NGOs from overseas are a growing force

Updated: 2012-06-08 10:41

By William Ford (China Daily)

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NGOs from overseas are a growing force

Foreign organizations can only participate within formal and informal rules laid out

It is quite apparent that China is under increasing international environmental scrutiny today as the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide and an important player in other environmental issues. Now viewed as a kind of "ground zero" for environmental issues in the world, international environmental NGOs from many countries have set up shop in China to work on the many environmental challenges. They exist alongside 4,000-5,000 Chinese environmental NGOs, creating a vibrant environmental NGO community.

With this international environmental presence in China, how are INGOs affecting environmental policy, environmentalism, and environmental civil society in China? While it is tempting to look at these foreign NGOs as trying to impose their own "environmental will" on China, the truth is that INGOs operate largely on Chinese terms with regard to project goals and methods.

First, it is important to understand that all INGOs in China actually exist in a legal gray zone in which they are not technically defined as a legal entity. In the 1998 law passed with regard to NGO legal status in China, the government defines social organizations to mean "voluntary groups formed by Chinese citizens in China". Since INGOs do not fit within this definition, they simply have no designation, either legal or illegal. This can actually create flexibility for experimentation. However, it also leads to an informal understanding that as long as these organizations can provide constructive and non-threatening services to China, no matter their legal status, these groups are welcome to participate in the environmental arena in China.

The first and most common area in which environmental INGOs are affecting environmental governance in China is behind the closed doors of the policy process. International groups such as The Nature Conservancy, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Joint US China Collaboration on Clean Energy all work at high levels in technical consulting. They work with the Chinese government to write environmental laws, train government officials, and implement clean energy programs or other environmental initiatives from a top-down approach.

The Nature Conservancy has been heavily involved in crafting forest reserve and land trust laws, for example, yet its name does not appear on the final legislation. This area of technical consultation can impact policy and environmental governance in China, but in a very controlled way that is more removed from the grassroots.

The second area of participation from environmental INGOs is less-controlled grassroots work. This work often involves educating the public on environmental issues or mobilizing and organizing campaigns against environmental abuse. This kind of behavior, however, is typically less prevalent for environmental INGOs in China. And even when international environmental groups do take part in grassroots campaigns, they tend not to be the main organizers of such campaigns but a resource and fellow participant with other domestic NGOs. Greenpeace, the most well-known international grassroots environmental NGO headquartered in Amsterdam, is an exception (and there are others of course) in that it is heavily involved in grassroots action.

However, Greenpeace, sometimes characterized as an extremely activist group, works hard to function and act similar to domestic NGOs in China. It downplays its foreign nature and articulates most of its goals in China in the same terms that most domestic environmental NGOs do, particularly the way in which they frame issues when dealing with State-owned industries and interests. They articulate campaigns as very much part of Chinese national interests. As almost all of the staff is Chinese and work on highly localized issues, this characterization is more than just a portrayal, but is an accurate description.

Greenpeace learned this lesson in one of its first campaigns in China and has been operating under the same strategy of framing campaigns parallel to State interests as practiced by most domestic Chinese NGOs. In its first campaign against genetically engineered rice cultivated illegally in China, Greenpeace framed the issue as one having to do with nationalism and sovereignty since multinational food companies engineered the seed and, in some cases, contracted their own growers.

While there were many connections with the Chinese government, Greenpeace focused on the narrative of freeing the Chinese people and its government from such influence. The group also organized a campaign on similar lines against a multinational paper company involved in deforestation in southern China. The group mobilized Chinese media to frame its involvement as assisting the government and the Chinese public in enforcing environmental policy rather than clashing against State forces.

These same strategies are used in almost exactly the same ways by Chinese domestic NGOs. So, while international grassroots organizations like Greenpeace can be successful, they are not necessarily unique in their strategies in China. All groups, whether domestic or foreign in China, must frame their campaigns effectively as on in line with the goals of the Chinese government and the Chinese people rather than as a separate interest as they often do in the West.

They have adapted to the rules of political participation in China rather than trying to change them, and have been successful in many campaigns as a result. Their strategies have, if anything, been changed more by being in China than Chinese environmental civil society has been changed by the presence of such international environmental NGOs. They may have more substantial or different funding from international sources, but they operate on the same basic informal rules of civic engagement in China.

All of this is to say that international environmental NGOs in China, whether foreign or domestic, work largely on Chinese terms and rules, whether that be on the terms when asked to provide technical consultation or on Chinese State and social political terms regarding grassroots activities. While these outside groups have agendas, these must exist fluidly with Chinese interests at both high levels and the grassroots. As a result, the influence of environmental INGOs, particularly in grassroots environmental civil society, is participatory rather than transformational. And, when it is transformational, it exists either in high-level policy change or as part of a broader grassroots coalition of the Chinese environmental movement which is domestically driven and of which foreign entities are a component rather than the main source of input.

In other words, in a room that represents the grassroots environmental movement in China, environmental INGOs in China are painting the walls green with their domestic partners. There are thousands of groups in the room, and international NGOs make up a tiny portion of them. They can bring their own green paint and resources, but they are still painting with the same kind of brushes and brush strokes as everyone else. Ultimately, they have not dictated significantly the general way in which the room is painted, but have adapted to how Chinese groups are painting it. This is a necessary, if not positive, phenomenon - it must ultimately be domestic Chinese environmental NGOs and the Chinese government that will shape how the room is painted. It is their room, after all - and foreign organizations can only participate accordingly within the formal and informal rules laid out for them in China.

The author is a senior student of East Asian Studies and Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, US. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily 06/08/2012 page9)