International nonprofits have a growing presence in China, but they still face an uphill battle to gain state approval and acceptance

In light of China’s encounter with the current global economic crisis, the types of services that international nonprofit organizations (INPOs) offer are now more vital than ever. INPOs—defined broadly as foreign charitable organizations, private foundations, trade and industry associations, business leagues, and educational organizations—contribute to the needs of the rapidly developing country in disaster prevention and relief, education, environmental protection, HIV/AIDS, labor and migration, rural development, and animal welfare but have also encountered many bureaucratic hurdles. There is a growing need for INPOs—whether charitable organizations that wish to provide aid, or INPOs set up by corporations to extend their corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts—to have a greater presence in China, yet their efforts are often hampered by a system that lacks efficient mechanisms for charity because of the limitations on the establishment of transparent, independently registered charities and nonprofit organizations. As China develops, INPOs can help China foster greater public awareness on issues that are fundamental to a developing society, such as environmental protection. Trade and industry associations give Chinese industries a platform to connect with other global industry players, and other INPOs can help multinational investors establish effective CSR activities in China.

The absence of mechanisms that would allow nonprofits to work effectively in China was felt in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Though the PRC Ministry of Civil Affairs reported on November 10, 2008 that total donations from domestic and overseas sources for earthquake relief following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake reached ¥59.5 billion ($8.7 billion), some overseas donors reported difficulty sending donations to China. The tragedy exposed existing problems in the framework of PRC laws that regulate charitable donations and nonprofit work more generally. In the aftermath of the earthquake, entrepreneurs and international businesses have called for reforms of the system that governs donations, charity, and non-profit organizations in China. Such businesses seek new ways of accomplishing their CSR goals in China, and some have found means through alternative structures that have allowed them to establish their own INPOs in China.

Nonprofits in China

Nonprofit organizations are relatively new to China. In the 1950s, several types of social service organizations supplemented government administration. Most of these organizations maintained close ties to the government and served as a model for the later, so-called “government-organized nongovernmental organizations” (GONGOs). That the most recent wave of nonprofits has primarily consisted of private entities explains, in part, their lack of status under PRC law. It was not until the 1990s that nonprofits became the subject of public discourse by the media and intellectuals. The first domestic nonprofit, Friends of Nature, began operating in 1994. Apart from a 1993 PRC Law on the Red Cross Society of China, the first regulations on nonprofits were not issued until the late 1990s (see China’s INPO-Related Laws and Regulations). These regulations covered only domestic organizations and only partly regulated the forms under which non-profits were organized in China.

The PRC Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA), one of the most conservative ministries in China in terms of approval procedures, regulates and approves the establishment of foreign and domestic nonprofits in China. According to MCA, there were 386,916 registered nonprofits in China in 2007, though many of these were still organized as GONGOs and operated only semi-autonomously. The number of INPOs in China is harder to assess as many are unregistered. Unofficial reports put the number at around 200 in 2007. MCA currently categorizes nonprofits into three groups that range from state-controlled entities that have top-down management and use public funds to grass-roots-based organizations that rely on private capital.

  • Popular non-enterprise work units (minban feiqiye danwei) are organizations that carry out social service activities of a nonprofit nature and are run by enterprise and institutional work units, social groups, and individual citizens using nonstate assets. The ThinkTank Research Center for Health Development (Xin Tan Jiankang Fazhan Yanjiu Zhongxin), which focuses on healthcare system reform, is one example.
  • Social organizations (shehui tuanti) are voluntary groups formed by Chinese citizens to achieve a shared objective—according to the social organization’s rules—and to develop nonprofit activities. The China Medical Information Association (Zhongguo Yiyao Xinxi Xuehui), which was established in the 1980s and conducts research on using information science in the field of medicine, is one such example.
  • Foundations (jijinhui) are corporate bodies limited to domestic and foreign associations, nongovernmental and non-profit institutions, and other organizations that are funded by donations from individuals. The Narada Foundation (Nandu Gongyi Jijinhui), created by Nandu Group, a property developer in Zhejiang, is one example of a successful foundation that provides quality education to children of migrant laborers. These PRC legal categories differ significantly from those in the United States, where the tax code provides a typology of tax-exempt organizations. These include 501(c)(3) charitable organizations, 501(c)(4) civic organizations, 501(c)(5) labor organizations, and 501(c)(6) business leagues. In some cases, US nonprofits obtain government funding but, in contrast to their PRC counterparts, are otherwise relatively autonomous.

The PRC official designations warrant several observations. First, the regulations that establish popular non-enterprise work units and social organizations are now more than a decade old. They have failed to keep up with the social and economic needs of a quickly modernizing China in areas related to the environment, labor, natural resources, and disaster relief. Second, the 2004 regulation that allows for the establishment of foundations is the only one that mentions foreign associations. By law, only PRC nationals or entities may establish popular non-enterprise work units and social organizations.

For this reason, only INPOs that are foreign foundations may establish a legal presence in China—through the establishment of a representative office of that foreign foundation. To do so, foreign foundations are required to meet several conditions, including, among others, obtaining the sponsorship of a “leading professional unit” (yewu zhuguan danwei). Registering as a foundation has been difficult, however, and only a limited number of high-profile international foundations, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, William J. Clinton Foundation, and World Wildlife Fund, have successfully done so to date.

The registration process

INPOs have encountered difficulty registering under the existing PRC regulations. Not only does the registration process pose significant barriers, but INPOs that register successfully face subsequent restrictions on their operations. For example, a representative office of a foreign foundation may not raise funds or receive donations in China. Several aspects of the registration system also run counter to INPO interests. Domestic nonprofits must register under a dual-management system that includes strict approval procedures and investigation, supervision, and periodic review. INPOs are also subject to these restrictions, which are generally much more stringent than most business approval procedures.

The two main entities responsible for nonprofits are MCA and the leading professional unit, which is often a ministry whose jurisdiction includes the activity in which the nonprofit engages. The leading professional unit is the sponsoring institution and is known colloquially as the “mother-in-law” by nonprofit workers. Article 35 of the 2004 regulation outlines three primary duties for the leading professional unit of a foundation:

Provide guidance and monitor the activities of the foundation to ensure that it benefits the public and follows the foundation charter and the law;
Grant preliminary approval of annual inspections conducted by MCA. The annual report of a foundation must first be submitted to its leading professional unit for review and approval before the report can be submitted to MCA. In addition, any change in the registered details of a foundation, such as changes to location, charter, or council members, must be approved by its leading professional unit before submitting the change for MCA approval; and
Coordinate with the agency in charge of foundation registration and other law enforcement agencies to investigate illegal activities.
The nonprofit may apply for formal registration with MCA only after the leading professional unit agrees to serve as its sponsor. Because the leading professional unit is liable for the nonprofit but does not necessarily benefit from its partnership, the system creates disincentives for the leading professional unit to agree to sponsor a nonprofit. (Though there are no legal provisions that subject a sponsor to fines and other punishments, the sponsoring organization vouches for the nonprofit’s credibility and is responsible for the actions and activities of the nonprofit.) In fact, it is understood that certain PRC ministries are not interested in serving as a sponsor because they view this task as carrying only risk and no reward. As some ministries have jurisdiction over more sensitive areas than others, nonprofits also exercise some “forum shopping” in their selection of sponsoring units. Subject to rules and scrutiny of MCA and its sponsor, the nonprofit faces double approval, double supervision, and double liability.

The nonprofit must also meet capitalization requirements to be approved. For example, a nationwide public foundation must have a minimum capital of ¥8 million ($1.2 million), paid in cash, to receive registration approval. Currently, however, China has not released a threshold for the registration of a representative office of a foreign foundation, except that such an office must conduct activities in line with public welfare and for the benefit of Chinese society.

Why register?

Given China’s complicated regulatory regime and lack of registration mechanisms, some INPOs have postponed or abandoned their efforts to operate there. Meanwhile, other INPOs have resorted to entering China without an established PRC legal entity, which effectively limits their scope and ability to carry out their intended purpose.

Even the basics of operation—opening bank accounts, employing personnel, obtaining tax benefits, entering into cooperative arrangements, and establishing contracts enforceable in PRC courts—are beyond an INPO’s reach in the absence of registered status. Most INPOs are dependent on funding from bilateral donors, development banks, and governmental agencies such as the US Department of State, as well as supragovernmental organizations such as the United Nations and European Union. Many of these organizations fund only nonprofits that are registered in the country in which they operate. Without registration, INPOs must depend on personal bank accounts. In 2007, the consequences of non-registration intensified when the People’s Bank of China and the State Administration of Foreign Exchange issued a regulation that limited the amount of foreign currency an individual can exchange for renminbi to the equivalent of $50,000 annually. Such caps severely limit the daily functions of INPOs.

In contrast, a registered INPO has greater security in terms of both cash flow and fund management. Registration enables nonprofits to open a corporate bank account, which allows unlimited transfer, conversion, and withdrawal of funds. The ability to enter into employment contracts and offer employment benefits is essential to the daily operation of any organization. Without an on-the-ground presence in the PRC, INPOs are severely limited in carrying out their operations in China. Registration also gives INPOs formal legal status, allowing them to retain local staff and network in China more effectively. For example, within one year of its registration approval, one North American INPO garnered more corporate members in China than it has in North America.

Difficulties in obtaining the necessary approvals from ministries responsible for nonprofit organizations have prompted some INPOs to consider new avenues and entity structures. The entity structure needs to be tailored to meet INPO tax, employment requirements, funding, organizational structure, and activity needs. Establishing a representative office of a foreign foundation might not be the ideal route for an organization that is not a foundation or does not focus on grantmaking—including nonprofit educational institutions, trade associations, or registered charities—because it could limit the nonprofit’s scope.

For an entity that needs to be able to lease its own space, hire its own employees (directly or indirectly), and open its own bank accounts, there may be no single perfect solution to setting up in China. Depending on its institutional identity in its home country (such as range of activities and tax status) and its requirements for its China entity, existing PRC entity forms may be able to facilitate the INPO’s entry into China.

Future developments

Recent events in China have caused domestic and foreign businesses to call for a more transparent and supportive system for charity and donation within the PRC. Members of the Chinese business community have been particularly vocal about shortcomings in the charity system and their inability to achieve CSR objectives. For example, when official charities were found to lack transparency, the co-founders of the popular Chinese website Bull Blog collected ¥1 million ($146,340) for donations to victims of the Sichuan earthquake. Zhang Xin, chief executive of Soho China (a Beijing-based real estate developer), and Michael Yu, chair of New Oriental Language School, have also called for reform of the existing charity system. Even before the earthquake, the Chinese business community had joined efforts with foreign businesses at high-level international symposia on charity reform.

Whether the PRC government and lawmakers will relax current regulations on nonprofit organizations or take other steps in the nonprofit sector is unclear. Since 2004, China has been considering revising its social organization laws to allow foreign social organizations to register in China. The Draft Law on the Promotion of Charities was finished in 2006 and was expected to be presented to the National People’s Congress for approval in 2007. It was postponed because of disagreement among different government departments on the degree to which charitable organizations will be autonomous. After the December 2008 China Charity Conference, officials said that the draft law would soon be promulgated. Though there was no timetable for the draft law’s release as CBR went to press, MCA released a statement in late March 2009 noting that it had solicited feedback from certain individuals and charities.

Discussions among public interest-minded businesspeople, academics, legal experts, and nonprofits suggest that the new charity law will fill in the gaps in China’s charity system, but many experts expect that China will have to reform its nonprofit regulatory regime before INPOs can register en masse.

Matthew Erie is law clerk, David Livdahl is partner, Jacelyn Khoo is China associate, and Henry Li is China associate at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP, an international law firm. They are members of the firm’s Beijing office international nonprofit organization practice team.

Posted by Matthew Erie, David Livdahl, Jacelyn Khoo, and Henry Li