Chinese Dissidents Petition Supreme Court to Strike Down Donor Disclosure Law

Brief argues 'a single exposure is all that is needed to invite harassment and reprisals' against anti-CCP activists

Citizen Power Initiatives for China founder Yang Jianli / Getty Images
March 9, 2021

Chinese dissidents are urging the Supreme Court to strike down a California law aimed at cracking down on nonprofits and dark money groups, saying disclosure requirements could endanger the lives of anti-regime activists.

California law requires donors to disclose their identities to the California attorney general's office, but a wide coalition of different interest groups are arguing the requirement compromises donor anonymity that is vital to their missions. Citizen Power Initiatives for China publicly backed the suit, asking the justices in an amicus brief to protect the privacy of anonymous donors. The group, which promotes the peaceful transition to democracy in China, wrote that even though the donor information is only reported to the California state government, hackers and other data leaks present security risks that could threaten donors.

"Citizen Power Initiatives respectfully asks that this Court also account for the reprisals that domestic and foreign governments may direct toward those who donate to groups that advocate values and freedoms that those governments disfavor," Citizen Power Initiatives wrote in the brief. The group also argued that one data breach is all that is necessary to compromise the identity of donors.

The California Department of Justice acknowledged major data breaches in 2016. The Chinese dissidents say that past hacks call into question the security of donors' anonymity.

"A single exposure is all that is needed to invite harassment and reprisals," the group said in the brief. "The more jurisdictions and government employees that have access to groups' donor lists, the greater the risk of direct exposure (whether inadvertent or otherwise) and the greater the number of targets for hackers."

California attorney general and Department of Health and Human Services nominee Xavier Becerra is also named in the two court cases, Americans For Prosperity Foundation v. Becerra and Thomas More Law Center v. Becerra. In response to a request for comment, the California Department of Justice referred to a Jan. 8 statement from Becerra defending the law.

"California’s donor reporting rules simply require charities to provide the state, on a confidential basis, the same information about major donors that they already provide to the federal government," Becerra said. "This information helps the state protect consumers from fraud and the misuse of their charitable contributions. We look forward to defending our rules before the Supreme Court."

Chinese dissidents are not the only activists bristling at the disclosure law. The American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Human Rights Campaign all joined a brief challenging the law for chilling free speech and for potentially exposing private information through data leaks.

Eleven Democratic lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee signed a letter defending the law, saying that it combats the influence of anonymous "dark money" donations in politics. David Hacker, director of litigation at First Liberty Institute, which filed the brief on behalf of Citizen Power Initiatives, said the group wants the law struck down to ensure "that they have the ability to speak through this organization and advocate for a democratic China."

"For Citizen Power Initiatives for China and the citizens who support it, maintaining privacy is literally a matter of life and death," Hacker said.

Human rights activist and Chinese dissident Dr. Yang Jianli founded Citizen Power Initiatives in 2008 after his own experience being imprisoned by the Chinese government from 2002 to 2007. In addition to his other activism against the Chinese government, Yang coauthored an op-ed in December calling on President Joe Biden to use the World Health Organization to punish China for its role in sparking the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hacker said the case has societal repercussions outside of the international sphere.

"As Americans, we believe that we should be free to support causes and organizations that we agree with and believe in without having the threat of harassment or some sort of canceling fall on us," Hacker said. "So I think most Americans who understand what's actually happening here would never want their names disclosed as to who they donate to because it doesn't serve any purpose for the government."

The case, No. 19-251 Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Becerra, has not yet been set for argument but oral arguments could be scheduled for April. A decision will follow in the summer.