Environmental Advocacy Through Institutionalized Interaction with the Government

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Environmental NGOs throughout the country have launched advocacy initiatives in recent years. One such organization located in southwestern Chongqing is the Chongqing Two Rivers Voluntary Services Center (重庆两江志愿服务发展中心), hereafter referred to as the Two Rivers Center, a grassroots environmental NGO that plays an active role in environmental advocacy.

Each year the Two Rivers Center oversees an average of 20-30 projects managing pollution at specific sources and 40-50 environmental monitoring initiatives. Through these pollution control and environmental monitoring projects, the Center has been able to institutionalize a long-lasting relationship with the local Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB). The Center, therefore, has been able to achieve widespread success, whether it be in enhancing the efficiency of local EPBs or monitoring and managing a company’s environmental impact through Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs). For example, after the Center complained about environmental monitoring stations that were not functioning effectively, staff at four of Chongqing’s nine district and county-level stations were punished. Additionally, six EIA companies that did not perform their jobs were punished and reported to city authorities. For companies like these, the Center has already become an independent, third-party source of oversight and pressure. Naturally, the Center’s independence has been attracting widespread attention for its ability to effect real change in the government and private sectors.

Institutionalizing Interaction with the Government

“We and the EPB neither cooperate, nor confront one another. We have a close, interactive relationship. The Center usually has been able to receive positive feedback and revisions from the EPB on our monitoring reports,” Xiang Chun, founder and executive director of the Center, said confidently. This type of relationship is rare in China.

Reporting on environmental problems was difficult when the Center was not well-known. “The EPB felt that we just wanted to cause trouble. When we failed, we disseminated our reports through the media and social media. It was only then that we finally developed a good relationship.” At first, Mr. Xiang posted messages on the internet to stimulate action by government departments on pollution uncovered by the Center.

He related a story about his relationship with the EPB. In July 2010, the Center found pollution coming from a landfill in Chongqing’s Shapingba District that directly discharged into the Jialing River, threatening waterworks up to 10 km downstream. The landfill was located just next to a village water pumping station. After a sampling and data investigation, the Liangjiang Center brought the matter to Chongqing’s Environmental Protection Bureau. The government eventually found that the Chongqing Agrochemical Group was responsible for this pollution by disposing 440 tons of BHC, DDT, and pesticide, into the landfill. In September 2011, the Shapingba government, District EPB, Agrochemical Group, and other work units jointly launched a restoration project and began relocating nearby residents. From that time on, at least once each season the Center asks the District and Municipal EPBs for updates on landfill disposal.

As an independent grassroots organization, the Center is not always able to maintain a cooperative relationship with the government. For instance, in May 2011 it provided a sample of soil and paid the testing fee for the Chongqing City Environmental Monitoring Center so as to supervise progress at a landfill site. The Monitoring Center, however, informed the Liangjiang Center that the sample had been destroyed and refunded their payment. Later, Mr. Xiang posted the Liangjiang Center’s efforts and government response with pictures onto Tianya (天涯), an online forum. Within two to three days there was a strong reaction online and, under pressure from the public, the Monitoring Center called Mr. Xiang to say that the sample had not been destroyed and asked if they could return the sample to the Center.

Mr. Xiang said that the Center decided to send the sample to the EPB not to determine whether there was pollution because it was already clear that the pollution was there, but rather to follow up to make the point that continuous monitoring was important. After this incident, the EPB’s attitude changed and the Center took the opportunity to communicate more directly with the Bureau. Mr. Xiang said that residents near the landfill have already been relocated and that polluted soil from the landfill will be treated by the end of August.

The Center’s pollution control goals are twofold. The more direct goal is to reduce pollution in Chongqing, protect the public’s health, and safeguard the ecosystem. The second, less overt, goal is to improve the government’s effectiveness and “advise them on how to achieve a higher level of performance” by intervening in pollution cases. At this point, they have been partially successful. Mr. Xiang quotes the words of a deputy chief at the Chongqing EPB who informed a polluting company: “it’s not just EPB enforcement authorities watching you, there are also others watching us and the efficiency of our work”. These words impressed upon Mr. Xiang and his team the value of their work.

“Quarreling is Also Part of the Process.”

Occasional confrontation is inevitable in these types of interaction; in 2010 and 2011 Mr. Xiang even hit the table in front of EPB officials. Before our interview on the morning of July 19, Mr. Xiang went to the EPB and got into an argument with the EPB’s senior staff because “a situation had arisen.” In the past, the Center had little problem applying for public disclosure of information from the EPB; this year, however, a new official had been put in charge of this duty and refused a number of recently submitted applications in the name of social stability. Upon returning to the office, Mr. Xiang again started looking for information and materials to “prod” EPB officials.

Mr. Xiang, however, seemed indifferent to the challenges posed by environmental advocacy and changing attitudes from government agencies and corporations, “We really don’t have any frustrations. Sometimes we may get angry, but we do so for a purpose. We quarrel to let you know we’re concerned and to push for further action.”

Now, Mr. Xiang and the Center have speedier communication with the Chongqing Municipal EPB because they can resolve issues directly instead of resorting to messages on the internet or mass media to exert pressure. A standard operating procedure for the quarrels has developed. At least once every month, Mr. Xiang and his colleagues meet with the EPB director to report and complain about polluting enterprises or to point out government problems and deficiencies. Even if there is no specific issue to discuss, they will find something to talk about.

Since the second half of 2011, the Center has become involved in EIA issues and has disclosed the mismanagement of EIAs by using publicly-accessible EIA information from the internet, incorrect information presented to the public, unqualified EIA companies completing EIAs, non-standardized procedures, and violations of regulations that permit public participation. The Center has also audited many EIA reports approved by the EPB. For example, in an EIA report, the Center found that among dozens of EIA reports, four had obviously been fabricated by one person. Mr. Xiang said that, in the past, there were around 40 EIA companies that had completed thousands of EIA reports and all have been given the green light and passed examinations. He also found that some EPB officials did not understand the EIA Law or the provisional regulations for public participation in environmental impact assessments.

In addition to interacting with the EPB, the Center sometimes also directly confronts and questions company owners and EIA companies in the name of an environmental NGO. While often ignored in the beginning, the Center would later follow up with the EPB and report evidence collected from their investigations into companies and projects.

The Center spent a year improving three facets of the EIAs: technical analysis, public participation, and the appropriateness of procedures. In the second half of this year they will also be working to professionalize technical analysis and audits and plan to establish an online EIA database to collect all EIAs and notices to provide information for public participation. They will also select important cases and conduct a third-party review, in accordance with statutes concerning public participation, to confirm whether an EIA company involved in the EIA process has fabricated the data.

“The EIA companies already know that people are paying attention and that they cannot casually go about their work. We hope, through this supervision, to gradually enforce local standards.” Mr. Xiang ‘s dedication has finally been rewarded.

NGOs Are a Boon to Social Stability

It is impossible to ignore the recent, and quite shocking, Shifang incident when discussing EIAs.1 Mr. Xiang said that he did not read the EIA report for the Shifang project, but assuming that the molybdenum copper project received technical approval there were still problems with the project. The regulations require that it go through four information disclosures involving the EPB, the company owner, and the EIA company from the time the contract was signed until the project’s completion. Evidently, however, the project only became public knowledge the day of the commencement ceremony. Two legally mandated public announcements, filling out a public participation survey, and the holding of public forums and hearings, either did not occur or were not carried out properly.

“Similar incidents could also occur in Chongqing, if projects are not done properly. Thus, it is the role of NGOs to mitigate social conflicts to help the government maintain stability,” Mr. Xiang remarked. In the case of Shifang, NGO and community stakeholder participation in the government’s decision-making process would have led to better communication, possibly resolving the problem before a conflict broke out.

During its existence, the Two Rivers Center has dealt with dozens of polluting enterprises, mostly from the machinery and chemical industries. As a local Chongqing organization, the Center targets local pollution matters regardless of the company’s background. They have brought cases against state-owned enterprises, private enterprises, foreign companies, companies high on the production chain, listed companies, and non-listed companies. In all these cases, the Center relies on government interaction, rather than with the media, to resolve issues.

Unlike Beijing-based organizations like Greenpeace (绿色和平), the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (公众与环境研究中心), and Green Beagle Environmental Institute (达尔问), there is no geographic advantage for local NGOs to use the media. Mr. Xiang points out Beijing-based organizations are more likely to rely on the media as a way to expand their influence nationwide.

Leaving Pessimism Behind

Grassroots organizations can inevitably become pessimistic as they work in an environment in which they face local pressure. Mr. Xiang and his team try to avoid this by remembering that, although they face many difficulties, their very existence is predicated on overcoming such an environment.

“We have never been pessimistic or given up on communicating with the government.” Mr. Xiang’s understanding of communication is quite broad, running the gamut from calm exchanges and conversations to quarrels, slapping the table and posting messages on the internet. Instead of “pessimism,” Mr. Xiang prefers to use “professionalization” to describe the Two Rivers Center. They have found a practical and sustainable direction and are committed to having a positive attitude and professional outlook in their work. In addition, the Center has focused on professionalizing their staff by recruiting graduates with degrees in relevant fields, such as environmental engineering, environmental sciences, law, and chemistry. Although they no longer emphasize the sacrifice and dedication required of first-generation environmental NGOs, they still recognize the importance of enthusiasm.

The Municipal Civilization Office (市文明办): a “Cross-boundary” Agency

Although the effectiveness of NGO advocacy depends heavily on its strategic positioning, there are other intervening factors that cannot be ignored . For example, I wondered how the Two Rivers Voluntary Services Center’s name brought to mind a volunteer service organization instead of an environmental protection NGO. I did not expect that, behind this question, lay an important moment in the Center’s development related to its supervisory unit, the Chongqing Civilization Office.2

“The Chongqing Two Rivers Voluntary Services Center” is the registered name provided by the Chongqing Civilization Office whose work focuses on developing volunteer services. Normally, an NGO seeking to register would have to find a supervising unit in the same professional field. For the Center, that would mean an agency like the EPB, not the Civilization Office. In this case, the Civilization Office took a chance by agreeing to sponsor an environmental NGO but asked the Center to put “voluntary services” in its name so it would appear consistent with the Civilization Office’s scope of work. Mr. Xiang said that the name “Two Rivers” stands for the two rivers that run through Chongqing, the Jialing and Yangtze Rivers. It was registered as a social organization at the Chongqing city level in August 2011 lending it an elevated status.3 Thus, what on the surface appears to be a strange name for an environmental NGO is in reality a way for the Civilization Office to justify its sponsorship of the Center.

The development of NGOs in Chongqing has been slow due to lack of support from the Civil Affairs department. The Chongqing Civilization Office wants to be more than just a document-issuing agency. It wants to be involved in managing the development and capacity building of NGOs, volunteer services and community development, and to open more opportunities for promoting the development of grassroots organizations, but is being very careful in its initial steps.

After considerable back and forth, the Two Rivers Center (formerly known as the Chongqing Youth Environment Council) was founded by Mr. Xiang as a grassroots NGO. It is the only grassroots organization in the country sponsored by a provincial-level Civilization Office.

“The Civilization Office gives us high marks,” Mr. Xiang said. In the early days, the EPB was trying to make Chongqing a National Environmental Protection Model City and saw the Center as a troublemaker. The Civilization Office, coming from a social development perspective, saw this as a trivial issue and, instead of putting pressure on the EPB, felt the problem could be solved by communicating with the EPB.

The Center’s relationship with the Civilization Office is an innovative arrangement. Normally, an environmental NGO is sponsored by a government agency in the same professional field such as the EPB. But obviously, an unavoidable conflict arises when an agency being monitored (the EPB) becomes the supervisory unit for the monitoring organization. The Center avoids this conflict of interest, and thus plays a more independent and effective role, by having the Civilization Office serve as its supervisory unit.

Like many grassroots organizations, the Center needed funds to get started. To avoid taking on too many projects, it decided to concentrate on environmental protection and NGO sector development. There is little overlap between environmental protection and NGO sector development, but the Center hopes that more local NGOs will emerge in Chongqing with help from the Civilization Office, which in turn could also help the Civilization Office to achieve its own goal. The Office would like to support NGOs and foster communication on policy so that the Center can act as a resource for organizations outside the field of environmental protection.

In the last two and a half years the Center has expanded its staff from four to seven. Currently, the Center is funded in large part by the SEE Foundation. In August, the Center and the Alibaba Public Welfare Foundation (阿里巴巴公益基金会) finalized a project agreement in which Alibaba pledged to financially support the Center’s industrial pollution prevention and control projects in 10 counties outside of the Chongqing city center.

Developing New Strategies

In addition to its own projects, the Liangjiang Center cooperates with other organizations like Green Choice (绿色选择), a nationwide environmental advocacy alliance, to provide firsthand pollution monitoring data and identify major polluting enterprises. Starting this May, it will hold its first conference together with three other local environmental NGOs: the Green Volunteer League of Chongqing (重庆绿色志愿者联合会), Chongqing Public Science Education Center of Environmental Protection for Rivers (重庆公众河流环保科普中心), and Chongqing Youth Environmental Exchange Center (重庆青年环境交流中心). Through a series of rotating, monthly meetings, these four organizations have been able to share information and create a foundation for cooperation.

The Center has also been able to engage in public interest litigation against polluting enterprises with support from the All-China Environment Federation (中华环保联合会) since Chongqing established its first environmental court this year.4 Thus, the Center has gone beyond working through administrative channels (e.g. working through the EPB) to promoting public participation in seeking environmental justice through legal means and winning compensation for past pollution violations. This past August, the Center also drafted two motions on EIAs and environmental public interest litigation, both of which have been submitted to the Chongqing Municipal People’s Political Consultative Conference5.


  1. Editor’s Note: the city of Shifang, in Sichuan, was the site of an environmental protest in the summer of 2012 against the building of a molybdenum copper factory that led to the temporary suspension of the project. 

  2. Editor’s Note: In order to register as a NGO with Civil Affairs, the Center had to find a party or government agency willing to be the NGO’s “professional supervising unit”. Normally, the supervising unit needs to be in the same professional field. 

  3. Editor’s Note: Since Chongqing city is a provincial-level municipality like Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai, a social organization registering with the Chongqing administration enjoys the same high status. 

  4. Editor’s Note: The All-China Environment Federation is a GONGO set up by the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Environmental courts have been established at the local level since 2007 and were intended as a way to fast-track environmental litigation. The courts have jurisdiction over civil, administrative and criminal cases related to environmental matters. 

  5. Editor’s Note: The People’s Political Consultative Conference is an advisory policy-making body that meets at the same time as the People’s Congresses. 

In Brief

This is the second installment of a case study examining a Chongqing environmental NGO that uses a novel and effective way to supervise local government agencies and companies.
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