Environmental groups at a crossroads

An annual report highlights the dilemma facing China’s environmental groups. As mass demonstrations gain popular support and impressive results, should groups adapt their strategies?
Friends of Nature’s 2012 Annual Report on China’s Environment and Development
Yang Dongping, chief editor
Social Sciences Academic Press  April 1, 2012

Since 2005, the Chinese environmental NGO Friends of Nature has published its Annual Report on China’s Environment and Development. The 2012 edition, seventh in the series, came out in April. It highlights the identity crisis facing China’s environmental groups.

One chapter looks back at the public interest lawsuit bought by Friends of Nature and the Chongqing Green Volunteers’ Union after pollution arose from a Qujing, Yunnan company’s illegal dumping of chromium. That was a milestone. Though no clear legal framework for public interest lawsuits exists, and there were problems with assessing the damage caused by the pollution, the NGOs were still able to participate in public affairs.
Another environmental group, the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) published five reports on environmental problems in IT industry supply chains. Its dialogue with Apple was a particular highlight.
The report also covers two very significant environmental incidents in 2011. The first was the August protests in Dalian against a paraxylene (PX) factory; the second the online outcry over PM2.5 in October. With high levels of public participation in both cases – one in the real world, one online – results were quick: the PX project was halted, and the government put forward a timetable for PM2.5 monitoring.
As the book’s abstract says, “Action by the public has become one of the highlights of environmental protection in China.”
But these actions existed before 2011. It can be traced back to 2007, when residents of Xiamen marched in protest against another PX plant, just as Dalian residents would four years later. Later residents of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou protested against waste incinerators. In July of this year there were protests both in Shifang in Sichuan and Qidong in Zhejiang – and in both cases local government cancelled the offending projects.
The book has a clear focus on environmental groups and spends less time on public protests. This reflects a divide between those spontaneous demonstrations and environmental groups’ campaigns.
As campaigners look on in envy at the protestors’ strength, influence and outcomes, they find themselves at a crossroads: Should they carry on as before? Or should they accept that society has changed, and adapt accordingly?
In the past China’s environmental groups have been cautious. They rarely involved themselves in mass protests – and when they did it was after the event, without large crowds or confrontation.
Environmental groups started to appear in China in the 1990s, and for the next decade only these groups talked of the environmental movement, of civil society and environmental protection, and of public participation. Although many individuals were actively involved, most public participation in environmental protection was via these groups.
But the Xiamen PX case in 2007 seemed to inspire people all over China to take to the streets in protest over waste disposal, chemical plants and air pollution – and in ever more radical ways. In Qidong in July, locals in Qidong “occupied” government buildings and even forced the mayor to strip to the waist – something unprecedented in twenty years of China’s environmental movement.
Whether or not China had an environmental movement prior to 2007 is arguable – environmental groups were doing a little here and there, but there was no large scale public participation. But since 2007, these mass demonstrations have led many to think that China’s environmental movement is taking shape.
When it comes to environmental protection, environmental groups and the public act separately: environmental groups do not dare to participate in popular protests, while protestors on the street complain of a lack of assistance from environmental groups.
Confronted with the rising wave of mass demonstrations, environmental groups have started to question their own worth. Promoting open information or establishing a system for public interest lawsuits is of course valuable – but it is not as grand, as visually impressive, or as immediately effective, as a street protest.
Recently I spoke with a young friend of mine who works for an environmental organisation. He said that seeing the efficacy and impact of mass protests had made him question the value of his own work.
And it isn’t just environmental workers who have been affected. Reporters who have long supported environmental groups are also starting to ask questions. In 2010 Southern Metropolis Daily reporter Zhang Chuanwen wrote in an article on Friends of Nature that “if it is frequently unable to live up to public hopes, if it does not dare to actively respond to real environmental problems, then this pioneer of China’s environmental NGOs will face crisis.” Some reporters have started to side with the popular protests, and the environmental groups unable to play a role start to look a bit like failures.
I am often in touch with environmental groups, and understand the difficult position they are in. I have written in the past that if associated with a broader movement, environmental groups face an uncertain fate. In June this year Huan Qingzhi, a professor researching environmental politics at Peking University, blogged that this view reflected people’s political fear and misunderstanding of the “green movement”. “Green” or “environmental” movements should be large-scale political mobilisations organised by environmental groups to campaign on specific environmental issues. He holds that China needs a true “green movement”.
Environmental groups are already asking themselves how to redefine their value to society as mass actions emerge. As yet, they have no clear answer. China’s environmental groups have a history stretching back two decades. But now they stand at a crossroads and need to rediscover their role in society.
And those considerations are likely to affect the editing of this series of reports.
Huo Weiya is a Beijing-based freelance writer.