December 15, 2009


A Report on the Development of Environmental NGOs in China

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.87 (November 2009)

Since July 2009 JFS has hosted a Chinese intern student for six months.Taking this as an opportunity to learn about the current situation ofenvironmental protection in China, we asked him for a report on Chineseenvironmental NGOs, their development and challenges. Here is his report.


History & Growth

In 1993 when Beijing was selected as a candidate city for the 2008 summerOlympics, officials from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) askedrepresentatives from Beijing Olympic committee about the non-governmentalenvironmental movement in Beijing. Representatives from Beijing did notknow how to answer this question because the word NGO was new to them.

In order to establish a NGO in mainland China, one has to register theorganization according to the Social Organizations Registration andAdministration Act to obtain legal status. Organizations without legalstatus are prohibited from accepting outside donations. Also required isa regular business location, full-time staff, registration capital ofmore than thirty thousand yuan (about US$ 4,200) and official documentswith a stamp of approval from a governmental agency that has beendesignated as a "supervising office."

One year later, in 1994, the first formally registered Chineseenvironmental NGO, Friends of Nature was founded by Mr. Congjie Liang.This was quickly followed by Global Village Beijing in 1995, which wasregistered as a private business entity under the Bureau of Industry andCommerce. Since that time, officially, more than 3,500 NGOs haveformally registered in either form (2008).

Looking back at this history of growth, three periods categorize thedevelopment of environmental NGOs in China.

The first period (1994-2000) is best described as "saving the nature."NGO activities in this period had three basic features: first, promotinggeneral environmental awareness; second, lacking participants andsupport from the general public; and third, nature-preservation-centeredinitiatives.

Unlike NGOs from industrial countries like Japan, which start activitiesfrom fighting against industrial pollutions, Chinese environmental NGOpioneers begin with wildlife protection, water conservation and otherecological activities. Friends of Nature focused on saving endangeredanimals in the western part of China in its very early years.

The reasons why Chinese environmental NGOs started from protectingnature instead of fighting industrial pollution mainly attribute to twofactors: social-economic and cultural.

On the one hand, during the period 1994-2000, the Chinese governmentadopted massive investment strategies for industry and successfullycreated much social wealth for the nation. Compared with the dramaticimprovements of living standard brought by industrial development,industrial pollution problem at that time was not a major concern.Besides, most of society was not directly affected by pollution becausemost of the waste was transported to rural and undeveloped areas.

On the other hand, the first pioneers of Chinese environmental NGOs weremostly nature-lovers or outdoor-sports lovers. Their activities andinterests were seriously influenced by industrialization and pollutionin rural areas. Many outdoor activities and eco-tour sites were severelyimpacted. For these nature-lovers, starting an environmental NGO wouldnot only help save nature but also save their interests and passions.

The second period (2000-2005) is what I called the "national involvementtime" for environmental NGOs. The real force of such nationalinvolvement was the unique political power of China. Politicians inChina had a strong power to connect citizen's personal vision anddevelopment with the whole nation's future.

Things that are positive for national growth will be favored by eachcitizen and interestingly, most citizens tended to think of themselvesas important contributors to the nation. The "Go West" governmentcampaign in 1994 and the "Green Beijing Olympics Initiatives" in 2001were two good examples on how a national environmental vision stimulatedthe growth of individual environmental involvement. In this period,Chinese citizens' strong patriotism was tightly connected with theirpublic environmental contribution.

The third period (2005 to now) is best summarized as "serious NGO period."With the rise of the Chinese economy and the degradation of the domesticenvironment, more and more Chinese people are thinking aboutenvironmental issues seriously. From 2005 to 2008, the number ofenvironmental NGOs increased from 2,758 to 3,559.

Thanks to globalization and the exposure of China's great potential tothe world through media, Chinese local environmental NGOs have startedto cooperate with foreign forces to improve their own professional leveland to gather more funds. Many new NGOs were founded by Chinese youthswho have experience in developed countries like the United States or bypro-China foreigners. Foreign environmental NGOs in China have also beenvery active.

Measures by Central Government

In 1999 there was the "Go West" campaign initiated by Chairman JiangZemin. It was an effort to develop the western part of China and bringliving standards closer to those of the coastal region. The governmentset out ecological construction or environmental protection as one ofthe five major parts of this campaign. In response to this campaign,many new environmental NGOs were founded in the western part of China,particularly in Yunnan province. They worked together with governmentsto protect the ecosystem in western China by keeping it from the damageof massive construction projects.

In 2001 after Beijing was selected to be the host for the 2008 OlympicGames, the organizing committee, mainly the Beijing city government,announced the "Green Olympics" campaign. Local environmental NGOs hadincreased dramatically to help the government achieve this goal. The "26degrees Celsius" was a campaign in Beijing aiming to make hotels,restaurants and other public spaces keep their thermostats set higher,at 26 degrees Celsius during the summer, for energy conservation."No Car Day" is another campaign launched by environmental NGOs.

After 2005, as the Beijing Olympics approached and the centralgovernment was making massive investments to develop clean energies andother environmental construction projects, new environmental NGOs werefounded in all fields in response to government measures. After the newgovernment administration began in early 2005, the Chinese centralgovernment became ever more transparent regarding environmental issues,declaring the message of sustainable development and inspiring manyprofessionals to take part in the fight for global warming.

Public & Media Recognition

Internet has become one of the most influencing factors of the growth ofChina's environmental NGOs. Beginning early in 2000 with the dramaticgrowth of Internet service throughout China, environmental NGOs startedto communicate with their volunteers and stakeholders through their ownwebsites. Having its own website was at one time a fashion tonewly-started NGOs. Today, many Chinese environmental NGOs have set uponline donation systems for their volunteers as the main means ofobtaining financial support.

Business sectors are also a part of the recognition. Many internationalcompanies as well as large domestic companies have established funds orcompetitions for Chinese youths who are willing to take "green"initiatives. Google (China) launched a program in 2007 to encourageyouths to start new organizations or projects and this program has beenvery popular among youth in China.

The word "volunteer" appears in China even before the firstenvironmental NGO was founded. Chinese people, especially youth, like tohelp each other and treat each other as family. Thus environmentvolunteering has become very popular in China since the beginning of thetwenty-first century. Chinese universities usually have summerassignments for students that require them to volunteer a certain amountof time and write a report. Environment volunteering has become one ofthe most popular types of summer volunteering.

Environment clubs are very popular in Chinese universities, particularlyin the past three years. Many inter-collegiate programs have beenfounded, such the China Youth Climate Action Network (CYCAN).


China's environmental NGOs are becoming an indispensible force both forChina and for the world as a whole, as China is taking more and moreresponsibility on the issue of climate change. In the past 15 years, thenumber of environmental NGOs in China has evolved in quantity (from zeroto more than 3,000) and in quality, yet compared to the heavy environmentresponsibility China is about to take, this growth is still not enough.In this report, I suggest the following to help solve these problems:

International Learning: Many Chinese environmental NGOs are small witharound 100 membership, and thus has not gained much professionalexperiences. Chinese environmental NGO leaders should learn more fromtheir counterparts in other places of the world. More foreign help isneeded in China to educate and train the young movement withprofessional skills in project management, fundraising skills, grantwriting and organizational management.

Inter-organizational Communication: An efficient inter-organizationalcommunication system will help NGOs connect with each other faster anddistribute resources more efficiently. Competition should be reduced andcooperation should be encouraged.

Government Change: Environmental NGOs cannot fully grow under thecurrent legal system, so changes are needed. Academics, businesses andNGOs should all work together to push the government to make in the NGOregulation and registration system.

Fifteen years of history for China's environmental NGOs have proven thedetermination and persistence of Chinese environment activists, evenunder harsh political and local conditions. Yet another change is neededat this point of history, where the survival of humanity is at risk dueto climate change and other environmental issues.

Admittedly, the Chinese Central Government will still be the key playerin this fight in China, but without NGOs, I can hardly imagine that thegovernment can solve the problems alone. It is time for the Chinesegovernment to see the need for such changes in order to recognize andcooperate with NGOs and it is time for China's environmental NGOs towork even harder. China's environmental NGOs need to be ready to takeleadership positions in the coming era of change for the globalenvironment.

Written by Jian Gong