NewsChina talks with academic Lin Hong about the future of environmental advocacy in China, at a time when NGOs face additional government scrutiny
Lin Hong / Photo by wang yan
Heightened public awareness of environmental pollution and the need for greater protection of China’s beleaguered ecosystems in the wake of breakneck economic development has fostered the emergence of environmental NGOs (ENGOs) as an important driving force informing both environmental and social decision-making.
China’s first ENGO, Friends of Nature (FON), was founded in 1994. According to data released in 2015 by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, some 7,362 ENGOs were officially registered with the authorities by the end of 2014. Their priorities are understandably diverse, including environmental and conservation education, pollution monitoring, data sharing and policy advocacy.
Limited capacity and meager resources have often driven the government to partner with ENGOs, which benefit from a more comprehensive overview of many hot-button issues, in order to meet environmental targets officials would otherwise struggle to hit.
For their part, official Chinese ENGOs have incorporated “Chinese characteristics” into their management strategies, eschewing public campaigns and confrontation in favor of cooperation with the government. There have been some significant accomplishments, including major revisions to the country’s Environmental Protection Law in late 2014. (See “The Voice of the Polluted,” NewsChina, September, 2013, Vol. 060).
NewsChina spoke to Lin Hong, an anthropologist and associate researcher with Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who has closely followed the development of China’s ENGOs in recent years. Choosing FON as her base, Lin has engaged in fieldwork for more than two years to gain an overview of China’s ENGO sector, giving her unique insight into the emerging ethos behind these increasingly important organizations.
NewsChina: What is the overall situation for ENGOs working in China today?
Lin Hong: A significant number of the country’s more than 7,000 ENGOs are associations or private non-enterprises established by State agencies or well-known institutions with government backgrounds. These ENGOs tend to be large, national-level organizations that can draw funding from the government and other sources. There are only about 700 grassroots ENGOs in China.
Most of the 7,000-some ENGOs are not sufficiently active. Only 200 to 300 ENGOs are fully engaged, clustered mostly in southeastern urban areas. The rest are mostly zombie organizations that only exist on paper.
There are two different kinds of ENGOs in China – platform ENGOs and localized, or “on-site” ones. FON, a platform NGO, is fully developed and can connect and cooperate with other ENGOs on different projects. Platform ENGOs are, generally speaking, more functional and professional and have, with academic support, fostered professional skills and adopted state-of-art techniques in biodiversity protection, environment monitoring and other related fields.
On-site ENGOs, the overwhelming majority, operate at a limited, local level. It is very difficult for grassroots NGOs to register as “social groups,” and thus obtain tax-exempt status. The regulations state that all social organizations must obtain support from a State sponsor, who will then play an important supervisory role, and is responsible for reviewing that ENGO annually, approving its budgets and staffing plans, and also acting as its intermediary with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Almost all grassroots ENGOs fail to find such a sponsor, and have to register as a “private non-enterprises,” subject to the same taxation as private enterprises. This has created a bottleneck for ENGO development in China.
NC: How have ENGOs been able to influence official policy?
LH: Around 1996, FON collaborated with a few other ENGOs to advocate the protection of the snub-nosed monkey in areas of Yunnan Province where unrestricted logging was threatening its habitat. Because of the campaign, the issue got nationwide attention and ultimately local officials reconsidered logging practices. A similar case was the campaign to protect the Tibetan antelope in 1998, which is now nationally protected—that case led to a civil anti-poaching statute.
Then there was the public hearing on a water drainage project in the grounds of the Old Summer Palace [in Beijing] in 2005. Experts and environmentalists had blasted a scheme that would damage the ecosystem by lining the park’s main lake with plastic and concrete to prevent water seepage, which would have severed the link between the lake and the local groundwater. Pressure from ENGOs forced a public hearing convened by the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Environmental Protection on the project’s environmental impact assessment, which later became a model for future public hearings on environmental issues.
In 2011, a public interest lawsuit was filed by FON in Qujing, Yunan Province, against a local enterprise that was causing soil pollution by dumping toxic chromium waste. The unprecedented case was followed by a series of others across the country, which finally played a very important role in the revision process of the new Environmental Protection Law from 2011 to 2014. This also helped secure recognition of ENGOs’ rights to engage in public litigation, a crucial development milestone.
NC: So the revised Environmental Protection Law has had a significant impact on the number of environmental lawsuits?
LH: It’s hard to judge the impact of a new law until at least three to five years have passed. According to incomplete statistics gathered by FON, in 2015, nine ENGOs filed public interest lawsuits locally, with 37 filed nationwide. The number of public interest lawsuits concerning environmental issues filed in 2013 was zero. Last year was a watershed, but there remains a lot of confusion when it comes to addressing issues in detail, and between different provinces and regions. The judicial environment varies from place to place; some are active in implementing the new law, some are not. The increase in the number of lawsuits doesn’t mean much so far; we need to wait at least three years before passing judgment.
NC: What is the development model for Chinese ENGOs?
LH: I have identified a three-stage development approach for most individual Chinese ENGOs.
The first stage is “individual charisma,” where an ENGO functions due to the influence or labor of a committed individual, usually the founder of the organization. From 1994 through 2004, FON was an example of this. Its founder, Liang Congjie, was not only the group’s chief decision-maker, but also its spiritual leader and historian.
The second stage is a transitional period. Realizing the limitations of a top-down structure centered on one dominant individual, the organization aims to professionalize, operating and engaging in advocacy through legal means while diversifying leadership.
The third stage is the “principle of law” stage, which embraces modern management methods and seeks solutions through extant legal channels. By this stage, the ENGO has usually upgraded itself into a platform organization, allying with other ENGOs with interests in the same areas. FON struggled to make these transitions between 2005 and 2014, and one thing to clarify is that the three stages cannot be termed “progress” – standards evolve, and a multifaceted structure has emerged in the current social context, enabling [ENGOs] to operate in a much more sustainable way while guarding against risk.
NC: Do you agree that ENGOs in China should follow a path different from that of their Western counterparts?
Lin Hong: I noticed big differences between ENGOs in China and their [overseas] counterparts that are rooted in relative stages of social development, and differing legal and social environments. Even foreign ENGOs like Greenpeace, once they come into China, adopt completely different methods to fit into the Chinese context. In that case, Greenpeace abandoned street-level fundraising in line with local regulations, and has adopted forms of policy advocacy that are milder than the aggressive street campaigns it is known for elsewhere.
It is due to these comparatively mild action plans that the Chinese government is much more tolerant of ENGOs than public health or human rights organizations. Many ENGOs in China – including Greenpeace – have established long-term cooperation with government agencies, including the National Reform and Development Commission and the Ministry of Environmental Protection. The Ministry of Civil Affairs is currently helping to set up a national platform for domestic NGOs.
NC: So, given the strict restrictions on NGOs, what substantive operational freedom do ENGOs enjoy in China?
LH: I have coined the term “self-approved practice” to indicate the autonomous efforts ENGOs should take in pushing forward policy changes or meeting advocacy targets. As long as they address problems through methods that are not outlawed by the State, they will still have space to operate.
It is vital for ENGOs in China to establish their legal status through effective action and influence. In most cases, official recognition is the direct result of their own efforts. In the 2011 Qujing chromium waste case, ENGOs had no explicit right to file a public interest lawsuit, though on the other hand they were not strictly prohibited from doing so, either. The reason ENGOs chose Yunnan to make their stand was that Yunnan was undertaking a pilot program to establish environmental courts, making the legal environment much more friendly to ENGOs.
ENGOs are trying different means to approach their targets. The chosen approach decides the overall result. When ENGOs cannot find a legal space in which to address certain issues, they can at least seek a “non-illegal” space. ENGOs can make use of all kinds of topdown channels to foster public participation, such as submitting petitions and appearing at public hearings.
NC: As both an insider and an outsider, what do you feel China’s ENGOs should try to do in the future?
LH: A lot of international ENGOs, including Greenpeace, enjoy a broad global vision when conducting localized projects, something Chinese ENGOs lack.
Due to their different political and social backgrounds, Chinese ENGOs have faced different problems, of course, and have acted differently. Now it is high time for ENGOs to reconsider their identities and to reposition themselves, to understand where they come from, and where they should go.
There is no industry association for ENGOs in China. Thus, to date, there are no laws governing their establishment, evaluating their management practices or overseeing their activities. Half-hearted international and domestic attempts to establish a transparency index are far from enough, and the entire industry requires systematic regulation.