breakneck industrialization has made it an economic force to be reckoned with
even as the skies darken with exhaust and cancer holds
steadily as the number one cause of death. According to a report on China
and the environment published by the New York Times last year, experts predict
China will soon emit more greenhouse gases than the United States. In 2006, China
Daily reported that pollution costs China 10% of its GDP each year—a
staggering US$200 billion. Voices in neighboring countries along with the
larger global community are all calling for change in China’s environmental
practices. Within China, citizens are also making their voices heard.
Environmentalism has come a long way in China since the imprisonment of outspoken reporter and activist Dai Qing over her scathing collection of essays protesting the Three Gorges Dam twenty years ago. In fact, compared to other types of non-profits, environmental NGOs have experienced significant government support. In 1994 Beijing-based Friends of Nature became the first registered NGO in China, followed the next year by Global Village Beijing. By 2005, over 2,000 environmental NGOs (mostly Chinese) had been established legally. Many of these are centrally located in major hubs, particularly Beijing although the past three years (2005-2008) has seen smaller grassroots organizations double.
for the increasing awareness of environmental issues in China are the men and
women heading these NGOs who, as journalists, academics, and professionals have
political finesse, international connections, and rapport with the Chinese
public. Friends of Nature co-founder and history professor Liang Congjie pioneered
environment awareness in China and since 1994 his organization has acted as a
watchdog on issues as varied as the deforestation of Yunnan’s rainforests and caging
wild song birds, a tradition in China. Professor Wang Canfa, founder of the
Center for Legal Assistance for Pollution Victims (CLAPV), law professor at
China University of Political Science and Law, and one of Time
Magazine’s top 50 “Heroes of the Environment” for 2007 is another high
profile academic who has made waves in the environmental landscape. Although
wins and losses for his team of volunteer attorneys are about equal, Prof. Wang
has been one of several voices speaking out against the affects of pollution on
As Chinese have become more aware of the dangers environmental threats pose, grassroots NGOs have formed far from the city square. Often focused on a specific environmental issue, these community led (and often community funded) groups take on some heavy hitters including big businesses and the government over key problems like pollution and dam projects. A number of these organizations have popped up in “cancer towns” where people living near polluted rivers have experienced a rise in health problems. One example is the Huai River Defenders, an organization started by photographer Huo Daishan, which tries to raise funds for clean water and to get healthcare for villagers affected by the polluted water they drink.
Regardless of the particular environmental focus they have, NGOs also concentrate on educating the public, evidenced by the large number of Chinese involved in these organizations. In fact, experts attribute environmental groups with mobilizing the Chinese people and bolstering civic duty.
The impact of international and joint venture NGOs cannot be omitted in a discussion on environmental NGOs. International organizations bring more funding to local groups and usually have access to more resources and research. In general, cooperative efforts versus strictly foreign ventures have been most successful in enacting change in China. The World Wildlife Federation (WWF) was the first international organization permitted to operate in environmental conservation in China. In the 25 years since it began working in the country, WWF has developed plans to preserve China’s panda population and to establish nature reserves in conjunction with the government. Although it took 15 years to establish an office, WWF China now has its headquarters in Beijing with field offices throughout the country. Its partnership with the government from the beginning has enabled the WWF to accomplish considerably more than NGOs working on their own.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection (formerly the State Environmental Protection Administration) works closely with all of these groups and, as one article explained, has a “hand-in-glove” working relationship with them. Although the government does seem to allow more freedom to these NGOs at a national level, they still face an uphill battle at the local level and with uncooperative companies. In an attempt to lessen pollution, conserve natural areas and prosecute offenders, members of these organizations may be threatened or imprisoned as the powerful deny culpability.
Change is coming though as environmentalists both inside and outside of China work towards the common goal of making the world a safer, healthier, sustainable place to live. As the youngest generation comes of age, I am hopeful that they will have an unprecedented knowledge of and respect for preserving the environment.
More resources: Hauser Center’s Blog, Green Go—a database of China’s environmental NGOs, Environmentalism and CSR from China Crossroads, U.S. Congress Report on environmentalism, and China Through A Lens, New York Times page on China and the Environment