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.

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