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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.

NS: Most environmental NGOs in China are focused on local issues like water/air pollution and health issues. What are the challenges in working on a broader, regional or national level and linking to broader international issues like climate change?

There is a disconnect between international environmental issues and local environmental issues largely because of lack of information for Chinese NGOs. For example: for Chinese NGOs to understand the impact of climate change on the Arctic and Antarctic is abstract. They do not see this happening in person – if they saw it on television, read the newspaper they view it as something that is not immediately affecting their lives and something they cannot do much about.

But there are numerous local issues, I feel, that are their responsibility. Groups working on water pollution see the critical impact it has on daily lives of people living along the river. This motivates them to tackle issues which immediately affect them and can get support locally. They understand global issues but don’t see themselves engaged with them. If they begin to work on something which is viewed as abstract – people tend to argue about the need to tackle immediate and relevant local problems.

NS: How are NGOs juggling the often-conflicting tasks of both policing and partnering with government and business, as well as educating the public?

WB: I think ... we have come a long way [in] 10 years and you would be aware that the government has never been completely supportive of grass-roots and non-governmental efforts. But, many organizations are able to win the sympathy and support from many government officials in both central government and local government. The very existence of these environmental organizations alone proves that they have managed to survive and accumulate the manpower and the resources for them to perform better, and they have also been able to recruit a large number of volunteers.

I think the NGO community needs to realize that you cannot treat the government as an enemy. One needs to convince the government to make the right decisions through diplomatic tactics. It is important to hold the policy makers accountable and work with them at the same time. Have respect for individual government officials.

Communication skills are a must for NGOs to present issues to government and keep improving their performance, knowledge, and expertise.

NS: What role does the government play in regulating, and sometimes suppressing, these organizations? Is the recent government crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs like the Open Constitution Initiative the start of a longer-term trend, or is it part of the ebb and flow of government-NGO relations?  How has the regulatory environment in China changed during your careers, and how have you responded?

WB: The Open Constitution Initiative works on human rights issues, which is a delicate issue in China. If you do not present yourselves well and touch the nerve of the government, the government can retaliate. I think it’s not very common and is a unique case. The government has not done much policing of NGOs unless they work on sensitive issues of human rights. Most of the NGOs work on soft and moderate issues, though there are NGOs which work on controversial issues – but they again take a moderate approach. Otherwise you jeopardize your long-term effectiveness.

Registration of NGOs has always been a sore point. It’s not easy to get registered without a government agency sponsoring you. I don’t think many NGOs register because it serves as a barrier with the government always watching you. Of course, if they can get a legal status, funding opportunities become easier. But they should not sacrifice their independence for the legitimacy within the Chinese system, because the system itself is not designed to support independent groups.

NS: What practical issues should international donors be aware of while funding in China? How are international NGOs helping their Chinese counterparts? What do Chinese NGOs have to teach to those in the West?

WB: International donors should be more culturally sensitive. They should understand that they have to consider local social reality in China and trust local voices.

It is important that international donors interact with local NGOs and support them with funding. There is a need for the environmental groups working in China to have a global voice and be represented at international forums.

I think NGOs in China demonstrate the dedication of working in very difficult situations. They struggle with resources to deal with such dramatic environmental problems. China is facing many environmental challenges, but the society itself is not really conducive to support the civil society development in China.

Next: "I am very optimistic about the future of the environmental movement in China."