Environmental NGOs grow across China but still struggle for support

By Liu Sha Source:Global Times Published: 2012-6-12 0:45:02

Volunteers ride bikes while baring their upper bodies in Shanghai on May 27 to promote a "healthy lifestyle and green travel." Photo: CFP

Environmentalism has made giant strides in China, led in part by the efforts of NGOs that have taken it upon themselves to bring about small changes capable of making big differences. Their campaign to improve the environment across the country began years ago, before this current age when checking the air's PM2.5 levels is as easy as a swipe on a smartphone.

Sun Xiaohua, a researcher with environmental think tank World Resources Institute, told the Global Times that public awareness about the plight of the environment has made leaps and bounds in recent years.

"No one cared about PM2.5, water quality or food safety 14 years ago, but now everyone cares. China's environmental NGOs contributed a lot to that improvement," Sun said.

There are more than 3,500 environmental NGOs in China, without counting unregistered organizations active at universities and in rural areas. However, such grass-roots activism remains a relatively new phenomenon, according to Deng Guosheng, director of the NGO Research Center at Tsinghua University.

"NGOs today have many good facilities, which those of the 1990s didn't have access to," Deng noted.

Starting from scratch

Beijing's first and unsuccessful bid to host the Olympic Games in 1998 hit a hurdle with the International Olympic Committee when it inquired why there were so few environmental organizations in China.

In 1994, Liang Congjie founded one of China's earliest environmental NGOs, Friends of Nature. It helped nurture the first generation of environmentalists in China.

Environmentalism was still in its infancy in China in 1998, when Liang wrote to then British prime minister Tony Blair asking him to stop trading of Tibetan antelope fur, or shahtoosh, to help save the endangered species.

"When our organization formed, we would do anything believed to benefit the environment. Our tasks were general and our goal was vague," Qin Xiaona, a Friends of Nature founding member, told the Global Times.

"It took us a long time to educate people against spitting in public. Most Chinese in the 1990s didn't have any idea about the obligations of citizens," she said.

Nowadays, Qin's efforts are devoted to the humane organization she founded to help stray dogs and cats, the Capital Animal Welfare Association (CAWA).

The growth of environmentalism in China has seen NGOs become more specialized, working in designated areas to achieve specific goals.

"Instead of simply picking up litter, we decided to conduct research and educate the public about properly disposing trash," said Feng Yongfeng, one of the founders of environmental NGO Green Beagle.

Green Beagle was established in 2009 and reports on air and water quality in Beijing by using state-of-the-art technology. It also regularly hosts academic seminars, inviting experts to talk about China's environment and food safety. 

Last year, Green Beagle started to report on Beijing's levels of PM2.5 - fine particles in the air that are particularly hazardous to people's health. The readings, along with reports from other organizations, generated as much controversy as interest, prompting local authorities to begin reporting their own PM2.5 data this year.

"Our research results may not be authoritative, but they are truthful," Feng said.

Old habits die hard

One of the major missions for environmental NGOs is raising public awareness through education. Green Beagle regularly offers classes for anyone wanting to know more about preserving water quality, eco-friendly waste disposal and food safety. Despite being free and informative, few people actually attend the classes.

"At its height, the number of participants in our classes was 30," Chen Hongru, a volunteer with Green Beagle responsible for recruiting people for classes, told the Global Times, adding that only 12 people took part in a waste sorting activity on Sunday.

One of the biggest obstacles is breaking habits such as littering and convincing people to "go green," said Li Chunxiao, founder of Green Bullet, an environmental start-up from Sichuan's provincial capital Chengdu that has more than 10,000 followers on microblogging accounts with Sina and Tencent Weibo.

"It's easy for us to urge society to protect the environment, but it's much harder to change people's habits," said Li, who used to work in the media. "I know how cyberspace can help our work and influence people."

Li graduated from the University of Missouri in the US and worked as a journalist in New York before returning to China in 2008, when she was shocked at how severely the environment in her hometown, Chengdu, had deteriorated.

Green Bullet monitors exhaust emissions and educates people on how they can lower their own carbon footprint, though the latter is not as simple as it sounds.

"The work isn't easy at all. I feel that the mentality of 'where there are people, there's pollution' has become ingrained in Chinese people's psyche," she said.

Working with authorities

While convincing the public to make changes to their lifestyles has proven difficult, some NGOs have an easier time working with the government to achieve common goals.

Since Qin joined the CAWA in 2000, she has worked hand-in-hand with Beijing's municipal government.

Her organization persuaded the government to abandon its policy of killing stray dogs and cats in favor of an immunization and sterilization program. In 2005, the government teamed up with the CAWA to build kennels for stray cats and dogs.

"The longer we work on environmental protection, the more we want to influence government decision making and policies," said Wang Yongchen, director of environmental NGO Green Earth Volunteers. "We have to bridge environmental issues with the government and people."

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