Although China’s communist government is slowly warming to renewable energy and reducing pollution, environmental change is an uphill battle; citizen activists have few venues in which to get heard, information is difficult to come by, and enforcement remains lax. Although the central government has launched a slew of hopeful-sounding initiatives—the 11th 5-Year Plan says China will increase energy efficiency by 20 percent by 2010—Beijing has not always put its money where its mouth is. China’s chief environmental agency, SEPA, had only 300 full-time staff in 2004, compared with 6,000 in the U.S. EPA.
There’s also little history of organized nongovernmental activism; it wasn’t until 1998 that Chinese NGOs were even allowed to register with the government (and thus operate legally). By 2002, there were still only 50 registered environmental NGOs in China. But over the last five years, the number has skyrocketed to nearly 3,000 in 2007. Many of these groups operate on a shoestring; there is no government funding and China does not have a tradition of charitable giving nor the tax breaks that accompany it.
Often the solution to such a problem is to simply pair up with a U.S. NGO or do foreign fundraising. Pat K.P. Yang, founder of the grassroots Zigen Fund, says her nonprofit has both U.S. and Chinese branches: All the fundraising is done by the U.S. branch, and the Chinese branch does the actual work of educating migrant workers on how to recycle trash, among other programs. The U.S.-based National Resources Defense Council follows a similar model, using the United States as a fundraising base but using those funds to compile environmental information for SEPA or to bring Chinese activists to the United States for training.
Regardless of their funding, groups are stymied by bad or missing information, compiled by unreliable Chinese local agencies, and a nascent civil court system. Local officials are not uncommonly in business with major polluters, and even without such conflicts, it is hard to make a local official impose sanctions on a major taxpayer. “I heard that 80 percent of environmental problems in the U.S. are solved in court,” says Ma Jun, a prominent environmentalist who is the founder of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. “That can’t happen here. Environmental problems cannot be resolved here the way they are resolved in other countries.”
Instead, many NGO leaders say educating the public is the best way to go. Television is an important medium because it is cheap entertainment and widely available. There is a growing interest in the public’s right to know about pollution. And though the Chinese government may not support NGO actions, the Chinese people are much more concerned with global warming and environmental damage than Americans. Seventy percent cited pollution and environmental problems as the “top global threat” in 2007, compared to just more than one-third of Americans.
American companies, many Chinese environmentalists said at a recent conference, are key to helping China become greener. Multinational companies are powerful and have the actual resources to overhaul their supply chain, which often starts in China. One local official told NRDC’s Barbara Finamore that multinationals “have more power to enforce China’s environmental laws than we do.”
A few of China’s most active environmental NGOs:
Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims
This Beijing-based organization founded in 1998 offers free legal advice for citizens and runs an environmental hotline. It has assisted class-action pollution suits in nearly every province in China, nearly a third of them health related. The center’s clients won in only 12 of the 35 health-related cases, but that’s considered an achievement given that citizens are uninformed of their rights, local and judicial officials frequently have investments in polluting companies, and experts are either afraid to testify or exorbitantly expensive. Sometimes, the fees to file a lawsuit can double without notice, and unlike in the United States, defendants are not obliged to pay plaintiffs’ legal fees if they lose. In 2005, the center worked on the largest environmental case in China to date: More than 1,700 residents sued a wealthy industrialist over forest die-offs, cancer, and other effects of intense air pollution. The residents won $85,000 in damages, which has yet to be paid; in the process they also started a local NGO, which continues to advocate for environmental cleanup.
Friends of Nature
China’s oldest environmental NGO, Friends of Nature, was founded in 1994 by four teachers at the Academy for Chinese Culture. “We knew from television about Greenpeace,” says cofounder Liang Congjie, now president of the organization. “But there wasn’t anything like that in China. My friends and I began wondering, ‘Why not here?’ We decided to try.” Friends of Nature now has a budget of some $275,000 and more than 2,000 members; its campaigns have had some successes, including getting the government on enforcing anti-poaching regulations to protect the endangered Tibetan antelope.
As a well-funded, international group, Greenpeace is able to conduct research for which Chinese NGOs may have neither the manpower nor the political latitude. The organization releases several comprehensive reports each year on energy use and environmental damage: It recently uncovered that genetically engineered rice from the United States, unauthorized for sale anywhere in the world, was being sold in Beijing supermarkets, and that the Himalayan glaciers are retreating so quickly that they may be gone in 12 years. In addition to staging very public and well-publicized protests like draping a Hong Kong power plant with a banner reading “Climate Change Starts Here,” in 2007 Greenpeace released “Energy Revolution: A Sustainable China Energy Outlook,” a plan for maintaining Chinese economic growth while developing renewable energy sources.
China Wildlife Conservation Association
The largest ecological conservation group in China, CWCA is one of few Chinese nonprofits to have a truly national reach, perhaps due to its close ties with some government departments. The association has 622 regional branches throughout the country and boasts more than 200,000 individual members. The group focuses on conserving wildlife habitat and lobbies for stricter enforcement of laws protecting threatened animals like the civet cat. The civet was believed to be responsible for the SARS outbreaks in 2002 and 2003, but is still sold in Chinese markets and consumed in traditional stew. The group has signed up more than 300,000 cooks to be “green cuisine ambassadors” who refuse to cook wildlife, with a goal of 1 million by the end of 2008. CWCA also sponsors “Bird-Loving Week,” a nationwide celebration of wild birds. The group has a special focus on educating children and youth on the value of wildlife, and to that end loans giant pandas and other Chinese animals to zoos and awareness programs worldwide, including the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs
This new NGO, founded in June 2006 by journalist Ma Jun, is one of the most ambitious and technologically innovative in China. Its interactive water-pollution map lets users click on nearly any Chinese river or lake to find out the water quality, which companies have been polluting it, and if there’s been cleanup progress. The database lists 14,000 instances of pollution by 9,487 companies; at least 50 companies, mostly multinationals, have contacted the group to explain their actions, and seven agreed to third-party audits. Two companies have succeeded in expunging their records by upgrading facilities. In 2007, IP&E worked with the World Wildlife Fund to create a database that ranks cities by air quality and lists sulfur-dioxide levels, airborne dust, rain pH, and other environmental indicators. Thanks to work by IP&E and 30 other NGOs, companies that violate pollution limits will have to notify the local media starting next May.
Zigen was founded in 1988 in the United States and began operating its sister fund, Zigen Association for Rural Education and Development in China, in 1995; it now covers 9 rural provinces. Founder Pat K.P. Yang says that although the fund’s primary objective has been to provide education to rural and migrant Chinese, especially girls, they also do a fair amount of environmental awareness and training. The Fund recently expanded into Inner Mongolia and has helped poor villagers get energy-saving stoves and generators that run on biomass. In its health care work, Zigen has also educated rural people on environmental contaminants and their effect on health.
Center for Resource Solutions
San Francisco-based CRS’s global mission of fighting climate change through clean energy and renewable fuels includes a strong focus on China. Jan Hamrin, who founded the organization in 1997, says that China is vital because if China doesn’t clean up its energy supply, climate work in other areas of the world will be essentially wiped out. But building a presence in China hasn’t come easy; it took Hamrin five years of constant work to achieve a working relationship with party officials. Some 90 percent of CRS’s funds go to Chinese groups promoting things like energy-efficient appliances and green living, and Hamrin says change is slow, but noticeable: “Until three or four years ago, we couldn’t even mention climate change in China.”