Green Anhui and the grass-roots way

Activist Zhou Xiang discusses environmentalism, civic engagement and NGOs in China with Hannah Lincoln and Neha Sakhuja. Education and the news media, he says, are key factors in increasing social awareness and common action.

Green Anhui, a Chinese environmental NGO, leapt from obscurity in 2009 via the Academy Award-nominated documentary Warriors of Qiugang, which followed Qiugang village residents as they struggled to shut down a chemical factory in Anhui province. In an interview excerpted here with permission, one of Green Anhui’s founders, Zhou Xiang, spoke with Hannah Lincoln and Neha Sakhuja of Asia Society Northern California.

Asia Society: How did your environmental activism career begin? Can you tell us about your experience as an environmental activist in China and how you came to found Green Anhui?

Zhou Xiang: In 2003, a group of us from Anhui got together and founded Green Anhui. At the same time I went in 2004 to work with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), an American international NGO with an office in Shanghai. I was the Chinese delegate, in charge of the Chinese alligator programme. The programme took the New York Bronx Zoo’s Chinese alligators and Chinese zoos’ Chinese alligators and put them on Shanghai’s Chongming Island, where they were introduced back into the wild.

So I did four years of field work, from 2004 to 2008, and then returned to Anhui. Now I consider myself a full-time staff member, someone who in America would be called an environmental activist.

AS: Where does Green Anhui get its funding?

ZX: We had a small start-up cost of US$200 donated by the US-based Global Greengrants Fund. Today the group’s funding comes primarily from writing proposals to foundations, companies and local governments. Right now, 55% of our funding comes from Chinese foundations and the remaining 45% from overseas sources.

AS: Do the Chinese foundations that fund you have any connection to the government?

ZX: No, the NGOs have no connection to the government. They are established by Chinese individuals with no governmental ties.

AS: Do the other provinces have similar NGOs? Do you work together with them?

ZX: There are not others like Green Anhui. China’s NGOs are very few.

AS: So what are Green Anhui’s primary activities?

ZX: We have three offices. … We have one office in the city of Bengbu, near the Huai River. There is an office in Hefei, [Anhui’s capital] near Chao Lake, which also serves as our headquarters. We also have another office in Wuhu. … In Hefei we do education, training, workshops and policy. In Bengbu, we do more campaign stuff — things to do with human rights and environmentalism. Wuhu’s office deals in waste. Now we’re building the fourth office at Yellow Mountain [Huangshan]. There is a river there that leads to Hangzhou called the Xin’anjiang that we look after.

AS: What is the pollution situation like for these three rivers and Chao Lake?

ZX: Chao Lake and the Yangtze River were not always all right, but the government recently invested a lot of money in cleaning them up. They are OK now. Chao Lake is China’s fifth-largest lake, and it has the largest government investment in lake clean-up. They spent US$100 million on cleaning up Chao Lake. Right now, the worst pollution is of the Huai River.

AS: So even though the documentary was about your success on the Huai River, Huai River is still not in good shape?

ZX: The Huai river is very long. It crosses four provinces. Our staff is just at one location. Later on, we may map out a plan along the Huai in other places. But right now we are just focused on Anhui. Other than that, we will be most effective by slowly influencing local people in all these places.

AS: And what about the Xin’anjiang?

ZX: Xin’anjiang should have some of the best water in all of China. But downstream it’s all polluted. So what’s to be done? Upstream, we have to protect the water, otherwise downstream, no one can drink it. Yellow Mountain is extremely beautiful, and that’s where a lot of the water comes from, so it’s important to protect it.

AS: At the Yellow Mountain office, do you have any specific plans?

ZX: In June, we carried out an investigation with the help of Alibaba, China’s eBay. They gave money to build our Yellow Mountain office. Xin’anjing is a beautiful river and Yellow Mountain is a beautiful mountain, and we are a small organisation. So Alibaba is helping us protect them.

AS: Have average Chinese people heard of your movie?

ZX: Yes, many have, especially people with environmental interests. Also government officials. [Laughs.]

AS: When Warriors of Qiugang began filming, how was it received by the villagers? Were they suspicious of you in any way?

ZX: When we started out, the villagers thought the movie director Ruby Yang and her cohort were reporters. The villagers hoped to expose what was going on and attract the government’s attention. So from the beginning, the villagers were very supportive.

When they realised we were making a movie, they were happy because in the end, this is a problem that the government does want to solve. The governmental departments all handled it differently, though. Some of the departments were not too pleased. But the environmental ministry really liked it, because the villagers’ success was also a success for them.

They had hoped that someone would pay attention to them, and they do not fear the media.

AS: Did the villagers see the movie?

XS: Yes, they saw it. They thought it was pretty interesting. They smiled a bit and cried a bit. Because in the process of making this movie some of the villagers died. Some of the people we interviewed died; you can see it mentioned in the end of the movie.

AS: In Warriors of Qiugang, village leader Zhang Gongli goes to Beijing to attend a conference and also to appeal to the higher authorities about Qiugang’s issue [a common occurrence known as shang fang, 上访]. The video shows several people at the conference passionately discussing environmental issues, in particular the role of law and authority. Can you tell us about what Zhang Gongli did in Beijing?

ZX: He went to shang fang, but he also went to join a conference. He had already appealed to some authorities in the Anhui province city of Bengbu, and the next step was to shang fang in Beijing as well. We told him about a conference and helped him get there. The goal was to study how to protect oneself and one’s environmental rights and interests.

The conference was a meeting of NGOs in Beijing, environmental activists and many village leaders like Zhang Gongli, who were victims of pollution.

AS: Do you think the Qiugang story is the norm or the exception? And when people shang fang, do they usually succeed?

ZX: Some win, some lose, and I’d say that there are fewer wins than losses.

Many will not succeed because they do not have a method or a foundation [base]. Even though the Qiugang documentary is only 39 minutes long, you can see that we used a lot of different tools. For instance, we used the media. We had the elementary school children write essays [to newspapers about the environmental situation of their town].

AS: You guys orchestrated that activity?

ZH: [Laughs.] Yes, that was one of the activities we planned.

This is a long-term project that we started in 2006. We spent four years on Qiugang’s pollution issues – a very long time. Secondly, they had stand-out community leaders, like Zhang Gongli. We also had overseas support. So I think the success of Qiugang is not inevitable, because there are a lot of contributing factors. But China’s environmental activities must have the support of the media, NGOs and community leaders in order to succeed.

AS: Is the Jiucailuo company [the chemical factory that was shut down] still polluting?

ZH: After it closed, it was moved to a chemical-factory district. There are a lot of companies together there, and no residents. There is also a water treatment facility there, and it cleans up the water. If they start to pollute again, we’ll just go back and do it again.

AS: Would you sue them?

ZX: In China, we don’t really sue. We use the media. We will write a report and give it to the government. We won’t use a lawyer until the last minute.

AS: Have you worked on any other Qiugang-like cases?

ZX: Wanggang village and Xiaogang village. We are still working on these cases. Their pollution is also very serious. They probably won’t need to shang fang. We use the media. We give local governments pressure.

AS: Do your activities and the law system have a tight relationship? Does the legal system as it now exists suit your activities?

ZX: Yes, there is a very tight relationship. Why, at the end of the day, did the chemical company have to move? Because according to Chinese law, a chemical factory cannot have residents living within one kilometre of it. But the company was just 20 metres away. So it was shut down.

The legal system is very broad. We may need a few specific problem-solving methods. That is to say, we need specific environmental-protection laws. So they are in the process of being written. Afterwards, they will be applicable and usable.

Also, China’s standards need to be lower than, say, Europe’s.

AS: Why’s that?

ZX: Because only if standards are low will companies be willing to build in that area. For instance, I went to Asia Pacific Environment Network (APEN) in Oakland [California]. They told me that a chemical company in Oakland closed and moved to Shanghai, due to Shanghai having lower legal standards.

AS: To what extent do you represent a trend? How many environmental NGOs are in China, and where are they?

ZX: China’s environmental NGOs over the past few years have started to increase. But most of what they do is education and training.  They do not do things like what we did in Qiugang, because they think the issues are too sensitive. The other problem is, the groups are all very young – four years old or younger – and a lot of the staff is also pretty young. So they do education training.

Our activities in Qiugang are not typical of all NGOs. It is not typical for us, either. We mostly do education and training.

The number of NGOs in China will continue to increase because China has recently opened up registration. In the past, it was very hard to register because we had to go through multiple departments for permission. Now you just have to register with one bureau. It’s like in America, where if you want to become a 501(c) [a non-profit business classification], you register for it, and then you get certain tax benefits. This is now available in China, too. So lately regulations have loosened up a bit.

Most of all, NGOs in China need time. They need experience. They only have a little money. Some only have one or two staff members – extremely small.

AS: With regards to your NGO or environmental NGOs in general, what political obstructions exist?

ZX: Our NGO manages to stay out of the fray, because we don’t touch on sensitive issues. We don’t get involved in political problems; we focus purely on environmental-protection issues.

There, of course, will be a little overlap of environment and politics. But we aren’t left-leaning or right-leaning – we stay in the middle. Most of China’s NGOs are going to be in the middle.

AS: The government’s current Five-Year Plan’s top priority is environmental protection, so they must have a pretty supportive attitude toward environmentalism?

ZX: I wouldn’t say they are very supportive. If certain matters are very influential, then they may support it. But if no one knows about an event, they won’t pay attention to it.

AS: Can you explain how you identify community leaders and what methods you use to train them?

ZX: First, in towns, we will disseminate information about environmentalism, try to educate people and also do some activities. And then some people will stand up and say that they want to help out. These people tend to be teachers and [school] principals, or old villagers – they are often the ones willing to help out.

One training method is to hand out pamphlets that explain environmental law. [The pamphlet] lists articles and regulations they can refer to if their environmental rights and interests are threatened. On the back of the pamphlet are our telephone number and the Environmental Protection Bureau’s number, which they should call if they are being harmed by pollution.

AS: So you train these few people, and then they will …?

ZX: Bring power to the people. They will give a call to the Environmental Protection Bureau and say that this chemical company is polluting, and invite them over to check it out.

AS: A lot of villagers do not have internet access. So what kind of role does social media play in your activities?

ZH: We don’t use these methods much. A lot of people have not graduated from high school, or even middle school. They might not use texting yet. We still use the traditional methods such as newspapers and posters and such. That way the local people will understand.

AS: Can you explain more about the activities you do in the cities?

ZH: We encourage everyone to use public transportation … Hefei city government dispensed a new electric bus this year, and through our magazine we encourage everyone to ride it. We also gave bus drivers shirts with green logos.

Also, on our website, we have a carbon calculator. For instance, if you drive a car, you may generate 100 tonnes of carbon dioxide in one year. By bus, you might not even make 20 tonnes of carbon dioxide. We train corporations to calculate their carbon production and teach them how to cut back.

AS: In the 20th century, a lot of Chinese scholars wrote about China’s “pan of sand” issue. That is, they bemoaned the inability of Chinese people to group together and fight for a cause. Do you think this is the situation now?

ZX: There have been some changes since then. But there are so many people in China that a big change still has not happened. It is still in the beginning stages.

But nowadays, a lot of young people are very highly educated. They’ve gone to college and gotten master’s degrees. They are more willing to talk about certain issues. … So there is a trend of increased social awareness. And now with social media, people will come together much more.

AS: Do you think that people with better civic engagement necessarily have better educations? Or is it that they have more channels, such as the internet and texting? The people of Qiugang were not very educated, but they were very civically engaged.

ZH: Hmm … right. I don’t think that civic engagement and education have a direct relationship. For instance, why do Qiugang people have this mentality? First, it’s because the people in Bengbu city dare to campaign. They dare to fight. So people there, their mentalities are more willing to fight for human rights. But other places may not be like this.

Also, it’s not to say that if you get a good education and can go on the internet, you definitely are civic-minded. It’s not that direct. But these two factors are pretty necessary.

AS: I remember as a kid that we learned about environmentalism in elementary school. What’s China’s primary education on environmentalism like?

ZX: It exists in China, but it’s not very widespread. Why? Because even though education departments in all places have brought up the need for environmental education, it’s still abstract.

AS: Do you feel like a hero?

ZX: I am not a hero. I didn’t even appear in the movie. [Laughs.]

AS: Like that Bei Dao poem [“Declaration”] which says [in essence] I am not hero, I am just doing what I must do?

ZX: Yes, just like that.

Hannah Lincoln and Neha Sakhuja interviewed Zhou Xiang, director of Green Anhui, for the Asia Society Northern California. The interview is excerpted by chinadialogue with the society’s permission.

Image from Green Anhui shows Zhou Xiang.