In Green Eyes’ Wildlife Rescue Center in Cangnan, Guangdong Province there is a small eagle that was rescued many months ago. He is skinny with dark black feathers and can no longer fly. This once great bird is relegated to walking in a cage that he shares with two peacocks and a duck. Although mostly healthy, the bird nonetheless appears anxious and neurotic. He walks back and forth in the same spot and his head twitches every step of the way. Volunteers believe he ate something poisonous and is suffering from some form of neurological disorder.
The twitchy bird oddly returned to my mind as I chatted with Fang Minghe, Green Eyes’ founder and director, about the state of grassroots nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in China. The sector is both thriving and anxious. On one hand, people working in green NGOs are excited by the Chinese government’s increasing prioritization to protect the environment and the international community’s attention and funding of grassroots groups that are addressing China’s immense environmental problems. On the other hand, there is a fear that too much success of a Chinese NGO might illicit the attention of political entities or individuals in China that perceive the sector as a threat.
While Western NGOs normally highlight media coverage of their accomplishments to boost their reputation, some environmental activists try their best to stay under the radar. When Green Eyes won a landmark victory in March 2009 and rescued a gray nurse shark, Fang was wary and unwilling to answer a few eager questions from an international paper. When I asked Fang to explain his reaction, he stated simply, “the gun shoots the bird that sticks out.” This popular Chinese saying refers to the risks of being too conspicuous in one’s public conduct.
BREAKING OUT OF THE CAGE
Sometimes Chinese NGOs must tread cautiously and anxiously like the caged bird and activists feel compelled to carefully avoid any missteps and hush themselves when they think they may be making too much noise. However, there are signs of more openness among Chinese green groups. For example, in early 2009, the Gansu NGO Green Camel Bell tried to utilize the new Environmental Information Disclosure Regulation to request a list of polluting enterprises from a local Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB). The Green Camel Bell staff received a phone call and an invitation for an in-person meeting, at which EPB officials told them that the information could not be released at the moment due to its potential impacts on companies that were already crippled by the economic downturn.
The EPB’s open reception marks progress from the organization’s early days when Green Camel Bell engaged in a campaign to prevent the city from shutting down one of Lanzhou’s popular electric bus lines. Aside from refusing the organization’s request for information regarding the government’s reasoning behind the decision, official strongly “advised” Green Camel Bell to stop engaging in its “disruptive advocacy.”
In early 2009 some of my other Pacific Environment colleagues and I visited another NGO’s project site in a southern city, where local efforts recently shut down three polluting factories after a two-year campaign. However, our presence generated official paranoia that evidently lasted for months. The local NGO’s campaign leader was summoned to meetings with high-ranking officials and cautioned not to get involved with foreign organizations. The officials further claimed to be aware of some articles that were published in foreign papers about our visit, but refused to cite their sources. The leader became anxious that we had written something that had put him in political danger. Clearly, the goal of the officials was to create mistrust between locals and outsiders and to discourage cooperation.
Small NGO leaders regularly lament to us that groups like theirs do not have the protection many Beijing NGOs enjoy. They can not advocate against polluting enterprises or local government violation of environmental regulations with the same fanfare and aggressiveness as bigger Beijing groups like the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs and the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims. This view is widely shared among young environmental activists operating outside of major cities like Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou.
However, two recent incidents of government harassment of well-known NGOs in Beijing demonstrate that no one is immune from sanction when the political wind changes direction. In June 2009, authorities practically shut down two NGOs—Yirenping (a group fighting discrimination against HIV-AIDS infected individuals) and Open Constitution Initiative (a group focused on rule-of-law issues)—based on allegations of tax and registration irregularity. In the same month the government disbarred 50 lawyers known for being active in politically sensitive advocacy work. Intense and arbitrary scrutiny such as this critically affects the growth and effectiveness of grassroots civil societies in China.
ACTIVISM WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS
Local NGOs are already careful at cultivating their role as a constructive force within the environment they operate. The successful ones build strong connections, or guanxi, with the government, media and academic institutions. It is what one Chinese observer described as “activism with Chinese characteristics.” Once guanxi is established, the NGOs can be effective in their own ways.
Green Eyes is perhaps one of the more successful groups engaging in such activism. In the mere decade since its founding, Green Eyes has built a remarkable reputation among key stakeholders in its home province of Zhejiang. Fang and some of his staff are environmental lecturers officially designated by the Wenzhou EPB’s Propaganda Department to regularly speak to schools and universities about environmental protection.
In our brief three-day visit in March 2009, I witnessed how Fang Minghe was able to tap on his good reputation in helping local officials and educators in environmental education to help his group obtain critical resources for his organization. The Cangnan Education Bureau Chief donated a vacant school to Green Eyes, enabling them to expand their Wildlife Rescue Station and help supplement the work of the bureau. The Wenzhou City University also provided them with a free office on campus to enable them to expand their environmental education work with youth. The new office unveiling ceremony was marked with fanfare and captured with a photo story published in the Wenzhou Metro Post.
After building a strong reputation in Zhejiang, Fang expanded into Guangdong and formed the South China Nature Society (SCNS). Utilizing their experience working with local governments in Zhejiang, Fang and his team regularly visits the Guangdong EPB to report on their work and he proactively seeks consultation on their projects. These efforts helped build a strong cooperative foundation with the EPB, which designated a liaison to receive SCNS and provide information and guidance for this NGO’s work.
Within two months of opening its door, the Guangdong office garnered attention in March 2009 and literally caused a sensational stir among the “eat-anything” Cantonese for saving a gray nurse shark from being served as shark fin soup. SCNS volunteers appealed for public support with a parade through the streets of Guangzhou and received monetary donations from citizens and positive reception from the media. The restaurant owner went from being stridently dismissive of their efforts to ceremoniously announcing their decision to give up and donate the shark to the Guangdong Aquarium. However, this success did not go unnoticed and Fang’s staff has since been directed to tone down their work by government representatives.
As China develops its economy, the society must recognize the inevitable growth of NGOs and the value of their presence. Globally and within China NGOs have proved to be effective agents for incremental changes that benefit both society and government. The list of accomplishments by Chinese NGOs is long and growing. For example, domestic organizations like IPE have created successful tracking systems to monitor polluting enterprises and local implementations of environmental laws; others have built organic water treatment system that successfully cleaned up polluted farmlands and fish ponds; and some are engaging in large-scale projects to adopt alternative energy that are fundamentally changing how rural economies operate.
All things considered, China’s local governments can and will benefit from supporting local NGO efforts. Furthermore, the national government can and should do more to enable and protect these grassroots environmental efforts, specifically by reforming the current registration regulations that inhibit the growth of the NGO sector and encouraging local governments to collaborate more with NGOs rather than to simply monitor them. These changes would help promote the independence and self-governance of NGOs and undoubtedly be more constructive than “shooting the bird that sticks out.”
This article originally appeared in the China Environment Series 11 and was published by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum.