US, Chinese NGOs work together

Non-governmental organizations from China and the United States are expected to work closer together in dealing with environmental problems.

The China Association for NGO Co-operation and the US-based non-governmental environmental organization Environmental Defence agreed in Beijing yesterday to help strengthen Chinese NGOs in the next three years.

Environmental Defence Vice-President Marcia Aronoff said co-operation is likely to take place in the fields of climate change, ocean pollution, biodiversity and environmental protection.

"We have gathered some experience in these areas and we want to share them with Chinese NGOs," said Aronoff, adding that more than 400,000 members have been involved in her organization since it was established in 1967.

Daniel Dudek, the organization's chief economist, said work in China will be one of Environmental Defence's priorities over the next five years.

"We are going to work with NGOs and help them get involved in environmental policy-making," said Dudek.

Zhang Jianyu, a visiting scholar with Tsinghua University, said capacity building is necessary for China's civil society to participate in the policy-making process.

"China's laws already give opportunities for NGOs to express their views, but they need to improve their awareness," said Zhang.

Zhang based his assertion on Chinese NGOs' failure to take part in a public hearing organized by the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) in August.

With a notice running on its official website for days, SEPA had been seeking comments on its draft rule on emission permission licence management. Four individuals and 12 companies took part, and NGOs were noticeable by their total absence.

"This example shows that we have a lot of work to do," said Zhang, who also heads Environmental Defence's Beijing office.

Huang Haoming, executive director of CANGO, Environmental Defence's Chinese partner, said Chinese NGOs will certainly be strengthened by international co-operation.

Huang said since his association was founded in 1987, about 60 foreign NGOs have set up close ties with his 100-member organization.

"The agreement we signed is a sign that addressing environmental problems is not only the duty of governments and international organizations, but also a responsibility NGOs should bear jointly," said Huang.

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Non-governmental organisations will eventually be able to register to work on the mainland without having to be sponsored by a government department, a Ministry of Civil Affairs official has predicted.

It is imperative under the circumstances to withdraw the need for the link, the Beijing News quoted Qiao Shenqian , the deputy head of the ministry's NGO Registration Service Centre, as saying.

The ministry oversees NGOs on the mainland. Groups that have been registered officially are known as government-organised non-governmental organisations. Each is required to find a government department to act as its supervisor. A department is held accountable for the actions of NGOs under it.

Mr Qiao said the authorities had been considering doing away with the supervisory requirement for several years - but he was not able to give a specific date for when it would happen.

The withdrawal is definitely possible. I hope it will not take too long, he said during the International Co-operation and Public Participation Seminar in Beijing at the weekend.

Insiders say the government is drafting a new Management of Social Societies regulation, under which major changes such as the lifting of the supervisory requirement have been debated.

Wang Ming , head of the NGO Study Institute at Tsinghua University, said NGOs on the mainland were being given more latitude to develop.

He said although a package of new policies - covering everything from tax deductions to the public supervision system - was needed, the first step had to be changing the entry requirements for NGOs.

No international NGO had ever registered itself under the present stringent rules even though some had implemented projects in China for as long as two decades, Professor Wang said.

Lots of inconvenience and difficulties are created when having to work without a legal identity, said Chan Puisi , the country programme manager in China for the Salvation Army.

It's difficult to get an office or to set up a public account for public donations, and there are lots of complicated procedures that we have to go through.

It's not that we don't want to abide by the law, it's that we don't have such a law available to us.

China groups NGOs into two categories, social societies and foundations, depending on the level of funding they get. Presently, the regulation for social societies does not recognise international NGOs. And while things are slightly different for NGOs that want to register as foundations, they are by no means better off.

Lo Sze-ping , Greenpeace's campaign director in China, said the group had been attempting to find a government sponsor for two years so it could be legally registered.

We turned to the local environmental protection authority, but they turned us down by saying they were unable to take charge of an international organisation, he said.

While official statistics indicate China has 262,000 local NGOs, Mr Qiao admits many more are working throughout the nation.

Some NGOs, eager to expand their projects with a stronger legal status, have registered as companies but that incurs heavy taxes

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A broadcaster known throughout China, Wang Yongchen has combined her role as journalist with a long and skilful advocacy against widespread environmental destruction wrought in development's name, writes Rose Tang

Pictures by

SIMON SONG

In her lemon-coloured, figure-hugging top and jeans, Wang Yongchen drags a heavy backpack through Lan Kwai Fong. The 50-year-old from Beijing is full of beans.

``I'm so thirsty. That speech lasted for three hours! Those students had so many questions!'' _ she spills the words out in quick breaths.

Wang has just given a speech at the Chinese University about mainlanders awakening to their ability to influence government decision-making during her campaign to stop damming of the Nu River in Yunnan.

Wang has been honoured for her ability to graft an environmental activist agenda onto her career as a nationally known radio reporter, exploiting the growing power of mainland media to influence public issues.

Last week, she won a US$20,000 (HK$156,000) Conde Nast Traveller environmental award from the New York-based magazine for publicising the environmental impact of the proposed Nu River Dam project.

Hailed as ``dam busters'' by Xinhua News Agency, Wang and her two non-governmental organisations, Green Earth Volunteers and Green Reporters' Salon, and dozens of other mainland environmentalists successfully forced suspension of the proposed Nu River Dam pending further investigation.

Premier Wen Jiabao in February ordered the Yunnan government to ``conduct careful research and make scientific decisions'' relating to the dam.

``It's just a temporary victory,'' Wang warns, saying it's possible the Yunnan government may still build one or two dams instead of the proposed 13 along the picturesque river, the proposed damming of which has brought international outcry.

The Nu River Dam is one of Wang's many environmental campaigns. Her latest is a protest against the damming of Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan.

``We're like firefighters. Wherever there's a fire, we rush over to fight it,'' she says. Later, at Mum Chau's Sichuan Kitchen in Lan Kwai Fong, tucking into cold glass noodles sprinkled with crushed Sichuan pepper, spring onions and pickled cabbage, Wang says her major dam-busting success so far has been in Sichuan's capital Chengdu.

``It was the first time in Chinese history that the public directly influenced the decision-making process of a big government project ,'' she says proudly.

In 2001, Sichuan's government started to build a hydroelectric power project in the middle of Dujiangyan, an irrigation network built around 250 BC and classified by Unesco as a world heritage site. In 2003, the Dujiangyan city government invited experts to a forum on construction of the 23-metre high dam. NGOs were barred from attending.

So Wang teamed up with another reporter, Zhang Yongjia, from China Youth Daily, to visit the construction site in June, 2003.

Following the trip, the two women alerted Unesco's Beijing office which subsequently contacted the Construction Ministry. China National Radio, where Wang worked, didn't broadcast the story but she passed the details on to other colleagues and to her journalist friends working with the Green Reporters' Salon, a monthly gathering of environmental reporters she organises.

The story soon broke in more than 100 mainland media outlets, including China Youth Daily, CCTV and Southern Weekend, all of which blasted the project in extensive coverage. In August, the central government sent in investigators and days later, the Sichuan governor cancelled the project.

The media have been given credit for blowing the whistle.

Does she think the media should be objective messengers only? Wang says journalists are responding to public sentiment. ``This is a Chinese characteristic,'' she says. ``The media are important participants. The public have their voices heard through the media.''

So do you use the media as your mouthpiece? I ask her.

She doesn't answer but says the growing importance of the media has convinced her to maintain a ``double identity'' as both a journalist and an environmentalist. She not only uses her radio reports and articles to set the agenda but also actively organises events to push it.

``A journalist is like a bridge connecting all sides,'' she once wrote in an article about her NGO.

I first met Wang in 2003 when she invited me to join journalists and environmentalists visiting the Nu River. The Nu _ ``angry'' in Putonghua _ rises in Tibet, cuts through some of the most remote and beautiful gorges in Yunnan and flows into Burma as the Salween and also into Thailand. Wang has cried many times over plans to build dams in Yunnan. ``They're going to build 13 dams there,'' she says angrily.

As luck would have it, I wasn't able to join her excursion but later I hear the participants have organised a photo exhibition which tours China.

As we talk, Wang shows me a stack of beautiful photos from that trip and whispers that she would like to sell the pictures to the people we are dining with.

``I'm using the money to buy books and newspapers for school kids along the Nu River,'' she says.

I blush, worried that my friends will think I've organised an Amway-style gathering. But I pass on the pictures and explain Wang's mission. She takes out a piece of wrinkly paper and asks the buyers to write down names and donations.

This is environmental campaigning, Wang style. With her energy, passion and charisma, she draws volunteers to her like a magnet.

In 1988, she began to air stories about pollution. She has organised hundreds of field trips and forums. Her Green Earth Volunteers, established in 1996 with a few friends as a bird-watching and tree-planting group, now boasts more than 40,000 members and two full-time workers. The rest are volunteers from all walks of life, including many foreigners.

She started the Green Reporters' Salon in 2000, inviting scientists and officials to speak on environmental issues to help educate journalists. Now it has become an agenda-setter in mainland environmental news.

Earlier this year, Wang and other dam busters also launched two websites: www.chinarivers.ngo.cn and www.nujiang.ngo.cn.

Another Wang success story is the halted relocation of Beijing's century-old zoo. In April, the government announced it would move the zoo to a county miles away from Beijing. Entrance fees were to rise seven-fold. Wang invited a zoo official and a zoologist to speak about the relocation at the Green Reporters' Salon .

That was followed by extensive media coverage. She organised public forums and invited NGOs, children and their families to speak up. Members of the National People's Congress also wrote to the State Planning Commission which subsequently scrapped the relocation plan.

Wang sums up her campaigns as a combination of ``the media, NGOs and public participation''. This kind of dynamic is new to China and it offers a kind of check on central power that was absent when planners rammed the Three Gorges Dam project through despite opposition from NPC members, scientists, and many others.

Now it's a whole new picture, according to Wang, who's confident that civil society is growing on the mainland, providing a foundation for democracy.

``Now China's democratic society is more mature,'' she says. ``The government is more tolerant. It's more and more open.''

Her confidence defies conventional wisdom that the word ``democracy'' remains out of bounds and that ``public participation'', encouraged in the 1980s, was crushed for good on June 4, 1989, in Tiananmen Square.

Wang knows what a fine line she's walking but her journalistic job gives her an edge. Local authorities do not hinder her work when she visits a dam site. But after she leaves the site often becomes a no-go zone.

``They're afraid of journalists,'' she says. ``I try very hard not to make any mistakes. For media people like us, we know what we can say and what we shouldn't say. What is most important to me is that I retain my right to speak up.''

Wang's self-censorship hasn't given her total immunity. Her radio station banned her voice on a popular morning show after she uncovered a Sars outbreak in a Beijing publishing house last May and e-mailed a friend exposing it.

Wang says her two environmental radio programmes also have been cancelled, ostensibly for ``economic reasons''.

Her current radio plight contrasts sharply with the golden years of the 1980s when the media was more liberal and Wang was making her name hosting current affairs shows, women's issues and even press freedom. One year, a survey showed that her listeners numbered more than 500 million _ almost half of China's population. Her fans even included Deng Yingchao, wife of the late premier Zhou Enlai.

And she knows how brutal Chinese politics can be. Both her journalist parents were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. Her mother died from lung cancer caused by burning limestone while doing hard labour at a ``re-education'' school.

At 16, Wang became a worker in a printing factory. She later worked as a librarian at China National Radio and taught herself journalism.

It was a trip to Qinghai province in 1993 that made her dedicate her career to the environment. She was shocked to see the killing of wild yaks and unchecked deforestation. Her first ecology mentors were a school principal and his students in Jiangsu province who turned a primary school into a bird sanctuary.

In 1997, Wang tasted media power when the government banned the use of styrofoam lunch boxes on ships in the Yangtze River following her radio shows which blasted garbage dumping in the Three Gorges.

Despite winning awards and accolades on the mainland, Wang is still seen by some, including some journalists, as an environmental zealot. One popular chatroom accuses her of running an ``environmental evil cult''.

She brushes it off: ``Criticism is good,'' she says. ``So we can start a debate. Otherwise it'd be stagnant water.''

She is aware, she says, of how huge the problem of environmental devastation is in China and she is also focusing her efforts on the next generation. She will donate the US$20,000 Conde Nast award to build a library for students on the Nu River.

Having made a conscious choice to have no children of her own, Wang and her retired music critic husband now live on his meagre pension and her 2,000 yuan monthly salary (HK$1,885) _ and the couple also pay the school fees of six students Wang has met in her travels around China.

After returning to Beijing, Wang calls me with two good stories. One is that Southern Weekend has carried a front page splash on the damming of Tiger Leaping Gorge _ a story she released through the Green Reporters' Salon a couple of months earlier. Another dam-busting mission has begun.

Even better, my friends' donations over dinner have been sent to 20 schools along the Nu River to help them subscribe to newspapers.

I hope those kids will get to read about Wang's environmental work soon.

Greens' united voice shifts policy in right direction

The mainland's fractured green movement has united into a force to be reckoned in the fight to prevent the damming of the Nujiang, one of China's last wild rivers.

Deng Guosheng , deputy director of the Tsinghua University's NGO research centre, said the campaign was an important milestone for China's activist groups.

The green groups are now influencing environmental policy, said Professor Deng.

An increasing number of environmental organisations are emerging in the mainland, but until now they usually avoided politically charged issues, instead focusing on activities such as environmental education. They also tended to work alone due to the strong personalities of their leaders.

But this has changed with the fight for the Nujiang. Activists are setting aside their differences to mobilise a nationwide effort to stop construction of 13 dams which they say will destroy the area's pristine environment and strip local people of their livelihood.

We use to only plant trees and encourage recycling. But now, we have united to make our voices heard like never before, said Wang Yongchen , of the Beijing-based Green Earth Volunteers group.

Ms Wang has helped organise dozens of events against the dam project, including a press tour of the Nujiang region in Yunnan province and has also used her popular show on China Central Radio to spread the word.

Following public scrutiny, Premier Wen Jiabao in February ordered a temporary stop to the project until environmental impact assessments had been carried out. Experts said pressure from the green groups was one factor behind this move.

The NGOs' influence on the government's decision should not be denied, said Professor Deng. Activists credit their new-found influence to the people-first policies of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen.

Ms Wang said: It appears the central government truly wants to listen to and respect the wishes of the people.

When the dam plan first reached the State Development and Reform Commission for review last August, it was the State Environmental Protection Administration officials who informed green groups of the proposal.

Another key factor in the greens' rising power is the Environmental Impact Report Law. Enacted in 2002, it requires all development projects to go through an ecological assessment and for public participation in the approval process.

This clause enabled the media to attend the administration's expert discussion forum on the dam project in September, resulting in widespread coverage.

However, the green groups' approach to saving the Nujiang has been criticised in some quarters.

When it comes to the dams' technical implications, the activists don't know what they are talking about, said a senior Ministry of Water Resources engineer, who personally opposes the project.

Other opponents said the campaign had been too confrontational, as many of the meetings had erupted into shouting matches. We need to have more dialogue with the people who support the project, said one opponent.

Some green groups admit the campaign against the project has been long on emotion and short on hard evidence of its negative implications. A few of the opponents are trying to convince the `emperor' to say no to the dams rather then going through the law, said an environmental consultant.

Observers say many activists are placing their hopes on Mr Wen.

Yu Xiaogang , of the Kunming-based Green Watershed organisation which is also involved in the battle, said the green movement's aim should be to strengthen good governance on proposed development projects.

If the dams are approved after a fair debate and rigorous scientific analysis, then this would still be a victory. But if the project is rejected while other destructive dams are approved, success would only be a mirage, he said.

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