The Culture of China’s Environmental Movement

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A group of young environmentalists offer a critical examination of what they see as the shortcomings of the current environmental movement in China.

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, theseyoungparticipants are now reflecting on the problems and challenges involved innon-governmental environmentalprotection 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 canbenefit from their treatment of the question of what comes next for the environmental movement. These young participantsare 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.

Based on the personal experiences of these team members and limited observations from their perspectives, we noticed that China’s environmental NGOs  have certain cultural characteristics. As the purpose of this article is to promote improvements in the culture of China’s environmental movement, we will mainly focus on revealing and analyzing the flaws and weaknesses in the culture of China’s environmental movement, aspects that we feel are particularly worthy of reflection.

Looking at the environmental NGOs in China today, we see the old and the new, the dying and the living, the dead and the reborn, the short-lived and the deeply-rooted and ingenious. In the context of the degradation of this country’s environment, if we are talking about the existence of an environmental movement in China, we can only see a movement that involves a small number of people (the minority), and is also distorted and fragmented. There may be results in certain areas, but the entire movement is growing very slowly, and the isolated and dispersed environmental forces are barely able to resist the giant forward-moving economic ones.

The environmental movement is still a movement of the minority

In the strictest sense, an environmental movement with nationwide participation has yet to truly appear in China. Even the opposition to dam building on the Nu River issue only involved environmental NGOs, media, scholars and celebrities, some local university students and residents from local communities, while nationwide participation by the general public was absent1. There are many reasons for the lack of public participation, including systemic constraints, lagging public awareness, insufficient numbers of environmental NGOs, and flaws in the culture and thinking of environmental NGOs.

These flaws include:

An elite mentality: some people in environmental NGOs classify themselves as part of an elite, and are only willing to work with fellow members of this elite, thus limiting their environmental actions to “elite” circles.

The Individual Hero mentality: some people in environmental NGOs believe that they alone have great foresight, are pioneers, and are saving nature, mankind and their nation. This is not to be denied, and they do indeed put in a great deal of effort, and have many followers. However, a hero, even if combined with his followers, is still only a minority.

The sadness mentality: The eyes of some people in environmental NGOs are always full of sadness. On one hand, this is indeed due to concern for the state of the environment, but on the other hand, it is a way to occupy the moral high ground. No matter what, they are always alienated from the general public.

The innocence mentality: Some people in environmental NGOs bury themselves in their own projects, are not concerned with politics and society, and avoid getting entangled in complications of political and societal “pollution”.

The recluse mentality: Some people in environmental NGOs are only concerned about themselves, and pursue an environmentally-friendly life as a hermit.

The environmental movement as a distorted movement

The strong inertia inherent in Chinese society and the limitations of the political and economic system have caused distortions in the growth and behavior of China’s environmental NGOs. Specific behaviors (behavioral cultures) include:

Escapist behavior — In a certain sense, they do not dare, are unwilling or do not have the ability to face the real environmental issues and conflicts of interest or to carry out general environmental education. In terms of environmental education and advocacy, they do not dare to target adults, people with power, ability and responsibility. Instead, they target student groups with no social influence. This is actually just a way of achieving spiritual victory and escaping reality.

Striving for what is far away and neglecting what lies close at hand — In the small scheme of things, student associations do not study and solve the environmental problems on campus, but go out of campus to do general campaigning; in the big scheme, local environmental NGOs do not target and solve local environmental problems and do not voice their opinions on major local environmental incidents, but instead express their views or carry out public interest litigation concerning environmental incidents in other areas. Generally, even while local environmental NGOs have a better understanding of, and more of a say in major environmental incidents that happen locally, they tend to remain silent in these cases.

Evasive behavior — Some environmental NGOs choose not to try to influence or change the ‘decisions made by the government’, but instead attempt to affect the implementation of these decisions by relevant administrative departments, trying to mitigate the harm to the environment during the implementation process or putting in place remedial measures. In the initial stages, they do not appear as opponents or skeptics, but are instead likely to appear as supporters of the decisions on projects. It may be that they believe this is a way for them to win the trust of government departments, and thereby secure the ability to speak and participate.

Roundabout behavior — When helping the victims of pollution, some environmental NGOs do not claim compensation and seek responsibility from the polluters, but instead seek aid from the outside world, such as seeking assistance for the treatment of diseases, for improving water sources, for poverty relief etc. They avoid making demands on polluters and local governments because doing so is more difficult.

In trying to solve local environmental problems, some NGOs choose not to directly expose problems, but instead work through the media to make that locality a ‘model of environmental protection’, as a way to encourage local governments to change policy direction.

In order to get better governmental support in environmental projects or environmental actions, some NGOs also attempt to establish close personal relationships with government officials. However, in this process, they are easily caught in the predicament of being co-opted.

By questioning the supply chain of international manufacturers, some NGOs indirectly curb pollution and damage to workers’ health inflicted by domestic enterprises. Their main work, however, does not bear directly on those who endanger the health of workers, and on the users of toxic and hazardous raw materials, but instead focuses on ‘tracking down and killing off upstream international manufacturers. This may be a smart way to work, but it may also be escapist depending on the final outcomes.

Opportunistic behavior  — A number of environmental NGOs seem to have opportunistic mentalities. After entering the field of environmental protection, some people chase after the limelight, fame or other opportunities, hypocritically discovering and discussing environmental issues while totally forgetting about their initial passion for the environment. Some people attempt to use the “carrot and stick” method to obtain resources and the right of speech from polluting enterprises and government departments. This results in them being susceptible to conspiring with the polluting enterprises and the government, weakening their position on environmental protection, and their public image and credibility. Some environmental NGOs also change their position easily after receiving small benefits or favors from local governments and enterprises. In incidents like the Xiamen PX protests, or the Chongqing Xiaonanhai incident, some environmental NGOs did not join in due to consideration for their own safety or interests2.

The behavior described above may indeed reflect the tenacious vitality of the environmental NGOs. They grow with the same tenacity as weeds, and fight like the toughest warriors. However, most of this behavior also shows that environmental NGOs are weak, superficial, evading the powers, responsibilities and challenges of today, and are even opportunistic, without a mind of their own, or end up opposing environmental protection.

The Environmental Movement as Fragmented

Our observations show that the participants in the environmental movement are diverse and include NGOs, foundations, academics and celebrities, the media, politicians etc., and people from the grassroots. However, we also notice they are dispersed, isolated and fragmented.

The gap between the environmental NGOs and the public  — Environmental NGOs were not the protagonists, and did not even appear, in major public environmental incidents. Examples include the actions against incinerators in Panyu (Guangdong) and the anti-PX chemical plant protest in Xiamen. The Nu River anti-dam protests also only involved the environmental NGOs, media, scholars and cultural figures, some local university students and some residents from the local communities, while participation of the general public was absent.  There is a real lack of coordination between the public and environmental NGOs in environmental protection work for reasons having to do with NGO mechanisms, capability, and lack of credibility.The gap between environmental NGOs and entrepreneurs — Entrepreneurs value ‘professionalism’, discipline and efficiency, while environmental NGOs value respect and diversity. The conflict in values between the two sides ​is obvious, ​and mutual exchanges and compromises have only just begun.

The gap between environmental NGOs and politics — Few Chinese environmental NGOs attempt to persuade representatives from the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the National People’s Congress (NPC) to submit proposals or propose motions related to environmental protection. If we cannot even convince these representatives who are concerned about people’s welfare and possess a humanistic spirit, then the effectiveness of our work is really limited. Our homework for the next few years includes addressing how to strengthen popular support for environmental protection and how to connect with other demands for social justice.

The gap between environmental NGOs and foundations — In order to survive and develop, environmental NGOs adapt to the project requirements of foundations, turning one project after another into flowerpots. The positioning of NGOs, the demands of local environmental protection, and the needs of foundations, are like a see-saw. The foundations are not willing to invest time in understanding environmental NGOs and ways to support them. They rarely support the growth of an organization or its personnel. Without project proposals, foundations will not provide funding. Important work undertaken by NGOs, such as temporary or long-term responses to local environmental incidents, is difficult for foundations to support.

The gap between environmental NGOs — At present, environmental NGOs are a diverse group and collaboration between them is far from adequate.  Youth environmental organizations tend to work on their own, and connections between them are weak. They tend to rarely involve in the development of environmental NGOs as a whole. The perspectives, visions and mentalities of youth environmental NGOs are different, with some only concerned with their own organizations, and others not accepting each other. Of course there are definitely some that are open and positive, but most are dissatisfied with other organizations and not unwilling to collaborate.

We believe that the fragmented nature of the environmental NGO community, especially youth environmental NGOs, is mainly due to the following beliefs:

A clique mentality — Many environmental NGOs still have a strong “clique” mentality, viewing people within ones clique as insiders and those that are not as outsiders. Non-environmental NGOs, the government, enterprises and even the public with its neutral attitude are all outsiders. Even those in NGOs that are not within their circle of friends are also outsiders. This mentality depends on the closeness of the relationship, and differences in beliefs. For example, some young people place emphasis on the spirit of science, some focus on the community, some believe in having an international perspective, while others believe in being rooted locally. These differences in beliefs undermine communication, a spirit of tolerance, inclusiveness, and mutual understanding, and cooperation.

A careerist mentality  — Youth leaders in many environmental NGOs are very dedicated to their careers, and also view real environmental protection as a career. However, even more so are those focused on their career successes, and in a broader sense, the career successes of their circle of friends. There still lacks a larger and even broader selfless concern for the realization of success within the whole environmental cause, and for the fate of the environment of China and the world. Thus, this mentality is still a self-centered one. Doing well in one’s own work and showing concern for the whole environmental cause is not contradictory, and what should be avoided is affecting the achievement of the whole environmental cause due to a mentality only concerned with one’s personal career or the careers of a small circle.

A competitive mentality — The young people involved in environmental protection have a strong competitive awareness and mentality. They hope that their projects are the best, their achievements are the most numerous and their influence the largest. Competitive awareness also exists in some of the older organizations, and they strive to be the leader or the self-proclaimed leader. Competition does of course help to maintain high morale and creativity. However, it also results in difficulties in cooperation. While facing such a challenging environmental situation, it is extremely difficult to achieve our common goals and visions without cooperation. If we need to compete, we should compete with the government to influence policies, compete with the commercial sector for resources, and also compete with groups lacking environmental awareness to win people’s hearts.

A project mentality — Many grassroots organizations originate from projects, and many foreign organizations parachute down projects. Although the adoption of project operation and business management procedures can improve an organization’s operational standards and efficiency, NGOs can increasingly lose their sense of identity through the belief that all these projects equal an organization. As a result, NGOs lack the emergency management and response capabilities to deal with real environmental problems. Their project-oriented focus, and resource-oriented mentality, causes the public to increasingly lose sight of the value of these NGOs. In this environment, competition for projects is the overriding mentality, resources (from foundations) are limited, and other NGOs are competitors. This results in a lack of appreciation for and an unwillingness to learn from the other NGOs, as well as a lack of camaraderie.

Perhaps the above are just descriptions of the phenomena, and the reasons behind them have yet to be discussed.  We hope this article will serve to initiate such discussion.


  1. Editor’s Note: In 2004, environmental NGOs worked together with the media, scholars and government officials to call attention to plans to build a series of dams on the Nu River, China’s last wild river.  In a victory for China’s environmentalists, Premier Wen Jiabao suspended the project in 2005. 

  2. Editor’s Note: The Xiamen protests at the end of 2007 opposed the building of a paraxylene (PX) petrochemical plant.  The protests led to a decision by the Xiamen city government not to build the plant.  The Chongqing incident refers to a campaign launched in 2011 by environmental NGOs against the Xiaonanhai dam which was being constructed with the support of the Chongqing city government.  The NGOs claim the dam will endanger a rare species of fish by blocking its migration route. 

In Brief

A group of young environmentalists offer a critical examination of what they see as the shortcomings of the current environmental movement in China.
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