NGO criticism in China is ‘making things worse’

Activist Zhao Liang argues that Chinese NGOs should rethink their campaign style to engage better with government and business
<p>The public and government clash because they cannot communicate. If NGOs do not attempt to communicate, they also will end up in deadlock,&nbsp;says Zhao Liang&nbsp;(Image of a&nbsp;chemicals factory in Jianchuan, Yunnan)&nbsp;</p>

The public and government clash because they cannot communicate. If NGOs do not attempt to communicate, they also will end up in deadlock, says Zhao Liang (Image of a chemicals factory in Jianchuan, Yunnan) 

Three years ago, I quit my job at Heilongjiang province’s environmental authority to work full time advocating for transparency on environmental issues. I’ve travelled all over China in the last three years, and come to realise that Chinese NGOs usually opt for direct criticism of government and businesses. Rather than helping to solve problems, this often exacerbates them.

In the face of this criticism, channels of communication shut down, leaving no way to achieve the rights and interests of pollution victims. A more effective method may be to look at things from the other point of view, considering the problems facing government and businesses.

I’m responsible for air pollution campaigns at Chinese NGO Green Beagle, and hope that as a third party we can help bring air pollution in China under control. I recently spent two weeks visiting heavily polluted cities in Hebei. I hope to help the province, and in particular government bodies, deal with smog. Recent days have seen bad smogs in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei city cluster; the Ministry of Environmental Protection said Hebei was not doing enough to help. But I see the Hebei authorities as smog victims too.

The province hasn’t been effective in dealing with the problem but there is little it can do. The region’s energy-hungry and polluting industries – concrete, coal-fired power, and in particular steelmaking – are concentrated here. Hebei leads China in output of crude steel and steel products, accounting for 24.1% and 21.4% of national production respectively in 2013. Cleaning up pollution will be a Herculean task. It’s an unenviable situation as Hebei’s interests are often sacrificed for the neighbouring metropolises of Beijing and Tianjin. Dealing with Hebei’s smog requires boosting its ability to regulate those industries, rather than more criticism.

The province does not have it easy. On this occasion it responded to MEP demands by shutting down production and limiting vehicle journeys. But all that work had less affect than a strong wind. And back in April the Hebei city of Handan announced it had dismantled 700 coal-burning furnaces and 1,000 chimneys.

The Jianyan Coking Plant in Gengtai was also sanctioned, for faking monitoring data. Half its furnaces were shut down and a deadline set for improvements. I visited that plant in May, dressed as a coal-shoveller to get in and take photos. I was spotted and taken to the security office, where I had to admit to being an environmental activist. They asked me to empty my bag to prove it, saying, “If you can prove you’re just an activist we’ll let you go, otherwise we’ll call the police.”

Later, I realised they were worried that I might have been a terrorist, or a reporter. The plant employs 1,500 people and despite having half its furnaces idle it cannot lay off staff. Even if just for six months, this is a huge burden for the company. Media exposure of any pollution could result in locals protesting, making life even harder. In the end I had to show them my microblog posts on my trip to convince them I was who I said I was.

This got me thinking. We often use NGO logic to understand the government and businesses, but this can be dangerous. If we automatically criticise, they go on the defensive and also form their own prejudices. But communication is not impossible. A major failing of NGOs is that they are always on the attack against government and polluters. But we should actually avoid conflict where possible. Escalating a dispute is an option, but not the only option. The foundations which fund NGOs often ask if projects can be replicated – I think they should ask if projects can be learned from. 

NGO shortcomings

Longstanding confrontation between the public and government has shaped an approach to interaction: the public has concerns; the government does not respond; then the public accuses it of failure. But Hebei’s situation shows we shouldn’t assign blame lightly. I think NGOs should consider the other party’s difficulties, then try to establish communication and help to solve them. The public and government clash because they cannot communicate. If NGOs do not attempt to communicate, they also will end up in deadlock.

I learned a lot this year on a visit to a proposed chemicals factory in Jianchuan, Yunnan, which will produce 20,000 tonnes of sulphuric acid a year. Because it is near the ancient town of Shaxi and Shibaoshan caves, as well as other famous local sites, many people opposed it. Objections covered the choice of location, environmental risks, and the veracity of the environmental impact assessment. Online debate hit a peak in August.

Initially, the company and local government tried to dodge the issue, or intimidate the public and suppress debate. We got involved, requesting publication of information, and met the body that did the environmental impact assessment and county environmental authorities. So far we’ve established links and got answers that have relieved some public concerns. Although it is unlikely the plant will be relocated or abandoned, our communication efforts have met some success: many concerns have been answered, and the environmental impact assessment may be done again. Next, we hope to persuade the company to build and operate the plant in line with that assessment.

During this process the NGO acted as a buffer, connecting public and government, filtering out antagonism and assisting rational communication. This is a constructive way of intervening. Another experience of mine provides further lessons. In November 2012, oriental storks in Tianjin’s Beidagang Wetlands were poisoned. Another NGO I work at, Tianjin Luling, rescued some storks and called on the government to set up a centre. But once that help centre was established there was no official handover; our staff continued working.

By not pulling out at the right time we wasted huge amounts of energy on something the new government centre should have been doing. That also affected their work, which was not as valuable as hoped. As in other cases, NGOs should act as a buffer and a bridge – not an alternative. We can bridge the information gap, offer feasible solutions, and help the government increase its ability to resolve issues.

Benefits of communication

These are my experiences and my thoughts. China’s NGOs have not been as effective as hoped and sometimes even make things worse. But there are reasons for this. In February, an environmental association was formed in Taizhou in Jiangsu. In September it won a 160-million yuan lawsuit. That a newly registered NGO, operating under the same environmental-protection law can do this is worth learning from. Why haven’t we been able to do the same in all the years we have been bringing lawsuits? We always look to blame the government, when sometimes we should be looking at ourselves. Are we working in the wrong way and failing to get government support?

The government is under constant criticism and whether they avoid the problem by suppressing debate or just ignoring it, the problem remains unsolved. But the government is now at least willing to receive visits. I often meet with local environmental authorities as an interested and informed party, and am sometimes even received by the bureau head. That shows we can at least talk about the problem. With honest communication, solutions are easier to find. 

Zhao Liang founded Tianjin Future Green Leaders Association and Tianjin Green Collar (Tianjin Luling). He is a researcher with Friends of Nature.