Cooperation or Confrontation? The Dilemmas of a Pluralizing Civil Society

China Development Brief, No.54 (Summer 2012)

中文 English

As civil society organizations (CSOs) grow and diversify, can they continue to work together to counter excesses in the government and corporate sector? Can CSOs best carry out their work by cooperating with companies or by confronting them? The author reminds CSOs about their responsibilities to the public interest and to providing a check on government and corporate power and misbehavior. He ends by encouraging CSOs to keep this bigger picture in mind, even as they become more professional and specialized, and to do more to promote exchanges, understanding and collaboration between CSOs from different issue areas so as to maintain a sense of their common identity.

In March 2012, more than 88,000 people participated in the People in the Public Eye Awards’ annual selection of the world’s worst company. Brazil’s Vale received 25,042 votes, topping the list and winning the dubious “award”.

Vale is the second largest company in Brazil, and is also the world’s second largest mining company. To ensure the electricity demand of mining operations in the Amazon region, Vale recently acquired $17 billion in investment capital and has significant investor equity in the Belo Monte dam currently under construction. Environmental organizations have said that if this giant dam was built, it would have disastrous social and environmental consequences: 40,000 local residents would be forced to relocate, and 80 percent of the Amazon’s most important tributary, the Xingu River basin, will be converted into artificial reservoirs, destroying the local ecosystem. This ecosystem is the basis of survival for local indigenous communities, communities along the river, and fishermen. The planning for the project excluded from participation local communities and the public. During the decision-making process, local residents had a hard time making their voices heard and also failed to obtain adequate compensation. For this important investment, Vale did not fully take responsibility for the dam’s potential impact.

Vale made the People in the Public Eye’s list of worst companies not just because of the Belo Monte dam, but also because of various labor and environmental problems in the company’s 70-year history. According to a publication by an international NGO network, Vale and local communities were frequently coming into conflict in other regions of the world. In 2009, alone, the company was named as a defendant in 111 lawsuits around the world, and was the target of 151 criminal investigations due to its infringement of worker and community rights.

Environmental organizations, which have been at the forefront of NGO advocacy, have been responsible for supervising polluting enterprises in an “ombudsman” role. By investigating, collecting evidence, communicating privately and exercising public pressure, they seek to correct corporate misconduct. While seeking win-win cooperation with corporations in the promotion of sustainable development, these “ombudsman” organizations often come into conflict with “problem” corporations, starting environmental protection wars in the process. Aside from environmental protection, these organizations also enter into disputes with Chinese multinational companies and domestic companies over labor rights.

Along with economic globalization, the negative impact of multinational enterprises (including Chinese multinationals) has already spread across borders, as have independent checks and balances and international civil society’s active monitoring and responses. Through the actions of civil society and consumers and the evolution of modern business ethics, corporate social responsibility (CSR) has extended from individual enterprises to related parties in the supply chain, including corporate lenders in the banking sector. NGO evaluation and oversight of the behavior of multinational corporations has also moved from single country analysis toward an examination of behavior in all countries in which the enterprise has operations. At the same time, more and more enterprises have established a CSR department and have become involved in the public welfare. The hope is that they will assume the responsibility of being good public citizens, outside of their profit-driven behavior in the market.

However, the performance of enterprises on CSR has been, at best, uneven. Some corporations see environmental and social issues as primarily a public relations problem. On the one hand, donations to the public good are generous and their aid is innovative in the fields of scholarships, help to the poor, disaster aid, and similar. Companies also repeatedly place highly on lists of charitable giving. However, these same companies’ environmental and labor records invite public anger. This kind of behavior causes people to view CSR skeptically, seeing it as an attempt to cleanse the stains of their bad deeds. It also leads to a great deal of criticism concerning their public welfare actions. Due to their appearance on the NGOs’ list of shame, these enterprises have invested heavily in trying to repair their public image but end up doing more harm than good.

There is no doubt that cooperation between NGOs and responsible businesses in public welfare projects is a win-win situation. However, both the issue of extending an olive branch to problem corporations and how to manage cooperation on public welfare initiatives, has presented many NGOs with contradictions and confusion. For the same company, some NGOs may advocate a public boycott of its misconduct, but others may choose to cooperate with them, helping the company to build their brand.

In 2011, while the world’s NGOs boycotted Vale, domestic Chinese public interest organizations cooperated to sponsor an environmental award program. The award program specifically sought to recognize individuals and NGOs that contributed to outstanding environmental successes in western China. There are also other cases in which some corporations blacklisted by Greenpeace and domestic environmental organizations as problem corporations were also likely to partner with other NGOs in other sector. In both cases, the NGOs’ efforts were diametrically opposed which raises the question: does civil society’s desire to achieve multiple social objectives cancel each other out?

In fact, civil society has a consensus on the overall concept, and perhaps this is true in the literal sense. However, in reality, it is more a demonstration of diversity and differences. In diverse areas of public service, it is not uncommon to see mutually offsetting social effects, even in the same issue area. Moreover, it is common to see interest groups divide and work at cross-purposes. In some cases, it is possible to find a middle way of taking into account two different objectives. For example, to balance the interests between forest conservation organizations and indigenous peoples’ rights groups, the organizations involved produced an agreement that protected the environment and economic development. It allowed the community residents to continue to enjoy the right to development, while becoming the main protectors of the forest.

But not all conflicts can be so easily reconciled. One example is resolving differences in climate talk proposals. On this issue, differences have emerged between NGOs of the North and the South, between environmental and development NGOs, and between elite NGOs and grassroots movements. These differences are mainly focused on four questions. First, whether countries of the North or South should bear more of the responsibility? Second, should we support or oppose to choose the market mechanism for achieving energy efficiency? Third, should we introduce a green model of development under the current system, or advocate for radical changes in the climate justice system? These differences originate from variations in organizations’ basic understanding of the problem, and are also reflected in the disparate solutions suggested by each organization. On one hand, these differences reflect the diverse perspectives of civil society to explore and deal with complex issues and challenges. On the other hand, the differences weaken civil society’s ability to influence government and corporate policy.

With regard to the principles of cooperating with enterprises, aside from working with tobacco, weapons, and similar harmful industries, international civil society has not yet come to a consensus on a standard for accepting industry support and cooperation. However, it is important that, through disputes, dialogue, and discussion, these issues become public topics of discussion for civil society. Only through open discussion, exchange, and sharing of information can public interest organizations in various fields be able to work together, and ultimately make their own decisions based on a full disclosure of corporate behavior.

On the level of a single organization, before a public interest organization accepts a corporate donation, there are several important questions to consider. First is whether or not the NGO should assess the public social and environmental impact of the enterprise.  Second, what information and criteria should public service organizations use to make a decision to accept support? Finally, should an organization only consider the domestic performance of enterprises or include their actions overseas in their evaluation?

At the level of the NGO community as a whole, there are a different set of questions. For example, many companies in today’s society engage in serious employment discrimination. Should a company criticized by a rights protection NGO, also be boycotted by civil society as a whole? In the area of labor rights violations, should NGOs in other fields think twice about working with an enterprise that has been criticized by a labor rights organization for not reforming its policies towards workers? In today’s globalized world, should Chinese NGOs consider foreign media, NGO, and citizen protests against a Chinese corporation’s actions overseas before asking for donations from or cooperating with that corporation? Also, with respect to cooperation with multinational companies, when domestic NGOs are evaluating the company’s actions in China, should they, at the same time, give consideration to their actions overseas?

There are some signs that China’s civil society is maturing. The 2010 China Charity Awards flatly refused to consider an award for any company from the tobacco industry. In July 2011, the Hunan Tobacco Monopoly Bureau sponsored the “Charity Medical Card,” an activity that attracted intense attention from both the public interest sector and the public at large, and the sponsorship generated challenging and opposing voices. These events show that public interest organizations and media have started considering the legitimacy of donors from a broader perspective. These two examples also indicate that organizations face a conscious choice with regard to resources, and have the courage to refuse. Still, despite the current environment, acquiring the resources to survive remains the primary challenge facing many NGOs. As a result, there are still very strong pressures to adopt a pragmatic strategy.

In terms of the effectiveness of positioning and technical operations, NGO can only specialize rather than be comprehensive. A division of labor is the inevitable path for all NGOs. However, at the same time NGOs are specializing, if they lack concern and sensitivity to higher-order social problems, they open themselves up to accusations of “selfish departmentalism” and “each doing things their own way.” Similarly, they can also lose sight of the connectedness of different social issues, and, immersed in their own projects, they can find the impact of civil society actions canceling each other out, setting back the overall goal. Organizations that are satisfied with merely tilling their own little patch of land will likely lose the ability to respond to urgent practical problems. Currently, elevating NGO specialization and professionalism allows these organizations to more effectively use public resources to respond to social problems; this has already become the universal consensus of the industry. At the same time, we need to be cautious about going to the extreme of specialization, which can cause us to lose sight of the larger goal.

Despite the lack of trust and social services in today’s society, traditional charity still has an important place. However, given the social background behind the conflicts in China’s transitional period, Chinese civil society, in contrast to traditional charities, are not limited to just providing compassion and helping people in distress. They also are taking responsibility for enlarging the public sphere, promoting civil rights and pushing for structural changes in the government and market. Apart from the communication and interaction between the government, business and civil society (or third) sectors, civil society organizations should promote more exchange and discussion within their own sector – between service and advocacy organizations, and between organizations working on different issue areas.


◇ July 13, 2011. The environmental organization Greenpeace released the report called “Dirty Laundry: Unraveling the corporate connections to toxic water pollution in China,” in which 14 global clothing brands were exposed to criticism for failing to effectively solve the issue of their suppliers’ emissions of toxic and hazardous substances, resulting in water pollution in China. Greenpeace’s polluter list includes Adidas, Nike, Puma and other international brands and also local brands such as Li Ning and Youngor – an astonishing list. Before the report was released, Greenpeace conducted a time-consuming year-long thorough investigation. They went so far as to spending 24 hours day outside of factories monitoring and recording the condition of the pollution discharge. Greenpeace demanded of these brands that they immediately commit to phasing out emissions of toxic and hazardous substances from enterprises in their supply chains.

◇ April to August 2011. The Environmental NGO Network – Green Choice Alliance released three copies of the “IT Supply Chain Heavy Metal Pollution Research Report,” which interrogated Apple, Nokia, LG and 29 other well-known IT brands’ foundry pollution.  It also focused on supply chain and downstream enterprise emissions of heavy metal.

◇ April 2012. The Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, with five other environmental organizations and the UN jointly issued a report which said, through the investigation of 6000 domestic illegally polluting textile enterprises and suppliers for more than 130 well-known apparel brands were represented.  A total of 48 brands’ suppliers have serious water pollution violations, many of which are well known, such as clothing brands Li Ning, Nike and Zara. The environmental organizatiosn sent a letter explaining the situation to these brands, but the majority did not respond.

  1. Editor’s Note: These cases are included here to provide examples of brand-name companies with supply chains that contribute significantly to environmental pollution in China. Some of these companies make generous donations to social causes and place highly on lists of charitable giving but show considerably less initiative in responding to criticism by NGOs of their contribution to environmental and social justice. 


2012年3月, 在8.8万多人参加的"公众之眼"(People in the Public Eye Awards)世界最差公司的年度评选中,巴西淡水河谷(Vale)以25 042票高居榜首,获得这项"殊荣"  。
淡水河谷是巴西第二大公司,也是世界上位居第二的矿业公司。为保证亚马逊地区采矿业务的用电需求,淡水河谷在近期收购了投资额达170亿美元,正在建设中 的贝卢·蒙蒂(Belo Monte)大坝相当数量的股权。环保组织称,如果这座巨型水坝最终得以建成,将产生灾难性的社会和环境后果:四万当地居民将被 迫搬迁,亚马逊的重要支流——欣古河(Xingu river)80%的流域将变为人工水库,流域生态系统将被毁灭,这是原住民社区、河岸社区和渔民仰赖 的生存基础。该项目排斥社区和公众参与,当地社区在大坝决策中难以表达自己的声音,也未能获得足够的补偿。作为重要的投资方,淡水河谷对大坝的潜在影响难辞其责。
环保组织作为比较活跃的一类倡导性组织,担负着监督污染企业的"监察使"角色,它们常常通过调查取证、内部沟通或公开施压的方式,去纠正企业的不当行为。因此,在与规范的企业展开合作谋求共赢推动可持续发展的同时,这些"监察使"还常常与"问题"企业发生冲突,展开一场场艰难的环境保卫战。除了环境领域, 在华跨国企业和国内企业在劳工领域引发争议的情况也比比皆是。
随着经济领域的全球化,跨国企业(包括中国的跨国企业)的负面影响已经跨越国界,作为独立的制衡力量,国际公民社会也在积极监督和应对。经由公民社会和消费者运动的推进和现代商业伦理的演化,对企业社会责任的要求,已从单个企业延伸至供应链上的关联方,甚至包括为企业提供信贷支持的银行业。NGO对跨国企 业的行为评价和监督,也开始从一国范围向企业涉足的所有地区和全球范围延伸。与此同时,越来越多的企业纷纷成立CSR部门,介入公益事业,希望在传统的市场逐利行为之外,担当企业公民的责任。
但企业在CSR上的表现参差不齐,甚至大相径庭。一些企业将环境和社会影响定义为公共关系问题,一方面向公益事业捐赠不菲,在公益助学、扶贫济困和灾害救援等服务性领域表现不俗,甚至在慈善榜单上频频亮相得分;却因污染环境和侵害劳工权益让人大跌眼镜,无形中将大笔的捐赠降格为漂洗污点的交易,大大贬损了 其公益行为的品质。由于被NGO列入黑名单,"涉事"企业投入巨资苦心营造的社会形象受损,得不偿失。
2011年,受到国际环保NGO抵制的淡水河谷,与国内公益组织合作举办了一个环保奖项,奖励在西部环保领域取得突出成就的环保NGO和个人。其他一些被绿色和平以及国内环保组织列入黑名单的企业,也很可能是其他领域的NGO合作方。NGO努力的方向南辕北辙,是否会使公民社会想要达成的社会目标相互抵 消?
事实上,公民社会作为一个具备共识的整体概念,也许主要停留在字面意义上,现实中更多地表现出多元化和分歧的状态。在诉求多元的公益领域内,社会效应相互抵消的情形并不少见,甚至在同一工作领域,阵营分化、意见向左也比比皆是。有些情况下能够找到兼顾不同目标的中间道路。例如,为协调森林保护组织与原住民 权益组织之间的冲突,出现了将发展与保护结合起来的协议保护机制,使社区居民在继续享有发展权利的同时,成为参与森林保护的主体。
但并不是所有的冲突都能找到调和之路。围绕气候谈判的政策倡导,在南方国家和北方国家的NGO之间,环境NGO和发展NGO之间,在NGO的国际网络与地 方组织之间,在精英NGO与更为草根化的社会运动之间,分歧和冲突日渐明显。这些分歧主要聚焦在北方和南方国家应当承担什么样的责任,是否认同节能减排的市场机制以及是在现行制度下推动绿色增长模式转型,还是主张更为激进的气候公平的制度变革?  这些分歧既源自不同组织对气候问题本源的认知差异,同时也 体现在不同组织所提供的解决方案的差异上。一方面,这些分歧体现了公民社会探索和应对复杂问题与挑战的多元化视角;另一方面,客观上削弱了公民社会影响政府和企业的政策倡导声音。
在与企业的合作原则上,除了拒绝包括烟草和武器制造业在内的社会危害巨大的行业和产业的捐助和合作这样的基本共识,实际上国际公民社会也并未形成清晰的标准。但重要的是通过争议、对话和讨论,使相关问题成为公民社会内部的公共话题。只有通过开放的讨论、交流和信息分享,才能使各领域公益组织能够横向打通, 最终基于企业行为信息的充分披露做出自己的决策。
从NGO群体的层面,当今社会很多企业有严重的就业歧视行为,正在被从事权益保护的NGO反对的企业,是否应当受到公民社会的集体抵制?面对侵犯劳工权利,正被劳工NGO批判却不思改变的企业的合作邀约,其他领域的NGO是否会三思而行?在全球化的今天,已经走出去的中国公司,当它们在其他国家因行为失范遭遇媒体和所在国NGO及公众的抗议,本土组织在考虑向其筹资或开展合作的时候,是否会多一些谨慎?对来自跨国公司的合作意向,本土NGO是否需要在评 估其国内行为表现的同时,也有意识地对其海外行为多一分关切?
有一些迹象表明中国公民社会正在走向成熟。2010年中华慈善奖断然拒绝烟草行业申报。2011年7月,湖南烟草系统赞助"慈善医疗卡"并冠名,引来公益 界和社会热议,出现了质疑和反对的强音。这些事件表明公益组织和公益媒体,开始在更大的社会视野下思考捐赠来源的合法性,面对资源有了选择的意识,有了拒绝的勇气。尽管在当下的环境中,获得资源生存下去仍然是很多NGO面临的首要挑战,采取务实的策略仍然有非常现实的理由。
◇ 2011年7月13日,环保组织绿色和平发布名为《时尚之毒:全球服装品牌的中国水污染调查》报告,曝光批评14家全球服装品牌目前未能有 效解决其供应商排放有毒有害物质的问题,造成了中国水污染。绿色和平的污染榜单上,阿迪达斯、耐克、彪马等国际品牌和李宁、雅戈尔等本地品牌赫然在列。报告发布前,绿色和平曾费时一年明察暗访,甚至24小时蹲守在排污管边,取样和记录工厂排污状况。绿色和平要求这些品牌立即承诺淘汰和消除其供应链中使用和排放的有毒有害物质。
◇ 2011年4~8月, 环保NGO网络——绿色选择联盟发布了3份《IT品牌供应链重金属污染调研》报告,拷问"苹果"、诺基亚、LG等29家知名IT品牌的代工厂污染情况,聚焦供应链下游企业的重金属排放问题。
◇ 2012年4月,公众环境研究中心等五家环保组织又联合发布报告称,经过对国内6 000多家之前有排污违规记录的纺织企业和品牌服装供应商的调查,发现在这些企业代加工的130多个知名服装品牌中,共有48个品牌的供应商存在严重违规排污记录,其中不乏李宁、耐克和Zara等知名服装品牌。在环保组织向这些品牌商发了情况说明信后,多数未做回应。
(来源:苏冉 实习生 石晓丹 郑楚翘.5环保组织发纺织品牌污染报告:李宁耐克上榜.2012-04-13.

CDB Editor

Translated by Zaichen Lu

Reviewed by Shawn Shieh

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