The Culture of China’s Environmental Movement

China Development Brief, no.53 (Spring 2012)

中文 English

A group of young environmentalists offer a critical examination of what they see as the shortcomings of the current environmental movement in China.

Editor’s Note

From 2010 to 2011, the “SEE Foundation,” members of Sun Yat-sen University’s “Institute for Civil Society” (ICS), and “Forward Works” organized a “green leadership” partner program. The program invited twenty-four young participants from environmental NGOs across the country to take part in a one-year series of training activities, workshops and cooperative projects.These activities were designed to allow for an in-depth exchange of their personal experiences and problems in an atmosphere of mutual support. Having gained some practical experience, theseyoungparticipants are now reflecting on the problems and challenges involved innon-governmental environmentalprotection work. Being involved in non-governmental environmental protection work, these participantsare looking ahead to the future, and hope to promote the development of China’s environmental movement, and the non-governmental environmental protection field as a whole. The following articles bring together their analysis and recommendations regarding China’s current environmental movement.

China’s civil society has continued to grow over the last few decades.As civil society enters a new era, China Development Brief has published a group of valuable reflective essays in the hope that counterparts from related fields canbenefit from their treatment of the question of what comes next for the environmental movement. These young participantsare not burdened by the past, and although they may lack the depth of understanding and insight into environmental protection work of their predecessors, their sincerity and commitment cannot be questioned.

Based on the personal experiences of these team members and limited observations from their perspectives, we noticed that China’s environmental NGOs  have certain cultural characteristics. As the purpose of this article is to promote improvements in the culture of China’s environmental movement, we will mainly focus on revealing and analyzing the flaws and weaknesses in the culture of China’s environmental movement, aspects that we feel are particularly worthy of reflection.

Looking at the environmental NGOs in China today, we see the old and the new, the dying and the living, the dead and the reborn, the short-lived and the deeply-rooted and ingenious. In the context of the degradation of this country’s environment, if we are talking about the existence of an environmental movement in China, we can only see a movement that involves a small number of people (the minority), and is also distorted and fragmented. There may be results in certain areas, but the entire movement is growing very slowly, and the isolated and dispersed environmental forces are barely able to resist the giant forward-moving economic ones.

The environmental movement is still a movement of the minority

In the strictest sense, an environmental movement with nationwide participation has yet to truly appear in China. Even the opposition to dam building on the Nu River issue only involved environmental NGOs, media, scholars and celebrities, some local university students and residents from local communities, while nationwide participation by the general public was absent1. There are many reasons for the lack of public participation, including systemic constraints, lagging public awareness, insufficient numbers of environmental NGOs, and flaws in the culture and thinking of environmental NGOs.

These flaws include:

An elite mentality: some people in environmental NGOs classify themselves as part of an elite, and are only willing to work with fellow members of this elite, thus limiting their environmental actions to “elite” circles.

The Individual Hero mentality: some people in environmental NGOs believe that they alone have great foresight, are pioneers, and are saving nature, mankind and their nation. This is not to be denied, and they do indeed put in a great deal of effort, and have many followers. However, a hero, even if combined with his followers, is still only a minority.

The sadness mentality: The eyes of some people in environmental NGOs are always full of sadness. On one hand, this is indeed due to concern for the state of the environment, but on the other hand, it is a way to occupy the moral high ground. No matter what, they are always alienated from the general public.

The innocence mentality: Some people in environmental NGOs bury themselves in their own projects, are not concerned with politics and society, and avoid getting entangled in complications of political and societal “pollution”.

The recluse mentality: Some people in environmental NGOs are only concerned about themselves, and pursue an environmentally-friendly life as a hermit.

The environmental movement as a distorted movement

The strong inertia inherent in Chinese society and the limitations of the political and economic system have caused distortions in the growth and behavior of China’s environmental NGOs. Specific behaviors (behavioral cultures) include:

Escapist behavior — In a certain sense, they do not dare, are unwilling or do not have the ability to face the real environmental issues and conflicts of interest or to carry out general environmental education. In terms of environmental education and advocacy, they do not dare to target adults, people with power, ability and responsibility. Instead, they target student groups with no social influence. This is actually just a way of achieving spiritual victory and escaping reality.

Striving for what is far away and neglecting what lies close at hand — In the small scheme of things, student associations do not study and solve the environmental problems on campus, but go out of campus to do general campaigning; in the big scheme, local environmental NGOs do not target and solve local environmental problems and do not voice their opinions on major local environmental incidents, but instead express their views or carry out public interest litigation concerning environmental incidents in other areas. Generally, even while local environmental NGOs have a better understanding of, and more of a say in major environmental incidents that happen locally, they tend to remain silent in these cases.

Evasive behavior — Some environmental NGOs choose not to try to influence or change the ‘decisions made by the government’, but instead attempt to affect the implementation of these decisions by relevant administrative departments, trying to mitigate the harm to the environment during the implementation process or putting in place remedial measures. In the initial stages, they do not appear as opponents or skeptics, but are instead likely to appear as supporters of the decisions on projects. It may be that they believe this is a way for them to win the trust of government departments, and thereby secure the ability to speak and participate.

Roundabout behavior — When helping the victims of pollution, some environmental NGOs do not claim compensation and seek responsibility from the polluters, but instead seek aid from the outside world, such as seeking assistance for the treatment of diseases, for improving water sources, for poverty relief etc. They avoid making demands on polluters and local governments because doing so is more difficult.

In trying to solve local environmental problems, some NGOs choose not to directly expose problems, but instead work through the media to make that locality a ‘model of environmental protection’, as a way to encourage local governments to change policy direction.

In order to get better governmental support in environmental projects or environmental actions, some NGOs also attempt to establish close personal relationships with government officials. However, in this process, they are easily caught in the predicament of being co-opted.

By questioning the supply chain of international manufacturers, some NGOs indirectly curb pollution and damage to workers’ health inflicted by domestic enterprises. Their main work, however, does not bear directly on those who endanger the health of workers, and on the users of toxic and hazardous raw materials, but instead focuses on ‘tracking down and killing off upstream international manufacturers. This may be a smart way to work, but it may also be escapist depending on the final outcomes.

Opportunistic behavior  — A number of environmental NGOs seem to have opportunistic mentalities. After entering the field of environmental protection, some people chase after the limelight, fame or other opportunities, hypocritically discovering and discussing environmental issues while totally forgetting about their initial passion for the environment. Some people attempt to use the “carrot and stick” method to obtain resources and the right of speech from polluting enterprises and government departments. This results in them being susceptible to conspiring with the polluting enterprises and the government, weakening their position on environmental protection, and their public image and credibility. Some environmental NGOs also change their position easily after receiving small benefits or favors from local governments and enterprises. In incidents like the Xiamen PX protests, or the Chongqing Xiaonanhai incident, some environmental NGOs did not join in due to consideration for their own safety or interests2.

The behavior described above may indeed reflect the tenacious vitality of the environmental NGOs. They grow with the same tenacity as weeds, and fight like the toughest warriors. However, most of this behavior also shows that environmental NGOs are weak, superficial, evading the powers, responsibilities and challenges of today, and are even opportunistic, without a mind of their own, or end up opposing environmental protection.

The Environmental Movement as Fragmented

Our observations show that the participants in the environmental movement are diverse and include NGOs, foundations, academics and celebrities, the media, politicians etc., and people from the grassroots. However, we also notice they are dispersed, isolated and fragmented.

The gap between the environmental NGOs and the public  — Environmental NGOs were not the protagonists, and did not even appear, in major public environmental incidents. Examples include the actions against incinerators in Panyu (Guangdong) and the anti-PX chemical plant protest in Xiamen. The Nu River anti-dam protests also only involved the environmental NGOs, media, scholars and cultural figures, some local university students and some residents from the local communities, while participation of the general public was absent.  There is a real lack of coordination between the public and environmental NGOs in environmental protection work for reasons having to do with NGO mechanisms, capability, and lack of credibility.The gap between environmental NGOs and entrepreneurs — Entrepreneurs value ‘professionalism’, discipline and efficiency, while environmental NGOs value respect and diversity. The conflict in values between the two sides ​is obvious, ​and mutual exchanges and compromises have only just begun.

The gap between environmental NGOs and politics — Few Chinese environmental NGOs attempt to persuade representatives from the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the National People’s Congress (NPC) to submit proposals or propose motions related to environmental protection. If we cannot even convince these representatives who are concerned about people’s welfare and possess a humanistic spirit, then the effectiveness of our work is really limited. Our homework for the next few years includes addressing how to strengthen popular support for environmental protection and how to connect with other demands for social justice.

The gap between environmental NGOs and foundations — In order to survive and develop, environmental NGOs adapt to the project requirements of foundations, turning one project after another into flowerpots. The positioning of NGOs, the demands of local environmental protection, and the needs of foundations, are like a see-saw. The foundations are not willing to invest time in understanding environmental NGOs and ways to support them. They rarely support the growth of an organization or its personnel. Without project proposals, foundations will not provide funding. Important work undertaken by NGOs, such as temporary or long-term responses to local environmental incidents, is difficult for foundations to support.

The gap between environmental NGOs — At present, environmental NGOs are a diverse group and collaboration between them is far from adequate.  Youth environmental organizations tend to work on their own, and connections between them are weak. They tend to rarely involve in the development of environmental NGOs as a whole. The perspectives, visions and mentalities of youth environmental NGOs are different, with some only concerned with their own organizations, and others not accepting each other. Of course there are definitely some that are open and positive, but most are dissatisfied with other organizations and not unwilling to collaborate.

We believe that the fragmented nature of the environmental NGO community, especially youth environmental NGOs, is mainly due to the following beliefs:

A clique mentality — Many environmental NGOs still have a strong “clique” mentality, viewing people within ones clique as insiders and those that are not as outsiders. Non-environmental NGOs, the government, enterprises and even the public with its neutral attitude are all outsiders. Even those in NGOs that are not within their circle of friends are also outsiders. This mentality depends on the closeness of the relationship, and differences in beliefs. For example, some young people place emphasis on the spirit of science, some focus on the community, some believe in having an international perspective, while others believe in being rooted locally. These differences in beliefs undermine communication, a spirit of tolerance, inclusiveness, and mutual understanding, and cooperation.

A careerist mentality  — Youth leaders in many environmental NGOs are very dedicated to their careers, and also view real environmental protection as a career. However, even more so are those focused on their career successes, and in a broader sense, the career successes of their circle of friends. There still lacks a larger and even broader selfless concern for the realization of success within the whole environmental cause, and for the fate of the environment of China and the world. Thus, this mentality is still a self-centered one. Doing well in one’s own work and showing concern for the whole environmental cause is not contradictory, and what should be avoided is affecting the achievement of the whole environmental cause due to a mentality only concerned with one’s personal career or the careers of a small circle.

A competitive mentality — The young people involved in environmental protection have a strong competitive awareness and mentality. They hope that their projects are the best, their achievements are the most numerous and their influence the largest. Competitive awareness also exists in some of the older organizations, and they strive to be the leader or the self-proclaimed leader. Competition does of course help to maintain high morale and creativity. However, it also results in difficulties in cooperation. While facing such a challenging environmental situation, it is extremely difficult to achieve our common goals and visions without cooperation. If we need to compete, we should compete with the government to influence policies, compete with the commercial sector for resources, and also compete with groups lacking environmental awareness to win people’s hearts.

A project mentality — Many grassroots organizations originate from projects, and many foreign organizations parachute down projects. Although the adoption of project operation and business management procedures can improve an organization’s operational standards and efficiency, NGOs can increasingly lose their sense of identity through the belief that all these projects equal an organization. As a result, NGOs lack the emergency management and response capabilities to deal with real environmental problems. Their project-oriented focus, and resource-oriented mentality, causes the public to increasingly lose sight of the value of these NGOs. In this environment, competition for projects is the overriding mentality, resources (from foundations) are limited, and other NGOs are competitors. This results in a lack of appreciation for and an unwillingness to learn from the other NGOs, as well as a lack of camaraderie.

Perhaps the above are just descriptions of the phenomena, and the reasons behind them have yet to be discussed.  We hope this article will serve to initiate such discussion.


  1. Editor’s Note: In 2004, environmental NGOs worked together with the media, scholars and government officials to call attention to plans to build a series of dams on the Nu River, China’s last wild river.  In a victory for China’s environmentalists, Premier Wen Jiabao suspended the project in 2005. 

  2. Editor’s Note: The Xiamen protests at the end of 2007 opposed the building of a paraxylene (PX) petrochemical plant.  The protests led to a decision by the Xiamen city government not to build the plant.  The Chongqing incident refers to a campaign launched in 2011 by environmental NGOs against the Xiaonanhai dam which was being constructed with the support of the Chongqing city government.  The NGOs claim the dam will endanger a rare species of fish by blocking its migration route. 

中国环境运动文化的现状分析和反思

余剑锋
中国发展简报2012年春季刊
据本小组组员自身的经历以及自身视角下有限的观察,我们注意到中国环境NGO在环境运动中的一些文化特征。鉴于文章的目的是促使中国环境运动文化的改进,因此本文主要是揭示和分析环境运动文化存在的缺陷和弱点,我们认为特别重要或者特别值得反思的方面。
综观中国现时图景中的环保NGO,我们看到已老的也看到新生的,看到将死的也看到生长着的,看到死去的也看到重生的,看到昙花一现的流云、看到浮在墙头的芦苇,也看到扎根在地的树苗、看到别出心裁的枝叶。但不管怎么说,在举国环境沦陷的背景下,如果说中国有环境运动,我们看到的也只是少数人的(小众的)、扭曲的、割裂的“运动”,或许有局部的成绩和成效,但整体却是缓慢增长且分散孤立的环保力量似螳臂挡车,抵挡滚滚前行的经济巨轮。
环境运动还是小众的运动
 严格意义上,全国范围公民参与的环境运动在中国尚未真正出现,即便是怒江反坝事件,也只是环保NGO、媒体、学者和文化名人、部分地区大学生、部分当地社 区的居民卷入,全国普通民众在此事件中是缺席的。原因是多方面的,包括体制的限制,包括民众的意识滞后,包括环保NGO太少,也包括环保NGO自身的一些文化意识缺陷原因。
比如:
——精英意识;一些环保NGO人明显地把自己归入精英行列,并且只乐于与精英群体为伍,他们的环保行动局限于一个“精英”的圈子。
——个人英雄意识;一些环保NGO人觉得自己先知先觉,觉得自己是先行者,觉得自己在拯救自然、拯救人类、拯救国家。他们确实也是,也付出很大,也有很多追随者,但是一个英雄即便加上他的追随者,也还是小众的。
——悲情意识;一些环保NGO人眼里总含着悲情,一方面确实是为环境状况忧心如焚,另一方面也是一种占据道德制高点的方式,不管怎样,总是和普通群众存在疏离。
——纯情意识;一些环保NGO人只愿埋头做自己的环保项目,不关心政治和社会,不愿意被复杂肮脏的政治和社会“污染”。
——隐士意识;一些环保NGO人独善其身,追求环保的隐士生活。
环境运动是扭曲的运动
中国社会固有的强大惯性,政治经济制度的局限,导致中国的环保NGO呈现出一种扭曲的生长方式和行为方式。具体的行为方式(行为文化)包括:
——避实就虚的行为方式;
某种意义上,不敢、不愿或没有能力直面真实的环境问题和环境利益冲突,开展空泛的环境教育。环境教育和倡导不敢针对成年人、针对有权力有能力有责任的人,只是针对没有社会影响力的学生群体。这是一种精神胜利法和现实逃避。
——舍近求远的行为方式;
小而言之,大学生社团不针对校园内的环境问题去研究和解决问题,而去校园外做更多空泛的宣传;大而言之,本地的环保NGO不去针对和解决本地的环境问题,不对本地的重大环境事件发表意见,而热衷于对外地的环境问题发表意见,乃至对于外地的环境事件提出环保公益诉讼等。一般意义上,本地的环保NGO对于本地的重大环境事件更了解,也更有发言权,但事实上大多情况下他们是缄默失声的。
——避重就轻的行为方式;
一些环保NGO选择不试图影响或改变“政府既定决策”,而是试图影响管理部门对于决策的实施行为,试图在实施过程中减轻对于环境的危害或实行补救的措施。在前期过程中,他们并未作为反对者或者制衡者出现,反之很可能是作为工程决策的支持者出现的,这也许是他们认为取得管理部门信任是能够争取一定话语权和参与权的方式。
——曲线救国的行为方式;
一些环保NGO在对于污染受害者的帮助中,不是向污染者索偿、追责,而是向外界寻求救助,如寻求治疗疾病、改善水源、改善贫困的救助等等;回避向污染者和当地政府提出要求,因为那样做是更加艰难的。
有的NGO在试图解决一个地方的环境问题时,选择不是直接暴露问题,而是通过媒体将该地方“塑造为环境保护的模范和样板”,促使该地政府改变政策导向。
有的NGO试图与政府部门官员建立亲密的私人关系,以便在环保项目或环保行动中得到较好的政府支持。但在这个“和(huo音,四声)”的过程中,易陷于被同化的困境。
部分NGO通过问责国际厂商的供应链,间接遏止国内企业污染环境和损害工人健康行为。工作的重点不是直接放在那些造成工人健康损伤和使用有毒有害原辅材料的直接使用者,而是“追杀”上游的国际厂商。这可以是工作智慧,也可能是逃避,要看最终效果。
 ——投机取巧的行为方式;
我们遗憾地看到一些环境NGO具有投机心态。一些人进入环保领域后热衷于被聚焦的感觉,热衷于荣誉或其他机会,热衷于虚伪地挖掘和谈论环境问题,淡忘了最初对于环境的真正关心。一些人试图采取“又打又拉”的方式从污染企业和利益部门那里获得资源和话语权。其结果很容易形成与污染企业、利益部门的共谋,丧失了环保的立场,至少是丧失了公众形象和公信力。一些环保NGO在当地利益部门或企业小恩小惠下轻易改变立场。在类似厦门PX事件、重庆小南海事件中,一些环保NGO基于自身的安全或私利考虑发出的声音已失去了应有的立场。
 以上现象,部分或许说明环保NGO生命力的顽强,像野草一样顽强地生长、像坚韧的战士一样迂回地战斗。大部分现象却说明环保NGO虚弱、虚浮,回避权力、责任和时代挑战,甚至投机、跟风,走到环保的反面。
环境运动是割裂的运动
我们观察到我们的环境运动的主体是多元的,有NGO、基金会、学者和文化人物、媒体、政治人物等等,更有基层的民众,但我们注意到中国的环境运动参与主体明显分散和孤立,远未形成普遍的有机的连接,而是呈现出另一面——割裂。
——环保NGO与民众割裂;
在重要的公民环境运动事件中,环保NGO没有成为主角,甚至没有身影出现。比如在广东番禺的反焚化炉行动中、在厦门的反PX行动中。而怒江反坝事件,也只是环保NGO、媒体、学者和文化名人、部分地区大学生、当地社区的部分居民卷入,全国普通民众在此事件中是缺席的。公众参与环保的热情未能与环保NGO的 工作很好的连接起来,其原因包括机制、能力,也包括NGO的公信力不足。
——环保NGO与企业家的割裂;
企业家强调“职业精神”,强调纪律和效率,环保NGO人强调受尊重、强调多元。价值观的冲突明显,而彼此的交流和妥协才刚刚开始。
——环保NGO与政治割裂;
中国的环保NGO少有人试图努力去游说政协委员、人大代表,提交环保相关的提案议案。“如若我们连这些真正为民所急,抱有人文精神的朋友都不能说服,我们的工作成效可真是很有限。如何扩大环境保护的社会支持度,如何与其他社会正义要求对话结连,还是我们未来几年的功课。”
——环保NGO与基金会割裂;
环保NGO们为了生存和发展,片面适应基金会的框架申请项目,把一个个项目做成了一个个花盆。NGO自身的定位、当地环境保护的需要、基金会的需要三者之间存在拉锯。基金会不愿意下功夫研究环保NGO,研究如何支持NGO。基金会很少支持一个机构或者人员的成长。没有项目书,基金会就不会拨款。NGO重要 的工作,比如对于当地环境事件的回应或临时的或持续的,都难以纳入基金会支持的框架中。
——环保NGO之间存在割裂;
当前,环保NGO无论从历史渊源还是现状都呈现出多样性,有多种类型的环保NGO并存。但各种乃至各个环保NGO之间的连接远远不够。青年环保机构的现状 也更多的是各做各的,各地机构之间的连接感弱,对环保NGO行业事务和行业发展主动介入的非常少。青年环保NGO人的视角、视野和心态各不相同,有只关注自己机构的,有互不认可的,当然也有开放、积极的,但是互相不满的多、不愿配合的情况多。
环保NGO特别是青年环保NGO之间的割裂,我们认为很大程度上源于以下观念和意识:
——“门”的观念;
不少环保NGO还有很强的“门”的观念,门内是自己人,门外是外人。非环保NGO的、政府的、企业的乃至态度中立的公众都是外人。乃至朋友圈子以外的其他 NGO的人也是外人。此是关系的近与远,此外尚有观念的近与远。例如部分青年强调科学精神,部分强调社区为本,部分认为要有国际视野,部分认为要扎根本地,各执一词,均极有见地,但却因存门户之见故交流沟通不够、宽容包容不够,互相的理解、支持和配合不够,甚至有戒备心、有抱怨心。
——个人事业观念;
很多环保NGO的青年领导人有强烈的事业心,也确实以真环保为自己的事业。但是更多地是关注自己的事业成功与否,扩宽一点,也就关注自己的哥们朋友圈子的环保事业成功与否。尚缺乏更大、更宽广的胸怀关注到整个环境事业本身的实现,关注到中国乃至世界环境的命运,因此还是小我的心态。扎实地做好自己的事与对 环境事业的整体关怀并不矛盾,应避免个人事业意识或者小圈子事业意识影响环境事业整体的实现。
——竞争意识和心态;
青年人做环保,有强烈的竞争意识和竞争心态,希望自己做的项目是最好的,希望自己做出的成绩是最多的,希望自己的影响力是最大的。有些老的机构也存在竞争意识,争当老大或者自诩为老大。竞争当然有助于保持旺盛的斗志和创造力。但是竞争意识也带来合作的难产。面对无比艰难的环保局面,没有合作是万难达成我们 的共同目标和愿景的。如果我们要竞争,那应该向政府去竞争政策、向商业领域去竞争资源、向不环保的群体去竞争,竞争人心。
——“项目总和=机构”的心态;
很多草根组织发源于项目、很多国外组织空降了一些项目,虽然项目运作以及企业管理程序等的引入提高了机构的规范性和行动效率,但NGO越来越搞不清楚“我 是谁”,以为机构所有项目总和=机构(源自经费不足和意识不到位)。其结果,导致NGO对现实环境问题的应急处理和应对能力不足,工作以项目为形式,以资源为导向,使公众越来越看不到民间组织的价值。在此生态下,竞争项目成了通常的心态,资源(基金会)是有限的,别的NGO成了竞争对手。对于别的NGO缺 乏欣赏的学习的心态,缺乏战友感。
或许,以上这些还只是现象的描述,而现象背后的深刻原因有待更多的讨论。本篇文章就算是抛砖引玉之作了。
(执笔人:余剑锋,小组成员:向春、余剑锋、赵中、璇芷、岳毅桦、梅念蜀)

Translated by Feng Zhiying

Reviewed by Holly Zheng

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