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Wen Bo, China's Advocate for the Environment

Environmental activist and former Asia 21 Fellow Wen Bo.

Environmental activist and former Asia 21 Fellow Wen Bo.

SAN FRANCISCO, October 20, 2009 - Wen Bo is Co-Director of Pacific Environment’s China Program and Coordinator of the Greengrants China Advisory Board. He has supported more than 40 environmental grassroots groups in China through small grants, exchange programs, workshops and presentations, and organized the first student environmental conference in China in 1995. He is a founder of the China Green Student Forum, which is now a network of more than 100 student environmental groups. Wen was an Asia 21 Fellow of the Asia Society, received a 2009 Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation, and was named a 2009 Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. In 2006, TIME magazine named him an “Eco Hero.”

Wen Bo was at the Asia Society Northern California to participate in a panel discussion on “The State of Environmental Activism in China” on October 20, 2009. In this exclusive interview with Asia Society Northern California's Neha Sakhuja, he discusses China's rise in environmental activism and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for NGOs.


NS: Who are China’s environmental NGOs and activists and what are their biggest concerns? How do they compare with the US environmental movement?

WB: Before 1990 China did not have any environmental non-governmental organization in an organized form. After the 1990s ,with opening of the economy and its environmental setbacks, intellectuals started organizing themselves as clubs. They began to look at the Western environmental groups and slowly hundreds of groups emerged. The grassroots movement in China is supported by a number of citizens who are taking small but equally important steps. While many Chinese NGOs are based in Beijing, they also work throughout the country to address local concerns.

In addition, the active participation of college students in the ecological involvement has been vital. There are a large number of campus environmental groups in China which are working on raising awareness about some of the glaring environmental issues facing the country. Many of the students who have graduated are working with environmental organizations. The new generation of young people are using the internet to build websites, blogs and language skills to get their voices heard.

Today, most of the NGOs concerns revolve around important issues like raising awareness about climate change, endangered species, and interest in protecting wildlife. We also know these areas have been neglected by both organizations and government such as marine pollution, marine issues, etc. We identify issues that are critical and have not been addressed. Though a majority of other problems do not get tackled due to limited resources like staff, funding, and permits. We are interested in tackling more detailed complexities of climate change and desertification.

One cannot really compare. US has many environmental groups. In a dynamic city like Beijing there are only 50 NGOs and in many cities not too many.

NS: How are they regarded by the public? What have been their biggest achievements, and have these translated into growing popular support?

WB: I think people in China are very supportive of the NGOs as well as they are more aware of the work groups are doing. Many of the groups are making positive contributions on environmental issues which are being well perceived by the government. Normally the government does not interfere but it continues to be suspicious of NGOs funded by foreign donors. The government expects a detailed report on the activities of the NGO supported by Western interests.

Many organizations, they are not membership-based, are able to have a large number of volunteers. So, a lot of people check the web site, write to these groups, and some simply to report to these organizations of a local environment problem. They now turn to the environmental organizations to find solutions, to find the opportunities for them to get involved. And also actively participate in some of the efforts.

NS: NGOs in China, particularly unregistered, grassroots organization are typically very small, volunteer-based, and have limited funding. You allocate grants to grassroots environmental organizations in China, through a charity called Global Greengrants Fund. How are they surviving and working to become more sustainable?

WB: Funding is a big challenge for most NGOs and they do struggle. Most of the NGOs want to contribute their time and effort to an environmental cause, but they cannot do so without the proper infrastructure.

The grants we provide are generally being used to support office space, staff salaries, computers, basic travel costs, etc. Supported NGOs spend the grants on programs like water pollution, education awareness, conducting environmental workshops, publishing newsletters and environmental reports.

Of course, it’s the not the only resource one needs; the groups also need training on institutional building, leadership skills, and structure of governance. This helps put in place a system of checks and balances which hold them accountable and responsible. This should encourage them to be more focused and be taken seriously by the government.

NS: China is sometimes said to lack a culture of philanthropic giving.  How true is this today, and what has it meant for NGO fundraising?

WB: Chinese people are interested in supporting these charitable efforts, but they lack the proper channels, so they don't know where to donate their funding. So often these types of resources are mostly channeled into government-organized NGOs.

Next: "The NGO community needs to realize that you cannot treat the government as an enemy."