Maturing Environmental Movement Takes Uniquely Chinese Approach

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As this tumultuous year of toxic spills, violent protests, and mining disasters winds down, some Chinese environmentalists are heaving a sigh of relief in anticipation of better days ahead in the Year of the Dog, which begins on January 29. "This year of the Dog gives environmentalists the opportunity to march in and take control," surmised Chen Duxiu at a meeting of the China Green Student Forum in December. While the Rooster—last year's Chinese zodiac symbol—has a reputation for being overly ambitious and over-committed, dogs "like to finish what they start and they work hard to secure a future for their families," Chen explained. They are also "diplomatic," which could bode well for building coalitions across different sectors of China's environmental movement.

Panel Discussion at the Opening of the Forum brought together environmental researchers and activists from China and abroad.
Panel discussion at the opening of the forum brought together environmental researchers and activists from China and abroad.
Whether the coming year proves more productive for the movement remains to be seen. But Chen's argument underscores an important reality: environmental work in China requires skillful navigation of the country's unique political, cultural, and historical context. "The experiences of environmental protection in the West are valuable for us to learn from, but it is not possible for us to just copy them," explained Liang Congjia at the 4th Annual Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Forum on International Environmental Cooperation, held in Kunming in November. Liang, who is chairman of Friends of Nature, China's first official environmental NGO, points to the West's long history of environmental protection, strong environmental awareness, and publicly elected government as key differences affecting environmental work.

While many of their issues are familiar to activists around the world, environmentalists in China recognize that they must forge their own path. Speaking at the NGO Forum, Mei Yue, media director for Greenpeace China, explained how her organization tries to take advantage of environmental principles embedded in Chinese culture and philosophy. "Thinking locally in China involves traditional ideas of humanity in harmony with nature," she said, noting that environmentalists need to stress more broadly the notion that this harmony is out of balance. "Then we can come up with uniquely Chinese understandings of new terms like ‘ecology' and ‘sustainable development' in order to solve our problems," Mei explained.

Over the past decade, environmental NGOs have become leaders in strengthening China's civil society, bringing together expertise and other resources that enable them to monitor and react to events more effectively than individuals. These groups not only give Chinese citizens an independent political voice and forge coalitions across disciplinary and political boundaries, they also assist governmental environmental efforts by advancing law enforcement, accountability, and transparency in the political system.

Shao Wen, Heifer Project International China Office Environmental Stewardship in Sustainable Livestock Development.
Shao Wen, Heifer Project International China Office "Environmental Stewardship in Sustainable Livestock Development."
China's environmental movement now boasts over 2,000 officially registered NGOs as well as several thousand non-registered groups and environmental businesses. The movement has not only grown rapidly in recent years, but it has learned to skillfully navigate the political landscape. Friends of Nature's Liang Congjia explains how 11 years ago, environmental groups tended to focus on the politically neutral issues of environmental education and species protection. They have since grown increasingly bold, influencing government policy, organizing protests, and filing lawsuits aimed at holding polluting industries accountable and halting dams and other development projects. Particularly notable was a recent successful campaign against dams on the Nu River in Yunnan Province, which brought together a broad range of NGOs, scholars, student groups, and media in one of the fiercest environmental battles in China's history.

Environmental groups are also taking an increasingly holistic approach to their work, addressing environmental concerns in the context of wider issues such as minority and gender relations, poverty, and community development. Li Dajun of Green Watershed explained at the NGO Forum how his group aims to not only restore watershed ecosystems, but also cultivate citizenship awareness by involving people in their own water security. "When you start tapping into development at the local scale, using local culture and local resources, you see that this leads to local responsibility and sustainability," he said. In addition to ecological restoration, Green Watershed supports microcredit for minority women, youth and adult education, organic agriculture, wetlands fisheries, and community libraries. These initiatives have influenced government policy and spurred other bottom-up development activities that go beyond simply protecting ecosystems.

Today's environmental leaders tend to be well educated and adept at media outreach and negotiating China's political scene. They have proven increasingly skillful at engaging scientists, the media, international NGOs, and government officials in advocacy work. And China's central government, while cautious to give activists too much broad political power, has generally maintained a supportive attitude towards environmental groups, recognizing that the state alone does not have the capacity to protect the environment. Groups that are able to abide by the regulations and restrictions designed to keep activism in check have tended to enjoy strong support from China's State Environmental Protection Administration.

Closing panel discussion.
Closing panel discussion.
In a country with the largest population, fastest economic growth, and among the worst pollution in the world, China's environmentalists remain dedicated and even optimistic. They are aware that their achievements, attained locally and in a specifically Chinese context, are critical to global environmental well-being. "Environmental protection is a common concern of humanity," said Wu Dengming of Chongqing Green Volunteer Association. "It has no discrimination of ethnicity, nationality, political systems, or class. We must not be divided. Only with everyone's efforts can we save our Earth." If the Chinese zodiac has its way, the Earth may have just a bit more help this year from its human residents.

All photos in this article are courtesy of Lila Buckley.