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Challenges for young people at China’s NGOs

Civil society groups not only play an important role in tackling China’s environmental crisis, they also employ the environmental leaders of tomorrow. Considering these young people will benefit the green groups of the future, says Dan Murphy.
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Zhang Tianming is a 23-year-old college graduate from Kunming, southwest China, with spiky, prematurely greying hair and great sense of humour. Zhang studied environmental science at a good university, and interned at a well-known Chinese environmental NGO. He helped to lead his campus green group and is passionate about environmental issues: it is his dream to work for a green NGO. His next job, however, is likely to be with a private company.

After graduation, Zhang worked for a short time with a “government-organised non-governmental organisation”, or GONGO. But he left after several months. It was poorly managed, he says, and career advancement was very difficult unless you had already worked in government.

Civil society plays an expanding role in China’s environmental issues. NGO directors are often public figures, well-connected in politics, academia or the media. But few observers spare a thought for the young workers at China’s green NGOs, who often lack the same social recognition, international connections, job security or prospects.


“My family has worked long, hard hours selling fruit in the market in order to support me and send me through school,” says Zhang. “Now I need to find a job to help support my family.” Zhang’s family says that the security, higher pay and enhanced social status that come from working with a private company or in government will provide him with a better future.

As China’s single-child generation think about caring for their ageing parents, Zhang is not alone in feeling family pressure on account of his work with an environmental group. Another young NGO worker I spoke to has hidden his true profession from his family, telling them for years that he works for a private company.

People are often unfamiliar with the NGO sector, and young staffers are often seen as having a low social status. At a recent meeting with the director of a local NGO and a group of Chinese and American students in the south China city of Nanjing, the questions from the US students centred on pollution and public policy. Many Chinese students, however, were more guarded. They questioned the role NGOs could play in Chinese society, and asked why anyone would work at an NGO, rather than a private company.

The rising cost of living and the threat of inflation have made this caution more acute. Many NGOs are supported by fixed-termed funding and are not financially self-sufficient. When it comes to cutting staff, young people are often the first to go, and finding a job in a different sector can be difficult. Prospective employers do not always value NGO sector experience.

Internships are financially challenging too. Interning for a green NGO during university, Zhang slept on the floor of the office to save money. Nonetheless, competition for jobs at Chinese NGOs is stiff, and there are relatively few outside Kunming and Beijing, which are known as China’s “NGO capitals”.

Another stumbling block is the education system. When Zhang was at university, his newly established environmental science programme lacked structure and proper organisation. Consequently, he and other students were forced to study independently.


There is some good news, however, for young people wanting to help the environment. Zhang first learned about green issues and NGO management while helping out with his university environmental group. For him, the organisation was a fantastic way to learn about the issues and gain leadership skills.

Last year I attended a meeting in Nanjing, largely organised by college students, which drew over 30 local green groups as well as reporters and a representative from the local environmental protection bureau. The event was a great success, and gave many students valuable experience organising and advertising for the event.

In the end, some of the same social pressures that make working at an NGO difficult can make it rewarding. Perhaps because many people misunderstand the work of green groups, there is a strong sense of camaraderie within the NGO community. Like many young people in China, Zhang’s interest means he still works as a volunteer for an environmental group during his spare time.

But what does the future hold for Zhang? If he was presented with an average-salaried, stable position at a green group, he says he would take it. But at least for now, Zhang will be putting his scientific knowledge and leadership skills to use at a company.

Lowering the hurdles that Zhang and young people like him face will be a difficult task, but it may be essential to train a new generation of NGO leaders in China.

Are you a young person working for an NGO in China? Or are you campaigning on green issues in the west? Did you find this article accurate, or do you have another story to tell? Leave a comment – and tell us about your experience.

Dan Murphy graduated from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Homepage photo by Joshua Wickerham via Flickr

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匿名 | Anonymous



Personal Views

I don’t work for an NGO, but I follow the work of this sector with admiration, because humanity should develop of harmonious and collaboratively. This means that all inequality and unbalance should ultimately move towards equality, harmony and eventually integration.
Ultimately, human beings pursue wealth and other material goods in order to make themselves feel safe.
This means the mission of NGOs or the reason why NGOs exist is to achieve this objective using the best practices. If there were no NGOs, human society will still head towards a more harmonious and equal one in future. But the presence of NGOs means this process will definitely happen quicker. It is simply a question of how much you are able to see this or feel aware of it. This comment was translated by Emily Yajing Li.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


我曾在北京一家本土NGO工作将近7年,文章描述的情况我看来相当真实,而且从当年我加入ngo开始到现在,情况只是略微好了一点,而没有本质上的改善。越来越多受过良好教育的年轻人加入NGO,最初的新鲜感和激情之后,几乎无一例外会经历至少一次“NGO culture shock”——可能是因为经济压力,缺少外界的尊重,也可能是个人职业发展前景模糊,或者组织自身管理不善,还有常年面对太多负面信息导致的心理疲惫,等等等等。迷茫和困惑一阵后,总有不少人选择离开。外界可能记住几个NGO明星,却很少关注普通职员的处境。

Green Landscape

At one time in Beijing, I worked at a local NGO for almost 7 years, the circumstances that this article describes are spot on, moreover, from the days I first joined the ngo until now, the situation has only gotten a little better, and has yet to make any substantial changes. More and more well educated young people are joining NGOs, and after the initial feeling of freshness and passion is gone, almost without exception, these people experience at least once an "NGO culture shock"-- maybe this is because economic pressures, maybe it's because up until that point they haven't experienced the outside world, it could also be because the prospects for development and growth in the industry are fuzzy, or that the organization is poorly managed, but also could be because in an average year one's mind gets exhausted from way too much negative info, and on and on. After bewilderment and a bunch of confusion, there are usually plenty of people who choose to leave. Perhaps the outside world will remember a few of the NGO stars, but very few actually will pay close attention to the plight of the worker.
(Translated by Braden Latham-Jones.)