Editorial: Environmental NGOs hibernate through winter of discontent
Editorial | Civil Society | Environment | Subscription-only Content
Three months ago, we asked whether the toxic spill in the Songhua River might prove a defining moment in the creation of a citizens’ environmental movement in China. A preliminary survey of the evidence suggests that the answer is no—but perhaps that’s for the best, for the challenges ahead will require a more nuanced relationship with the state.
The discharge of 100 tonnes of benzene into one of China’s major rivers, following an explosion at a petrochemical plant in Jilin Province last November, was highlighted in newspaper headlines around the world as revealing the creakiness of the industrial infrastructure on which China’s booming economy so precariously rests. (The point was underlined within days, as the slick made its way through neighbouring Heilongjiang Province, when a coal mining accident there left 169 migrant workers dead.) An initial flurry of rumours, denials and misinformation surrounding the toxic slick also revealed both the authorities’ lack of capacity to respond quickly and the underlying inadequacy of their institutional mechanisms for doing so.
In Chinese government circles, the event has indeed provoked a small environmental ‘storm’ (fengbao). Xie Zhenhua (解振华), head of the State Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), was dismissed and replaced by Zhou Shengxian (周生贤), who most observers believe to be a bigger gun. Since then, SEPA Deputy Director, Pan Yue (潘岳), who many Chinese environmentalists see as a government champion in a new mould, has signalled quite plainly his feeling that Xie was a hapless scapegoat. Mr. Pan announced in February that eleven large petrochemical complexes situated by major waterways in nine provinces present a grave risk to human health, and that another 127 need investigation. The vigorous SEPA deputy has also renewed his public calls for ‘green GDP’ accounting, for environmental benchmarks to be included in the assessment of local cadres’ performance, for greater public participation in environmental monitoring and decision making, and for ‘ecological compensation’ policies.
But this amounts only to a strengthening of the public case for a major shake-up, not necessarily to a victory of the case. And this is by no means the first fengbao to stir up China’s environmental politics. As long as ten years ago, in a move that was well publicised at the time, SEPA (NEPA as it was then) shut down hundreds of polluting paper mills along the Huai River. This was a significant gesture, but it was not supported by significant, permanent strengthening of the state’s environmental watchdog, and many of the polluters later crept back. Over the last few years, the energetic Mr. Pan has given every appearance of being engaged in a campaign to acquire some teeth for his agency (and has also appeared willing to collaborate with NGOs towards that end); but the weakness of environmental protection in China is demonstrated precisely by the fact that such a campaign remains necessary.
Too hot (or big) to handle
China’s environmental NGOs, meanwhile, proved relatively passive in the face of the Songhua debacle. Several international organisations issued press statements but the dozens of Chinese green groups that have emerged over the last decade, in a diffuse but growing constellation, declined to seize upon the episode for advocacy purposes.
In the weeks after the spill, China Development Brief contacted a range of these NGOs for comment. One or two that have been prominent in campaigning around hydropower development were wary of also taking on the issue of pollution control lest this cast them as implacable and turbulent critics of the authorities’ environmental stewardship. Such reticence probably owes at least something to the Chinese state’s heightened scrutiny of NGOs following the ‘colour revolutions’ in Central Asia and Eastern Europe last year: the time is hardly propitious for comment or activities that could be construed as ‘political’ or unpatriotic. (And the atmosphere in China is not helped by a US State Department that now noisily declares its intention of “promoting democracy” in Iran by funding NGOs. Whatever vision of democracy the State Department has—and it appears to be a simplistic vision, uncomplicated by much historical understanding—it is a marvel that they cannot see the harm their antics cause to the organic development of civil societies across Russia, China and Central Asia.)
Other NGOs we contacted felt that any response to the Songhua spill was beyond their scope, either because they are trying to address other, specific issues or, more frequently, because they could not see what they had to contribute. The commonest reaction could be paraphrased as: “What can we do? We are just a tiny NGO, this is a really big business, and it is for the state to deal with.” One activist commented that, because the chemical slick was heading towards Russia, this was an international incident where China’s national prestige was at stake, and so it was not appropriate for NGOs to become involved.
This lack of militancy and/or opportunism is hardly surprising. For, despite their impressive growth so far, Chinese green NGOs are still very young organisations, feeling their way forward into unmapped terrain, with no clear destination in view and no reliable guide as to how deep the pitfalls ahead may be.
The NGOs’ developmental pattern to date—diffuse growth, with many nodes and no apparent centre—not only mirrors modern, global campaigning styles but also reflects Chinese political reality. A more centralised and unified movement would be very challenging to state authority and might provoke a confrontation that both sides would prefer to avoid. Nor should it be assumed that the activists are avoiding this confrontation out of timidity, or because they are not yet ready for it. They want a chance to voice their concerns, certainly, and the space to grow, ‘participate’ and do their bit; but the overwhelming majority of Chinese environmentalists give no sign of wanting to challenge the state’s authority. Even the most radical seem to believe—probably correctly—that needed change in China will come from an alliance of progressive forces within the government, Communist Party and society, not from any kind of stand-off between them.
Pressure from the ‘footprint’
Nevertheless, international expectations of China’s environmental NGOs are running high. A week seldom passes without China Development Brief being contacted for information about the NGOs by at least one Western student writing a thesis or by a journalist planning a story on the subject. (One Hong Kong reporter recently phoned us to ask which green NGOs were “organising the mass protests in the countryside” and proved peculiarly resistant to the reply that this is not what Chinese NGOs do.)
International interest in China’s environment stems, of course, from self-interest: everyone is worried about China messing up ‘our’ world, and this fear will grow as more people are touched by what is becoming known as ‘China’s footprint.’ (A recent and typical ‘footprint’ story told how Amazonian rain forest is being hacked down to grow soya beans for feed in Chinese piggeries.)
One early consequence of footprint-awareness is a steady flow of international delegations arriving in Beijing to learn about China’s environment. The delegations invariably want to schedule a meeting with civil society representatives, and this leads to Chinese NGOs spending a great deal of time in repetitious, roundtable sessions from which they themselves gain very little (although some seem to cling, as they run through their five-minute set pieces, to the forlorn hope that these are beauty contests that may have cash prizes attached to the end of some string or other.)
But although they are tedious for nearly all those who attend, these encounters do mark a new and more transnational phase in China’s environmental politics. The international community has a real interest in finding, within China, a counterpart community of people who recognise and share the rest of the world’s concerns about the country’s global impact. China’s green NGOs are one natural starting point in the quest for such allies, because they ought to be most theoretically sensitive to the indivisibility of the global environment. And indeed, during one such recent meeting, arranged for the benefit of an OECD team that is conducting a review of China’s environmental performance, veteran activist Liao Xiaoyi of Global Village did speak of her own concerns about “greening consumption” in China. “We can’t all live like Americans,” she said, adding that one of the most hopeful, small breakthroughs of the last few years was the way that government authorities had officially adopted a 26° summertime air conditioning threshold that grassroots NGOs had campaigned for.
At the same time, even rather condescending attention from bodies like the OECD gives Chinese NGOs ‘face.’ The fact that these agencies want to talk to civil society, and that there is now a spectrum of organisations that can claim to come from the ‘grassroots,’ should give the government of China pause for thought. For, in international fora, it will become increasingly implausible for the government to speak alone for Chinese interests. Increasingly, the world wants to hear NGO voices in the debate, and it will look bad to the world at large if Chinese NGOs are self-evidently in a state of arrested development, with their maturation thwarted by restrictive policies.
Running dogs of capitalism
The government of China has long been extremely bad at managing its global image. In years gone by, newspaper editors across the Western world were tickled pink by Xinhua denunciations of the “running dogs of capitalism,’’ and ran these stories for their comic value. More recent riddles such as Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” continue to raise a smirk or two. This external communication problem is now not merely a matter of Chinese officials lacking any talent for internationally plausible ‘spin.’ More seriously by far, many people across the world have a substantial—and in many ways racist—visceral fear of ‘rising China’ (analogous to many Chinese urbanites’ visceral fear of being swamped by peasants). Over the last four years, the West’s preoccupation with rooting out terrorism has overshadowed China’s stupendous growth (and much of Africa’s relative decline); but as the footprint gets bigger, and as the showcase Olympics draw nearer, attention is beginning to focus. And global public opinion in the 21st century is going to be important to China, if only because it could hit the share prices of Chinese multinationals as they go out into the world and start buying up bits of it.
A handy asset in China’s upcoming global PR campaign would be a reasonably plausible and mature, home-grown NGO community that is constructively engaged both with its own government and with international counterparts. This, then, is one more way in which an independent NGO sector can be useful to the Communist Party.
This argument of course places an even greater burden of responsibility on the unaccustomed shoulders of the young Chinese NGOs, who are portrayed as the future Chinese ambassadors to global civil society. But it is important to remember that ten years ago the overwhelming majority of these groups were not even a speck on the horizon. They have come a long way and they have learned fast. Given space and time to mature they may yet weave the constellation into a movement, albeit one that will likely include government officials and Party members.
For this to happen, however, the NGOs need political space—even if it remains informal, without a tidy and liberal regulatory framework. It is here that international donor efforts to support civil society should be concentrated: in advocating directly to their Chinese government partners, and in creating opportunities for Chinese advocates to engage with and make this case to their government.
To recapitulate: despite China’s security anxieties (heightened by the US State Department’s bizarre view of NGOs as a proxy for American interests), green NGOs in China are loyal and patriotic, and they still expect and want the government to take a lead. They are on the whole less ideological, and more inclined to search for a ‘Chinese’ agenda than some international observers assume—or, at any rate, want—them to be. And they are of increasing importance as China’s representatives in global civil society. The most stupid thing the government of China could do would be to alienate these patriots: because they are the kind of active, engaged citizens China needs, and also because too rough a hand might even push some of them in to the arms of the US State Department.