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China's Green Activists Could Change Political Culture


China's new environmental movement is slowly making an impact in one of the world's most polluted countries. Experts say environmental groups are at the vanguard of China's new civil society and they could emerge as a powerful voice for change in communist politics.

Planting trees is still not as popular as playing basketball. And recycling hasn't replaced video games, but among China's high school and college students environmental activism is starting to take root.

Experts agree that as the movement grows it could radically alter China's political landscape.

Guobin Yang, a political science professor at the University of Hawaii, says the emerging green movement is about more than just clean air and water. Environmental groups are training a new cadre of independent activists who could drive change for years to come in a country tightly controlled by the Communist Party.

"This is going to be a new generation of active citizens in China," said Yang. "These organizations by involving these people in their work, it provides a sort of training in civic participation, which is one of the most important values of a democratic society."

Ten years ago there was not a single private environmental group in China. Today, more than 100 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) run programs throughout the country. There are thousands more government-sponsored agencies and countless unofficial grass roots groups, including hundreds of student clubs at China's leading universities.

The activities are varied but tend to focus on local, community-based problems.

Beijing-based Friends of Nature has developed a new school curriculum to encourage rural students to appreciate and protect local forests. Another NGO, Global Village China, helps communities clean heavily polluted rivers and streams.

Hong Kong-based environmentalist John Wong says the NGOs are helping change people's attitudes in China.

"They see the problem now," he said. "In the past no individual has to take responsibility because everything is state controlled. It's changed now. They are prepared to face the problems."

As a result, he says, the groups are increasingly willing to hold local governments accountable for protecting the environment.

Twenty years ago this sort of direct confrontation with local authorities would have been unheard of. But in today's political climate, Mr. Wong says Beijing actually encourages the environmental movement to help root out corruption and enforce China's new pro-environment policies.

"They see that our contribution, they see the impact, the role NGO can play, and also they act as some sort of monitor for the central government," he said.

Beijing's support reflects a change in central government policy. In the early 1990s, China's environmental problems began to attract negative worldwide publicity and Beijing moved to address concerns with a series of progressive new environmental regulations.

But provincial governments failed to enact the new policies and Beijing lacked the manpower to go after every local politician.

So in 1994 Beijing introduced new measures that allowed for the creation of environmental NGOs. The purpose was to develop a network of independently funded and highly motivated groups that could help spread the central government's environmental agenda throughout the country.

Seen as political allies, the environmental groups were given far more independence than other private organizations.

But Mr. Yang says some conservative politicians in Beijing think the new environmentalists could become too independent for the Communist Party's tastes.

"These organizations are slowly developing a sort of organizational base for Chinese civil society, and this is crucial because these organizations may develop into powerful organizations, some of them extremely vocal in ways that are not very welcome to government officials," he said.

But right now, Mr. Yang adds, the activists are still focused on fresh air and clean water. They have their work cut out for them. The World Health Organization says that seven of the world's 10 most polluted cities are in China.