The Development of Environmental NGOs in China: A Road to Civil Society?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 23

There has been an upsurge of environmental movements in China over the past several years. During the spring of 2005, environmentalists staged a series of protests that eventually halted a construction project in Yuanmingyuan. Just one year earlier, Green Peace China prevented the Asian Pulp & Paper Company from illegally deforesting the Yunnan Province. Yet perhaps the most notable of these demonstrations were those undertaken to protect the Nu River from the construction of mega dams, which activists claimed would threaten the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site in Yunnan Province. The State Development and Reform Commission had approved of the dam construction plans prepared by the Huadian Corporation and the local government in August 2003, in spite of the fact that just one month before, the area had been designated a World Natural Heritage Site. Under pressure from Chinese environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the international community, however, Premier Wen Jiabao suspended the original project in February 2004 with the instructions to “Study Carefully, Decide Scientifically.”

These movements distinguish themselves from other patterns of resistance in contemporary China in two ways. Unlike the “unauthorized” protests that have often been brutally suppressed by the government, many of these efforts have been relatively successful in influencing government policies. More importantly, the NGOs, which emerged after the mid-1990s, have played a pivotal role in leading and organizing these environmental movements. As a result, 2004 has been dubbed by the media as “Year One of the NGO Era” (NGO Yuannian). According to the Development Situation Report on China’s Civil Environmental Organizations (zhongguo huanbao minjia zuzhi fazhan zhuangkuang) released by the Government Organized Non-Governmental Organization (GONGO) All China Environmental Federation (zhonghua huanbao lianhehui) in April 2006, the total number of “Civil Environmental Organizations” amounted to 2,768. Of these organizations, government-initiated groups and student clubs accounted for 49.9% and 40.3%, respectively, while civil-initiated organizations and international NGOs, which are eligible to be categorized as NGOs, accounted for 7.2% and 2.6% [1]. Although civil-initiated organizations and international NGOs remain in the minority, they are nevertheless significant given that there were only a handful of NGOs just a decade before.

The Development of NGOs

The tremendous growth in the number of NGOs can be accounted for primarily by the need to facilitate the interactions between the state and society. Up until recently, the state-centered approach (e.g. state corporatism), which placed a priority on the state’s ability to maintain control over society, possessed the upper hand in the ongoing debates regarding the relationship between state and society in China. Yet, beginning in the late 1990s, the society-centered approach gained currency, as it became clear that a number of the social problems and conflicts were often beyond the grasp of the state. Last year, for instance, Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang noted that the number of “mass incidents”—including protests, riots and mass petitions—had risen by 28% in 2004 to 74,000; only 10,000 such cases had been reported a decade before (South China Morning Post, February 8).

In light of the growing domestic turbulence, the state has begun to acknowledge its need to collaborate with “healthy” social forces to maintain stability. For example, “The Guideline for the Development of Charities (2006-2010)” emphasizes the potential for charitable civil organizations to plug gaps in the development of a state social welfare system (China Development Brief, December 2005/January 2006). Nevertheless, the state remains caught between contradictory views. On the one hand, there is the view that fostering a charitable sector within society could reduce the government’s burden. Yet, there is also a fear that the growth of independent environmental groups promoting an agenda separate from that of the government could eventually erode the political monopoly of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and therefore should be suppressed.

While the development of NGOs in China has certainly been facilitated by the shift in the state’s attitude toward social organizations, much of the progress has largely been the result of the activists’ strategic decision to use NGOs as an instrument in promoting social and political progress while avoiding direct challenges to the state. Some NGO activists see the activities of NGOs as a platform for political and social progress. One NGO activist whom this author interviewed in 2003 pointed out the impact that the 1995 Fourth UN Conference on Women in Beijing had on the development of NGOs in China. Beijing had applied for this conference primarily to increase its influence in the international arena. Yet, during the conference, the criticism that the international NGOs lodged against the Chinese government’s policies, such as its coercive birth control program, drew far more attention than any of the conference’s other events. Many of the Chinese participants discovered the potential of using NGOs to develop and strengthen civil society, while avoiding an outright challenge to the government. It is, therefore, no accident that a number of the important NGOs emerged and developed after the 1995 UN Conference, such as Friends of Nature (1995), Green Village in Beijing (1996) and Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (1998).

A number of changes in China’s environmental policy have particularly accelerated the development of environmental NGOs. Since 2003, new policies highlighting the necessity to harmonize economic development with the protection of the environment have been adopted by Wen and President Hu Jintao, such as “scientific development” and a “harmonious society,” which in turn have strengthened the legitimacy of the environmental movement. The State Environment Protection Administration (SEPA) has also been a supporter of the environmental movement, and its vice director, Fanyue, was quoted more than once declaring that the SEPA and NGOs are natural friends. Moreover, a number of significant environmental laws have been enacted in recent years. For instance, the September 1, 2003 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Law requires that comprehensive environmental reviews be undertaken during the planning stages of major public and private development projects. The Provisional Rule for Public Participation in Environmental Impact Assessment, enacted on March 17 requires the government to provide the public with open information and to hold public hearings over issues that may affect the people. Against this backdrop, the amount of collaboration between the government and NGOs has increased, particularly on the subject of environmental issues. The government-NGO cooperation peaked when 56 environmental NGOs published a letter supporting SEPA’s decision to suspend 30 construction projects on the charges of violating the EIA law in January 2005.

Promoting Civil Rights through the Environmental Movement

It is interesting to note that rather than dealing solely with ecological issues, the environmental movement in China has increasingly incorporated the issue of civil rights into its arguments. The aforementioned case of the Nu River movement demonstrates this point clearly. In the beginning, the opposition to the dam project was largely based on the necessity to conserve the natural environment around the Nu River and the fact that it was a part of the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site. As debates proceeded, however, environmentalists realized that the rationale of natural conservation alone could not prevail against the argument of economic development, which implied improved conditions for the poor peasants residing near the Nu River. Those supporting the construction of the dam accused the environmentalists of ignoring the people’s needs for economic development and of focusing exclusively on nature.

The stalemate was broken when the environmentalists introduced the concerns of the local people. Citing examples of previous dam projects, the environmentalists argued that the construction of the dam would actually exacerbate the condition of the local residents. Professor Zhou Tianyong at the Central Party School, for instance, discovered that residents in China’s western Qinghai province had an average net income of 1,772 yuan (US$220) per head in 2004—about half the national average—despite the 50 billion yuan ($6.2 billion) project to build 13 hydropower dams along the Yellow River. In addition, he found that the loss of land and roads from the dams left many even poorer after the construction was completed (Jingjicankaobao, February 15).

In April 2004, Yu Xiaogang, a founder of the NGO Green Watershed in Yunnan Province, took peasants to the site of Manwan Dam where most of the rural residents were barely managing to make ends meet since the construction of the dam in 1993. The peasants were shocked by how the government had made promises, yet had not followed through (The New York Times, December 27, 2005). In October 2004, Yu led a small group of peasants to a Beijing hydropower conference jointly sponsored by the UN and China’s National Development and Reform Commission. They held a press conference to claim their rights to information, participation and decision-making. Along with a riot in Hanyuan, Sichuan Province in October 2004 caused by the Baopu dam project, the environmentalists’ activities led the government to increase the amount of compensation provided in cases of expropriation. Environmental activists have also staunchly supported the right of the public to participate in governmental affairs. In the 2005 Yuanmingyuan case (see above), demand for “public participation in decision-making” became very salient and even forced a public hearing to be held in April 2005. On August 25, 2005, an open letter signed by 66 NGOs and 99 individuals was sent to the government, demanding that the environmental assessment report on Nu River dams be made public according to related laws.

The Future of NGOs in China

The prospects of the environmental movement and civil and political progress are not always promising in China, as many NGOs must selectively choose their battles in order to prevent themselves from being shut down. For instance, China’s environmental NGOs were not willing to involve themselves in the Songhua river debacle in November 2005. According to an editorial published in the China Development Brief, the primary reason for their refrain was their fear of a governmental backlash, similar to Beijing’s heightened scrutiny of NGOs in 2005 following the “color revolutions” in Central Asia and Eastern Europe (China Development Brief, March 2006). The Songhua incident reveals the true limits of autonomy for the “Green NGOs”.

In spite of these challenges, there are a number of promising signs for the development of NGOs and civil society. NGOs have demonstrated a willingness to oppose the local and even provincial governments, exploiting differences between state apparatuses. Moreover, NGOs have developed autonomous networks throughout China and continue to organize coordinated activities such as joint signature gatherings. Although these may not be purely collective actions, they would have been unthinkable only a few years before. These autonomous NGO networks have also increased the profile of other civil rights issues. NGOs, though nascent, are already having an impact on the Chinese society and are only likely to increase the dialogue and action on political, civil and environmental problems.


1. The Development Situation Report on China’s Civil Environmental Organization is available online at: