Reflecting on “Activism” China’s Environmental Movement

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Editor’s Note

From 2010 to 2011, the “SEE Foundation,” members of Sun Yat-sen University’s “Institute for Civil Society” (ICS), and “Forward Works” organized a “green leadership” partner program. The program invited twenty-four young participants from environmental NGOs across the country to take part in a one-year series of training activities, workshops and cooperative projects.These activities were designed to allow for an in-depth exchange of their personal experiences and problems in an atmosphere of mutual support. Having gained some practical experience, these young participants are now reflecting on the problems and challenges involved in non-governmental environmental protection work. Being involved in non-governmental environmental protection work, these participantsare looking ahead to the future, and hope to promote the development of China’s environmental movement, and the non-governmental environmental protection field as a whole. The following articles bring together their analysis and recommendations regarding China’s current environmental movement.

China’s civil society has continued to grow over the last few decades. As civil society enters a new era, China Development Brief has published a group of valuable reflective essays in the hope that counterparts from related fields can benefit from their treatment of the question of what comes next for the environmental movement. These young participants are not burdened by the past, and although they may lack the depth of understanding and insight into environmental protection work of their predecessors, their sincerity and commitment cannot be questioned. Nonetheless, in the pursuit of balanced analysis, the editors have invited both Liu Detian from China’s first generation of environmentalists and researcher Wu Fengshi to provide their personal points of view on the following articles.

Reflecting on the “Activism” in China’s Environmental Movement

Judging by the development of local environmental protection organizations, the history of China’s environmental movement can be said to reach back some 20 years. The narrative of this period is however more than one of just theoretical involvement; rather, it also features a range of specific, targeted activism, both large and small. It is a period of history characterized by action.

Yet today’s participants in the movement tend to focus too much on individual action, and lack a more comprehensive perspective on the field. Even when reflection does occur, it is typically individual, private and sporadic, and thus powerless to influence the movement as a whole. This pattern is indicative of a series of critical deficiencies.

Pushing forward the environmental movement requires overcoming these deficiencies. It requires participants exercising a balance between ‘action’ and ‘reflection’ in order to cultivate a more cohesive and perceptive culture in the field.  It also requires furthering environmentalism’s mass appeal, influencing mainstream culture, and strengthening public approval. If achieved, these developments will, in turn, further enhance the effectiveness of their ‘actions,’ allowing the environmental movement to bring about genuine change in China.

Activism in the Environmental Movement

The rise of China’s environmental movement is the result of the efforts of diverse groups of people. The first group is comprised of the founding members of Friends of Nature (Liang Congjie, Liang Xiaoyan, Yang Dongping, Wang Lixiong) as well as Tang Xiyang, Liao Xiaoyi, and other intellectuals1. Together, this group collectively represents the elite of China’s environmental society, and provides a discursive space for those who have joined the cause of environmentalism.

The second group includes activists such as Liu Detian, Wang Yongchen, Ma Jun, Huo Daishan and Yun Jianli2. Owing to their extensive knowledge of key aspects of the field, these activists were some of the first to have a finger on the pulse of contemporary trends within the broader movement. As such, their relatively early exposure to environmentalist thinking ensured their acute awareness of the severe challenges facing environmental protection.

The third group is comprised of the victims of environmental pollution in China such as Zhang Changjian and Wei Dongying. This group of people, having overcome personal problems and fought to protect people’s rights, take a direct stand against environmental pollution.

Following in the wake of these three groups are the youth actively participating in China’s environmental movement, of which there are two subcategories. The first group are the elite youth, who have accumulated a strong capacity for, and a deep understanding of, environmental protection3. The second group includes young grassroots activists, whose abilities, vision and understanding are not fully matured, but who deeply identify with the cause of environmentalism.

Regardless of their specific roles, the aforementioned three groups serve as the  pioneers of China’s environmental protection movement. All are involved in targeted (if often small-scale) activism, environmental education, promotion of environmental awareness, and even in directly challenging polluters. They are recognized as having brought new tactics and strategies into the environmental struggle; they are also known generally to rely on emotion, intuition, knowledge and wisdom in deciding the correct course of action. Outside the first aforementioned group of intellectuals involved in the movement, however, typically little importance is attached to reflecting on the thinking behind the environmental movement as a whole and considering the future of  environmentalism in China.

Of the new participants in the environmental movement, the elite youth constitute a relatively small number, with the majority of young people coming from the grassroots. Grassroots youth have tended to struggle with abstract thinking about the movement, but they do have something in common with the first three categories of activists in that they often rely on emotion and life-experiences when taking action. They typically do not attach much importance to reflection or the theoretical constructs of environmentalism, even believing that they have no practical use.

We tentatively refer to this mode of thinking— the focus on specific environmental action without paying attention to comprehensive reflection and  the theoretical constructs of environmentalism-as the “activist” aspect of the Chinese environmental movement.

The Problem with Activism

China’s environmental movement is a general social force with its own mission and social responsibility. It should influence the public sector by ensuring that its organizational framework, decision-making methods, and ideologies foster environmental protection. The movement should encourage markets to be more environmentally aware, mainstream environmentalist culture  in China and pioneer environmentally-friendly lifestyles.

Although at present the environmental movement’s participants, values, actions, reasoning and tools are increasingly diverse, a series of problems still need to be addressed in the activist movement.

Selecting and prioritizing among a diverse range of underlying values; handling the movement’s public relations with the government and business; conveying the movement’s vision and direction while strengthening its internal cohesion; improving environmentalism’s public appeal and recognition; and deciding on strategies for action – these issues require the environmental movement’s participants to consider and discuss problems holistically and abstractly, so as to make convincing and logical judgments. Only actions based on these judgment will be effective.

However, in focusing on concrete actions, activists have neglected reflecting in a comprehensive manner. As a result, the Chinese environmental movement has fallen into a state where it blindly drives forward, a state in which not enough time is taken to clearly anticipate the future direction of the movement, what exactly the mission is, or which path is most appropriate.

Our group believes that, in addition to the above detailed discussion of the movement’s “lack of reflection and theoretical understanding,’ China’s environmental movement faces further issues of ‘atomization,’ isolated pockets of self-serving behavior, and inadequate levels of public approval.

So-called ‘atomization’ in the context of the Chinese environmental movement can be seen in the nebulous array of individual actors that have emerged thanks to the lack of organic links between individuals and organizations. For those who doubt the true existence of an environmental ‘movement’ in China, among their doubts is that these atomized individualistic actors have yet to form an integrated movement. Furthermore, these small self-satisfied circles, and low-levels of public approval, reflect a pressing problem, namely that China’s environmental protection movement occupies a social backwater, and has yet to enter the mainstream.

How do we evolve from these atomistic individual actors into an integrated movement? How do we become part of mainstream society, and make environmental protection a mainstream concern? These challenges faced by the environmental movement are not easily solved, and the reasoning behind the slogan ‘action is king’ needs to be revised.

If we do not reflect, we cannot build a unified movement, and China’s environmental movement will end up in a repetitive and endless cycle of action.


  1. Editor’s Note: Friends of Nature, established in 1994, is one of China’s earliest environmental NGOs. Tang Xiyang is a Chinese journalist whose 1993 book, A Green World Tour, about his travels through nature reserves outside of China, inspired many Chinese youth to take up the environmental cause.  Liao Xiaoyi is the founder of the Beijing-based NGO, Global Village. 

  2. Editor’s Note: Liu Detian is the founder of the Liaoning Saunder’s Gull Conservation Society which was established in the early 1990s and is often cited as the first environment NGO in China. Wang Yongchen is the founder of the Beijing-based NGO, Green Volunteers.  Ma Jun is the founder of the Beijing-based NGO, Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.  Huo Daishan is the founder of the Henan-based environmental NGO, Huai River Guardians.  Yu Jianli is the founder of the Hubei-based NGO, Green Hanjiang. 

  3. Editor’s Note: The term “elite youth” refers to young people with a university education. 

In Brief

A group of young environmentalists argue that more strategic thinking and reflection, and less of an “action first” mentality, is needed if China’s environmental movement is going to succeed.
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