Friday, April 08, 2011

SCMP: NGOs struggle with legal status despite new rules

NGOs struggle with legal status despite new rules
Ng Tze-wei Updated on Apr 08, 2011

The capital relaxed its registration rules for four categories of non-governmental organisations this year, but the change has been met with a lukewarm response from NGOs, long working under tight restrictions on the mainland.

The four categories of NGO benefiting from the change are industrial and commercial, charity, social welfare and social service, Xinhua reported yesterday, citing officials from the Beijing Civil Affairs Bureau.

The report did not clarify the definition of each category.

NGOs have been tightly regulated as mainland authorities are wary of these often foreign-funded and rights-advocating groups.

"We have tried to register so many times," said Lu Jun of Yirenping, an NGO that focuses on anti-discrimination work and legal aid. "They might not give you a clear `no', but they just keep making requests and dragging the matter out."

Under the new policy, NGOs in the four categories can register directly with the bureau. They no longer need find a government department to act as "patron" before they can register.

Finding a patron had been a particularly big hurdle, since the supporting department would be held responsible for any misdeeds of the NGO. Those that could not find a patron had to build up enough capital to register as a company, or live a legally precarious existence.

The government's apparent change of heart may be linked to a realisation that NGOs can come in useful as it emphasises social harmony this year. In February, President Hu Jintao expounded for the first time on the concept of "innovating social management", which was followed by clear statements in the 12th five-year plan, for 2011 to 2015, of the need to develop NGOs.

Several cities, such as Shenzhen and Chengdu , have been experimenting with different forms of loosened NGO registration rules in recent years. In Beijing, the Zhongguancun area has been running a pilot scheme since July allowing those four categories to register directly with the area's civil affairs department. The authorities decided to expand the scheme to the whole of Beijing at the end of February.

Several NGOs that the South China Morning Post spoke to were unaware of the new policy. They said they did not have high hopes as yet, especially since the categories had not been clearly defined.

Lu said his group would not even try to register under the new policy since it was likely to mean another "futile struggle".

"Without detailed definitions, it would end up as just another arbitrary decision of the Civil Affairs Bureau official on duty," he said.

Professor Wang Ming of Tsinghua University's NGO Research Centre said he was not sure about the difference between social welfare and social services. "But I understand the government is going to introduce implementation guidelines," Wang said, urging that the guidelines stipulate a unified use of the category names across the mainland.

Guo Yushan, of the Transition Institute, which does economic research, said he would probably not try to register either, as he believed the new push was more to strengthen traditional Communist Party or government-affiliated social organisations such as trade associations and workers' unions.

Environmental worker Wang Yongchen said her group, Green Earth Volunteers, was lucky to find a patron in 2007, but it still had to pay hefty tax as it was considered a "private sector non-company". "I hope the new policy can address this tax issue," Wang said. "We are running on donations and for every cent we spend, we have to pay tax."

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