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Campaigning for Change: Greenpeace Celebrates Ten Years of Environmental Activism in China

Lo Szeping, Greenpeace China

Date & Time

Sep. 19, 2007
12:00pm – 2:00pm ET


By Linden J. Ellis

Greenpeace—an organization notorious for campaigns that are sharply critical of government and industry—has been active and quite successful in pushing its agenda in China for ten years. At this China Environment Forum meeting on September 19, 2007, Lo Sze Ping Campaign and Communications director at Greenpeace China described the ways that his nongovernmental organization (NGO) has carried out fairly influential activities in the areas of renewable energy, e-waste, forestry protection, and genetically modified foods by adapting its traditional strategies to fit the political situation in China.

Operating Environment
Lo Szeping noted that one major factor helping Greenpeace China has been the growing incentives the government faces to control environmental degradation. He opined that over the past 18 months China's top leaders have expressed growing concern and interest in addressing the dire environmental situation in the country. The motivation to act stems from the fact that pollution and environmental degradation costs are threatening economic growth, creating particularly serious problems in the poorer rural regions of the country. President Hu has portrayed himself as a defender of the poor and thus must demonstrate action on job protection, health, and a clean environment in rural China. Lo Szeping believes that growing international assistance and pressure on China to address environmental woes, particularly energy issues linked to climate change, have also played an important role in prompting the Chinese central government to act more aggressively on some environmental problems.

Despite these incentives, improvement of environmental quality in China is slow, rooted in major shortcomings in the country's environmental governance structure. Specifically, China's myriad of environmental problems is exacerbated by weak enforcement of regulations due to overly powerful local governments and a still insufficiently strong NGO community. Lo Szeping cited the recent Xiamen protests—in which between 7,000 and 20,000 people took to the streets against a planned chemical factory—as one telling example of the weakness of the green groups in China. As influential as this protest was in demonstrating vast public awareness of the environment, it is notable that NGOs were not involved in organizing the event. Thus, while there are several thousand Chinese green NGOs doing a lot of valuable work locally, Lo Szeping questioned whether a unified environmental movement yet exits in China.

Corruption and power of local governments are behind what Lo Szeping called the strong "fourth sector" in China—with the central government, markets, and NGOs making up the other three. Although the central government has been investing and prioritizing environmental protection and though civil society groups are growing in number, the overwhelming control of local governments over industries in their jurisdiction has meant few pollution controls and other "green" laws are adequately enforced. According to Lo Szeping, Greenpeace China tries to craft its campaigns to target this weakness in China's environmental governance structure, often by setting the stage for the central government to crack down on corrupt local officials and businesses. The success of this technique was most strikingly illustrated in the 2004 Greenpeace China campaign against the Indonesian-owned Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), which had been illegally logging in southwest China.

APP and New Kinds of Greenpeace Campaigns
Greenpeace China first opened an office in Hong Kong in 1997—the same year city rule shifted from the United Kingdom to Mainland China. Greenpeace China solidified its operation in Hong Kong and conducted outreach to the Mainland before opening offices in Guangdong and Beijing in 2002. Greenpeace China has been recognized as a positive force in China, receiving several national awards for being the most influential NGO in China. It stands apart from other green groups in China, for it is perceived as both an international and domestic NGO. Moreover, it is an NGO focused 100 percent on campaigns, rather than public education or project development as are most Chinese and international NGOs.

Unlike other Greenpeace offices, the one in China does not solely undertake bottom-up mobilization campaigns. Most of the time, the Greenpeace China office emphasizes educating and sometimes empowering central government actors with information and skills to strengthen the government's capacity to promulgate and better implement more progressive environmental policies. Another major difference in the Greenpeace China office is that it is restricted by Chinese law from forming a membership base as its counterparts in other countries do—it must instead rely solely on private donations from individuals and foundations. In order to have the greatest impact, Greenpeace China has chosen to focus its campaigns under four broad topics of agriculture, forests, toxic chemicals, and climate change.

One case in which Greenpeace China has been organizing the news media and public around a national cause has been genetically engineered (GE) food products. Back in 1997, when Greenpeace China began work in Hong Kong, the issue of GE foods was not debated in the Mainland and consumers were, in Lo Szeping's opinion, woefully under-informed on the topic. The campaign started with the very simple statement that European food companies operated in China with a double standard, selling GE foods in China even though they are illegal in the Europe. The years of Greenpeace China's successful campaigning has led to 200 international food companies committing themselves to exclude GE products in food they sell in China. Moreover, awareness has grown among the public so that in one recent news media analysis, 60 percent of those surveyed were skeptical of GE products.

Greenpeace China has also led a very different kind of campaign focused on educating Chinese energy policymakers on the value and feasibility of developing renewable energy in China. It helped connect Chinese central government policymakers responsible for energy policy with their counterparts in Europe to learn more about how the EU has crafted policies to successfully encourage renewable energy development. Greenpeace China was integral in shaping some policies and regulations linked to wind power in the early 2000s. However, Lo Szeping admitted that while making and changing regulations and laws are relatively easy, enforcement is tough due to the power and corruption of local governments.

Greenpeace China did carry out one campaign that directly attacked the problem of the corrupt "fourth sector" in Yunnan Province. In 2004, a local Chinese NGO in Yunnan tipped off Greenpeace China that APP was illegally logging trees in the province. Despite the 1998 timber ban, the Yunnan officials were turning a blind eye to the practice, for the company was bringing a lot of money into the province. Greenpeace China staff contacted the central government's Forestry Bureau, which was aware of the APP violations, but lacked the power to stop them. Greenpeace China subsequently kicked off a major news media and public awareness campaign and issued a research report on APP's deforestation in Yunnan. This research report sparked the Zhejiang Hotel Association to organize what is most likely China's first civil society boycott of a company's products based on its detrimental environmental activities. APP was the major paper product supplier for the Zhejiang Hotel Association members and the boycott led APP to sue for defamation. However, when the company discovered Greenpeace China had secured a central government official to testify against them in court, APP quietly dropped the lawsuit. The State Forestry Bureau also was also empowered to take some steps against APP and more strictly supervise its activities. Lo Szeping noted that it is generally easier for Greenpeace China to take on such a risky campaign that highlights local corruption, but ultimately more local Chinese NGOs could also draw national media attention to such lower-level government lawbreaking.

Relationship with Other NGOs
Greenpeace China operates in a grey area between an international and national NGO. Although the staff is all local Chinese, Greenpeace China is often viewed as an international NGO and local green groups do not always consider it a fellow NGO. However, the organization does work with Chinese NGOs on a regular basis, as equals rather than a "big brother" entity. They also conduct coalition-building with local NGOs on two fronts: water pollution and climate change; and work with other international NGOs to help build the capacity of local groups. In addition, Greenpeace China participates in sharing experiences with local NGOs to help everyone develop techniques for change.

Nevertheless, Greenpeace China sometimes is reluctant to work too closely with local NGOs for fear endangering them. However, with regards to the environmental activist Wu Lihong, who was arrested in the summer of 2007 in Wuxi, Greenpeace China did sign a petition with other NGOs demanding his release.

Successful Model
Greenpeace China's greatest asset is its willingness to adapt and try new tactics to fit each situation. With care and finesse, the organization has operated since 2002 in Mainland China with little negative reaction from the central government. Lo suggests that the best way to catalyze change in China's environmental governance system is to operate on the terms of the government they are trying to influence, as well as to focus on the economic gains of environmental improvement.


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China Environment Forum

Since 1997, the China Environment Forum's mission has been to forge US-China cooperation on energy, environment, and sustainable development challenges. We play a unique nonpartisan role in creating multi-stakeholder dialogues around these issues.  Read more

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