A suspicious and powerful government. Home to incredible biodiversity and the world’s biggest polluters. A citizenry struggling to define its notion of civil society. Despite these challenges, the environmental movement in China is gaining momentum.
Dalian, China, defies the surly stock image of a polluted Chinese city. On a typical weekday, Audi sedans and electric trolley cars glide past upscale restaurants and fancy clothing boutiques in its prosperous downtown. Skyscrapers reflect a blue sky that shows no glaring signs of air pollution. During summer holidays, tourists from Beijing, which lies 500 miles to the west, flock to Dalian’s beaches to swim in the Yellow Sea. It is a place known for its affluent, well-educated, and connected citizens.
Like many Chinese cities, Dalian has a vibrant industrial sector featuring petroleum refineries, chemical plants, and factories that specialize in high-tech manufacturing. So last summer, when waves from a tropical storm destroyed a dike guarding the Fujia chemical factory not far from the downtown area, Dalian residents feared that if another storm hit the city’s coastline, floodwaters might inundate the chemical plant and trigger a toxic spill. A group of concerned residents hooked up online through the Chinese microblogging service Weibo and decided to hit the streets to raise awareness about the threats the factory posed to their health and livelihoods.
About 12,000 people showed up for the Sunday demonstrations. They marched through the main streets of the city and then gathered on the grass outside a government building to press their case. Some protesters held white sheets with spray-painted red and black letters reading “PX” – short for paraxylene, a feedstock for plastic bottles that is the main product of the Fujia plant. As riot cops patrolled the crowd, the city’s top official climbed onto a police van and promised to close the factory and move it away from downtown.
International media swarmed around the story, suggesting that the demonstration, like several before it in other Chinese cities, was another example of how the Chinese are getting increasingly vocal on environmental issues. Foreign Policy quoted a Chinese study saying environmental concerns had led to as many as 90,000 “mass incidents” the previous year. The magazine dubbed Dalian “The New Epicenter of China’s Discontent.”
But five months later, when I visited Dalian on a brisk and sunny winter afternoon, a local environmentalist told me that the factory’s fate remained unresolved. The paraxylene factory had resumed operations a few months after the August demonstration, she explained, and it was unclear what action, if any, city authorities would take. The event had been a “reasonable action, and the government gave a very reasonable response,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity in a converted apartment that serves as the headquarters for a local environmental NGO. “Now we’re waiting to see what follow-up steps the government takes. Our biggest concern is whether or not the government will actually follow up on its promise.” She didn’t appear to be all that hopeful that city officials would.
Clearly the summer demonstration hadn’t been the opening salvo in a months-long, people-powered protest on the order of ones that swept parts of North Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and the United States last year. But it’s worth remembering that 20 years ago such a protest would have been unthinkable. It used to be that all manufacturing in Communist China was state-owned, and there wasn’t much an average Chinese citizen could do to curb or regulate industrial pollution that threatened his or her health. Today the reality is less bleak: Although many factories have strong links to local governments, they are independently owned and somewhat more accountable to the public. Meanwhile, many middle class Chinese who in another era would have been civil servants now work in the private sector, and they are increasingly willing to voice their concerns about environmental issues. And social networking sites make it easier for the urban middle class to speak out anonymously – and organize demonstrations – without fear of police backlash.
China experts say the Dalian incident, like others before it, underscores a green tide of environmental awareness and activism that has been slowly rising across the country since China’s infamous 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. They say people in Chinese cities and villages are beginning to take note of the environmental pollution that has accompanied three decades of breakneck economic growth. The rising Chinese middle class is starting to demand the right to enjoy clean air and water, while impoverished farmers are increasingly speaking out about industrial pollution that spoils their crops and sickens their families.
This nascent eco-resistance varies widely across provinces and social classes. Some members of China’s educated urban middle class are forming grassroots organizations, filing lawsuits and staging nonviolent demonstration. Villagers in the countryside periodically gather outside provincial offices or clash with police when industrial projects cause egregious pollution. A half dozen experts say that, compared with activists focused on gay rights and HIV/AIDS, Chinese who work on environmental issues have more freedom to raise public awareness about their concerns, and that China’s state-controlled press, while far from independent, is devoting increasing attention to environmental issues. But the experts also note that China is a country where vague laws favor polluters with government connections; where most people have uniquely Chinese understandings of civic responsibility and government accountability, or lack thereof; and where environmental success stories are offset by widespread pollution, entrenched corruption, and an onerous bureaucracy that stifles democratic stirrings.
Analysts say while China permits some degree of protesting and activism because it can serve as a kind of “steam vent” for social unrest, it quickly clamps down on anyone who directly challenges the ruling Communist Party. Chinese environmentalists are almost never arrested, and unlike Ai Wei Wei, an outspoken Beijing-based artist who was detained for nearly three months last year on trumped-up charges of tax evasion, they don’t generally become high-profile dissidents. Yet well-known Chinese environmental organizers still face government surveillance, and they work under what analysts call a “glass ceiling”– a limit beyond which the government does not permit them to push.
Whether, or to what degree, Chinese environmentalists will be able to break through that glass ceiling is more than an academic issue. As a rising power that has become the factory to the world and is already the globe’s number one carbon dioxide emitter, China has an environmental footprint that treads far beyond its borders. People around the world agree that preserving China’s biodiversity and reducing its air and water pollution are of international importance, but environmentalists familiar with China’s environmental scene say pressure from foreign foundations and NGOs will never be enough to put the country on a more sustainable path. To do that will require coordinated action by Chinese citizens who are committed to environmental protection – even if demanding change can invite unwanted scrutiny from China’s powerful central government.
photo Reuters/David Gray
China watchers say that environmentalists there are far from forming a mass environmental movement that would match such movements in Europe and the United States. China expert Darrin Magee says it’s instructive to think of green activism in China as environmentalism with “Chinese characteristics”– a reference to China’s embrace of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Although many of the country’s leading environmentalists maintain low public profiles, Magee says, they know how to advocate for change and push back against polluters, but in a way that doesn’t get them into too much trouble with Chinese authorities. “I don’t see a knight riding in on a green horse tomorrow, but nor do I see environmental activism in China being shut down in the future,” he told me. “It’s a two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back kind of advance.”
Chinese environmental activism appears to run along two main tracks. One is the demonstrations that have erupted in recent years across the country, from cities like Dalian to villages like Wukan, in southern China, where villagers gained international attention last year for protesting land seizures. China experts say the urban events are typically driven by an increasingly assertive middle class whose members stage preemptive battles with developers and city officials in hopes of preserving their quality of life. Rural protests are largely driven by farmers who are either suffering from environmental pollution or worried about the consequences of proposed hydropower dams and other infrastructure projects.
The second, and largely separate, element of Chinese environmentalism is the long-term capacity building and NGO development-work that has been underway since the mid-1990s. Many of China’s earliest environmental NGOs operated with support from international foundations and US conservation groups like World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy, and they tended to pursue agendas related to wildlife and conservation. Jennifer Turner, the longtime director of the China Environment Forum at the Washington, DC-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, estimates the current number of registered Chinese environmental NGOs is about 3,000. While many of these groups are conservation-focused, Turner says their agendas are expanding to include legal advocacy and consumer education. There is a China Civil Climate Action Network, for example, and legal-aid style groups like the Beijing-based Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims, which aids farmers who seek redress against polluters.
A number of these groups work in tandem with government agencies, in some cases acting as quasi extension agents. “Some people have said, ‘Oh, it’s a weakness of the NGOs that they just try to work with the government,’” Turner told me in a phone interview. “My thought is, let’s not be stupid: It is still a one-party state, and in all honesty, a lot of the laws on the books are good laws, and the Chinese government is not a monolith. At the central government level there is a lot of concern to really work on the environment and improve environmental quality.” Chinese authorities don’t like protests because such activities are a sign of instability, Turner added, and they want to promote sustained economic growth because it reinforces their political legitimacy.
In addition to China’s 3,000 registered green NGOs, there are another 3,000 groups that don’t bother to fill out the official paperwork.
At a local level, China’s green NGOs are beset by a morass of bureaucratic, financial, and cultural obstacles. Local laws typically allow only one NGO to work on a given issue in a given locality. NGOs must also register with sponsoring government agencies, which Chinese environmentalists jokingly call administrative “mother-in-laws.” The government also keeps close fiscal tabs on domestic NGOs – especially ones that have foreign backers – and requires many to re-apply for licences each year. The government’s general strategy is to “ensure that groups do not exert too much autonomy,” writes the China expert Timothy Hildebrandt at the University of Southern California, “and to keep alliances and mission creep to a minimum.”
Consider the case of Green Camel Bell, a registered NGO in Gansu Province that is one of eight Chinese environmental groups receiving annual grants of between $5,000 and $20,000 from the California-based NGO Pacific Environment. The eight-year-old Chinese organization’s stated agenda – which emphasizes environmental education and sustainable development – looks relatively nonthreatening. But Gansu is a remote province in Muslim-dominated, and restive, western China. Local officials there find the NGO “too troublesome,” says the Chinese activist Wen Bo, who is a senior fellow with Pacific Environment, and as a result the group’s organizers can never be sure that their license will be renewed the following year. Small wonder that in addition to China’s roughly 3,000 registered environmental NGOs, there are an estimated 3,000 NGO-like environmental groups in the People’s Republic that never bother to fill out official NGO paperwork.
Yet another challenge is that nongovernmental organizations don’t command the same respect in China that they can in Europe and the United States. Donations to Chinese NGOs are not tax-deductible, and in the Chinese language the phrase “nongovernmental organization” can carry a pejorative and vaguely anarchic connotation. “It can very easily be misread as ‘anti-government,’” explains China expert Magee, a professor at Hobart & William Smith Colleges. “The concept (of an NGO) is close enough to ‘resistance’ that the conflation could easily be made, especially if there are vested interests at stake.”
Although Chinese NGOs are severely restricted, it doesn’t mean that China doesn’t have real environmental activism. Magee points to a 1996 book by the scholars Kevin J. O’Brien and Lianjiang Li that explores the concept of “rightful resistance” – the process by which people challenge perceived injustices without straying too far from the status quo. The authors write that in rural China some villagers complain about social issues by co-opting Maoist messaging – for example, by accusing local officials of not being “authentic communists,” and thereby avoiding accusations of disloyalty. Magee says that in contemporary China activists use similar tactics to speak out about environmental problems. A typical strategy is to petition high-ranking government officials to address a local case, and to layer the appeal with patriotic odes to the Communist Party. It’s a “structural conduit,” Magee explains, that dates back to imperial times.
Magee and other China experts say green NGOs are only one element in the country’s growing and diffuse civil society. Some Chinese activists focus on raising awareness about existing or potential environmental abuses posed by a company, factory, or infrastructure project. A high-profile example is Ma Jun, a former journalist at the South China Morning Post who has earned widespread acclaim for drawing attention to pollution in China. In April, he won the prestigious Goldman Prize after waging an international campaign to pressure Apple to green up its China supply chain. “If he went after a Chinese company the way he went after Apple,” says Jennifer Turner of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, “he could get in trouble.”
Another well-publicized example of this approach to fighting environmental battles is a campaign to prevent hydropower development along the Nu (or Salween) River in the southwestern province of Yunnan. The campaign, which began about a decade ago, was driven by Yunnan activists who opposed a government plan to build 13 hydropower dams on the river, which, along with the Mekong and Yangtze, is one of China’s “Three Parallel Rivers” and an internationally recognized biodiversity hotspot. By educating local farmers who would be displaced by the dam, and later communicating the farmers’ concerns to international supporters and domestic and foreign journalists, Chinese environmental activists ensured that the story reached the central government’s ears. Although no massive protests were staged along the Nu, analysts say the savvy, multi-pronged campaign drove Premier Wen Jiabao to announce, in 2004, that Nu river dams would be indefinitely postponed – a decision that many said was an early victory for China’s budding environmental movement.
A key organizer of that anti-dam campaign is Yu Xiaogang, a 61-year-old Chinese army veteran who lives in Kunming, the leafy capital of Yunnan Province. Yu runs a nonprofit called Green Watershed out of a converted apartment in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood. On the spring day I visited with my interpreter, he greeted us wearing pressed khakis and professorial spectacles. Spider plants sprawled across the office’s windowsills, and an indigo batik covered the conference table. The view from Yu’s plastic skylight was of other identical apartment blocks.
Yu said that although the majority of Chinese NGOs focus on providing social services, a handful advocate for systemic changes. Because he knows that speaking out on politically sensitive issues like hydropower dams can attract unwanted attention from Chinese authorities, he chooses his battles wisely. “Every NGO in China wants to keep a low profile, but when there is a key moment, if you don’t win the battle you may lose the whole war,” he told me. “This is why we took the risk to fight.”
Yu started fighting the proposed dams by traveling to villages along the Nu River and convincing farmers to get on a bus. He told them he wanted them to meet other farmers on the nearby Mekong – an afternoon’s ride away – who had already been relocated for a completed dam project. They climbed aboard, and when the bus arrived at the second village, they saw people sorting through piles of trash on the riverbank. It was the only way to survive, the trash collectors explained, because water from the new dam’s reservoir had swamped their rice paddies.
The residents of the first village were shocked. In a scene from Waking the Green Tiger, a documentary about the campaign against Nu River hydropower, Yu tells them, “We hope to come back here in the future to find out what is going on.” He then explains, “We’re an environmental group and we’d like to help you.” Yu later made sure the farmers’ concerns, and the threats the dams posed, were widely publicized in Chinese state media. He also helped to distribute an anti-dam advocacy film to rural communities across Yunnan, and arranged for Yunnan farmers to tell their stories at international conferences. After Premier Wen Jiabao temporarily called off the proposed dams, activists pointed to Yu’s work as a major influence behind Wen’s decision.
Their excitement didn’t last. Today, although the Nu River is still running wild, several dams will likely be built anyway, and preliminary construction work is already underway. The online magazine Yale Environment 360 has speculated that the anti-dam fight Yu helped spearhead may have been “a high-water mark – at least for that kind of direct-action campaign in China.”
In Kunming, I asked Yu what he and Green Watershed are doing to keep the anti-dam cause alive. He flashed me a firm look and said he couldn’t discuss details of his activism if he wanted to keep his NGO running. People familiar with Yu’s work tell me that at one point during the Nu River campaign, customs agents at a Chinese airport seized his computer and confiscated his passport. They say he faced such pressures because the Nu River campaign had mobilized villagers and posed a threat to state-connected power companies – and by extension the central government.
The next morning, I boarded a bus for Dali, a tourist city about 200 miles west of Kunming, to meet Shi Lihong, the environmental activist who filmed the anti-dam advocacy film that Yu Xiaogang and others used as fodder for their campaign. I met Shi, 41, at a Western-style coffeehouse near one of the Dali’s four stone gates. It was drizzling, and she arrived wearing a green rain jacket. We ordered coffees, and for the next hour, she told stories in English of her former lives working for state-run media outlets and the WWF, and later starting her own grassroots nonprofit, the Green Plateau Institute.
Shi said she and her husband, the Chinese filmmaker Xi Zhinong, started the NGO because she doesn’t think foreign ones are equipped to tackle the nuances of Chinese environmental issues. Running the organization was financially draining, she said, and because her work to save endangered species threatened the interests of a provincial logging industry, it grew dangerous: Locals tried to intimidate her by threatening her at knifepoint and cutting the brakes of her car. “After three years, we realized that our strength lies in the image,” she said. Making nature-advocacy films “is the best way to combine our expertise with our passion.”
Shi and Xi then founded Wild China Film, a Dali-based filmmaking company that works closely with Chinese grassroots environmental organizations. She said making environmental films allows her to promote environmental messages to a wide audience – Xi has more than 20,000 followers on the microblogging site Weibo – without as many bureaucratic hassles. And in the case of the Nu River campaign, her film served as a catalyst for ethnic minority communities affected by hydropower dams to warn other communities in neighboring valleys about the risks – a rare feat in a poor province where many farmers have no formal education and rarely stray far from their villages.
Later, I realized that Shi’s career illustrates the evolution of China’s budding environmental movement. Although China’s political climate has limited her work as both a journalist and grassroots organizer, over the years she has come to understand the subtle links between Chinese environmentalism and politics – knowledge that enables her to advocate for social change and mentor younger environmental activists without raising too many official eyebrows.
The rain stopped, then started again. Shi sipped her coffee and watched a cyclo driver peddle lazily down the street. She said she thinks it will be 20 to 30 years before China has a real civil society. “Sometimes I’m optimistic, and sometimes I’m also pessimistic,” she told me. “But if I was too pessimistic, I would have left China long ago and not come back. At least we still have some space to push.”
Mike Ives is a Hanoi-based correspondent for the Associated Press. He last wrote for the Journal about the proposed Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River in Laos.