Environmental Activism in China

Environmental Activism


R.  O’Keefe

Economic Reforms & Environmental Consequences

Deng Xiaoping in 1979

When Deng Xiaoping took power in the late 1970s, he focused on reforming the economy and introducing many new ideals based on free-enterprise.  With a focus on de-collectivizing agriculture and improving productivity in the industrial sector, the economy began to take off at the expense of the environment.

A major part of Deng’s reforms was allowing the creation of township and village enterprises (TVE), which generated much of the country’s GDP, but were incredibly difficult to monitor. Though China’s modernization is similar to many other countries, such as the UK in the 19th century, policy changes in China have had a far greater impact on the environment due to the sheer size of the country.

A journalist takes a sample of the Jianhe River, which has become red from chemical plants illegally dumping untreated waste water directly into a local stream.
Image by allthatsinteresting.com
On January 12, 2013, air quality index levels in Beijing were so hazardous that they were beyond existing measurement.
Image by allthatsinteresting.com

Modern Environmental Activism

As a reaction to the destruction of the environment, a large activist movement began in the 1990s, focused on getting the Chinese government to recognize the effects of this time period on the environment and implement and enforce laws that help restore the natural environment. These movements had three parts that have allowed for the creation of a unique and effective environmentalist movement, environmental non-government organizations (ENGOS), student groups, and the media. 

Modern environmental reforms would have been much slower in their implementation if it was not for environmental activist groups pressing the government to make greater changes much quicker.

Environmental Non-Government Organizations

Environmental non-government organizations are the first type of environmental activist group that have had a great impact on environmental activism in China. These organizations have a range of sources and independence from the Chinese central government. The first environmental non-governmental organization was originally called the Academy for Green

The founders of the first environmental non-governmental organization, Friends of Nature.
Image by Liang Xiaoyan. China, 2010.

Culture, currently known as Friends of Nature . Friends of Nature, along with Global Village of Beijing and Green Home are the three “pioneering NGOs” in China, though there were over 2,000 in 2001 and a little over 7,000 in 2017 . However, in 2017, China passed a law that all foreign non- governmental organizations must register with the government, but just under 140 non-governmental organizations had registered as of April 8th.

Environmental non-governmental organizations come from many different sources of operations, ranging from government sponsored organizations, to student led organizations, to internationally led organizations. The roles that non-governmental organizations play in Chinese environmental governing strategy, and thus environmental activism are:

      • partnership with restricted political space
      • organization development with inadequate professional capacity
      • strong international financial reliance but with growing domestic support
      • public advocacy with low social recognition

as explained by Lei, Wang, and Wu in their article “The Role of Nongovernmental Organizations in Chinas Climate Change Governance.”

These four ways of partnership encapsulate the main reasons for the success of environmental non-governmental organizations in China:

      • the rise in power on non-governmental organizations
      • the Chinese government’s willingness to be “greener”
      • their complex international social relationships.

Student Activists

A protest in Kunming, Yunnan province, in May against a proposed chemical plant.

One subsection of non-governmental organizations that has seen particular success in the environmental sphere is student organized environmental associations (SEAs). When these organizations began to grow in the 1990s, they developed in three separate phases: the first steps phase, the reaching out phase, and the takeoff phase.


First Steps Phase

From 1990-1995, 12 university groups were founded, eight led by administrators, four led by students. The groups were founded for a variety of reasons, ranging from increasing connection between environmental science majors to wanting to increase awareness in the student body of environmental issues.

Reaching Out Phase

From 1996-1997, the organizations began to heavily push educational activities and discussions on their campuses. This programming led to an increase in awareness of environmental issues in the student body and administration.

Takeoff Phase

From 1998 until 2002, the number of student environmental organization exploded from 22 to 150 at 176 universities. This explosion led to greater communication between organizations in the same province and a greater connection with the local governments. The following map shows the cities in China that have ten or more SEA’s, as a result of the leap in environmental awareness during this period of growth.

                                 Cities in China with 10+ SEAs

Among these SEAs, Green Student Forum (Beijing), Greenstone, and Green SOS play the most active roles as information providers, SEA skill management exchange organizers, mini-grant distributors, and regional activity initiators.

The biggest issue that these groups are facing is a lack of resources, specifically funding, which prevents them from engaging with larger scale issues such as wetland preservation as they would like to. This means that they have to rely on local and domestic law makers to make large scale change, which generally does not move as quickly or in the direction that student environmental activist groups would prefer. The growing popularity and power of these student groups will prove to be a creator of environmental advocates in the future, growing the movement even further.

Technology and Environmental Activism

Other development that has vastly changed the landscape of environmental activism is the rise and improvement of media and the internet in China. There are four major benefits of using the internet in environmental activism: enabling activism without big financial obligations, increasing public visibility, raising environmental consciousness, and mobilizing the public.

Rise of the Use of the Internet in China.
Image by eMarketer.com.

The internet has allowed for the creation of different, less casual, groups and forums on the internet. These groups are much more difficult for the government and other researchers to track. In their article “Weaving a Green Web: The Internet and Environmental Activism in China” Guobin Yang traces the activities of four different web-based activist groups, two of which originated online, and the other two originated off of the web, evolving to mostly online activities.

A photo posted on the Greener Beijing bulletin to raise awareness of the drought of Dongting Lake
Image by Xinhua News Agency reporter Long Hongtao

The first of these groups is Greener Beijing, the primary feature of which is their bulletin board with over 2,700 members,. This bulletin board has been the jumping off point for real world activism projects, such as used battery drives, or launching national campaigns to save endangered species.

Similar to Greener Beijing, a group called Green-Web runs a similar bulletin board, however they run in-person events in public spaces in order to raise awareness of environmental issues. 

The more “offline” groups are Han Hai Sha and The Tibetan Antelope Information Center. The Han Hai Sha community engages in “virtual” volunteering, which essentially amounts to running online newsletters and promoting awareness of desertification in China.

A group of endangered Tibetan antelopes cross Wubei Bridge of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway in the Hoh Xil Nature Reserve
Image by Tibetan Antelope Information Center

The Tibetan Antelope Information Center runs their advocacy on the ground rather than on the web, but utilizes their websites to coordinate and communicate with their volunteers.

The changes in the use of the internet in China since the 1990s signals major change in Chinese society. First, it signals a greater way for citizens to practice collective action and protest in a way that is safer and more anonymous for them.  Additionally, it provides nationally registered organizations with a way to organize volunteers outside of their city, as they are not permitted to open branches in other cities outside of their home area. However, the internet in China is one of the most strictly regulated in the world, with their Internet Freedom score being 87/100, where 100 is the most restricted, according to freedomhouse.org.

China’s Internet Freedom Score
Image by freedomhouse.net


With Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2013, Chinese activism has taken a steep turn for the worse, with him believing that “civil society as a conduit through which dangerous Western ideas flow into China” as quoted by foreignaffairs.com.  Large environmental protests are extremely uncommon today, and those that do happen are often quickly  broken up by police. These actions from the government are an effort to release public tension by showing them that the government is making the correct choices for a better future and to build good faith. This will be a delicate balance for the Chinese administration to hold going forward, as public dissent will likely build up over time.