Civil society’s changing role in the Chinese political system

A new NGO-proposed law on nature reserves is a sign of an increasingly active civil society movement, pushing to be involved in the Chinese political process
<p>Are government officials becoming more accepting of the role of NGOs in the political process? (Image&nbsp;from Xie Yan)</p>

Are government officials becoming more accepting of the role of NGOs in the political process? (Image from Xie Yan)

China’s annual parliamentary session is a time the decisions of top politicians are rubber-stamped by parliament, but civil society is increasingly trying to influence the process.
The submission of a draft Nature Reserve Law to the National People’s Congress (NPC) by Xie Yan, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Zoology, is the latest signal of these ambitions.
Xie Yan’s Nature Reserve Legislation Group is an NGO of more than 100 people from the fields of science, law, culture and education, and civil society. To draft the law they visited and studied existing nature reserves, gathered views from reserve staff, and worked with legal experts. The result was a full and comprehensive draft of a Nature Reserve Law.
On March 11, the draft was chosen as one of four to be submitted to the NPC by the Beijing delegation. Xie had taken the first step towards her aim: to have the law on the statute books within three years. 
Why would NGOs meddle in the government business of legislation and put forward a complete law? We need to go back to 2004.

FIghting to protect nature reserves

In 2004, Xie took part in work by the NPC’s Environment and Resources Protection Committee to draft a Nature Reserve Law. But despite work starting that year, a decade later there is still no new law in place.  
In 2006, a consultation draft was released, but it did not pass. Work started on a renamed version, the Nature Reserve Area Law. In 2008, another draft was released, but the new environment minister vetoed the two earlier names and so a third round of work started, on what was now called the Natural Heritage Protection Law. In 2010 a draft was released, to widespread opposition. 
The proposed Natural Heritage Protection Law was too narrow. It protected about 600 national-level nature reserves and scenic area, less than 10% of all of China’s reserves. Forest parks, geoparks and national wetland reserves were not included. 
Xie was opposed to the official draft. It went, she said, against the basic principles of the environment and environmental management, instead focusing on the protection of heritage and culture rather than allowing and supporting ecological functions. Nor would the law solve problems of supervision, management evaluation and funding, and it left non-national level nature reserves without any legislative basis. 
But opposing the law would at best just delay it. 
Xie told chinadialogue that China’s reserves are poorly run and chronically under-funded. Management is chaotic, with unclear powers and responsibilities, and both legislation and enforcement lag far behind actual need. Human interference within reserves is on the increase and there is an urgent need for better protection – yet legislation has been repeatedly delayed. Even if passed this draft would not have much actual effect. So Xie started to think about how to get a better law. 
“During the Lianghui last year I emailed everyone [asking for help in drafting a Nature Reserve Law],” said Xie. “A month later I had a team of 40 or 50 people.”
Xie visited nature reserves and scenic areas all over the country and met with local researchers. Together they asked reserve staff about their needs and opinions. 
Xie explained: “The national reserves are doing ok, but things are very bad at the county and city reserves.” Inadequate funding, weak law enforcement and staff shortages are common. In some cases, the key problem is not the fact that the reserve is not taken seriously.  
“Jiuzhaigou Reserve has a staff of 400 or 500, but less than 10 are actually working to protect nature, on research or patrol. There are over 100 at the protection office, and the rest are cleaners or tourism workers.”
In another reserve, monkey paws and red panda furs were even openly on sale. Asked why they didn’t do something, reserve staff said they weren’t law enforcers. 
In October, the first draft of their proposed law was completed and the group passed it on to 4,000 to 5,000 of their contacts for comments – including over 10 Lianghui delegates and members who had been in constant touch with the group. 
Xie explained that in order to garner attention and support they had contacted representatives from 13 provinces early on, all of whom were willing to submit the draft. But this year they just need to get it accepted as a proposal. Now that has happened, they hope the group can take part in the next stage of the process. 
Getting heard in China
This is not the first time civil society voices have been heard at the Lianghui, and representatives are not the only route to being heard. 
From 2010, the Society of Entrepreneurs & Ecology (SEE) has been working with environmental groups and activists to form a think tank to refine environmental thinking and ideas, and pass those on to the Lianghui via members who are also representatives. This year they are continuing to advocate reducing waste quantities and improving openness of information on sources of pollution. 
Besides SEE, Beijing environmental NGO Friends of Nature has also submitted motions to the NPC via representatives.
Friends of Nature’s media and communications specialist Guo Jinghui told chinadialogue that the organisations had given two proposals to representatives, one on monitoring and early warning systems for lead pollution, one on a revision of the Wild Animal Conservation Law and its rules for implementation. Last year’s proposal for protection of Xiaonanhai Lake in Chongqing was positively received both by the media and the public. 
Guo Xia, a project officer with SEE, recalls that the public and local NGOs started submitting proposals to the NPC via representatives some years ago – but these were mostly just calls for something to be done. In 2010 this practice became more common, and 2012 saw an increase in both the number and quality of submissions. 
Guo pointed out that the government has its own difficulties. As the submissions are designed to solve problems, a genuinely practical approach would be to take into account both public and government needs, making submissions that are therefore both useful and feasible. 
Choy So-yuk, a member of Hong Kong’s legislative council, said: “Proposals like the Nature Reserve Law are comprehensive and precise, and can be used by the state as a blueprint for legislation.”
Wang Yi of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Policy and Management, said that representatives do not have a monopoly on proposals and submissions – anyone can make a suggestion. But ordinary NGOs struggle to come up with quality ideas, and this is the main reason preventing civil society voices being heard. 
To allow more public voices to be heard, has been running an “E-government Square” since May 2009, allowing Internet users to interact with Lianghui representatives and government officials. 
Over 14,000 comments have been submitted to the site. This year calls for protection of stray animals have received most attention and support.