Inspiration from Expertise-based Grassroots Advocacy

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“If only the legislation advocacy efforts of NGOs had this kind of strategic power.”This is the sentiment I derived from attending the discussion forum on the draft of the “Protected Natural Area Law” organized by the Natural Conservation Legislation Research Group on January 29th 2013.

In March 2013, during the meetings of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) (henceforth “two meetings”), the draft of the Protected Natural Area Law became the newly proposed legislation of the Beijing delegation of the NPC. In addition, 5 provincial and city-level NPC delegates proposed the draft, and each proposal received more than 30 joint signatures. More than 10 CPPCC members also submitted the draft proposal. This meant that the legislative recommendation for the Protected Natural Area Law landed on the NPC’s agenda for discussion. This strategic campaign had achieved the first step of Xie Yan’s1 three year plan for pushing the Protected Natural Law through, and excited those familiar with the process.

I was interested in the process through which this goal had been achieved. In July, when I interviewed the founder of the Natural Conservation Legislation Research Group, Xie Yan, I asked her if a civil society group could actually get this done. Smiling, she replied, “it’s difficult.” When I asked her the same question in regards to whether civil society group leaders could achieve such a goal, she again responded, “it’s difficult.”

Why is it so hard for non-governmental groups to carry out such grassroots advocacy? Is it that there are special circumstances or conditions that civil society groups don’t have a firm grasp of? Which elements essential to advocacy are civic groups unable to reproduce for the time being? Which of these elements can be acquired in the future?

In the initial stages of this investigation, I discovered that this legislative proposal had a distinct advantage in resources because the main participants were a team of experts. This advantage is reflected not only in the specialized level of the proposal’s contents and the experts’ stamp of approval, which has the ability to garner society’s confidence and mobilize the public. It is reflected even more so by the advocacy channels that only experts within the system, who have the ability to communicate directly with policy makers, have access to.

Similarly, some grassroots organizations have the advantage of having experts as a resource, such as the Beijing 21st Century Education Research Institute (subsequently referred to as “Research Institute”). Some organizations share similarities with the Research Institute in resource dependence and advocacy tactics, but there is a considerable discrepancy in the choice of advocacy method. There are also some NGOs whose professional resources are “innately insufficient,” such as the Beijing Yilian Legal Aid and Research Center of Labor (subsequently referred to as “Beijing Yilian”), which in the last few years have explored their own strategies and methods of advocacy and have gradually developed some of the aforementioned advantages that Xie Yan and her team possess. They have performed quite well in promoting legislation and policy.

Ten Years, One Blow

In April 2012, Xie Yan, founded a small voluntary group, the Natural Conservation Legislation Research Group. This small group has more than a hundred experts from fields including ecology, law, policy research, administration, civil society development, news and media who research or pay particular attention to China’s ecological and environmental problems. The goal of this research group is to push the government to formulate and pass the Protected Natural Area Law and corresponding laws and provisions, standards, and regulations. The research group believes that if the law were to pass, it would serve to protect China’s biodiversity and ecosystem.

Before establishing this research group, Xie Yan had already been active for more than eight years in promoting legislation on protected natural areas. In the last two years, her advocacy tactics have evolved “from top-down to bottom-up.” Altering her advocacy methods has increased the validity of her advocacy, which greatly boosted the morale of NGO partners who have only ever utilized bottom-up advocacy methods. From this, people have also observed the power and presence of grassroots advocacy. But if one analyzes the conditions surrounding the occurrence of this successful advocacy, the use of “bottom-up” only worked because other conditions were brought together (such as expertise, contacts in the system etc).

Setting the public policy agenda requires the coming together of many factors. What kinds of conditions must an issue meet for it to enter into the policy agenda? John Kingdon’s ‘policy window theory’ is one relevant theory for effectively taking advantage of policy opportunities. When the policy window opens, the policy opportunity draws nearer. His theory purports the process through which a policy change has three ‘streams’: a problem stream, a policy stream, and a political stream. According to the theory, by putting the “three streams into one”, the possibility of successful advocacy is highest.

The problem stream is the starting point of advocacy, in which one defines and explains the problem to policy-makers, greater society and other groups in order to win their support. The policy stream provides a choice of solutions to the problem, and substitutes a proposal. In the case of Xie Yan, the proposal was enacting the protected natural area legislation.

Xie Yan is a rare type of advocate because she is a seasoned expert in the policy environment, the legislative process, and has a long experience of practical work. Starting in 1994, she continuously researched biodiversity conservation until 2004 when she and her supervisor Wang Song jointly wrote and published a book titled “China’s Nature Reserves,” (中国的保护地) which solidified her academic status in the field and allowed her to gain a thorough understanding of the state of ecological preservation in China. Subsequently, she served as the head of the China office of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) for seven years. Her work experience there gave her a clearer awareness and familiarity with real operational and systemic problems.

An even rarer experience presented itself in 2004 when the National People’s Congress drafted the Nature Reserve Law (自然保护区法). Xie Yan served as an expert and helped the NPC Environment Protection and Resources Conservation Committee start work on the protected natural area legislation. She and her colleagues did a lot of work at the high levels of the Environment Protection and Resources Conservation Committee, and received approval from its chairman. This experience allowed her to become quite familiar with the whole legislative process and the problems within it, such that she became more sensitive to when a policy opportunity might or might not develop. In 2006, when the draft of the Protected Natural Area Law was officially issued, it did not pass because a certain department opposed it. After that, Xie continued serving as an expert and participated in legislative discussions. Against the background of the failure of the Protected Natural Area Law to pass smoothly, the NPC Environment Protection and Resources Conservation Committee once again issued a draft of the Natural Heritage Protection Law. Because it was limited to protecting national nature reserves and national scenic and historical sites, it was opposed by many people. Xie Yan also believed this draft did not solve the problem at hand at all.

Before 2012, Xie Yan had proposed her own ideas and suggestions through the normal channels by providing advice as an expert and during internal discussion. But by December 2011, when she was notified that “the NPC Environment Protection and Resources Conservation Committee believes the Natural Heritage Protection Law is already mature, and has already been submitted to the NPC for deliberation”, she felt a bit defeated: “There was absolutely nothing we could do.” Even though she was close to giving up in that moment, she still never imagined that she would stand and face the public. Her hopes hung on other people solving this problem. By early February 2012, someone told her that 22 academics had jointly signed a letter to the Premier in opposition to the Natural Heritage Protection legislation draft. She let out a sigh of relief. But the next steps for the Natural Heritage Protection Law still laid ahead.

In January 2012, Xie Yan visited several experts ranging from NPC Standing Committee members, NPC representatives and academics to share her thought, give her support and encourage them. She thought the goals of this legislation could only be attained if she helped others understand her viewpoint. On February 5, 2012, she published her viewpoint on Weibo for the first time. Many media outlets reached her through her Weibo and blog and reported on her views. Through these media, her colleagues also followed what she was working on, and came out in strong force to support her.

This was Xie’s turning point from top-down to bottom-up. During the 2012 “two meetings,” her goal was to express her position through the proposals and motions of NPC representatives and CPPCC members, push forward legislation, then compose two motions with more than 30 joint signatories from NPC representatives. One was an NPC individual proposal, and one had more than 20 individuals who jointly signed a CPPCC proposal. After one year of preparation, her results expanded again during the 2013 “two meetings.”

This methodology is rarely seen in the conservation sphere. Xie never wavered from her stance. While top-down and bottom-up methods are both fine, the real question is what path one should choose to achieve one’s goals.

Looking at Xie Yan’s advocacy by approximating the degree to which the three policy streams of the policy window theory comes together, she practically achieved unification of all three. Yan, with her expert background and her team of experts, had the ability to define the problem and put forward a proposal to solve it. As an expert with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, she was able to function within the system of scientific research institutions, and had the opportunity to understand the connection between legislation and policy making. In the eyes of many NGOs, government and legislation processes are a black box, but she was able to participate in the earliest legislative discussions and make suggestions that influenced policy makers. She understood the appeals and assertions of those with varying interests during the legislative process. For example, the department that opposed the Protected Natural Area legislation in 2006 again opposed passing the Natural Heritage Protection Law draft in 2008, but later became Xie Yan’s ally.

Blueprint for Passing Legislation

Even though Xie Yan had accumulated extensive research and lobbying experience, she still felt she hadn’t done enough. In the year following the 2012 “two meetings,” she wanted to do more research work. She immediately resigned her post at WCS in order to make the draft her main specialization. To make up for the limitations in each individual field, Xie brought together the scientists and legal experts within the conservation field to jointly participate in amending the draft. In June 2012, Xie Yan’s team made a special trip to Chengdu to attend the annual meeting of the China Resources and Environment Legal Research Association (中国资源环境法学研究会) to solicit suggestions from legal experts there. After returning to Beijing, the legal team of the Natural Conservation Legislation Research Group discussed and deliberated the draft line-by-line. The version of the draft submitted at the discussion forum on January 29, 2013, was completely different from the 2012 version.

In addition to the two aforementioned groups of experts, media and society participants also played a big role. In 2013, the cover of the Protected Natural Area legislation pamphlet had a sentence that read, “make natural protected areas the bottom line for safeguarding China’s ecological safety.” This sentence was revised and refined over several months’ time before it was received. In the past, the kind of language Xie Yan would have used would read, “protect biodiversity” or “protect our water resources.” Someone told her, “No one will listen if you put it that way. You have to make people identify natural area protection with their own personal interests.” Many environmental and ecological incidents occurred throughout 2012 and 2013, urging more and more people to ponder the ecological bottom-line. After several rounds of discussion, the research group finally approved the use of the sentence because it honed in on the public’s personal feelings, and could express the meaning behind natural area protection.

Each year, the NPC and CPPCC receive so many legislative proposals and motions that only a very small number of them can be submitted to the general assembly. According to the provisions of China’s legislative process, proposals that fall under the authoritative scope of the NPC can only be submitted after getting more than 30 NPC representatives’ signatures. In 2013, the Protected Natural Area Law proposal became the Beijing delegation’s new legislative proposal, and other delegations’ proposals of this bill all had more than 30 joint signatures.

Cai Suyu of the Hong Kong Legislative Committee said during a media interview, “The legislative proposal for the Protected Natural Area Law was extremely thorough and accurate, and we should make it the blueprint for legislation in this country.” One expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences also once said, drafting and proposing legislation is not just the special right of NPC delegates and CPPCC members, but can be accomplished by anyone. But, ordinarily, NGOs find it very difficult to put together high-level ideas. This is the main reason that the voices of the people are prevented from growing louder.

In this instance of advocacy, participants included experts, NPC delegates and CPPCC members, media, the general public, and governmental departments. I asked Xie Yan, which among these groups was most important? After thinking for a moment, she replied, “Our setup was ideal, because experts played the most important role. NPC delegates and CPPCC members also played a big part.” Compared with the PM 2.5 policy advocacy that engaged widespread participation from society and the public throughout 2012 and 2013, in the protected natural area legislation advocacy, experts from the conservation field were the group that participated the most.

Grassroots NGOs’ Pursuit of Expertise

Sociologist Zheng Yefu has pointed out that modern society relies on monetary systems and expert systems. In a modern society where knowledge is broken down into fields, specialists are trusted because of their authority in certain fields. Professionalized advocacy not only brings inherent benefits, but also creates expertise-based resource networks. These resources are not necessarily financial resources, and may include sources of information, power (like policy-makers), or public trust.

Most Chinese intellectuals work for official research organizations and universities. In all legislative processes, only government administrative departments, research organizations, and experts within the system, have the opportunity to express their views through institutional channels. Experts outside the system have difficulty getting these opportunities and channels. Beijing Yilian’s director Huang Leping believes that the only way for grassroots NGOs to access resources within the system is to rely on their expertise. Director Huang has edited nearly 40 publications on labor law, therefore earning the position of being an “expert” in the field. Because of this, he has been invited many times to participate in governmental and legislative discussions of the National People’s Congress. Beijing Yilian’s report on occupational diseases received the attention of many ministry and commission heads, NPC deputies and CPPCC members, and contributed to a draft of a law to prevent occupational disease. After the July 23, 2011 high-speed train accident, he seized the opportunity to submit a document on section 33 of the “Regulation on the Emergency Rescue, Investigation and Handling of Railway Traffic Accidents” to the NPC and successfully advocated for its repeal. Beijing Yilian’s motto; “born from the grassroots, a future through expertise”, supports this advocacy.

Yang Dongping, president of the Research Institute is a famous education scholar and non-profit leader. Yang has also assembled a group of experts similar to Xie Yan’s team. In addition to a board, the Research Institute has also established an academic advisory committee. This is different from many other existing NGOs. The Research Institute has also published the “Education Blue Book,” for the last ten years, including conference topics from each year, macropolicy, social trends, discussion topics, etc. Expert contributions ensure the high quality of this book. “2020: China’s Education Reform Strategy” (People’s Education Press) is an education reform proposal. In order to draft this reform proposal, the Research Institute held more than ten seminars between 2009 and 2010 and wrote many policy recommendations. It’s reform plan for the college entrance examination (the Gaokao) drew the attention of the Ministry of Education, and the Research Institute also submitted a special research report on “Urgent Problems Regarding the Implementation of Better Nutrition Programs for Students in Rural Areas” to the State Council. The community of experts has provided support for the many advocacy actions carried out by the Research Institute in its capacity as a think tank. Their support stands as evidence to its standards of expertise in advocacy work.

Liu Huquan, the Research Institute’s director of research, says that it is not difficult for grassroots organizations to invite academics to consult for their organizations. Of course, this has as much to do with Yang Dongping’s reputation and connections as it does with the Research Institute’s many years of copious publication. Every year, it holds a high-level forum or salon, and issues bi-weekly briefs focused on important information and case studies to readers who mostly work in education. It was only through publishing the “Educational Blue Book” over the last ten years that the organization has assembled such a large number of scholars. Implementing sustained programs is something that grassroots organizations can do to establish a network of experts. Friends of Nature has published “The Environment Green Book” for eight years, and through this process has created a network of environmental and legal experts. Some people in this field would argue that Friends of Nature’s successes in policy advocacy were dependent solely on the late Mr. Liang Congjie’s influence and position as a member of the CPPCC. This may have originally been the case, but in recent years, due to its network of experts and the professionalization of its own team, Friends of Nature has been the first to respond to unexpected policy opportunities and provide legal or policy suggestions.

Efforts to Break into the System

Even if they have a professional team of experts, the methods of civil advocacy research institutes differ from those of environmental protection law institutes.

The “Environmental Protection Law” seminar was held on January 29, 2014, and was attended by members of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Environmental Protection, local transportation departments, and many other departments related to environmental protection. This was a surprise to me as I began writing this article. It is unlikely that grassroots organizations will have this type of platform; it was even said there was a time when Yang Dongping’s presence in a meeting would keep officials from attending. He has two national expert consultation titles, but the Research Institute has no official governmental background. In addition to the “soft” barriers to breaking into the system, this may have something to do with the Institute’s expressed views. In August 2011, they published a report titled, “Administering Beijing’s Elementary School Exams: Which is the right path?”, which aroused a huge response, including a CCTV report. However, municipal and national high-ranking officials expressed concern about this type of advocacy. This got the Institute thinking about their work prior to 2011. After this event, the Research Institute began to reconsider its proportion of “destructive” and “constructive” criticisms, and to shift towards not only exposing problems, but also providing proposals and solutions.

The Research Institute has always believed that, “extensive public participation is an essential part of education reform.” For them, of the three most important advocacy channels, the most effective and useful is public relations; using the media to share and discuss public questions to help shape public opinion. Once they started valuing their relationship with the media, they established an internal department divided into research and public relations departments. This is one type of advocacy that NGOs are best at, but this is the point at where many organizations stop. Campaigners who take policy advocacy as their main goal see public relations as just one part of the process of establishing public policy. However, NGOs often seem incapable of getting involved in other parts of the process.

Finding relevant leaders in the bureaucracy is an effective form of advocacy, and many organization directors have these channels. However, this is not a conventional path and organizations need to be cautious. To most grassroots organizations, there is no special channel to establish communications with the government. However, the Research Institute has shown a way to break through the barriers of the system.

Their third advocacy channel is to obtain real data through studies and research, and then submit it to the government through formal channels. These studies differ from the large-scale questionnaires and surveys given by many research institutions and governmental agencies in that they produce real facts and figures through in-depth investigations. The government also has a need to understand the real situation.

On October 26, 2011, in a State Council executive meeting, Premier Wen Jiabao decided to implement a program to improve nutrition programs in compulsory education in rural areas. In 2011, the Research Institute was commissioned by the Amway Foundation (安利基金会) to conduct a study on these nutrition programs, and in April the State Council’s Information Department asked them to present their research results. By chance this research came to the attention of the State Council, but methods like this are rarely effective and very difficult to control.

Labor is a relatively sensitive field. Beijing Yilian has done considerable work over the last five years to introduce legislation, modify laws, and improve departmental regulation. Huang Leping believes that, on the whole, the environment is becoming increasingly relaxed. Legislative bodies and governmental departments welcome NGO reflections from the front line, but they are still relatively cautious when it comes to letting these groups advocate; Beijing Yilian can send material to the all the members of the NPC Standing Committee, but only after communicating abundantly with a few of them.

Apart from conventional advocacy methods, maintaining good relations with the government is essential. The Research Institute helps local governments with consulting, research and planning, reflecting the functionality of a non-profit think tank. For example, they helped implementing educational planning in the Shanghai Pudong District, in Tianjin, and in Chengdu’s Wuhou District. They created local innovation in education awards, such as an award from the NGO sector to the government. This particular award have already been presented three times. In each case, Yang Dongping personally brought along Institute scholars and explored local innovations in education, making the award not simply a prize in name. This type of high quality award and lesson is increasingly receiving attention from local education departments; originally only the deputy secretaries attended the award’s ceremony, but now some local departments will send the full secretary to participate.

Conclusion

Apart from social factors such as China’s increasingly serious environmental problems, the rise of vocal Internet-driven public opinion, and a growing sense of civic responsibility, analysis of Xie Yan’s work in advocacy shows that expertise, reputation, advocacy channels, and the ability to shape public discussion are all important aspects of policy advocacy.

In the process of promoting national legislative and policy changes, public opinion is an increasingly valuable element in providing a space for the integration of lobbying and public advocacy. Analysis of the cases of the 21st Century Education Research Institute and the Beijing Yilian Legal Aid and Research Center of Labor shows that professionalization is possible. Nonetheless, the prospects of breaking through the walls of civil and official institutions, while not impossible, are not bright. Policy advocacy is a difficult road, even for Xie Yan and Yang Dongping. After the annual meetings of the NPC and CPPCC in 2013, Xie Yan’s team planned another project – to research a way to create a value-added system for eco-friendly products. This would increase the value of eco-friendly products and ease conflicts between development and environmental protection. One goal in establishing this project is to avoid administrative departments and instead use market mechanisms to promote planning of legislation for environmental conservation.

The purpose of this article has been to further categorize different organizations’ advocacy areas and describe the advantages and strategies of each. This article describes organizations with clear policy reform goals and methods. Currently, many advocacy organizations focus on raising public awareness and make public advocacy their goal. A director of an NGO devoted to public advocacy said the reason they do not carry out direct policy advocacy is not only because they lack the resources of organizations like the Research Institute, but also because public advocacy is more fundamental and needs more grassroots organizations to continue carrying out this work.


  1. Xie Yan is an expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Zoology Institute who has been engaged in biodiversity conservation for years. 

In Brief

CDB’s Chief Researcher Liu Haiying gives some examples of successful advocacy campaigns pushed forward by groups of experts.
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