On Monday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) announced at its regularly scheduled press conference that for the very first time, a U.S.-based NGO has been formally investigated for the alleged violation of a new law governing the activities of foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in China. According to the MFA spokesman, the Beijing Public Security Bureau has already concluded its inquiry, and the organization, Asia Catalyst, is to face unspecified but “open and lawful” penalties.
While the MFA statement notes that the alleged infraction took place in March 2018, according to data taken directly from the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), Asia Catalyst in fact applied for and received the relevant permissions under the Overseas NGO Law to engage in “temporary activities” in mainland China from July 2018 to March 2019. These activities were intended to provide support to Guangzhou community organizations that work with people living with HIV/AIDS. However, these temporary activity filings were subsequently deleted from the MPS database without notification or explanation, and according to Asia Catalyst, the planned activities ultimately never took place. The incident illustrated the considerable uncertainty surrounding how and when the MPS exercises its authority in implementing the law, even for groups that make sustained efforts to comply.
According to the MFA statement, Asia Catalyst will face administrative penalties in accordance with the Overseas NGO Law and other relevant laws and policies. In the case of the Overseas NGO Law, these penalties may include cancellation of activities, fines, and — in severe cases — detention of employees and loss of eligibility to work in China for up to five years.
Previously, the only known penalty issued under the Overseas NGO Law involved the administrative detention of a Hong Kong resident accused of organizing activities without a proper permit in Shenzhen. While initial reports following the detention of a Canadian NGO worker, Michael Kovrig, suggested he was being held by Chinese authorities for violating the Overseas NGO Law, officials ultimately dropped this claim, and nearly a year later he remains in custody after being formally charged with gathering state secrets. As of this writing, no Asia Catalyst staff has been detained by police.