Chinese rights lawyers have set up an advice center to help foreign-funded non-government organizations affected by a draconian new law subjecting their operations to police control.
A group of 36 lawyers joined the Lawyers' Legal Services Group on Tuesday as founder members, pledging to offer legal assistance to NGOs in the wake of the new legislation.
According to government statistics, around 1,000 foreign-funded NGOs are currently operating in China in the long-term, while some 7,000 groups are carrying out short-term projects, with funding inflows totaling several hundred million dollars.
Founder member Chen Jinyue brushed off concerns that the group's members could be targeted for further persecution amid a nationwide crackdown on hundreds of rights lawyers.
"I think this will be helpful to NGOs, and that the added pressure on these groups is doing great harm to civil society," Chen said.
"As a human rights lawyer I think we should stand in solidarity with them, we should make this our responsibility," he said.
Embattled civil society
The Overseas NGOs Domestic Activities Management Law, which enables police to engage in daily supervision and monitoring of foreign civil society and rights groups operating in China, went into effect on Jan.1.
Passed by the National People's Congress last April, the law was immediately criticized by rights groups as yet another attack on the country's embattled civil society.
The legislation hands full authority for the registration and supervision of foreign NGOs in China to the country's ministry of public security, and police across the country.
Chen said many groups have already had their sources of funding cut off, and those that haven't are now subject to stringent controls.
Fellow member Wu Kuiming said that, without help, NGOs may die out in China altogether.
"The space in which they are allowed to operate is getting smaller and smaller, compared with a few years ago when things were fairly liberal," Wu said.
"They are bound to face new problems under the new system, so that's why we had this idea; that was our intention," he said.
Vast police powers
Under the new law, Chinese police are now able to enter the premises of foreign NGOs and seize documents and other information, as well as examine groups' bank accounts and limit incoming funds.
They will also have the power to cancel any activities, revoke an organization's registration, impose administrative detention on its workers, as well as taking part in the annual assessment of foreign NGOs, required for the renewal their operating permit.
Police can also blacklist NGOs deemed guilty of national security-related crimes like subversion or separatism, although definitions of such crimes remains vague.
Founder member Sui Muqing said working for such groups in China is now riskier than ever.
"There has been a huge change in the environment for NGOs since they were set up , and we think that they are now at far greater risk than they were before," Sui told RFA.
"I think that's a broad consensus among lawyers, and there is room for us to do something about this as a profession," he said.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated by Luisetta Mudie.