Which way forward for Chinese NGOs?

New regulations on open government information have ushered in a new environment for the country’s NGOs. chinadialogue asked He Ping how green groups can best use their increasing influence.

China’s domestic non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have seen huge changes in their operating environment since the implementation of new laws on open government informationon May 1, 2008. Consequently, chinadialogue’s Beijing branch had many questions to ask. How can environmental NGOs play a role in society? What differences do Chinese groups have with their overseas counterparts? Which fields can and should they enter? How can student groups sustain themselves? To help answer these issues, chinadialogue talked to He Ping, president of the Washington-based International Fund for China’s Environment.

chinadialogue (cd): As someone who works with environmental NGOs, what positive developments have you seen regarding Chinese green groups in recent years?

He Ping (HP): Their growth has been rapid in the past 10 years or so. Only 10 to 20 organisations attended the first NGO Forum in Washington DC in 1999. In Beijing in 2003 we had over 100. There are now over 2,000 organisations, including the student groups. And they have become more influential. Their voices have become more widely heard through the debates about the Nu River dam, the considerations around the project at the Old Summer Palace, energy efficiency campaigns and so on. The public is more aware of NGOs and the government attitude is changing, too.

Student groups are growing very quickly; grassroots NGOs have seen some progress; and the number of government-associated NGOs is increasing. At the same time, NGOs are becoming involved in a greater number of fields – not just education and conservation. There are also NGOs involved in environmental policy, oversight and rights advocacy. 

cd: What factors do you see limiting China’s environmental NGOs?

HP: There are still some worries. Government policies restricting NGOs have not been relaxed; many organisations still cannot operate normally. There may be a lack of awareness and understanding at a government level of the role of NGOs in a modern society. NGOs do not have a platform on which to operate. This means environmental protection work achieves poor results despite huge efforts, and social issues remain unsolved.

For example, we had some problems holding the fifth NGO Forum in Wuhan last year. Holding an international conference in China used to mean approval from an organisation at sub-ministerial level. We always worked with Renmin University, and if the dean said it was fine we could go ahead. But last year the government insisted that the Ministry of Education give its approval. The ministry wasn’t familiar with us and had no interest in NGOs, so it didn’t want to approve the forum. However, I have good links with Wuhan University, and they got in touch with the ministry, who contacted the education office at the Chinese embassy in Washington. We have a good relationship with them, and they put in a good word for us – finally, the ministry approved the conference. NGO advocacy in China isn’t easy – you need a lot of contacts.

Funding is another bottleneck. Many groups operate on a volunteer basis, which prevents them from exerting real influence. There’s a need for improvement in NGOs’ abilities: management, projects and public relations.

cd: What do you see as the main differences between environmental NGOs in China and their counterparts overseas?

HP: There are a few differences. The first is influence. NGOs in other countries have a great influence on environmental legislation and nature conservation, and have a direct influence on decisions about major projects. That isn’t yet the case for Chinese NGOs. Second, there is a difference in membership numbers and public support. In the United States, large environmental NGOs like the Sierra Club have over one million members and can mobilise on a large scale for major events. But, excluding industry associations, the largest Chinese NGO has about 10,000 members and limited public participation and support. Third, there is a difference in funding. Large American NGOs have budgets approaching US$100 million. In China, only a few approach US$1 million and many do not have any regular funding. Domestic funding channels are too limited, and there is little in the way of public donations.

The size of green groups in China stands in contrast to the enormity of the environmental crisis. The new Ministry of Environmental Protection should break out of old ways of administering the environment and do something of value for NGO development. Otherwise there is little cause for optimism for China’s environment.

cd: How can good relationships be established between NGOs, government and the people?

HP: NGOs and government should be partners, with NGO activities and projects promoting public involvement in environmental protection. They should assist the government in environmental management – providing information, reporting situations, putting forward proposals and so on. And at the same time the government should be overseen by NGOs – in some cases the government is responsible for environmentally damaging behavior. Government officials should be invited to participate in NGO activities whenever possible. NGOs should strengthen cooperation with organisations like the People’s Representatives’ Congress and Political Consultative Conference, as they are more tolerant of civil society, easier to work with and have a direct influence over government. NGOs should have regular interactions with the public, who benefit from many NGO activities. Full use should be made of the media, so as many people as possible are aware of what groups are doing. And where the traditional media does not provide, the internet is now an alternative. The more people know what NGOs are doing, the more participation and support they will receive. NGO influence comes not from money and power, but from awareness and information. The more people are participating – and the more reports are seen – the better.

cd: What fields do you think NGOs should work in the most? How can they play a larger role in these areas?

HP: There are no limits on the fields in which NGOs can work. They should choose projects according to their abilities and the circumstances in which they find themselves, focussing on what they are best able to do and on what the public is most concerned about. Today there are many environmental issues in China, wherever you look. If you choose the right one and stick with it, you will get results in the end. For example, those with a medical background could investigate links between disease and the environment in a certain population. Engineers can monitor the environmental impact assessments for a particular project. Organisations located near sites of cultural significance could assess environmental impacts on those locations and make suggestions to those responsible for their protection. But NGOs need to have clear goals and a focus – they cannot do everything.

Most of China’s NGOs are still small. They need to come together if they are to have any influence. This happens more frequently in Beijing, but it needs to happen elsewhere. Student groups need to link up with NGOs: they are often working on the same issues, but separately and to less effect. Use modern technology to raise your voices, increase your influence and fight for public support. Choose issues related to people’s lives: noise pollution in some areas, water pollution in others. Carry out surveys and analysis and bring together interested parties to discuss and propose solutions. When appropriate get the media on board and invite government and public attention.

cd: Will the new rulings on open government information – the Provisions on the Disclosure of Government Information and Method for Disclosure of Environmental Information – help environmental NGOs? How should they use these new rules?

HP: They are powerful tools and they will be a great help to NGO activities. NGO workers need to fully understand and utilise them. Many NGO activities are restricted by a lack of information. The US has a “right to know” law that requires firms that store or bury harmful substances to inform nearby residents, a law that was of huge value to the green movement. As a result of that ruling, many companies have released the effects of chemicals on the human body, such as the effects of lead in paint. There’s a gap between regulations coming into effect and their implementation. NGOs need to publicise and utilise the rules. If there are successful examples of their use this year, the experience will be instructive for further information disclosure efforts.

cd: You have always been very supportive of student environmental groups. How do you think they can improve their work under these new circumstances?

HP: Since 2001 we have been supporting university student groups and we have trained 200 of their leaders. They are becoming more and more active. Last year the China Youth Climate Action Network was founded and it is currently active in campus energy-saving campaigns. Student groups have a unique position in China today, they are less limited and there’s a lot they can do.

Almost every university has an environmental group, but they don’t have many members. Perhaps because the content and nature of their activities isn’t novel enough, but student activities shouldn’t be limited to the campus – they should look to environmental issues in surrounding communities and cities, investigate and put forward proposals. They can regularly visit local elementary and middle schools to publicise environmental knowledge and concepts, and work with schools and communities on activities such as Earth Day and Environment Day. They need to work within society and increase their influence. The problems of succession within groups need to be considered. New students need to be recruited to replace those who graduate, in order to ensure continued and stable growth.

Homepage photo by Joshua Wickerham