Environmental Activists Take Back the Power
Governments are no longer the ones who rule the world, the power shifted to global megacorporations.
It is hard to refer to China’s civil society as particularly developed. Yet the government is increasingly allying itself with the environmental movement.
Can there be a civil society and NGOs in China? It is no secret that China’s political system is an authoritative one-party state under the leadership of China’s Communist Party. An active civil society absolutely depends on freedom of expression, and the freedom to assemble and organise. China is a country with a strongly policed press that places extreme limitations on freedom of assembly, yet a very active environmental movement has developed there over the past 20 years.
In January 2015, China’s highest court announced that the government would financially support environmental conservation groups in their battle against polluters. In recent years, the Chinese government has taken huge steps towards environmental NGOs. In 2013, the Environmental Protection Act was reformed to allow environmental NGOs to sue companies that did not comply with environmental regulations. The people are fighting the destruction of their environment, and the government is increasingly coming to view them as allies. Every year protests against environmental pollution increase by 20 percent, so protecting the environmental movement also means protecting power.
The economic boom and urban growth have resulted in an enormous increase in ecological damage in China.
The economic boom and urban growth have resulted in an enormous increase in ecological damage in China. Today the country is home to 16 of the world’s 20 cities with the highest rates of air pollution. Increased traffic, coal-fired power stations and mining are particularly responsible, as is industrial development in general. A recent study of Chinese cities revealed the devastating extent of environmental damage: Only 3 cities out of 74 fell under the government guidelines, the rest are battling smog. In March 2014, levels of particulate matter were 17-times higher than the legal limit. 60 percent of all groundwater is undrinkable.
These days criticism of China’s environmentally destructive growth model is no longer only coming from the ranks of civil society; it has entered into the political discourse of the powerful. The new Premier Li Keqiang declared a “war on environmental pollution” in spring 2014. It calls for high penalties levied against companies who do not adhere to environmental guidelines. Environmental activists and NGOs are mobilising the population to report illegal activities and are issuing public “water pollution maps” that in turn assist state environmental agencies in targeting polluters. An environmental tax has been under discussion since 2013, an idea also rooted in actions taken by the NGOs. In 2009, China Daily quoted a demand for an energy and environmental tax issued by Greenpeace’s China office.
China only recently created a ministry of the environment by upgrading the SEPA environmental agency in March 2008. A plan to protect the climate, environmental protection amendments for air and water pollution, stricter guidelines for coal mining, and increasing energy efficiency have long been on the government’s agenda, but implementation is still lacking. Environmental NGOs are extremely helpful here.
The term civil society refers to the efforts and participation of the civil population and includes initiatives, associations and other groups of people who work for the public, political, social and culture interests of citizens outside of government institutions. NGOs and civil society activists have increasingly come into the spotlight, especially following the large world conferences on development, sustainability and climate conservation in the 1990s, where activists from development policy networks, former aid workers, environmental conservationists and representatives of social movements came together. Their role has been taken increasingly seriously and the term “NGO” has gained independence as a significant political group that works alongside the government.
Today in China there are an estimated 3,000 environmental conservation organisations.
In China, reform processes have created conditions that now allow for NGOs. Principally only three forms of NGOs are permitted: non-profit organisations, foundations, and “social organisations” or clubs. In China these groups deal with issues of environmental protection, social equality, welfare and civic participation. The environmental movement has its roots in the 1980s, though after 1989 and especially after the UN World Conference on Women in 1995, this movement was increasingly regulated by state institutions and subject to top-down control. Today in China there are an estimated 3,000 environmental conservation organisations, a few thousand legal aid organisations, women’s rights organisations, and 20 – 30,000 of welfare organisations.
It is still not possible to speak of a developed civil society in China though, one in which bottom-up social movements could develop, that offer sufficient legal protection for politically active citizens and are based on a free press.
On environmental issues, the state is dependent on NGO support if it ever hopes to get a grip on pollution.
There is a good reason the state is now backing environmental NGOs in some areas. On environmental issues, the state is dependent on NGO support if it ever hopes to get a grip on pollution. In welfare too their efforts are welcomed. Registering as an NGO, however, is still a rocky and difficult path. In January 1, 2012, new legislation was passed to make it easier to register an NGO. Six categories of NGOs, including environmental conservation, social welfare, sport, and culture, may now register “directly” with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Prior to this, an NGO was forced to find a state sponsor willing to assume liability for it.
Should the environmental movement turn against nuclear power or dams though, China’s “green energy”, they would suddenly find themselves subject to very close scrutiny by the authorities. The fight for labour rights, free unionized representation, or transparency in government (key word: corruption) can result in arrest and persecution. The environmental movement is squeezed into a confining corset as well.
Nonetheless: Even without a consortium of organisations, the will of the people is becoming increasingly visible. Numerous spontaneous civilian campaigns on issues like protecting residential buildings from destruction, protests against land grabbing, strikes and protests by workers, an increase in civil rights cases, consumer initiatives, and an increasingly bold press are clearly indications that the process of establishing a sense of citizen’s rights and participative spaces is underway.”
Photo by Mark Heath (flickr)