A Project of the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society

The Evolving Role of Environmental NGOs in China

NGOWatch Analysis

June 21, 2006

By Anne Siarnacki

In the rush of modernization, China has failed to develop its standards of environmental protection. China is home to seven of the world's ten most-polluted cities, and almost two-thirds of major Chinese cities fail to meet the national air quality standards (National Review Online, 4/21/06). Air quality has been the focus of discussions about the upcoming Beijing Olympic Games. Water quality is a continual problem. So what role, if any, have Chinese environmental NGOs been able to play in combating these problems? Are their campaigns effective? Can environmental NGOs be considered a barometer of democratization in China?

There are about 2,000 registered environmental NGOs, but experts estimate that there are about 100,000 environmental groups operating in China (South China Morning Post, 3/28/05). Many organizations call themselves non-profit enterprises or university student environmental groups to avoid the tedious NGO registration process (The China Quarterly, 2005). The Chinese government discourages NGOs and other activist organizations that focus on issues it deems sensitive, but "service" oriented NGOs that work on the environment have been encouraged and allowed to grow to supplement the official environmental agency's limited reach.

The Chinese government acknowledges that its environmental record has not kept up with the fast pace of growth. They have begun to formulate and implement new environmental policies. In 2002, the budget of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) was doubled and SEPA was given independent control of its spending (Pacific Affairs, Spring 2004). SEPA has reported that spending for environmental projects is increasing by 15 percent a year (National Review Online, 4/21/06). But as a matter of comparison, the United States Environmental Protection Agency employs around 18,000 people, while SEPA employs fewer than 500 (Manufacturing and Technology News, 5/2/06), and while SEPA has used its limited resources to carve out a niche for itself in advancing environmental policy, environmental NGOs have been able to amplify its impact.

According to Jonathan Schwartz, a professor at SUNY New Paltz, the environmental NGO community in China is "arguably the most advanced manifestation of Chinese civil society" (Pacific Affairs, Spring 2004). While bound by strict rules and close government monitoring, environmental NGOs have made some limited in-roads and have demonstrated that they can effect government policy. In 2003, the NGO Green River was able to convince the Central Communist Party (CCP) to stop traffic for an hour daily along the Qinghai road in Chengdu to allow Tibetan antelope to cross (New Internationalist, June 2003). In 2006, Chinese NGOs, coupled with local activists, were able to convince the government to temporarily stop work on a dam on the Nujiang River that would displace 50,000 people while the project is reviewed (Asahi Shimbun, 5/10/06). Other projects like the Three Gorges Dam have drawn international attention to the high level of environmental degradation in China. The government claims dams bring jobs and an increased standard of living to depressed regions, but there has been no documentation of the actual benefit. In the past fifty years, dam projects in China have displaced sixteen million people; more than sixty percent of those remain in poverty (Asahi Shimbun, 5/10/06).

Many believe that the ability of environmental NGOs to influence the government is a sign of democratic reform in China, evidence of an increased role for private citizens in policy debates. But while these NGOs represent the beginnings of a civil society and have taught lessons of grassroots organization, the CCP has kept close tabs on these NGOs. Temporary halts and easy, one-off concessions seem likely to be the only real goals to which these NGOs can aspire. Several environmental activists have been arrested for going too far (Worldwatch Institute, 11/23/05) and no one labeled a political dissident can be an NGO member (Elizabeth Economy's Congressional Testimony, 2/7/05).

In addition to a restrictive political culture, environmental NGOs in China face substantial funding and human capital challenges. China has yet to develop a culture of philanthropic donation or a system of tax incentives that would encourage such donations, making even official NGOs dependent on foreign sources of funding (Pacific Affairs, Spring 2004; Worldwatch Institute, 11/23/05). The government views foreign donations to environmental NGOs the same way it views other foreign direct investment -a positive contribution to the Chinese economy- but limitations in the amount of both domestic and foreign donations seriously constrain the work of environmental NGOs in China.

As long as environmental NGOs focus their efforts on dealing with environmental problems without directly challenging the CCP or its policies, it seems likely that environmental NGOs will be allowed to flourish in China. However, if their activities become threatening to the government or begin to touch on more serious issues such as minority and human rights, it seems likely that their freedom would be curbed. Because of China's restrictive political environment, the full potential of environmental NGOs in China -and the full potential of civil society groups in general- is unlikely to be developed.