Photo courtesy Pacific Environment
The government-sponsored All-China Environment Federation released its annual report last week on domestic non-governmental organization (NGO) activity, which included some promising figures:
- 508: grassroot-level environment NGOs as of October this year, increasing by nearly 300 from 2005. In total, there are 3,539 environment NGOs in the country, including government-sponsored ones, grassroot ones, branches of international organizations as well as school environment societies. The figure jumped by 771 from three years ago.
- 55.2: percent of the NGOs that now have their own offices, up 15.2 percent from 2005; 26 percent have fixed source of investment, up 2.1 percent.
Numbers don't tell the whole story. The Xinhua article notes that "most environment NGOs still face problems including difficulty in raising money, shortage in personnel and weak organization ability in their development process." While the notion of NGOs -- and the philanthropy that supports them financially -- is still new to China, the biggest challenges facing green NGOs still come from the government. Government Acceptance -- and Resistance
NGOs are welcome in China so long as they help advance the government's interests, which include bettering the environment, if not for the earth's future, for the future of the Communist Party.
After all, as Pan Yue, the visionary environmental official said last year of "the people":
They are the most efficient group to supervise related government departments and enterprises and ensure if they have fulfilled their duties toward the environment. (They also are) a driving force for the government's self reform.
But improving the environment and reforming the government can't happen without stepping on some toes occasionally, and to the ministers of China's byzantine bureaucracy concerned with self-preservation, that's still not acceptable.
China Development Brief
Last year, as they were fretting over how to solve the first of a slew of recent food safety crises, Beijing authorities shut down the nerve center of China's NGO world, China Development Brief. It probably didn't help the group that it was founded by a Westerner, Nick Young, even if it was mostly run by Chinese.
"I do consider myself to be a friend of China," Young said afterwards. "I think it's a serious problem if the state cannot distinguish between friends and enemies."
To be sure, China seems to have taken a more friendly stance to green NGOs than any other kind in recent years. Beijing's attitude toward NGOs looks downright warm when compared with the Kremlin's draconian anti-green stance.
But NGOs still face an uphill struggle in China. Domestic ones lack money, a result of a young philanthropic culture and a lack of confidence about how donations will be be spent. Corruption in the wake of the earthquake relief effort this year highlighted that problem.
Even if recent events like the earthquake in Sichuan and the Beijing Olympic Games raised a sense of civic awareness and public participation among China's youth, NGOs do not hold nearly the same appeal to many of China's brightest that they do in the West. They also lack the technical support, training and inter-NGO cooperation needed to become sustainable organizations. (China Dialogue discusses the issue of youth participation, with an insightful comments section.)
Meanwhile, NGOs are often burdened by government bureaucracies and policies, which place an emphasis on being registered and affiliated with official agencies. And if an NGO wants to enact serious green initiatives in China today, it will need the government's support. (Read what NGO pioneer Yu Xiaogang told us.)
To maintain goodwill with the government, NGOs in China, both foreign and domestic, avoid negative or oppositional stances. If Greenpeace is known in the West for its daring pirate-style crusades against whale ships and dramatic protests against big coal, Greenpeace China takes a decidedly different tack. It has grown to be a formidable presence in the NGO world largely through positive public awareness campaigns and government cooperation.
According to the report, via Xinhua,
...along with their growth, the organizations have since 2005 played a more active role in influencing the government's policy making, supervising the government's task of environment responsibility and raising public awareness in environment protection, it said.
The survey found 58.6 percent of the organizations were involved in the energy saving and emission cutting work, and 11 percent participated in protecting people's rights concerning environment protection...
Also on TreeHugger:
Who is China Really Trying to Kill?
China's Green Revolution: How Far Will it (Not) Go?
Goldman Environmental Prize Winner Yu Xiaogang
Ecotourism and Responsible Tourism in China
China's Newest Anti-Pollution Weapon: A Map