China Development Brief, No. 53 (Spring 2012)
Advocacy and policy influencing have long been underdeveloped areas in the NGO sector, but as CDB Senior Staff Writer Guo Ting reports, recent years have seen more progress, particularly in the environmental sector where NGOs are partnering with mainstream players such as political and business elites, academics, and media to craft and submit legislative proposals.
In March 2012, the last session of the 11th National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) convened concurrently in Beijing, in what is known colloquially as the Two Congresses (两会). Because of the rise of social media and the development of NGOs, which coincided with an upcoming change in NPC and CPPCC membership at this parliamentary session, NGOs put forward a number of proposals at this year’s Two Congresses. These proposals from “outside the system” on subjects ranging from environmental protection to disability rights, labor, and gender1. For example, the China Dolls Care and Support Association (瓷娃娃罕见病关爱中心) continued to promote legislation to help prevent and cure rare diseases. The “Occupy the Men’s Room” (占领男厕所) movement that recently spread throughout the country also attracted the attention of NPC and CPPCC members. Volunteer groups involved in the movement handed officials proposals with titles like “Improving Public Bathroom Standards” ((Editor’s Note: The “Occupy the Men’s Room” campaign was promoted in several cities in February of this year to promote gender equality in the construction of public toilets. As part of the campaign, women occupied men’s public bathrooms and asked men to wait for three minutes to make their point that there are a shortage of women public toilets)). On microblogs and other online forums, labor organizations such as the Blue Shirt Society (蓝衣社) are calling on representatives to introduce motions to clarify the legal status of migrant workers. With the support of LGBT organizations, the sociologist Li Yinhe (李银河) has published appeals on blogs and microblogs, seeking a representative willing to sponsor a same-sex marriage law. These NGOs and individuals have attracted the attention of the media and the public for their influence on lawmaking. Among them, the environmental protection sector seems to have the most traction, due to many years of public involvement and advocacy from politicians, academia, the media, and the business community.
On March 2nd, 2012. the Beijing Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology (北京市企业家环保基金会, SEE Foundation) and Tencent’s Green Channel (腾讯网绿色频道) jointly hosted a meeting to formulate proposals for the NPC and CPPCC. CPPCC member Wan Jie (万捷), along with several leading academics and NGO representatives, introduced three environmental protection proposals from the SEE Foundation, Friends of Nature (自然之友), the Chengdu Bird Watching Society (成都观鸟会) and several other organizations.
As a board member of the SEE Foundation, last year Wan Jie raised a proposal to prohibit consumption of shark fins. The motion, co-sponsored by Yang Lan (杨澜) and 45 other CPPCC members, was sent to the Ministry of Commerce. Following up on the efforts by Wan Jie and the SEE Foundation to ban the trade of a commodity was no small task. It required the involvement of several ministries in a complicated, time-consuming process. In the end, the shark fin campaigners were not satisfied with the results of their efforts. This year, however, they changed their strategy. Wan Jie partnered with NPC representative Li Liguo (李立国) to propose limiting the consumption of shark fin, especially at official banquets, instead of completely banning its consumption2. From a legal standpoint, this motion is much easier to implement, since it would only involve a few relevant ministries under the State Council to insert this limitation clause into a rule on consumption. It also goes along nicely with a recent trend in cutting government spending.
As the shark fin proposals evolved over the two years, the influence of NGOs could be seen at every turn. During last year’s campaign, environmental protection organizations such as the SEE Foundation, Friends of Nature, and many others participated, even using the Chinese reaction to a California ban on shark fin sales as part of their case. When he re-introduced the proposal this year, Wan Jie had Steve Trent, then the director of the China office of the international wildlife preservation NGO WildAid, by his side for expert commentary on the fate of sharks and the ocean’s ecosystem.
Before joining forces with the SEE Foundation, Wan Jie had also put forth other proposals. Many were, in his words, “forehead-slappers”. Starting in 2010, the SEE Foundation, Friends of Nature, other environmental organizations and advocates formed a think tank. This think tank was able to incorporate the environmental organization’s demands into proposals that were then sent through NPC and CPPCC members who also held positions in the foundation. Using this same approach, a second proposal entitled “Promoting the Development of the Natural Resources Recycling Industry” (hereafter the Recycling Industry Proposal) was issued this year.
The Recycling Industry Proposal was developed during three years of collaboration by the SEE Foundation and Friends of Nature on waste sorting. This year the esteemed environmentalist Huang Xiaoshan (黄小山), perhaps better known by his Weibo alias “Donkey Shit (驴屎蛋)”, who built a sustainable house out of garbage, joined the team. According to Huang and Friends of Nature Secretary General Li Bo (李波) , garbage is not as simple as it seems. It involves complicated systems and processes that requires reducing the amount at its source as it is being produced. When it comes to setting up a system for classifying, gathering, transporting, and managing waste, the key is to recycle the waste. The best way to solve this problem is to promote a recycling industry that circulates goods just like the blood in our veins, using this circulation to “turn garbage into jade.” Recycling waste into usable products thus addresses the twin problems of overflowing landfills and scarce resources.
To put together the “Recycling Industry Proposal”, Friends of Nature and Huang Xiaoshan have been inspecting Beijing’s landfills and following Hebei garbage pickers to collect data about what resources they collect. They have also gathered data from Huang’s sustainable house, as well as guidance from China Urban Construction Design & Research Institute’s (中国城市建设研究院) head engineer Xu Haiyun (徐海云). This adds up to a strong lineup.
A third proposal submitted at the Two Congresses was entitled “Regarding Flaws and Recommended Amendments in the Environmental Impact Assessment Law”, came mainly from the Chengdu Bird Watching Society. China’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Law was promulgated in 2003. According to Chengdu Bird Watching Society director general Shen You (沈尤) and Friends of Nature’s Li Bo, the drafting of the EIA Law involved input from several NGOs from the start; one might even call it China’s most participatory law. But once it was implemented, the law was often unable to support environmental protection. For example, many assessments relied on traditional environmental science, such as limiting water pressure, soil, and noise. But ecological factors such as the relationships among different species were ignored. Shen You thus believes the EIA Law still has much room for improvement.
Li and Shen are also suspicious of the environmental impact assessments for China’s infrastructure construction binge which is focused on bringing electricity, water, and roads to rural China. Citing the example of dams on the Yangtze River (长江), they claim “this is like cutting the stomach out of a sick person and then asking them to sign up for the operation.”
As a southwestern environmental organization, the Chengdu Bird Watching Society has successfully submitted proposals to the NPC and CPPCC as a result of Shen’s position as the deputy chair of the Zhigong Party (致公党)in the Sichuan Provincial People’s Consultative Conference3. Therefore, the EIA proposal was submitted at the central level by two Zhigong Party delegates from Sichuan, Yang Xingping (杨兴平) at the NPC and Chen Jie (陈杰) at the CPPCC .
Not all proposals coming from civil society organizations will become law. But the involvement of NGOs and their allies in advocating for environmental issues through the NPC and CPPCC demonstrate new possibilities for public participation in the legislative processes in China.
Editor’s Note: the author uses the term “outside the system” to refer to grassroots NGOs with few or no ties to the government, as opposed to GONGOs ↩
Editor’s Note: Li Liguo also happens to be the Minister of Civil Affairs. ↩
Editor’s Note: the Zhigong Party is one of the eight legally recognized “democratic parties” that participates in the CPPCC under the leadership of the Communist Party. The Provincial People’s Consultative Conference is the provincial branch of the CPPCC. ↩