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Proposed Chinese legislation could hamper international collaboration

Great Wall of China
Credit: R.Saxena / Flickr

International collaboration is a hallmark of modern science. Draft legislation under consideration in China, however, could make it far more difficult for scientists from other countries to undertake joint projects with Chinese researchers. If put into effect, the law would require foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including universities and research institutes, to “obtain prior approval from designated Chinese sponsors if they plan to carry out any permanent or temporary activity in China. Failure to comply could subject foreign organisations and their Chinese partners to criminal penalties,” reports Yojana Sharma at University World News. Universities and academics in a range of countries have expressed alarm at the proposed law, which would potentially affect the activities of all foreign NGOs within the vast and rapidly rising scientific power.

The extent to which this legislation would actually impact scientific collaborations is not entirely clear, in part because the proposed legislation’s language lacks specificity. For example, according to the China Law Translate website’s Cheatsheet for Understanding the FNGO Law, “‘[a]ctivities’ is never defined by the law,” although it does explicitly include fields such as “economics, education, science and technology, health, culture, sports, environmental protection and charity” [italics in original].

At a very minimum [the new law] will definitely slow down research collaboration.

–Ira Belkin

Experts believe that the Chinese government does not want to shut down all international collaborations, and it may plan to use the vagueness of the regulations to enforce the law selectively. American and European universities “likely have thousands of academic exchanges … where the Chinese university likely derives tremendous benefit. Even with the growing police state, the Chinese government probably does not want to risk losing even some of these beneficial relationships,” notes international lawyer Elizabeth Lynch, formerly a research fellow at New York University’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute in New York City, at the China Law & Policy blog.

“[J]oint projects with a Chinese partner university, particularly the more prestigious Chinese institutions, are unlikely to be affected,” agrees Sharma. Another issue is that “hundreds of less formal academic exchanges with China take place each year and many academics, particularly China scholars, make ad hoc visits to China or give impromptu lectures and these could be seen as illegal,” Sharma writes.

The registration and other requirements could make the “cost of complying or the risk of violating the law too high” for universities to operate effectively in China, according to Carl Minzner, a law professor at Fordham University in New York City and an expert on Chinese law, as quoted at The Chronicle of Higher Education. In addition, the law extends beyond China’s borders: If an institution or its affiliates upset the Chinese government, any representatives of that institution that are in China could be subject to punishment, regardless of where the provoking incident took place. Some institutions may therefore choose to protect themselves and their representatives by avoiding working in China entirely.

“At a very minimum [the new law] will definitely slow down research collaboration” because of the need for “multiple levels of approval” from Chinese officials, according to Ira Belkin, a law professor and executive director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute, as quoted in the University World News article. “Perhaps the law would only be selectively enforced against organisations seen as a threat to national security, but all organisations would have to operate under a constant threat of being shut down. … The problem is that everyone is speculating who the real targets are. No one really knows.”