Environmental NGOs in China

This is a summary and response to Yang, G. (2005). “Environmental NGOs and institutional dynamics in China,” The China Quarterly, 181, 46-66.

This article was a great update on the sort of information I was collecting in 1999. The basic scene is this: China is a fairly repressive non-democratic society where protest and political organization that are not in line with the government are discouraged, to put it mildly. Still, there is organization on environmental issues, and while much of this organization pushes a more democratic agenda, it is permitted. This article attempts to look at why.

There are four main reasons outlined explaining the proliferation of environmental NGOs in China:

  • political conditions
  • opportunities offered by media
  • internet
  • international NGOs

The organizations themselves are populated by two kinds of people: organizational entrepreneurs who play a crucial role in mobilizing resources, and other participants seek self-fulfillment or social experience.

The article goes on to present its main theoretical drive: an organization functions across different fields, and these fields are attached to each other in different ways. Politics is a field, as is economics, art and literature, journalism, academia, religion, etc. This article uses the field perspective to look at the actions of environmental NGOs and how they participate in Chinese society across the various fields.

The most important or influential actors across fields are organized groups and their leaders (organizational entrepreneurs). In China, the real issue is that these organizations function on the boundary between official politics and organization of the public, and they maintain their ability to operate because they tap into multiple fields and multiple interested parties. This is built on a skill used during the Cultural Revolution where the language of the regime is used as a weapon of protest or resistance. It’s a method of collective action that has some measure of effectiveness while not actually doing anything illegal. In addition, some Chinese NGOs are taking advantage of the legal system and helping people make claims using the legal system.

Chinese environmental organizations manage to rally people for education and promote public participation, however they generally avoid confrontational means to activating change. “Common practices include public lectures, workshops and conferences, salon discussions, field trips, publication of newsletters and multimedia documents, and new forms of ‘electronic action’ such as online discussions, online mailing lists and internet petitions.”

Part of this is a growing sense of rights consciousness in Chinese society, which environmental NGOs help promote. The features of these organizations focus on publicity and participation rather than protest and disruption. Considering China’s past and attitude towards protest, it is interesting to note this more subversive way of creating change.

Political support surfaced through a number of venues to encourage NGOs, particularly those focused on the environment: in 1996 these organizations were commended at the National Environmental Protection Conference, in 2001 NGOs were encouraged to act as a third party for poverty reduction assistance for marginalized groups, and in 1998 two regulations provided a framework of registration and management of social and non-profit organizations which granted such groups legal recognition.

Yang goes on to outline different kinds of organization leaders with their varying kinds of backgrounds, some with favorable political histories or connections, some with extensive business experience or possible foreign experience, and finally those with more specific professional skills. The article then goes on to mention the import of the internet as a major organizational space, as well as sympathy from the media to cover environmental stories.

These factors all provide an excellent window into how this space for action has developed in China. Yang touches on the ability of these organizations to tap into international NGOs expertise, as well as grants and funding. I believe this hits on the key shortcoming of the article, which is that the Chinese government is financially and organizationally ill-equipped to deal with environmental problems, and in many ways the license to operate is granted to these organizations precisely because they are helping to do some of the work that the government doesn’t. While the freedom to operate and organize and promote democratic principles is admirable, it is also potentially masking the need for the government to improve environmental regulation and enforcement. If an environmental organization fails, then this is a shame, however the organization will not be penalized, and socially there is little risk. If a government agency fails, then people may stop and question the efficacy of government.

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