“Green Emissaries”

Green Emissaries, produced by the Chinese NGO Green SOS, is a unique practical handbook for those researching the international NGO sector or those Chinese who work in, or are active in, it. The book gives readers, for the first time, a detailed look inside 13 major environmental organisations working in the country, explaining how they are promoting protection of the environment in China, while also becoming localised.

Information is provided on the groups’ sources of funding, as well as their cooperation with external organisations, main activities, experiences and problems. For example, Green Emissaries explains how Greenpeace uses its funds – and even gives a rare peek at its representatives’ expenses: “Expenses of RMB 90 a day are paid for working visits to five major cities, including Shanghai and Guangzhou, with other cities getting 70 RMB.”

Since the 1990s, the Crane Foundation has been exploring “participatory” management based on their experience in China. Now the foundation has extended such a community management model to almost every Chinese crane reserve.

Projects examined in case studies include prevention and treatment of pollution, nature conservation, energy and lifestyles — but there is a lack of attention paid to environmental legislation and institutional reform. Perhaps this demonstrates adaptation to, and compromise with, China’s political and legal environment. Public education and demonstration projects are often cited, with little consideration given to public activism.

Through their findings from interviews and research, the authors conclude that international environmental NGOs in China face systemic difficulties, which create administrative and financial obstacles. Overall, however, the “lack of legitimacy” – very few organisations have gained legal status in China — has not prevented the building of widespread networks and influence. Also, there are huge differences in the organisations’ histories in China, their degree of localisation, and the nature and content of their work.

It took 16 years for WWF, one of China’s most influential international environmental NGOs, to decide on and complete registration of a Chinese office. Many NGOs are seeking cooperation and support from the government. Given the fact that their international strengths — advanced theories and schemes and abundant experience – hardly work in tackling what the book calls the “China problem”, they now try to understand and practice the Chinese ways in order to survive and develop locally.

This book highlights the individual characteristics of the NGOs. However, readers may find it hard to do an easy comparison, as the book does not show all the investigations in a fixed format. And although details of NGOs’ work are presented, the book fails to offer deep information on the groups’ operational difficulties and solutions.

Green Emissaries – A Survey of International Environmental NGOs in China
Wang Yongchen and Wang Aijun (editors)
Beijing Publishing House, 2010

— By Meng Si

Meng Si is managing editor in chinadialogue’s Beijing office