In a move rights activists say is aimed at "strangling" the country's embattled civil society, China's parliament on Thursday approved a new law that will require overseas rights groups and other nongovernmental organizations to submit to police control.
The standing committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) adopted 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. The law goes into Jan. 1, 2017.
Rights groups hit out at the move, which comes amid an ongoing crackdown on NGO activities under the administration of President Xi Jinping.
"Beijing hardly needs more ammunition to crack down on civil society groups,” Sophie Richardson, China director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Thursday.
"The NGO Law is like many others of the Xi Jinping era: ever-stronger tools to legalize China’s human rights abuses," she said.
Meanwhile, the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network called for the law to be repealed until significant revisions are made to conform with international human rights standards.
It said the "most worrisome" aspect of the new legislation is that it hands full authority for the registration and supervision of foreign NGOs in China to the country's ministry of public security.
Under the law, Chinese police will be 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.
The new law will also allow police to blacklist NGOs deemed guilty of national security-related crimes like subversion or separatism. Critics say definitions of what constitutes such crimes remain vague and subject to arbitrary interpretation by the authorities.
NGOs operating in China, foreign or otherwise, are already subject to low-level police harassment in the form of invitations to "drink tea," and the new law legitimizes such tactics, sources have told RFA.
"This is a clear indication the government views such groups as a threat to national security," CHRD said, adding that the restrictions on overseas NGOs will also have a negative impact on Chinese civil society groups.
"The legislation will [also] deliver a heavy blow to mainland [Chinese] NGOs, which rely heavily on overseas NGOs’ financial support due to insurmountable obstacles to securing funding inside China," the group said.
The NPC passed a Charities Law on Mar. 16 that will bar Chinese NGOs from raising funds without government approval on pain of criminal investigation.
Veteran Chinese journalist Ma Xiaoming said the Chinese government fears any activity that it doesn't directly control.
"In an authoritarian state, no civil society organization can exist without the approval of the regime," he said. "Those who don't go through this process must be eliminated."
"It doesn't matter if they are religious organizations or civil society groups; they are all regarded as the tools of the state," he said. "This law exists to fulfil the psychological needs of the leadership."
Xi's government has cited concerns that foreign NGOs might be used by overseas governments to promote their objectives, values, or political agendas, according to official media reports.
According to rights activist Xiucai Jianghu, the new law is the latest in a string of attacks on dissent by Xi's administration.
"The Chinese government is terrified of organized dissent, and that's why it's going after NGOs," he said. "Wherever people get together and organize something, there is a spirit of togetherness and unity, and that's exactly what they are afraid of."
"They don't want to let a single NGO survive; they want to eradicate them totally."
Guangdong labor rights activist Guo Chunping agreed, saying groups like his will find it increasingly difficult to operate.
"This is intended as an obstacle, to make it so that nobody can carry out activities that threaten the government," Guo said. "They want to make it impossible or extremely difficult for foreign groups thinking of entering China to do so."
The ruling Chinese Communist Party is increasingly using charges related to national security to target the peaceful activities of civil society groups, human rights activists and dissidents, rights groups have warned.
More than 300 human rights lawyers, law firm staff, associated rights activists and family members have been detained, summoned, held under house arrest or surveillance, 'disappeared' or been banned from leaving China since last July, according to the Chinese Human Rights Lawyers' Concern Group (CHRLCG).
Official media have already cited the detention and deportation last January of Swedish human rights worker Peter Dahlin as an example of undesirable foreign activity in China.
Dahlin's group, which trained rights lawyers across the country, was accused of helping petitioners to undermine China's international image by "hyping up" stories of ordinary people with complaints against the government.
Officials say there are currently more than 7,000 overseas NGOs in China, carrying out environmental protection, science and technology, educational, and cultural activities.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.