Climate Change and Conflict By Robert Mizo  |  24 June, 2022

Civil Society, Climate Action, and the State in China

Image:  THINK A / Shutterstock

Civil societies are key actors in the fight against climate change. They provide a fillip where state agencies and intergovernmental processes lag and have the potential to hold these actors accountable in the fight against climate change. The People’s Republic of China, despite all its trappings of being a communist authoritarian state, has allowed a considerable yet well-defined space for environmental civil society organisations, including those working on climate change. Climate Civil Society Organisations have sprung up over the past two decades or so with ambitious goals for addressing the issue of climate change.  However, a closer study reveals that their impact remains limited due to the contained nature of the political space which they occupy.

Civil societies were vibrant and popular in pre-revolutionary China. There existed various types of civil society organisations founded on political, social, and religious lines – through to the outright criminal. However, the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s marked the almost complete destruction of autonomous civil society in China. The few monochrome civil society organisations that continued to exist, such as the All-China Federation of Trades Unions, the All-China Women’s Federation, and the Communist Youth League of China, functioned primarily to transmit the Party’s message rather than to challenge its policies. Civil society organisations regained some space in the liberalisation era of the 1970s with the introduction of decentralization and market competition which challenged state centralism. Environmental organisations and civil society bodies on climate change grew against this backdrop and enjoyed broader political space in comparison to those fighting for democracy and human rights which were (and still are) seen as ‘trouble-makers’ by the Communist Party.

Further, the functioning of NGOs in China is governed through three administrative regulations promulgated in the late 1980s, namely the Registration and Management of Social Organisations, the Registration and Management of Foundations, and the Interim, for the Administration of Foreign Chambers of Commerce in China. These regulations created a two-tiered management system under which NGOs were to have a government agency as their sponsor, and the sponsoring agency was to supervise the NGO’s day-to-day activities, and annually review the work of its affiliated NGOs. The 2016 Overseas NGO Management Law imposed police supervision over the work of foreign NGOs.

The relationship between the state and environmental civil society organisations in China is defined by the policy paradigm of ‘authoritarian environmentalism’. This model of environmental governance allows public participation in policy making to only a limited cadre of scientific and technocratic elites while others are expected to participate only to aid in the implementation of state-organised programmes or policies. Climate policy making in China is under the exclusive prerogative of governmental agencies and mechanisms such as the five-year plan, command and control regulation (traditional environmental governance), the Ministry of Environment and its provincial agencies, and the National Development and Reform Commission.

However, despite the evidently limited space for public participation in policy initiation, since the inception of the first such organisation in 1994, known as the Academy for Green Culture, later renamed as Friends of Nature, there have now emerged more than 2000 environmental NGOs.  Today, a host of climate change civil society organisations function under the umbrella organisation of Climate Action Network China. This includes organisations such as the China Association for NGO Cooperation, China Youth Climate Action Network, Friends of Nature, The Environmental and Development Institute, Global Village Beijing, Green Earth Volunteers, Xiamen Green Cross Association, to name a few. The work of these organisations is primarily limited to policy implementation, awareness campaigns, education and research, and other functions which form part of what is known as ‘downstream activism’.

NGOs working on climate change, particularly those embedded and operating within the state structures, have however been able to affect policy making in a few instances. This depends on factors such as proximity of the organisation to the establishment, and the nature of the policy issue in question. The 2004 ‘26 degrees Campaign’ initiated by a group of ENGOs, which led the state council to pass a law mandating that all air-conditioners in all public buildings in China should be set to no less than 26° Celsius in summer and no higher than 18° Celsius in winter, is one of the best examples of civil society engagement in policy change. The China Business Council for Sustainable Development (CBCSD) develops guidelines for greenhouse gas emissions accounting, which have been recognised and adopted as the national standard. The Innovation Centre for Energy and Transportation (iCET) has cooperated with the National Standardization Administration on the design of national fuel standards for the transport sector in 2017. In 2014, environmental NGOs called for climate change adaptation measures to be included in China’s 13th Five-Year Plan 2016-2020; the Government accepted and incorporated their demand.

Civil society engagement in climate change has been more vibrant in downstream activism, which is also encouraged by the state. Some popular movements include the Green Commuting Network,  jointly organised by the China Association for NGO Cooperation (CANGO) and the US based Environmental Defense Fund, which aims at raising awareness about restricted car use, promoting low carbon metro cards, and online carbon calculators. There are ongoing Low Carbon and Rural Eco-Villages projects in the Sichuan Province run by Global Village of Beijing with the primary goal of sustainable and low carbon rural development. Sanshui Conservation Centre has carbon offsetting programmes such as the Forest Carbon Projects, and has developed an Energy Consumption and Carbon Emission Measurement.  The China Civil Climate Action Network (CAN-China) is a network of climate change civil society organisations which promotes information sharing and initiates joint climate action. These are just a few examples among the many ongoing movements and programmes, which demonstrate that climate activism in China is far more visible in policy implementation than in policy making.

Looking ahead, it can be argued that the impact of climate change activists in contributing to the fight against climate change can be made more effective by infusing into the policy matrix the concept of environmental democracy. It would require the wider availability of certain procedural rights such as access to information, public participation in decision-making processes, and access to justice in environmental matters. The current rigid top-down policy making mechanism should give way to an alternative, bottom-up approach, which would ensure mass participation, transparency, and accountability in environmental governance.

Robert Mizo is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delhi, Kamala Nehru College. He holds a PhD from the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi in Climate Change Policy studies. His research interests include Climate Change and Security, Climate Change Politics, and International Environmental Politics. He has published and presented on the above topics at both national and international platforms.