The Year of the (Green) Dragon: China's Burgeoning Environmental Movement

Posted by Amy Westervelt

Water Pollution in China, courtesy Bert van Dijk
The most important environmental story coming out of China this year is not the treatment of workers at the iPad plant, or whatever journalistic ethics were compromised in the reporting of it, but the meteoric rise of grassroots environmental groups in the country. Where larger U.S. organizations like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club have failed to gain much traction, local Chinese groups are beginning to affect meaningful change. 

The best-known of these groups is the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), run by former journalist Ma Jun. In 2008, the Chinese government passed a series of regulations granting public access to certain types of environmental information and ordering local environmental protection bureaus to release data about polluters in their regions. However, enforcement was weak and the disclosure was piecemeal, making it difficult for the public to access or make sense of the information available.

Jun founded IPE to focus on water and air pollution problems in the country, and started by compiling all of this data into easily accessed and understood air- and water-pollution maps. To date, Jun and his team have exposed over 90,000 air and water violations by local and multinational companies operating in China. The organization's maps have been extremely helpful in raising public awareness, but have also been a useful tool for the media, which has begun to cover these issues more often (although still not enough according to the activists).

IPE has also produced several reports targeting major non-Chinese companies operating in the country and exposing various environmental infractions. His work was Apple's other China problem earlier this year, but Jun's intention is not to attack companies so much as to work with them. His organization is now working with Wal-Mart, Nike, GE, Coca Cola, Siemens, Vodafone, H&M, Adidas, Sony, Unilever, Levi’s and Lenovo, all of whom regularly check IPE's maps and voluntarily self-regulate. For his efforts, Jun was recently awarded the Goldman Prize—the largest prize in the world for environmental activists ($150,000). 

But there are hundreds of smaller groups working with little of the same support or attention. According to data from All China Environmental Federation, there were 508 grassroots environmental NGOs in the country by the end of 2008, compared with 199 in 2005 and that number has likely grown at a similar rate in the last three years. Many of these organizations work primarily on water pollution, according to Kristen McDonald, China program director for Pacific Environment, a U.S.-based NGO that provides grants for grassroots work in China.

"Many of the groups are quite young, they’ve existed less than 10 years," McDonald says. "And their staff are often quite young as well, this is typically their first job out of college, so a lot of their initial activities involve basic education and outreach to the public. They often have these weekly water walks where they take people out to see water resources in their town, including effluent pipes and parts that aren’t so attractive. The walks are usually on a Sunday morning from nine to twelve, and usually include some kind of lecture or demonstration that the group organizes. That’s sort of a classic activity that they do. They really see themselves as trying to spread the word, to get more people engaged and concerned about water pollution."

Though it may sound quite basic, that work is helping to transform how the public views the environment in China. It's also working to make companies realize they need to clean up their acts or risk losing face publicly. 

"Most people, especially the youth, realize the necessity and importance of environmental protection," says Zhao Zhong, a TIME Hero of the Environment, founder of grassroots group Green Camel Bell, and now Pacific Environment’s China-based program coordinator. "They believe it’s the right thing, but support limited action. It seems like environmental issues are well known but far away from people’s daily life."

At the same time, Zhong says more and more grassroots groups are being founded everywhere by students, victims, journalists, specialists and the general public and that the environmental movement is growing throughout the country. The media is also starting to take more notice, and that's helping to prompt movement from companies as well. Zhong cites a recent communications campaign run by grassroots group Green Hunan as a prime example of what's happening right now:

Polluted River, Green Hunan
"Green Hunan is a grassroots organization in Central China," he says. "They are promoting a volunteer network with eight monitoring stations, sixty-three monitoring points and 36 volunteers. On September 17, 2012 in the course of river monitoring, Brother Mao, one of the volunteers, found red sewage coming from the chemical plants located in the area [see photo]. So he took photos with his cell phone and wrote a microblog (Twitter in China). Soon there were 4000 retweets and 2000 replies. The situation was then reported by the local media."

Zhong says the media coverage prompted the local environmental protection board to investigate, and they closed the factory. The factory chairman had to make a public apology. 

Green Hunan is one of about 30 small, grassroots groups working with IPE to help keep its database and maps up to date. In turn IPE lets these groups know when a company in their geographic region has a violation of the national environmental laws. 

"There has started to be a lot of movement around the data piece," McDonald says. "The exciting thing about Ma Jun’s project is that in addition to poorly behaving companies getting a black mark next to their names on IPE's water pollution database, hundreds to thousands of companies have contacted him to say what can we do to get off this list. Already something like 600 companies have taken action, which has led IPE to take their name off the list. The database and maps have turned out to be much stronger tools than anyone could have imagined."

Indeed, data collection and monitoring seems to be central to the success of China's burgeoning environmental movement. Zhong sums up the typical trajectory of a campaign thusly: "First, you collect pollution information from public channels, then you list a company on the China Water Pollution Map, then you enlarge your influence through media campaigns and NGO networking campaigns, then you initiate Green Choice consumer awareness activities focused on a specific brand, then you might work with an out-of-country partner to further pressure the company, and then you request that the company participate in an auditing and monitoring program."

So you start with gathering hard data on the ground, then share that information widely, you get the media to broadcast your issue, and the public pressure incentivizes movement from both the local government and the company in question. Not bad for a grassroots movement.