The Environment in China and the Return of Civil Society

Cartoon about the environment by the Internet artists and cartoonist Perverted Pepper (变态辣椒) reproduced with permission.  For more of his work, see 变态辣椒的漫画

A cartoon depicting recent environmental problems and food safety scares in China by the Internet artist and cartoonist Perverted Pepper (变态辣椒), reproduced with permission. For more work by Perverted Pepper, see 变态辣椒的漫画

On 14 January 2013, the People’s Daily published a front page editorial, ‘A Beautiful China Begins with Healthy Breathing’ 美丽中国,从健康呼吸开始. The editorial highlighted the nation’s serious pollution problems and the urgent need for effective remedies. The same day, news media outlets across the country carried articles openly deploring the environmental consequences of ill-considered economic development. This rare departure from the normal situation of press restrictions that always err on the side of the upbeat and optimistic did not escape the notice of commentators in or outside China. Many wondered if the gravity of the nation’s environmental situation had finally hit home: Beijing and other parts of northern China were then experiencing unusually high levels of airborne pollution. Mounting public complaints about air quality and environmental degradation have also been impossible for the government to ignore.

China and the Environment: The Green Revolution, edited by Sam Geall of 中外对话, offers five substantial case studies of how Chinese environmental activists and ordinary citizens are dealing with the problems in their midst. The introduction to the volume by the veteran journalist and a founder of Chinadialogue, Isabel Hilton, presented below, offers valuable insights into the civic will to make China more liveable, a will that drives the country’s environmental movement today. The book (available on Amazon as a Kindle version or paperback; or in paperback from Zedbooks) features field interviews and translations from relevant Chinese reports and documents. It has attracted high praise in advance reviews.—The Editor


China and the Environment cover image

China and the Environment, cover

The Return of Chinese Civil Society

by Isabel Hilton

In the early 1970s, the first batch of British students to be admitted to Chinese universities since the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution made a large, if understandable, mistake: they proposed to the authorities at the Beijing Languages Institute (now the Beijing Language and Culture University) that they should be permitted to set up a foreign students’ association.

The response was swift and, to a Western eye, a little disproportionate. The normally mild-mannered Bi Laoshi (‘Teacher Bi’), head of the waiban, the office in the institute that dealt with the foreign students, could not have made the official response plainer: he made several visits to the foreign student dormitory to ensure that the tiny spark of this idea was firmly stamped on and completely extinguished.

Teacher Bi was a diminutive, bespectacled figure who normally bore the burden of managing his tiresome flock of foreigners with a certain grace and occasional flashes of humour. On this subject, though, he was grim and categorical. There was no foreign students’ association at the Beijing Languages Institute and, he explained repeatedly and firmly, there never would be. It was out of the question, probably illegal and certainly prohibited.

It seems implausible today that we could have been so naive as to imagine that the Chinese Communist Party would not see the proposal as a threat. It had established its dominance of everything that moved, thought, spoke or acted in Mao’s China, and in the years since 1949 it had repeatedly directed its overwhelming firepower against any organisation that the Party did not control.

Pre-revolutionary China, on the other hand, had been rich in civil society bodies, from secret societies that ranged across the political, through social welfare to the outright criminal. There were religious associations of all denominations, business associations, clan associations and, among China’s foreign residents, everything from Masonic lodges to tennis clubs. There were trade unions, welfare bodies and professional guilds. There were also numerous political organisations, including alternative communist parties and democratic parties of various stripes. None had survived in its original form and by 1973 those organisations that the Party had not destroyed or brought under control had been driven underground.

As the high point of Mao Zedong’s millenarian socialism, the Cultural Revolution seemed to be the final chapter in the destruction of autonomous civil society in China. Mao saw enemies everywhere and interpreted any views that did not accord with his own as disloyalty. By the time the cult of Mao reached its apogee in the late 1960s, the space for independent thought and civic action in China had been eliminated. By the early 1970s, China could boast only a few monochrome mass organisations, such as the All-China Federation of Trades Unions, the All-China Women’s Federation and the Communist Youth League of China. All claimed large membership, but they functioned to transmit the Party’s message rather than to challenge its policies.

Ordinary citizens had no right to organise. Chinese citizenship conveyed no intrinsic rights at all: no guarantees of constitutional protection; no right of association; no defence against arbitrary persecution by the state; no right to observe a religious faith other than in the shifting catechism of Marxism–Leninism–Mao Zedong Thought; and no right to set up any organisation, however innocuous the intent. It was well understood – though not by the foreign students of the day – that to try to do so would be to invite swift retribution from above. The Party had reserved to itself the right to calibrate and control everything, from matters of life and death to the most mundane activity.


More than thirty years were to pass before my next attempt to set up an organisation in China. The second venture –, a bilingual Chinese–English web publication on environment and climate change – met with more success. The year was 2006: Mao was long in his tomb and his arch rival Deng Xiaoping had also left the stage. The respective legacies of both leaders, each in his own way politically authoritarian, were closely entwined. Their shadows still lay across the lives of new generations of Chinese citizens. But China had also been through nearly three decades of rapid change and not just in economics and industry: society was changing too. The new century had brought new perspectives on China’s rapid growth and China’s citizens were no longer content to be silent on the problems that affected their lives and health. The environmental costs of China’s model of development were driving people to take action; it was no longer unthinkable that foreigners and Chinese should be able to share ideas and information on China’s environmental crisis.

That was what chinadialogue set out to do. We wanted an even-handed exchange: neither side would lecture to the other but we would aim to be honest, as well as useful and informative to both. We would commission Chinese writers to write about China and Western writers to write about international experience. We believed that there were lessons to be learned in both directions, and that it was possible to discuss climate change and environment in the spirit of trying to solve problems rather than simply blaming each other for past mistakes or present policies. Our international readers would gain a window into the Chinese experience, unmediated by a foreign lens. We would aim to be interesting for Chinese policymakers and, importantly, for the growing numbers of Chinese citizens who were beginning to find a voice and were eager to learn what had happened in other times and other places.

By 2006, when chinadialogue was setting out its stall, Professor Wang Ming of Tsinghua University estimated that there were 500,000 NGOs in China, most of them unregistered. It was hard to be exact, or to define what that term might mean across a wide range of options, but clearly civil society in China was bouncing back from the crushing catastrophe of the Mao era. By the end of 2011, there were approximately 449,000 legally registered civil society organisations in China. The estimate of the unregistered may be as high as three million. Many of them register as businesses; others do not register at all and receive little oversight, unless, in the eyes of the government, they transgress.

1994: Modest beginnings

The return of civil society, in the environmental sphere at least, began modestly: on 31 March 1994, the organisation popularly known as Friends of Nature was officially registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, under the rather less user-friendly name of the Green Culture Institute of the International Academy of Chinese Culture, listing its purpose as raising environmental awareness. Technically this was not the first legally registered environmental NGO in China: an organisation was registered in Liaoning in 1991. But Friends of Nature was to play a significant role, not least because of the distinguished pedigree of the man who founded it.

The late Liang Congjie was the son of a distinguished family: his grandfather Liang Qichao had led an ill-fated reform movement at the end of the nineteenth century. Congjie’s father, Liang Sicheng, was a planner and architect who had fought valiantly, if unsuccessfully, to save historic Beijing from destruction in the 1950s and 1960s. He had first tried to persuade Mao Zedong that the city, with its nesting walls and intimate historic spaces, was unsuitable for the needs of a modern state and that the new People’s Republic might care to build its capital outside the walls. Later, in the Cultural Revolution, he fought again to save Beijing’s magnificent city walls from destruction. They were pulled down, despite his protests and Mao ordered them replaced with Beijing’s first ring road. Liang Congjie represented the third generation of a family with a keen sense of civic responsibility and reason to understand the art of confronting power with care.

Friends of Nature was influential but necessarily cautious. The revival of civil society that its registration heralded was part of the long transformation from Mao’s China to today’s hybrid society – an authoritarian, semi-market economy with a substantial quotient of ‘Chinese characteristics’. The retreat of the state from many aspects of life in China, a necessary prerequisite for marketisation and opening up to the outside world, created both the need and the opportunity for non-state organisations in everything from policy advice and formulation to the delivery of welfare. At the same time, the retreat of the Party from its earlier efforts to dominate all thought and action has opened up space for more pragmatic, reality-based approaches and for discussion. But although the government recognises the need for civil-society organisations, and the contribution they can make to China’s modernisation, environmental protection and sustainable development, it has been slow to create the legal and regulatory conditions that would allow civil society to fulfil its potential. At the root of this much-delayed institutionalisation lies mistrust.

Through the two decades of the 1990s and the first decade of this century, China became an industrial powerhouse, a transformation that profoundly impacted the environment, but also every aspect of life and governance: the law, labour conditions, education, consumerism, land use and migration – all were affected.

Building the institutions to support China’s transition is a continuing undertaking. It began with a revision of the constitution and the enactment of thousands of new laws and regulations to govern the international business and commercial relations that China needed to open its economy for foreign investment, manufacture and trade, and to manage the retreat of the Party from the day-to-day management of Chinese society. New domestic laws and regulations were drawn up, including those intended to govern non-Party and non-state organisations.

The first regulation, Regulations on Foundation Management, was issued in 1988, when the officially sponsored non-profit sector began to emerge. The Regulations on the Registration and Management of Social Organizations followed in October 1989. These regulations required independent organisations to find a government sponsor if they wanted to register, a requirement that remains in place and is an insuperable obstacle for most grassroots organisations.

These regulations were revised in 1998, along with Provisional Regulations for the Registration and Management of Popular Non- Enterprise Units (PNEUs). In the early 2000s, some independent non-profits were able to register as PNEUs, but many more remained unregistered, or registered as businesses. New regulations have been promised and some limited experimentation in a more relaxed approach is under way, but until now the regulatory regime heavily favours state control and is widely thought to inhibit, rather than to enable, a well-functioning civil society.

It was clear by the early 1990s that the transition to a more market- oriented economy was going to entail a civil-society revival, if only to facilitate services that the government itself was no longer able to deliver. It was equally clear that the Chinese authorities remained extremely nervous of allowing autonomous institutions to function in China. The danger that the Chinese government had in mind – and one it was anxious to avoid – was the fate of Soviet Communism, in the USSR itself and in the countries of the Warsaw Pact.

The year of China’s Tiananmen trauma, 1989, began with martial law in Tibet. It ended with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the end of state socialism in Europe and the end of the Cold War that had defined world politics for forty years. Three years later, the USSR itself imploded, shrinking down to the rump of the Russian Federation and spawning a shoal of revived states from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Watching from the sidelines, the Chinese Communist Party was determined neither to lose political power, as in Europe, nor to allow China to follow the example of the USSR and break up.

The role of ordinary people on the streets in bringing down communism was not lost on Beijing. The countries of the Warsaw Pact, like China, had allowed little space for independent civil society, but it did not escape Beijing’s notice that there had been enough – in the Lutheran and Catholic churches, in embryonic environmental movements, in the writers’ and artists’ organisations and the trade unions – to allow people to mobilise around a common purpose. When the popular purpose became to change governments – or entire political systems – people were prepared.

The aftershocks of 1989, both within and outside China, were felt for many years. Further waves of civic action swept across the post-Soviet world and beyond in the 1990s and again in the early twenty-first century, with the colour revolutions that touched Georgia, the Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon and Iran. By 2010, to the surprise of many, protest even spread to the Arab world. Demonstrations in neighbouring Myanmar in 2008 had not brought down the dictatorship, but no doubt contributed to the tentative liberalisation that began three years later with the release of scores of political prisoners, the lifting of Aung San Su Kyi’s house arrest and a cautious step in the direction of democracy.

Viewed from Beijing, these events owed much to the actions of indigenous civil-society organisations that relied on international funding and logistical support. For some observers in Beijing, it was evidence that foreign money and ideas conspired to bring down governments.

A Necessary Modernisation or a Menace?

A debate developed: on one hand, important voices in the government, and even more in the academy, argued that an active civil society was a necessary part of social and economic modernisation and that civil society was at its most useful where it was independent and properly funded.

Against this, elements of the state apparatus argued that legal independence and funding were the two factors that would enable uncontrolled entities to be created that could threaten the Communist Party. These opposing perspectives persist, and may account for the government’s failure to enact long-awaited new regulations governing NGOs in China. Until new regulations appear, NGOs face continuing obstacles: they have great difficulties in obtaining legal registration, without which they cannot open bank accounts or legally receive foreign or domestic funding. Whilst tens of thousands operate in the unregistered grey zone, they have no protection from prosecution or other official sanctions.

In 2006, in the same week that Professor Wang Ming told me that there were 500,000, mostly unregistered, NGOs in China, I sat in a hotel lobby in Beijing with a group of China’s most prominent environmental activists. None worked for, or with, a state-sponsored organisation. All, by then, had a track record of opposition to the dam building that was threatening China’s last unspoiled rivers in the west and south-west. None had been able legally to register the organisations that they had cooperated with and, in some cases, founded.

These fledgling organisations were facing a bewildering set of problems, the scale of which had been summed up the year before by Pan Yue, a vice minister in the Environmental Protection Agency, later upgraded to the Ministry of Environmental Protection. In what must count as the most outspoken interview ever given by a Chinese official to a member of the foreign press, he described the threat that China’s environmental crisis posed to China’s future prosperity. He said:

This miracle will end soon, because the environment can no longer keep pace. Acid rain is falling on one third of the Chinese territory, half of the water in our seven largest rivers is completely useless, while one-fourth of our citizens do not have access to clean drinking water. One-third of the urban population are breathing polluted air, and less than 20 per cent of the trash in cities is treated and processed in an environmentally sustainable manner.

Finally, five of the ten most polluted cities worldwide are in China. He continued:

Because air and water are polluted, we are losing between 8 and 15 per cent of our gross domestic product. And that doesn’t include the costs for health. Then there’s the human suffering: in Beijing alone, 70 to 80 per cent of all deadly cancer cases are related to the environment. Lung cancer has emerged as the number one cause of death. …[T]he western regions of China and the country’s ecologically stressed regions can no longer support the people already living there. In the future, we will need to resettle 186 million residents from 22 provinces and cities. However, the other provinces and cities can only absorb some 33 million people. That means China will have more than 150 million … environmental refugees.

The vice minister might have added desertification and greenhouse gases to his list, or the predicted impacts of climate change on China’s food security. It was clear that there was a huge mismatch between the scale of the problems and the ability of China’s vulnerable civil society organisations to address them.

China and the Environment: The Green Revolution
Table of Contents
The return of Chinese civil society – Isabel Hilton
China’s environmental journalists: A rainbow confusion – Sam Geall
The birth of Chinese environmentalism: Key campaigns – Olivia Boyd
The Yangzonghai case: Struggling for environmental justice – Olivia Boyd
Alchemy of a protest: The case of Xiamen PX – Jonathan Ansfield
Defending Tiger Leaping Gorge – Liu Jianqiang

All of the activists gathered that day were nervous: environmental activism was well established by 2006 and actively encouraged by some elements in the Chinese government. But that did not change the fact that major economic interests were at stake and this group had come under severe pressure. In China’s compressed development, these men and women represented the next generation of environmental activism from Liang Congjie’s Friends of Nature: they were younger and more activist; some were more confrontational; many had backgrounds in journalism and had moved from writing about China’s environmental crisis to trying to mobilise others. They reached for any tools that were to hand and played an important role in fashioning new ones, such as the regulations on transparency, the public right to know and public participation that offered environmental activists a field of action that went beyond protest.

In January 2007, the State Council introduced new Regulations on Open Government Information that gave citizens the legal right to obtain government information. These came into force on 1 May 2008, along with the rather clumsily named Measures on Open Environmental Information (for Trial Implementation). Ma Jun, one of China’s most celebrated and effective environmental activists, hailed the new regulations as ‘an important milestone for freedom of information in China’, and a ‘powerful lever for the public to monitor companies’ environmental performance’.

Taken together, these measures gave environmental activists – and ordinary citizens – the means to monitor pollution and bring polluters to public attention. It gave them the right to demand information on violators, including what action they might have taken. As Ma Jun wrote on chinadialogue:

If an environment agency turns down the public application for disclosure, the public may report this to the superior environmental authorities, which shall then urge the subordinate agency to fulfil their disclosure duties. The public may apply for administrative review or file administrative suits if they believe that the rejection of disclosure has infringed upon their legal rights.

On paper at least, the measures represented an important step forward in public trust and empowerment.

Curiously, despite the government’s reservations about the dangers of foreign interference, the period of reform has also been marked by a significant growth in the activities of foreign NGOs operating in China. According to the Ministry of Civil Affair’s China Charity and Donation Information Centre in March 2012, 1,000 US NGOs were operating in China, mainly working in humanitarian aid, environmental and animal protection, and gender and labour rights. American NGOs, according to the report, have donated nearly twenty billion yuan (US$3.18 billion) to China since 1978, much of it into education and research.

Increasing trans-boundary contact is an inevitable side effect of China’s transition and one that also affects China’s civil society.

As China opens to the outside world, Chinese citizens come into contact with images of global civil society; they are influenced by international events and by a growing sense that global civil society has the capacity to organise around global problems, especially in the environment. Environmental imagination draws on the image of one planet; climate change offers the concept of a single global eco-system.

These connections may stimulate China’s domestic NGOs but they do not directly foster their development, or help them overcome the obstacles to financial survival that the Chinese government puts in their path. On 1 March 2010, for instance, new regulations came into force that placed additional obstacles to receiving international funding, with new requirements for notarised agreements and detailed application forms. These regulations represent a large burden for independent NGOs, and leave them vulnerable to interference by government agencies through the uncertainties they create.

In 2011, there were again hints that the impasse over regulation might be resolved. Although the year began with the government’s extraordinary attempt to prohibit the use of the term ‘civil society’, later in the year experiments in liberalising registration in Guangdong province, in southern China, and in Beijing were given official endorsement. In Guangdong, eight types of civil society organisation were permitted to register without official sponsors; in Beijing, social organisations were permitted to use the local Ministry of Civil Affairs Bureaus as both registering and oversight bodies. In another sign of change, the One Foundation, a private foundation set up by the film star Jet Li, was allowed to register in Shenzhen, also in Guangdong province, which made it the first private foundation in China that was permitted to raise funds from the public – a move perhaps inspired by a series of scandals in China’s public, government-sponsored foundations that has made Chinese citizens reluctant to donate.

A proposed Charity Law, currently on the legislative agenda of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), may move to a first reading in March 2013, and the Twelfth Five Year Plan envisages a growing role for civil society in the delivery of social services. The institutionalisation that this would demand could also benefit activist and environmental groups, but in a year of political transition much remains uncertain.

In one sense, the Twelfth Five Year Plan marks the moment that the ideas voiced from the political and social margins ten years earlier entered the mainstream, enthroned within the state’s core declaration of values and developmental intentions. When they were first voiced, these ideas were thrown down as a challenge to the top-down orthodoxy of ‘develop first, clean up later’. Today, they are encompassed within the new official orthodoxy, one of sustainability and circular economy, of inclusion and a more rounded growth.

What does that mean for the legitimacy of the civil society that threw down that challenge, and that had tried to develop its inspiration and its methodology outside the state system, albeit frequently in an uneasy dialogue with power? Its ideas may have been incorporated, but that does not mean that its standing as a legitimate sector has been vindicated. The state may have modified its understanding of the environmental costs and benefits of competing development models, but the approach to adjustment remains as top-down as ever. And, ironically, the very cause that gave birth to the present generation of Chinese environmental NGOs – the construction of big hydro, in virtual abeyance under the Eleventh Five Year Plan – is set to resume with increased force with the departure of premier Wen Jiabao. By the end of the Twelfth Five Year Plan it is likely that not a river in China will remain undammed, the protests of residents and of civil society notwithstanding. The state might have changed its views, but its methods, and its view of the subordinate role of non-state and non-Party actors and organisations, have scarcely altered.

How China resolves the ambiguities that currently weaken the position of its civil-society organisations will be an important signal of the direction of Chinese society in the coming years. Will the recent trend continue of greater access to information for a liberalised media with its environmental journalists, which Sam Geall explores in Chapter 1? Will the kind of organisation that Olivia Boyd explores in Chapter 2 be allowed to develop and grow? Greater independence and more robust protection for civil-society organisations would indicate a maturity of Chinese society and a confidence in the rule of law that would help to equip China to cope peacefully with its difficult next phase of development. Adam Moser’s chapter on legal activism illuminates what is possible, but also the continuing difficulties of using the law to support environmental activism. Liu Jianqiang leaves us in no doubt that China’s civil society will continue to find ways to amplify the effectiveness of its actions, but how far will the authorities allow this to develop?

Continuing restrictions and harassment of individuals and organisations, of the kind that is also chronicled in the following pages, could be a disturbing signal of a return to authoritarianism, and could lead to more social unrest and street protest, like the Xiamen PX protests so brilliantly explored by Jonathan Ansfield. From the following chapters the potential for a robust and vibrant civil society is clear. Whether it is allowed to come into being is less certain.


Further Reading:

Elizabeth Economy, The River Runs Black, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2004. (One of the first accounts of the roots and evolution of China’s ecological crisis, including an introduction to the key figures and the early campaigns of the environmental movement.)

Judith Shapiro, Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. (Compelling exploration of the disastrous environmental policies of Mao-era China, an important backdrop to the problems and campaigns of today.)

Ma Jun, China’s Water Crisis, Pacific Century Press, 2003. (First published in 1999, Ma Jun’s book is often compared to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, as the country’s first major book drawing public attention to the environmental crisis.)

Mark Elvin, The Retreat of the Elephants, New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2004. (An exhaustive, scholarly and highly readable environmental history of China, covering around 4,000 years of development and environmental degradation.)

Katherine Morton, International Aid and China’s Environment: Taming the Yellow Dragon, London: Routledge Studies on China in Transition, 2012. (An analysis of the relationship between international and local responses to environmental problems in China.)


Isabel Hilton is a London-based writer and broadcaster and editor in chief of She has been visiting China since 1973.

Sam Geall is Departmental Lecturer in Human Geography of China at the University of Oxford and executive editor of