BEIJING Foreign organisations including social and environmental advocacy groups fear they could inadvertently break broadly defined new rules that take effect in China next month, with some even shutting up shop to avoid such pitfalls.
Chinese President Xi Jinping's administration has made sweeping changes to Chinese law in the name of boosting national security, including a controversial cybersecurity law passed last month and another targeting foreign non-governmental organisations (NGO), slated for Jan. 1.
China says the NGO law, which grants broad powers to police to question NGO workers, monitor their finances and regulate their work, is necessary to regulate an unruly sector and that only those operating illegally have anything to fear.
Western governments say the law, which was passed in April, treats groups as criminals and would severely limit their ability to operate in China.
Foreign NGO employees in China have told Reuters that many groups still do not know whether they will be able to register with the authorities in time as key information about the process has not been published.
"There are many NGOs that wish to comply but feel unable to comply due to a lack of information," says Lester Ross, a partner at WilmerHale Lawfirm in Beijing who advises such groups.
Faced with the prospect of inadvertently operating illegally, a number of groups are temporarily or permanently suspending their China operations, according to people in direct contact with the NGOs.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Thursday that the law was being introduced to "protect the legal rights of foreign NGOs working in China" and directed groups to consult the most recently released government guidelines.
The Ministry of Public Security did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.
The key concern is the failure to yet publish a list of 'supervisory units' - government bodies that will act as a go-between with the Ministry of Public Security, which has ultimate responsibility for registration and management.
The list's publication, which NGOs have been told will happen soon, is not the only hurdle, according to Ross.
"There are also constraints in the system over how many Supervisory units will be available and whether they will be able to manage all those companies who wish to register," he said.
Behind procedural concerns about the law hangs an unanswered question about the government's intentions, according to Anthony Spires, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who studies NGOs in China.
"Are they trying to chase people out or not?" he said. "This is clearly the aim for rights groups and activists that the government does not like, but there may well be some unintended casualties as well."
In November the government twice made clarification statements, saying there would be no grace period for NGOs to meet the new law, later adding that groups must give details of how they are funded.
There remains a spectrum of concern among NGOs, from those who act in areas considered relatively benign by the authorities, such as education and health, to those who work in sensitive areas, including legal reform and rights issues.
The founder of an education NGO, who asked not to be named, said the government told them they need not worry about the process.
"If you are working in areas that the government doesn't like, then that's exactly why the government is putting this law in place. We are lucky, as we don't mind being watched - we have nothing to hide. But a lot of people don't feel that way," the founder said.
(Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Will Waterman)