Volunteers from a local social organization massage an elderly woman in Jiangxi Province. Photo: IC
Spend 169 yuan ($26) to become a member of the "Charity Foundation for the Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation" and you could receive up to 6 million yuan in returns. If this sounds too good to be true, that's because it is.
This slogan, which circulated on China's popular social media platform WeChat, has been proven to be a scam, announced China's Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) in its latest efforts to combat illegal social organizations.
A similar scam last year ripped off more than 730 million yuan from its victims, the Xinhua News Agency reported in April 2017.
Apart from scams like these, some illegal organizations have organized unapproved competitions, such as the "International Piano Competition for Young Musicians" and "Global Event for Artificial Intelligence" while selling awards to participants for hundreds of yuan, read a Thursday article on the website of the Bureau of Social Organizations Administration under the ministry.
The bureau also released statements earlier this month calling for a harsh crackdown on illegal and scam organizations.
The official moves show that China will step up its measures to fight against illegal social organizations, while harsher punishments, including criminal penalties, could be included in the law and regulations on those organizations to ensure the effectiveness of the campaign, said experts.
Organizations that operate without registering in a civil affairs department or continue to operate after their registration has been revoked are considered illegal, according to the MCA website.
Apart from bringing economic losses, illegal social organizations affect market order, damage the credibility of social organizations in the country and even damage the reputation of the Party and government, said the MCA.
Some illegal social organizations have also invited senior Party or government officials to be members or to attend seminars in order to attract more members. These associations' engagement in illegal activities will have a severe impact on the Party and government, Xu Jialiang, a professor at the School of International and Public Affairs in Shanghai Jiao Tong University, told the Global Times.
An article published in the newspaper of China's top anti-graft body on January 13 warns Party and government officials to stop helping illegal organizations to collect money.
To attract more members, some illegal associations have branded themselves as an important part of China's national strategy, such as the Belt and Road Initiative and military-civilian integration, said Xu.
The activities of these associations will jeopardize those strategies and the country, especially when their scope of operations extends overseas, Xu added.
Some illegal social organizations have even engaged in actions that undermine national security and social stability, said the MCA bureau.
With the support of overseas organizations, some illegal groups have released intelligence to overseas forces and incited ideological disputes in China, according to Xu.
These illegal organizations often include the words "national" and "Chinese" in their names in order to sound more reputable. In the list of 221 suspected illegal social organizations released by the MCA in January, 90 percent of them have these words in their titles.
However, current laws and regulations on social organizations do not specify the penalties for violations, a shortcoming that has been attributed to the rampancy of illegal organizations, Wang Ming, a leading expert on NGO and civil society in China and dean of Tsinghua University's NGO Research Center, told the Global Times.
Wang suggested that criminal penalties should be included in those laws and regulations to deter the culprits. Public security officers' involvement in fighting illegal social organizations should also be included to ensure law enforcement efforts are valid, said Wang.
According to Wang, as China overhauls the legal system in its management of civil society, some social organizations have been forced to become "illegal" as they struggle to find a way to register in the country.
To get registered, social organizations need to find a government department to supervise and take responsibility for their activities in China.
However, due to concern over possible political risks, some government departments are hesitant to take responsibility, said experts.
The situation will become more challenging as the activities of social organizations surge while laws and regulations are still being amended, Wang added.
The overhaul will make the public the major supervisor of social organizations instead of the government, as it will take a long time to change the current laws and regulations to adapt to the shift, said Wang.
China currently has 803,830 social organizations, including 2,308 registered at the MCA.
In 2016, authorities investigated 2,363 cases of violations related to social organizations, closing illegal organizations in 16 cases and handing down punishments in 2,347 cases, the ministry said.