Special Reports
China’s Pollution Solution

Red Pepper Magazine
November 21, 2007

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

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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