Policemen try to take away Zhang Qingfang, center, a lawyer representing Xu Zhiyong, a legal scholar who founded the New Citizens advocacy group, in Beijing in 2014. Members of the group have gone to jail after criticizing the government. (Andy Wong/AP)

— China’s state security apparatus has turned its sights on foreign nongovernmental organizations and their domestic partners, which are now bracing for a crackdown.

A new law emanating from President Xi Jinping’s National Security Commission that would regulate overseas NGOs has raised alarm among people who are working here to fight discrimination, improve health or education, or stick up for workers’ rights.

Viewed under the new draft law less as partners of the government and more as a security risk, local advocates fear harassment and arrest; foreigners fear anything from restrictions on their activities to expulsion. A copy of the draft, which has not been released for public comment, was obtained by The Washington Post.

China’s ongoing crackdown on civil society is driven partly by Xi’s obsession with control but also by fear that foreigners are secretly plotting to overthrow China’s one-party state. It is also partly inspired by similar moves in Russia under President Vladimir Putin.

“Chinese leaders argue that the ultimate goal of Western governments is to use their NGOs to orchestrate the collapse of the Chinese Communist Party,” said Julia Famularo of the Project 2049 Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank. “Leaders in Beijing and Moscow will do whatever it takes to prevent potential color revolutions from undermining social stability and threatening regime longevity.”

The new law was presented to the Standing Committee of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), in December. It aims, according to NPC spokeswoman Fu Ying, to protect the “legitimate interests” of foreign NGOs while safeguarding China’s “national security and social stability.”

While the draft law could still be revised, and uncertainty still exists around how strictly it will be enforced, the copy obtained by The Post shows security considerations are paramount.

Overseas NGOs will be placed under the supervision of the Public Security Bureau, rather than the Ministry of Civil Affairs that traditionally deals with them. In order to register, they would need to find a government agency to sponsor them, a requirement that could prove extremely tough for some.

They are warned not do anything that endangers national security or goes against “China’s social morality” and will have to submit an annual “activity plan” and budget to the authorities for approval.

While the target may be groups that could destabilize the regime, the practical effect will be to empower security officials to harass or arrest activists even more than they already do, experts say.

“The situation is getting worse since Xi Jinping took supreme power,” said Lu Jun, co-founder of the Beijing Yirenping Center, a group that fights discrimination on a range of issues and depends partly on foreign funding. “This new law is extraordinary; it is very bad. It is not only a crackdown on international NGOs but also a crackdown on domestic NGOs that have international cooperation.”

Maya Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, said the law, if adopted in its current form, would deal “a very severe blow” to foreign and domestic NGOs working in China.

It comes at a time when the government has already been dealing more harshly with advocacy groups. Just this month, five of China’s leading feminists were detained on suspicion of “picking quarrels and creating a disturbance” for planning a peaceful protest against sexual harassment on public transport to mark International Women’s Day.

Last year, members of the grass-roots New Citizens Movement were given lengthy jail terms for suggesting that government officials declare their assets; a network of mobile rural libraries was shut down; and several members of the Transition Institute of Social and Economic Research in Beijing, a group that looked into exploitation of vulnerable groups, disappeared into detention.

Two foreigners working for foreign NGOs have recently been expelled for visa violations, and many others report intrusive questioning and investigation.

Yirenping’s Lu said domestic NGOs struggle to raise money in China because of restrictive regulations, official harassment of their donors, or social stigma around issues like LGBT rights or HIV/AIDS. Foreign funding can be critical but will now attract even more unwelcome attention.

Lu said his group has regularly cooperated with government ministries in charge of public health, education and human resources, and had recorded significant progress.

And a proposed new law on domestic violence draws on the work of women’s rights groups here, while new environmental legislation even allows NGOs working in that field to take polluters to court.

“I have found that they have even adopted whole paragraphs of our proposals into their own documents,” Lu said. “They need our research, and they need our work.”

But Lu said his group has a much-less-happy experience with local officials, especially corrupt ones. He fears the new law will give them increased powers to harass groups like his.

“The law has left me feeling very uncomfortable,” said a local employee of a foreign NGO working in the health sector, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. “The government sees us as a threat to national security. For the Chinese government, we are anti-human and anti-social, and that’s why they assigned the police to supervise us.”

While foreign groups like the World Wildlife Fund and Save the Children have registered here, others worry that government agencies will be reluctant to sponsor them.

“I don’t think a government agency will take the risk,” said a foreign employee of one organization, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of inviting unwelcome attention. “And for the Public Security Bureau, we don’t have any value.”

In the past, many of the thousands of foreign NGOs working in China have existed in a sort of legal limbo, unable to meet strict requirements to register but still allowed to operate. Some even register as companies rather than nonprofits to get around the rules.

Ironically, when the provincial government in Yunnan in southwest China introduced proposed regulations in 2009 to govern foreign NGOs, the effort seemed more about enabling groups to operate with legal status than closing them down. But what started as an understandable effort to regulate the sector appears to have turned into a clampdown.

“My sense was that the Yunnan regulations would be the basis for the national regulations,” said Shawn Shieh, an expert on Chinese civil society in Hong Kong. “But if you compare them, the Yunnan regulations almost look as if they were written by a liberal democrat. This law is really a departure from what we saw in Yunnan.”

Xu Jing contributed to this report.

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