During my lull between jobs, I managed to attend an international forum for environmental non-governmental organizations in Wuhan, Hubei province. Participants included Chinese environmental NGOs and American NGOs. The idea of a non-governmental organization is still fairly new to China and still a little risky. The Chinese NGO’s were there to network with each other and also to ask for guidance from well established American organizations. (If you are familiar, Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund, and Natural Resources Defense Council were all present). While the presentations themselves were not overly enlightening, I came to understand a bit more about the problems facing NGO’s in China.
It became obvious in round table discussions (with translators) that China must obviously find their own method of building a non-profit, non-governmental sector. It was tempting for these budding, under-funded NGO’s to ask the comparatively wealthy American organizations for a step by step guide to success. However, the conversation repeatedly came to a halt when the Central Committee was mentioned. The Chinese government would likely thwart attempts to follow a similar development strategy.
Additionally I learned that most of the environmental threats are not rooted in policy from the central government, rather the local provincial and municipal governments. At the end of the day, Beijing can say what they want, but the mayors are going to make their cities prosper – and that usually includes bribes from industrial companies who ask for lax environmental restrictions in return. This came as a shock to me who held the ignorant vision of China as a completely centralized lumbering giant. As it turns out the central government struggles to keep their provincial appendages in check. In light of this, most environmental NGOs see this as their only niche. Most organizations are focusing on small, grass-roots, public participation projects rather than going for the impenetrable and enigmatic central government!
It was an eye opener for me. I also did a bit of networking with several NGO’s, took their name cards, and promised that my Chinese would be better in a year! Who knows where if anywhere that will lead, but it is good to keep options….even if they’re just in my head.