Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

China’s pollution solution

With China now leading the list of global polluters, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) play an increasingly important role in tackling the country's environmental challenges. Lucia Green-Weiskel reports from Beijing on the dilemmas facing civil society groups in working with China's authoritarian state

October 3, 2007
7 min read

Who will save the world from China’s pollution? China has already overtaken the United States as the largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world, 12 years ahead of predictions. And local pollution is destroying the air and water in many Chinese cities. So what is the solution?

The Chinese government’s anti-pollution initiatives look good on paper but lose potency and are rarely implemented once filtered down through the various bureaucracies to the local level. International agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol have no traction as China believes its status as a developing economy exempts it from being bound by regulatory agreements. Business, with its short-term, profit-oriented focus, cannot be counted on. The damage to China’s environment is getting worse and worse.

According to many, hope lies with ‘civil society’, led by a new breed of non -governmental organisations (NGOs) that are already campaigning to reform Chinese environmental practices.

Reaching out

The very concept of an NGO seems to contradict China’s governmental structure: an authoritarian state ruled by a communist party. However, as the government wakes up to a massive environmental crisis and the prospects of associated economic losses, it is reaching out for anything that can help. In this case it is granting tacit acceptance, or even direct endorsement, of NGOs.

In 1994 the Chinese government passed regulations that for the first time granted legal status to independent NGOs. Environmental groups were the first to register and now form the largest sector of civil society groups in China. There are more than 3,300 Chinese NGOs in operation, among them Friends of Nature and Global Village Beijing. Additionally, many international NGOs such as Greenpeace, WWF and the Natural Resources Defense Council have set up offices in China’s big cities.

However, even as environmental NGOs increase in visibility and influence, the government still has considerable latitude to determine their fate. NGOs are watched carefully and heavily regulated – their role circumscribed by political sensitivities and a heavy-handed big brother. A government sponsor must be procured as a prerequisite to legal registration – necessary before an NGO is able to operate inside the

country.

This can be tricky. If an NGO is considered politically charged or capable of doing work outside the narrow and specific environmental campaigns assigned to it, its leaders will have difficulty finding a sponsor. Likewise, if a government-sponsored NGO takes actions that are perceived as provocative or outside its mandate, then its sponsorship can be terminated and it can be shut down instantly. To avoid this difficulty, many NGOs register as for-profit organisations.

Even then, funding remains a problem. Regulations state that NGOs cannot have donor members. Financial support from the central government is often insufficient and the culture of philanthropy is yet to develop, mostly because there are simply no old-moneyed Rockefeller types in China. As a result, NGOs turn to whatever sources they can – sometimes forcing them to accept funds from multinational corporations

that are themselves big polluters. In the process, they sacrifice their ability to sink teeth into the corporate world. For example, Friends of the Earth and Global Village Beijing have accepted money from Royal Dutch Shell and Dupont.

‘Typically, they [NGOs] avoid confrontational methods and adopt approaches that encourage learning, co-operation and participation,’ says Yang Goubin, associate professor in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures at Barnard College, Columbia University.

Friends of the Earth spokesperson Mei Ng agrees that a wide spectrum of values need to be addressed as a means to avoid confrontation: ‘The best way to engage China is not just to go in there saying ‘I am green, I am a green NGO’ … If you go in with the goal of reducing poverty, helping with literacy problems, helping women’s health, helping productive health, and at the same time sewing the seed of environmental protection, ecological protection and sustainability, then you are seen not to be pointing a finger at the bad environmental record, but as coming to help the poor, help the deprived, and at the same time, help the environment.’

NGOs and the government

Why would an authoritarian government want to allow NGOs to exist?

As China’s government structure becomes increasingly decentralised and the power of authority and decision-making is handed down from the central government to the provincial levels, local protectionism, corruption and unenforced central government policies have become major issues. NGOs compensate for the central government’s diminished ability to oversee and manage local-level activity.

Thus, NGOs serve as the eyes and ears of government. ‘China is very concerned about instability due to public unrest,’ says Mei Ng. Incidents of public unrest due to pollution rose by 20 per cent in 2005/06, according to official figures. ‘They are facing a time bomb,’ she says. ‘China knows that to defuse this time bomb, it is very important to involve the public.’ So the government allows NGOs to operate but keeps them on a tight leash. In this way, NGOs are sometimes able to win protection and status through their closeness with the government.

NGOs are limited to three functions. First, they organise clean-up campaigns. This is very helpful to the government, because it relieves the party of the burden of this messy and sometimes labour-intensive task. NGOs are better at getting volunteers. No- one would work for the government for free, but giving time to a NGO makes people feel like they are part of an altruistic elite. When a pollution disaster breaks, the media coverage of volunteers diligently working away to clean up the mess looks good for the government. It makes it appear that they are taking the problem seriously, thus calming concerned citizens and making it less likely that they will take to the streets.

Second, NGOs raise public awareness. So far, ‘awareness’ doesn’t depart from consumer-based conservation campaigns. The Environmental Friends Association for Public Welfare and the Green Volunteer League publish materials, which advise: ‘People should avoid random purchasing and should not purchase based on desire.’ This type of activism runs the risk of sounding like a thinly-veiled Mao-style austerity campaign, which might have a hard time in a country where many people have newly-earned cash burning in their pockets. The idea is that climate change and pollution are a result of the people’s consumption patterns, not of an unsustainable government-led growth strategy.

The awareness campaigns are geared toward the wealthiest class with hopes that it will trickle down. ‘Rich people are the first to buy things like environmentally friendly houses and electric cars. Then it will become more affordable for other, less wealthy people,’ says Sun Liping of the Green China Consumer Union.

Third, NGOs serve an important financial role. They are able to devote more resources to international fundraising and can accept money from organisations that won’t work directly with the Chinese government. There are political considerations here, too: NGOs can ask for donations but the government could never do that for fear of ‘losing face’.

In effect, the Communist Party outsources much of the environmental burden to NGOs. NGOs are adept at detecting and surfacing pollution-related incidents of unrest that may be threatening to the government. As such, NGO campaigns are limited to reactions to already existing pollution and there are little or no opportunities to pre-empt environmental degradation or to lobby for more effective environmental laws.

On one of my last days in Beijing I went to Tsinghua University to meet

with Dan Guttman, currently a visiting professor at Tsinghua University. We sat in the basement of the School of Public Management and had coffee at a small café. When I told him I was writing a story about political participation and NGOs in China, he looked at me incredulously. ‘China is still a government-focused society,’ he said. ‘Not in the western parlance, a civil society-focused society. In this setting, NGOs are often organisations attached to the government – non-profit organisations but not non-governmental organisations.’

If this is true, it is possible that no one will save the world from China’s pollution.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Labour’s NEC has started to empower party members – but we still have a mountain to climb
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament


6