China's new law regulating charities is a further blow to its rights activists, and could restrict any non-government group from raising funds to help some of the country's most vulnerable people, an overseas-based rights group said.
The Charities Law was adopted by China's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC) on Mar. 16, and will take effect on Sept. 1.
"The new legislation is yet another tool the government can use to strangle independent organizations in China’s emerging civil society," the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network, which collates reports from groups operating inside China, said in a report on its website.
The law places further restrictions on non-government organizations (NGOs), already hard hit by a nationwide crackdown on their activities under the administration of President Xi Jinping, the report said.
If NGOs raise funds without government-approved status, they could face criminal investigation, which could hit a raft of informal fund-raising methods including online donations and crowd-funding.
The law seems targeted to hit groups defending the rights of vulnerable groups in China, CHRD said.
"Since President Xi Jinping came to power, authorities have drastically shrunk the space for independent groups to promote labor, health, and women’s rights, and rights of persons with disabilities," it said.
"The Charity Law gives police only more legal tools to punish these groups for soliciting or receiving funding from both private and public charitable sources," CHRD said, adding that the law is a "draconian" measure in keeping with a global trend among authoritarian regimes.
One of the first casualties of the new rules is a legal aid fund set up by three prominent human rights lawyers, the Wuchanglong Legal Assistance Fund, its founders told RFA.
Fewer rights cases will be fought
Founder and Beijing-based human rights lawyer Zhang Lei said the fund would likely be discontinued, rather than finding a partner organization which already has the right government backing to work with.
"Their overall mission isn't in harmony with our own, we don't know much about them, and we don't trust them," Zhang said in a recent interview.
"I think they will definitely extend particularly strict controls over any groups linked to the legal profession," he said. "We don't want to waste our time and energy on this."
Fujian-based rights activist You Jingyou said the lack of legal funding will severely hamper rights lawyers' ability to take on cases.
"If there isn't any money, then not so many cases will be fought," You said. "This will mean fewer opportunities to overturn miscarriages of justice, which is very sad."
"My personal funds are very limited, but with this sort of assistance I could get involved in about 10 cases a year," he said.
"But now, I'll only able to take on one case every couple of years."
And an NGO worker surnamed Chen said the new rules will have a huge impact on the sector generally.
"A lot of these public interest organizations operate privately; they get a lot of their funding from donations made by friends and people they know," Chen said.
"They are already in a situation where they don't have the funds to do their work, but now it'll be illegal to raise those funds," he said.
Vague wording in the new law around what constitutes a charity means that any public interest activities could be treated as charity work,
lumping together philanthropic organizations with independent rights groups, according to CHRD.
From Sept. 1, any such group could be required to "register according to law" and apply for a funding certificate that could take two years to process.
"These restrictions would close off potential funding channels for independent advocacy groups and for private citizens collecting funds online to support prisoners of conscience or government critics facing hefty fines by authorities," CHRD said, citing donations raised to help artist Ai Weiwei during his unofficial detention for "tax evasion" and those raised to pay legal fees for detained rights lawyer Wang Yu.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.