Dozens of lawyers penned an open letter on Wednesday to China's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), calling on the government to shelve a draft law targeting foreign-funded nongovernment groups.
More than 30 lawyers signed the letter, which slams the draft Overseas NGO Management Law as poorly drafted, too broad, lacking adequate time for public consultation, and granting overly broad powers to the the government.
Under the draft law, all overseas-based NGOs must obtain approval from police before they can operate in China, and must hire at least half of their personnel from a government-approved agency, subjecting their operations to near-constant surveillance.
The law would also shut off a key avenue of funding for domestic China NGOs that don't win the backing of an existing government body and register as for-profit companies instead.
Nonsponsored NGOs would effectively be barred from receiving overseas funding for their work, which includes AIDS education and advocacy work, women's rights campaigning, and anti-discrimination campaigns.
"One of the government's main aims in forcing government registration on NGOs to prevent their infiltration by 'foreign forces,'" lawyer Huang Sha, who signed the letter, told RFA on Wednesday.
"But they should take the view that the government has a vested interest in NGOs as a means to work for the welfare of ordinary people, and they should take better care of both NGOs and the people," Huang said.
"That's why we don't accept this draft law ... it has too many clauses forbidding things, and the terms in which it is drafted are very vague," he said.
"The government's drafting is very sloppy, and there are plenty of obstacles for NGOs [in it]."
The lawyers' letter comes amid growing criticism from overseas rights groups that many of the draft law's provisions violate the fundamental human right to freedom of association, and grant police vast powers to crack down on China's burgeoning civil society groups.
The draft law has been posted online for public consultation until June 4, after undergoing its second reading in the NPC in April.
But activists fear it will be adopted by the largely rubber-stamp legislative body, with few changes.
According to the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), which collates and translates reports from rights groups inside China, few groups or individuals have so far made comments on the draft.
"Many have no faith in the independence of the process and also fear government retaliation," the group said in a statement on its website last week.
If passed, the law will place drastic restrictions on the operations of overseas nonprofit organizations in China, but will also target domestic Chinese NGOs, CHRD said.
"The draft law ... includes many provisions that would facilitate police monitoring and surveillance," it said.
Once enacted, the law would deliver a "devastating" blow to independent Chinese groups, the group quoted the head of a Chinese NGO as saying.
'An oppressive law'
Prominent rights lawyer Wang Yu, who also signed the letter, said the law would impose government management on nongovernment groups in the style of existing "stability maintenance" measures targeting political activists.
"It is extremely clear that this is an oppressive law targeting foreign NGOs," Wang said. "If it is passed, [they] ... will need a permit from the state security police, and there will effectively be no breathing room at all for civil society."
"More importantly, this law is in contravention of existing legislation, including the Administration Law," she said.
"It should be passed without input from [legal] scholars, and there must be amendments to certain clauses," Wang added.
"They are trying to use legal means to achieve illegal goals," she said.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.