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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.

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