Asia Research Institute

Ford Foundation Project

Monitoring the implementation of China’s Overseas NGO Law: The view from Europe


A key objective of this Ford Foundation-funded research project is to monitor and evaluate the state of implementation of China’s Overseas NGO Law (henceforth: the law) by documenting the intended and unintended consequences of the law for European non-profit organisations and their Chinese partners.

The following 17 case studies are based on 24 in-depth interviews with leaders and co-workers of European non-governmental organisations in Germany, Netherlands, France, United Kingdom and Italy. Due to their still low level of cooperation with China, Eastern, Southeastern and Southern European countries are underrepresented. The interviews were conducted after the enactment of the law in January 2017. They have been anonymised to protect the identity of both the organisation and interviewee(s).

Key takeaways

  1. All European NGOs appreciate the legacy of often twenty or more years of fruitful, horizontal cooperation with their Chinese partners. From a European perspective there was a big break with this positive legacy during the past few years. This process started already before the implementation of the Law in January 2017. All of our interviewees perceive the law as a threat to fruitful, trustful and meaningful EU-China cooperation.
  2. The future of Europe – China civil society cooperation is now uncertain and open. European NGOs would very much prefer to stay in China and even expand cooperation but, if forced, are prepared to leave.
  3. Regardless of the current hardships the majority of European NGOs currently active in China are still willing to offer what could be termed a 'challenging' gift of future cooperation. The challenge is double: First of all, they believe, to survive in a meaningful way, European-Chinese friendship must mature from acquaintance to true friend. Secondly, they challenge the framework conditions created by the new law and strongly recommend that China reconsiders the institutional framework. To flourish, fruitful and meaningful civil society cooperation needs a brotherly spirit of reciprocity within horizontal, trustful relations and enough space for autonomous decisions. Without sufficient breathing space EU-China civil society cooperation will first degenerate and then be a thing of the past.

Case studies

  1. Case study 1 |  Civil society trust networks are being replaced by centralised and strictly controlled party-state power hierarchies
  2. Case study 2 | From innovative driving force and know-how carrier to that of a junior service partner reduced to the role of an executing agency?
  3. Case study 3 | Some Chinese partner organisations are more or less obedient implementers of the new restrictive law but often act as unenthusiastic enforcers
  4. Case study 4 | It is now harder to have meaningful exchanges as Chinese participants often are officials repeating party-state ideology and policy positions
  5. Case study 5 | Chinese partners can dictate more or less the rules of cooperation and—though the European organisation is the funder—the price too
  6. Case study 6 | A strategic learning effect of the law has been for the European organisation to focus on fewer, more resilient and trustworthy Chinese partners
  7. Case study 7 | This European organisation envisages a permanent engagement with China: the current restrictions therefore are not a reason to disengage
  8. Case study 8 | This organisation can no longer continue its China- related activities and particularly regrets that the small grants programme has had to close
  9. Case study 9 | Under the new law informal meetings continue to be possible, but only with well-established Chinese contacts
  10. Case study 10 | For this organisation the provision of theatre education services on a commercial basis has enabled them to continue their China engagement
  11. Case study 11 | Local partners have become less adventurous in their project designs and their appetite for overseas funding has cooled
  12. Case study 12 | As a result of the law this organisation's China programme was closed and European staff in China had to leave the country
  13. Case study 13 | An atmosphere of cooperation still exists and the European organisation believes the local partners want it to succeed and continue their good work
  14. Case study 14 | While there is generally now more cautiousness about working with INGOs, none of its partners fear political trouble or have withdrawn from projects
  15. Case study 15 | Campaign-style and investigative research and reporting is no longer possible, despite having had positive policy impacts previously
  16. Case study 16 | China is closing the doors: For International NGOs the opening up period of China seems to have stalled and reversed
  17. Case study 17 | The aim of the European organisation is to be completely in line with Chinese government objectives

Project team (in alphabetical order)

Dr Horst Fabian, Dr Andreas Fulda (PI), Ms Nicola Macbean, Dr Patrick Schroeder, Mr Martin Thorley


This publication has been produced with the assistance of the Ford Foundation. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the University of Nottingham and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the Ford Foundation.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. To view a copy of the license, visit

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