ONE OF the defining features of communism in the Chinese experience has been the fierce determination of party leaders to maintain a monopoly on power and obliterate any competition. China’s bosses have largely abandoned communism as an economic principle and embraced capitalism, but when it comes to the levers of power, they don’t give an inch.
Yet the reality is that China simply cannot fulfill all the needs of its citizens, and there has been plenty for nongovernmental organizations to do. Over the past two decades, all kinds of nongovernmental organizations have sprung up, many funded from abroad, helping with health care, business and environmental protection and filling other needs. While China has often refused to formally register these groups, they have operated anyway, in a sort of legal gray zone.
Now, China has put forward a draft law that could potentially wipe out these organizations, both those supported from overseas and homegrown. The law would require all nongovernmental organizations to be vetted by China’s security police, require them to find an official government “sponsor” and subject them to intrusive inspections, controls and hiring rules. Failure to follow the law could bring criminal penalties.
The draft law is written in a vague way to give the security police wide discretion. Almost any group could become a target. Ira Belkin and Jerome A. Cohen of New York University Law School’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute wrote recently that “even a single lecture by a Harvard professor, an art exhibit by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, an act of charity or humanitarian disaster relief by the Red Cross, an athletic competition, a performance by a high school marching band, or a scholarship offered to a Chinese student could fall under the purview of the law — so long as the event is carried out within China by, or on behalf of, a foreign nonprofit.” As The Post’s Simon Denyer reported last month, the draft law has also drawn objections from the U.S. and European business communities, which fear it could crimp foreign industry associations, universities and science and technology institutes, among other entities.
The draft law appears to reflect a drive by President Xi Jinping to purge Western ideas and values from contemporary China, a theme that ran through a long internal party memorandum known as “Document No. 9” that circulated two years ago. Mr. Xi’s actions reflect paranoia about the threat of nongovernmental organizations as some kind of “fifth column,” subversive forces that could undermine the party’s grip on power. This is a tired and stale fear of authoritarian bosses, in China and elsewhere. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also been cracking the whip, labeling NGOs as “foreign agents.”
Mr. Xi and his cohorts will be hurting the Chinese people first and foremost by denying them valuable help from these groups. But that seems to be in keeping with the party’s maximum concern for itself above all else.