and "foreigners" promoting "interests directed against the nation." And in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new coalition agreed upon a law in its coalition agreement that leaves it up to the defense minister to decide on the tax exemption status of NGOs. This would primarily impact critics of the settlement policy dependent on international donations.
"At the moment, more than fifty NGO laws are being drafted worldwide," said Barbara Unmüßig of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. In fact, they are mostly anti-NGO laws. "The laws are often formulated ambiguously on purpose to leave the door open for security agencies."
Wenzel Michalski, the German director of Human Rights Watch, added, "The space for NGOs is getting tighter. That is the reaction of authoritarian governments to the growing importance of civil society."
Two themes come together in the image of the NGOs as an enemy: Civil society as both a reservoir of headstrong citizens and a gateway for the influence of outside forces. This means the battle is being waged from the top down, between those in power and the people, and from inside outward (between "them" - the outsiders - and "us").
The justifications vary. Sometimes, the arguments are nationalistic, such as an attack on the national sovereignty or, perhaps, sometimes religious by suggesting sacred values are in danger. Sometimes, countries declare they are not ready for development while others use a post-colonial argument that they are putting an end to others thinking for them. However, the thing about NGOs that is objectionable and provocative is always the same: NGOs are players in a political and moral globalization.
Simply by existing, and above all through their work, NGOs insist that liberty, security, prosperity and participation are universal values all people should be striving for.
Naturally, that provokes autocrats and nationalists. This has always been the case. What is new is how aggressively they are fighting back.