China’s Garbage Problem Prompts Soul Searching Among NGOs

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This provocative, in-depth report addresses head-on the sensitive issue of advocacy using the issue of garbage as a case study. Environmental NGOs have long been on the forefront of NGO advocacy in China, but this report takes ENGOs to task for not taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by citizen protests against the construction of waste incinerators in urban areas. The report lays out recommendations on what ENGOs might do to transform these local grievances into a broader issue-based movement.

When environmental NGOs re-engaged with the subject of waste disposal, they appeared to be embarrassed and reactive .

At the All-China Environment Federation’s (中华环保联合会) annual municipal waste management forum, held in Hangzhou in November 2010, Huang Xiaoshan, a member of the Beijing Asuwei waste defense group (阿苏卫垃圾保卫战)whose online screen name is “Donkey Stan” (驴屎蛋), accused the NGO representatives present of standing idly by during the Asuwei waste incineration protest. Huang said, “When we most needed you, you did not show any sensitivity to our needs. You gave us no professional guidance, direction or moral support, and did not make any efforts to appeal to the public sense of responsibility on the issue.” In response to Huang’s criticism, several NGO directors commented later that it was not a good time for NGOs to get involved with Huang’s campaign which was held during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. However, the collective silence of NGOs on some major environmental issues has been rather commonplace.  The year 2007 was called “the year of public participation,” yet NGOs were notably absent from milestone events such as the campaign by Liulitun (Beijing) residents against the construction of a waste incinerator, the Xiamen PX chemical plant demonstrations, and the protests over the Shanghai-Hangzhou maglev train project. NGOs, who took a neutral stance during the Xiamen PX incident, saw their reputation severely tested when their words and actions fell short of the public’s expectations.

Similarly, in 2009, NGOs were for the most part absent from waste disposal protests that occurred throughout China. Feng Yongfeng, founder of the Green Beagle Environmental Institute (达尔问自然求知社)and a reporter for the Guangming Daily , commented that, “It is very frustrating when NGOs do nothing for people in their time of need. The ability of citizens to advocate for their rights exceeds that of NGOs. ” However, the questions and demands from the public have made NGOs realize that they have their own role to play in the waste management issue. Since 2010, NGOs have started to actively work on their campaigning strategies and promote the capacity building of activists. Still, it will be a long time before NGOs are able to make significant contributions.

Protests from Urban Property Owners

Due to objections from local residents, the Beijing Liulitun waste incineration power generation project was halted in June 2007. Two years later, however, the project once again made it back on the government’s agenda. This time, protests by local residents and their efforts to engage the government in dialogue persuaded the government to relocate the proposed waste incineration plant to another site. In 2008, the Beijing Gao’antun waste incineration plant encountered similar resistance from local residents. Waste incinerator plant protests also happened in Jiangsu province and larger cities such as Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou in 2009. More and more people started to see their daily lives affected by the environmental degradation caused by waste. Similar protests are now occurring all throughout China, not only in large cities, and second and third tier cities, but also in counties and villages.

At the peak of the garbage crisis in 2009, a growing number of citizens became involved in various protests and campaigns, the most noticeable of which were protests by urban property owners. Urban property owners advocating for their rights is a fairly recent phenomenon in China that has only appeared in the last ten years.  This group of urban property owners has adopted strategies that differ from farmers and workers.

The higher educational level and social status of these property owners, and access to financial resources, has enabled them to successfully defend their interests through collective action. The mostly middle class participants in the Guangzhou Panyu waste incineration protest, for example, attracted national attention. In contrast, the rural participants in the Guangzhou Yongxing Likeng protest, which started in 1990, has yet to be resolved despite the continual efforts of villagers. After visiting Yongxing village, professor Guo Weiqing of Sun Yat-sen University pointed out that white collar workers in Panyu were able to spark great interest in the Panyu waste incineration plant via postings on blogs and online forums. But most villagers in Yongxing lacked access to the internet, as well as the ability to use the internet to disseminate information.

People who lived in the same neighborhood often shared similar interests in conserving the local environment. Urban property owners’ savviness with modern information technology, especially social media, has made it more convenient and less costly for people to get connected to each other and form action networks. All kinds of communication platforms, from discussion boards for real estate owners to qq groups, were employed in their online campaign. During these protests, people would remember “Donkey Stan” from Beijing and “Basso Storm Rider” (巴索风云) from Panyu rather than their real identities. As such, the internet and social media are developing into effective platforms used by activists to get their voices heard even when the mainstream media ignores them. They add balance to the messages delivered by newspapers and TV and radio stations.

From 2006 to 2008, a debate on waste incinerators developed in Beijing. Urban property owners in Liulitun started to post online about the negative impacts of incinerators. This method was later adopted by other activists as an effective campaigning tactic.

While the internet and social media offer new communications platforms, the mainstream media still plays a significant role. As professor Zhao Dingxin (2006) noted, the media is where different groups “compete for the power of defining and constructing social realities.” When the 29th International Symposium on Halogenated Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) was held in Beijing in 2009, the mainstream media, including China Central Television’s prime-time programs “Economic Half-hour” and “News Probe”, started to devote air time to discuss the pros and cons of waste incineration, one byproduct of which is the release of dioxin.

At this time, some people pointed out that the Beijing Liulitun demonstrations and Guangzhou Panyu protests had not achieved the same impact although the two groups had employed similar strategies and tactics. Those who followed both events closely speculated that their diverging outcomes were related to the role of local media. Newspapers and TV stations in Guangzhou are more active and developed than media in other regions of China. Coverage of the Likeng (李坑) event in Guangzhou and the Panyu anti-waste incineration protests tended to be mutually reinforcing, giving the media more space to operate and more news to cover. Media reports at the time ran the headline,“Panyu Unwilling to be the Second Likeng.” The local media in the Guangzhou case thus made the Panyu event a hot topic for public debate, which in turn led to greater social pressure.

The root motivation behind the actions of the activists in these campaigns is to protect their own health and property.  Guo Weiqing, who has followed the issue in Guangzhou from the very beginning, commented that, “This is not merely about economic interests, it is also related to the management, policy and technology of waste disposal.” In contrast to more extreme forms of activism, urban property owners have adhered to a more rational, comprehensive campaign. They have sent open letters to the government, developed alternative plans for waste management, and actively engaged government officials through meetings and dialogue. Multiple formal and informal channels of communication between these activists and the government have allowed their voices to be heard. Their actions have paved the way for policy participation to occur on a larger scale and influence policy-making.

Opportunities for NGOs to Get Involved

Of the areas on which environmental NGOs are working, waste management is one of the few where a bottom-up approach to social changes is feasible. When dealing with most environmental issues, including large hydro-power projects, water pollution, corporate social responsibility and transportation, environmental NGOs often take a top-down strategy. They disclose the problems, send governmental agencies information, and then wait for the government to issue regulations and policies. Such top-down tactics have already become routine for NGOs in China. However, when it comes to the issue of waste, especially municipal waste, real changes can only come from bottom-up action. It was this aspect that attracted some NGOs to re-engage with the issue. These organizations are willing to relinquish their old top-down mindset, and accept new challenges.

The current environment and stakeholders for environmental NGOs has changed substantially since the mid- to late 1990s. What opportunities does the waste problem  present NGOs? What role should NGOs assume in this campaign? What difficulties and limits do NGOs face? We address these questions below.

NGOs can bring in resources using coordination and communication.

For example, residents in Liulitun, Beijing had sought the assistance of NGOs in the initial stage of their campaign, because they still lacked access to channels to disseminate information especially on sensitive topics. They hoped that NGOs could help them get connected to the media, through which their voices could get heard.

NGOs can make the protests more rational and more constructive.

By sending representatives out to listen to the demands of local communities, NGOs could help them develop or improve action plans, so as to make anti-waste incineration actions more effective. According to environmental NGOs working on the issue, the subject of waste sorting is an appropriate issue for engaging local communities and engaging the sharp confrontation between property owners and the government. For now, sorting is the issue that captures the widest base of support. The biggest justification for promoting waste incineration is that there is no more space for landfills in and around cities. As such, although NGOs criticize interest groups in the pro-waste incineration camp, most of their efforts are devoted to promoting sorting which could reduce significantly the amount of garbage.

NGOs can provide professional expertise to transform individual interests into public interests.

So far the movement against waste incineration in China has been driven by property owners’ concerns for their own wealth and health. Their actions as a result have been persistent and results-oriented. However, as long as their requests get answered, say the incineration plants are halted or relocated, these groups will have no reason to keep fighting. How can urban property owners be convinced to go further and address the underlying issues of the waste problem?1.

After the Panyu waste incineration project was halted, activists from the local community started a new green-family campaign, turning the protest into on-going campaign. The activists explained to local residents that the waste incineration protests alone were not enough. As long as the reason for building the plant remains, the government might restart the project at any time. In response, people started to sort their garbage as a follow-up to the protests. Another reason for carrying out waste sorting is that local residents have realized they should not only protest the construction of an incineration plant in their own neighborhood, but should also speak on behalf of other people’s health and property rights. According to Guo Weiqing, property owners in Panyu have learned that it is necessary to consider the well-being of victims from the Likeng event to win support for the Panyu protests. Zhang Boju, director of Friends of Nature’s (自然之友) Municipal Waste Group, commented that movements stemming from rational requests rather than moral pressure are more sustainable and more replicable. In this sense, waste sorting is a breakthrough issue for transforming individual interests into a public interest, which is “really quite extraordinary.”

Carrying out community environmental activities can also help strengthen community cohesion. However, community leaders’ efforts alone are insufficient to engage and educate the whole community, especially free riders. A robust movement needs the support of professional organizations. If NGOs are willing, their long-term involvement with the waste management issue, as well as consistent information collection and analysis could provide professional support to local communities.

However, there is always a big gap between the inferences drawn and the reality. What urban property owners oppose are governmental projects, which is sensitive and to some extent dangerous. These activists, especially the leaders, have their reasons for not being worried. They have their own resources such as information channels, assess the risk before taking actions, and stay within the legal area of play. But if NGOs participate in these events, they become “organized and premeditated” activities, which could present greater security concerns for these movements.

Security concerns however do not entirely explain the silence of NGOs because NGOs are also absent in other less sensitive areas. Some communities in Panyu, Guangzhou have already started waste sorting. The problem is that they have neither the space nor the technology to do composting. Meanwhile, waste sorting relies on volunteers, which is challenging in terms of both will and sustainability. According to Basso Storm Rider, their sorting work has lasted more than one year, and they need professional support from NGOs. However, no organization in Guangzhou has ever contacted them. Currently, the professional expertise of NGOs on waste management issues might be limited, but they can build the platforms to bring experts, companies and communities together.

NGOs can speak out for those who cannot.

Urban property owners have cultural and resource advantages that have allowed them to attract attention to the waste management issue. Their social elite status, however, often blinds them to those in the waste management industry chain who are silent. For example, NGOs think waste collectors play an important role in waste reduction. Urban property owners, on the other hand, who often fail to recognize the contributions of waste collectors, only wish for them to disappear from cities. In a society with rigid social structures, the walls that separate different classes are evident. NGOs should speak for those without a voice, call attention to their living status and ask that their work be respected.

Opportunities and Expectations

Currently the work of NGOs on the waste management issue focuses on waste sorting and waste reduction. Friend’s of Nature’s Zhang Boju once asked professor Guo Weiqing, “At a time when construction of incineration plants around the country is creating so many problems, where should NGOs stand?” Professor Guo’s answer is that given the development and results of the waste incineration protest movement, the door for government-civil society dialogue has been opened — the government has established a public open house day, and organized smaller scale citizen symposiums. The questions for now are: How can public opinion be expressed? How should the government listen to public opinion? Do people need organizations to represent them?

There is a role for NGOs to play, but can NGOs represent public opinion? Is it possible to create pressure for change through collaboration between communities, NGOs and media?

Most NGOs in China are now focused on charity or public service work. NGOs that are advocacy-oriented often live on the periphery with inadequate resources. Although NGOs in China have a history of 30 years, they still have no power to shape discourse, nor the ability to bring together social resources and different actors to solve social problems. Faced with the daunting task of moving the waste protests down a formal and legal path, do NGOs have the capacity to meet the public’s expectations, and to take on the challenges they have raised?


  1. Editor’s Note: Waste incineration protests are typical of NIMBY (not in my backyard) protests that tend to be local and not easily expanded. The challenge posed here is how to transform these local protests into a national issue and movement. 

In Brief

This provocative, in-depth report addresses head-on the sensitive issue of advocacy using the issue of garbage as a case study.
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