Introduction to Civil Society Organizations and Energy

Overview of Civil Society Organizing in China

The involvement of civil society actors, NGOs, communities and workers, in China’s energy development must be understood in the wider context of civil society organizing within China more generally.

Despite the increasing economic prosperity in China, and the related urbanization process, which is benefiting large numbers of people and welcomed by many, there is also a growing public reflection and criticism relating to problems, conflicts and challenges relating to the current “model of development”. In particular, and of great relevance to a discussion of energy, there are increasing problems and conflicts associated with the massive urbanization (or perhaps better to say “de-ruralization”) process that is both a driving force of, and also a result of, China’s rapid economic growth. These problems include issues related to inequality, food safety, land and resources confiscation, environmental pollution, health, education, employment and work. Much of the criticism is rooted in the lack of popular participation in, and information about, political and economic decision making in the key areas that affect peoples’ lives. This criticism is resulting in many new grassroots and non-governmental organizations that are active on the issues. Media discussion and investigative reporting also play a big role, as do informal online fora. One important example is Sina Weibo, a Chinese social networking tool with over 500 million registered users. Organizations are having important successes in their work, especially in campaigns at specific individual locations and on specific issues.

There is a widespread perception, at least coming from some of the more visible NGOs and civil society organizations, that, despite the problems associated with China’s development model, there is also a certain inevitably to it all. Consequently, while it is becoming increasingly possible to talk about particular issues in a critical way, it nonetheless remains very difficult to talk of alternative models of development. These are seen as either not possible, or not desirable. However, it is important to recognize that the current model of development is the result not of some kind of intangible inevitable force, but of collective human and political decisions and the long term structures that such decisions have created. One important example is the political decision for China to join the WTO, a decision which resulted in a significant intensification and acceleration of China’s economic development and the social and political changes that this entailed.

As such, this emerging discussion about the core question of what kind of development is possible and desirable, and where this development leads to, also has its limitations. It is a politically difficult discussion and more critical voices are not being encouraged and do not easily get heard on this issue. While limited critique is increasingly accepted, and even in some ways encouraged, by the Chinese government, if the critique starts to seriously question the model of development, to take on a more explicitly political dimension that is rooted in class analysis of social and political relations, people face repression or attempts to discredit their arguments. Similarly, attempts to link the local campaigns and struggles on a more regional, national or cross-sectoral level are likely to be subject to repression. Another important factor is that China’s size and cultural, linguistic and geographical diversity also present big organizational challenges at both the practical level and also the strategic and analytical level.

Also, another important feature of the NGO landscape, which is perhaps slowly changing, is that NGOs are mainly (though not exclusively) made up of urban intelligentsia. For the most part, they are not made up of affected communities and workers directly. As in many countries, when affected communities and workers self-organize autonomously to defend their rights, they are generally quickly repressed. It is very difficult for them to build lasting organizations and to protest on a more political level, rather than just limiting their demands around compensation, payment of wages, health and safety issues etc. Only a few organizational efforts survive longer than for brief spontaneous protests. However, importantly, in the last few years, especially in the context of the world’s economic crisis, there has also been a major upsurge in “mass incidents” involving workers, and the level of political critique involve appears to be increasing. Notably, this has included “incidents” in key economic sectors such as the automobile sector, or the electronics and computer sectors.

Environmental Civil Society Organizations and Energy in China, including Chinese and Non-Chinese Organizations

All of this is important for understanding dynamics in relation to energy, and environmental politics more generally. Environmental NGOs and other civil society organizing are becoming increasingly vocal and influential in China. The activities of environmental NGOs, which go back to the 1990s especially, have had considerable impact on policy makers, and the central government is becoming increasingly active in promoting environmental awareness through large-scale public awareness campaigns. Environmental issues have a growing centrality in the country’s 5 Year Plans. In particular, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) has been quite supportive and receptive to civil society activities, concerns and recommendations. However, this level of receptivity is not always replicated either by other central government structures and bodies, or by regional and local government bodies. Although it is widely acknowledged and accepted that environmental NGOs are increasing in both numbers and influence in China, there is strong disagreement about how politically significant this change actually is.

Public environmental awareness in Post-Mao China has increased in the last three decades, especially in relation to nature conservation (including rivers and endangered species of animals), and more recently struggles against pollution from industrial development, and in relation to some of the negative social-environmental impacts of certain development projects. Of particular importance here has been the question of large hydropower dams, and the social dislocation and displacement they cause. A major campaign issue in this respect was the Three Gorges Dam, but other dams have also sparked important grassroots organizational processes. The 2008 Olympic Games were also an important rallying point for environmental organizations. In general terms, environmental NGO organizing has gone through two important phases in recent years. The first period involved key individual activists, together with small numbers of scientists and professors and influential books. This was the main pattern from the 1980s and into the mid-1990s. Since then, there has been a major shift towards public awareness-raising on a larger scale, with a view to building popular campaigns and activism around environmental justice issues. An emphasis on public education, also involving large numbers of journalists and major efforts directed at the media, as well as work with local communities, has had an important impact on policy makers, both at the national and local level. Important historically significant, organizations include Friends of Nature (FoN), Green Earth Volunteers, Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs, and Green Watershed. In 2002, Chinese environmental NGOs participated in the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. This marked the first major participation from Chinese environmental NGOs in a global governance forum related to the environment. Since then, participation in international fora, like those in relation to climate change and the BRICS talks (most recently in South Africa), has become more important for Chinese environmental NGOs. Some Chinese NGOs and progressive individuals also participate in the World Social Forum. China-Dialogue is an important civil society organization that encourages international dialogue on issues relating to environmental issues in China.

Environmental activism has now extended beyond major cities, and many hundreds of organizations exist in different locations throughout all provinces of the country. Many of these are voluntary, charitable, educational, or relief organizations. The interconnections between different groups and organizations have grown, and wide-spread campaigns and movements are becoming more frequent. All of this has resulted in building some kind of collective identity amongst environmental organizations, based around shared memories and experiences in which organizations have gone through a learning process together. This includes understanding where the limits lie as to what is and what is not possible in the Chinese political and economic context, and what levels of criticism and protest the government will accept and respond to within the realm of criticism and dialogue, and what level of critique, organization and mobilizations will instead provoke major repression. In many ways, this has been a process of trial and error, and experimentation. As occurs in most countries, different organizations approach the multiple challenges in different ways: some are obviously more critical than others. Some take on a more autonomous and confrontational role and are prepared to discuss unequal power relations, whilst others opt for a more cautious approach within the quite narrow, and non-critical space that is safely permitted by the government without leading to serious repression. Different organizations also have very different levels of resources and funding.

It is within this environmental NGO landscape that energy needs to be understood. Despite the fact that energy is a vital issue in China, is of central importance to government, industrial and commercial policy, and affects everyone’s daily lives, it is not actually widely or critically discussed in public. For the most part, environmental civil society organizations are doing much work that directly relates to energy. This may be due to the centralized structures and certain lack of transparency within the energy sector, which results in lack of public information, awareness and analysis. People are often quite powerless to either learn about or influence decisions relating to the energy sector. However, many of the environmental NGOs do touch on energy issues in some way, as and when energy has become relevant to their work. Organizations such as Friends of Nature, Green Earth Volunteers and Green Watershed stand out as among the few Chinese NGOs that are doing important monitoring, information sharing, campaigns and advocacy work that specifically relates to energy. Another important organization that engages in important information sharing is Moving Mountains.

On the other hand, while Chinese NGOs may not be doing too much work on energy, there is an enormous proliferation of international and foreign NGOs and other actors who are working extensively on issues relating to energy in China. These organizations are either working in China directly or working outside of China, but on issues relating to China. There is a strong presence in China of some of the well-known international environmental NGOs, such as World Wildlife Fund (WWF), or Greenpeace, or some of the major North American NGOs, such as the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Important foreign think-tanks, foundations and discussion fora around energy include institutions such as Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, World Resources Institute (WRI), Energy Foundation, and the Beijing Energy and Environment Roundtable (BEER), amongst others. There is also a strong presence of foreign governmental agencies, such as the Danish and German technology transfer agencies, especially, but not only, in relation to renewable energy technologies. This includes GIZ (German Society for International Cooperation) from Germany, and the Sino-Danish Renewable Energy Development Programme. Finally, there is an important presence of institutions tied to foreign political parties, such as the Heinrich Boell Foundation that is tied to the German Green Party, and more recently the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation, tied to the German Left Party, has opened an office. Both foundations are working on issues relating to energy and climate change in China. There are also a number of foreign think-tanks/research centres operating outside of China, which do major research on energy and energy related issues in China, as well as individual researchers in universities.  Such research centres include: the China Energy Group at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the USA; Chatham House/Royal Institute of International Affairs in the UK; the Institute of Energy Economics in Japan; the Energy Studies Institute at the National University of Singapore; and the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development (PESD) at Stanford University in the USA. The international campaigning organization, International Rivers is also very active on issues relating to energy in China.

All of these non-Chinese organizations and institutions are very active on issues relating to energy (and climate change) in China; often much more active than Chinese NGOs themselves. Their presence has had a major impact, both in terms of shaping the debate and also shaping the organizational culture and approach. In addition to NGOs, there is also a widespread presence of foreign think tanks, commercial and entrepreneurial groupings, individual researchers, and also bilateral government-to-government development cooperation agencies, as well as foundations tied to foreign political parties. It is not immediately clear how influential these are. However, many of them are extremely high profile, and appear to be positively received and highly influential, both in terms of popular awareness raising and discussion, and also in terms of influencing policy makers in government.

The wide variety of both Chinese and foreign/international NGOs, foundations or other civil society organizations working on energy related issues in China collectively provide wide-ranging data and analysis of China’s energy sector. In particular, their main focus is on technical, environmental and policy issues and their work includes extremely detailed and reliable research, analysis and documentation, as well as policy recommendations. Some of their work is more specialist and others is more aimed at broad popular awareness-raising. While not all organizations are working on all fields of energy, their cumulative expertise covers most of the main branches of the energy sector. Much of the material on this website has been produced by these organizations. However, a word of caution is also in order. Many NGOs do very important work, but do not have a website. And, of the ones that do have a website, most only have a Chinese language site, making it somewhat difficult to compile meaningful information for a non-Chinese readership.

Political Challenges for Organizations Working on Energy

However, despite the fact that these organizations are doing excellent work on energy, most of them do not venture very deeply into the realm of political analysis and critique that examines the social, political and economic relations which define the country’s energy sector. Either they do not see this as their role or they are hesitant to do so for reasons of political expediency.

As already mentioned, there is a widespread involvement of foreign/international NGOs, think-tanks and foundations in China’s energy. Many of these organizations and institutions are very close to corporate, government and political party structures in their home countries. Some of these organizations claim to be civil society organizations, but work closely with the World Bank and support its work. Others present the image of being grassroots non-governmental organizations, but are actually entrepreneurial groupings that are closely linked to the private sector. Some organizations are Chinese, but have a very heavy reliance on foreign donors for funding. Some organizations give the impression that they are Chinese, but on closer examination can be seen as being from the USA or Western Europe.

An interesting, and perhaps striking, feature of the organizational landscape is the apparent lack of influence of “system critical” perspectives that root their analysis in an understanding of capitalism, class-relations and China’s own history of anti-imperialist communist struggle. Apparently, there is a widespread acceptance of some of the more depoliticized methodologies and approaches that are common amongst many Northern-based mainline environmental groups, and the intellectual framework is generally supportive of, or at least unquestioning of, market based technocratic solutions. At the same time, there seems to be lack of awareness of and engagement with many of the more critical and politicized perspectives that are being promoted in relation to energy and climate change by many social, environmental and community movements in Southern countries. Very few of the organizations which are working on energy related issues in China are working on community issues and the question of land rights, workers in the energy sector, or energy access are topics that are scarcely talked about at all.  Their efforts are mostly rooted in a lobby-based and advocacy approach, rather than the more risky strategy of grassroots self-organizing of affected communities and workers that questions power relations in a more direct manner. Instead, their political perspectives are very much orientated towards seeking technological reforms within the framework of existing social, political and economic relations and institutional processes. Another feature is that relatively few discussions exist that seek to pose the question of building alternatives to an energy model based on continually increased (mainly fossil fuel based) energy production and consumption.

More critical and more autonomous organizations do exist, and younger activists are increasing linking environmental questions to issues of equity and justice and public participation. However, those organizations bringing social critique to an analysis of the energy sector are very noticeably in the minority. In fact, it is very noticeable that the foundations, which are closer to governmental and business agendas (either domestic Chinese ones, or foreign) are so far much more active on the question of energy than NGOs that are associated with critical public awareness campaigns and protests.  Some of the notable exceptions to all of this are in relation to hydropower, where there is a strong focus on the rights of displaced and adversely impacted communities and a stronger critique of the actual model of development.  Dam activists have networked and participated in regional and international meetings, often involving direct south-south networking of directly affected communities. The international network International Rivers is also working a lot on the social and environmental impacts of large dams in China, and regional networking and educational processes also occur in relation to the Earth Rights International Mekong School. NGOs  working in relation to coal also show strong awareness and interest in the environmental impact of coal, its health impact on communities, and also (at least to some degree) on the question of worker safety in the mines. In particular, Greenpeace is doing very informative and influential work on coal.  There are some critical discussions emerging about the safety and environmental concerns relating to nuclear energy, especially in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan. There have been international information exchanges to learn about the situation with nuclear energy in Germany, including from organizations such as the Friends of Nature and the Heinrich Boell Stiftung, and some student groups have held protest vigils to mark the anniversaries of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Ukraine. At least one nuclear plant in China was delayed in construction due to local opposition. There are also growing campaigns in Hong Kong against nuclear energy in nearby mainland China, both from international NGOs working in Hong Kong, such as Greenpeace, and also Hong Kong-based NGOs such as Globalization Monitor or No Nukes Hong Kong. However, there appears to be little civil society organizing in China about oil, although Greenpeace were active in the aftermath of the large oil spill in Dalian in 2010, and Moving Mountains also provides an important information service relating to oil in China.

However, for the most part, most of these organizations operate within the limits of accepted criticism, voicing criticisms on particular issues, but without offering a more politicized systemic critique that is rooted in class analysis of society. Some of the more interesting groups are attempting to challenge these dominant depoliticized approaches, and to create a stronger level of political critique, including promoting South-South networking and perspectives rather than just relying on north-American and western European NGO approaches.  In terms of class politics, it is important to consider what worker organizations are doing in relation to the energy sector.

The main official trade union in China is the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). This organizes workers in all branches of the Chinese economy, including the energy sector. There is currently great debate in the international trade union movement about what type of relationships are appropriate to build with the ACFTU. Both of the international trade union federations, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) currently have relations with the ACFTU and recognize it as a legitimate trade union. Others in the international labour movement are more critical of such relations, claiming that the ACFTU is too close to the Chinese government and is not a legitimate and autonomous worker organization. As outsiders, it has not been very easy for us to learn about the ACFTU’s specific involvement in the energy sector, and with energy workers, and we have no specific information about this. However, we are aware that the ACFTU recently participated in the 2nd Congress of the World Federation of Trade Unions, Trade Union International on Energy, which took place in Venezuela in 2012.

There are many important worker rights organizations in Hong Kong that do support-work for workers in mainland China. Their main focus is on issues relating to labour rights including health and safety and wages. In addition to supporting workers in China, some of them are also involved in regional and international networking on workers’ issues. These organizations include: Asia Monitor Resource Centre (AMRC); Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM); Globalization Monitor (which works on a range of social and environmental issues, including but not limited to, worker issues); the IHLO which is the Hong Kong Liaison Office to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the Global Union Federations (GUFs). There is also the China Labour Bulletin, but this organization faces more difficulties from the Chinese political authorities than the other organizations.  These organizations, which do not share a consensus amongst themselves with regard to the most appropriate approach to have in relation to the All China Federation of Trade Unions, are all doing important work to support workers in China, raise awareness, do research, lobby government and building international solidarity campaigns. However, owing to their distance from mainland China and workers there, they lack a strong basis amongst workers themselves. They are definitely support and advocacy organizations for workers, rather than self-organizing trade unions of workers.

For the most part, the Hong Kong labour organizations do not focus much on energy sector workers, except on a case-by-case instance where it happens to coincide with their work.  There have been some reports written about coal miners, and also about workers in the factories where batteries for electric cars are made. Extensive work has been done in relation to the energy intensive manufacturing sectors, such as the automobile, textile, computer and electronics sectors, as well as about construction workers. Although the building sector is an energy intensive sector, the actual labour process in the construction sector is not a very high-energy consumer. However, most of the work that the Hong Kong labour organizations have done in relation to these sectors relates very specifically to more general health and safety issues and wages, rather than to energy specifically. Some general histories of workers struggles in the last two decades do include information about struggles in the coal sector, as well as in the oil industry (especially related to the strikes in response to the restructuring of Daqing oil fields and the oil industry more generally), as well as the energy intensive metallurgy plants which were the site of big struggles in the 1990s when these sectors were being restructured. Many of the organizations also provide news about ongoing worker conflicts, and this has included reporting incidents of sporadic protests that have involved energy sector workers. Examples of this include news of coal and/or land conflicts, or worker incidents in mining communities, or taxi and truck drivers protesting rising fuel prices, or a recent mass protests that led to the closure of a solar panel manufacturing plant due to the pollution that it caused. However, most such protests are one off protests and largely “spontaneous” rather than “organized in advance”, neither originating from NGO efforts, nor leaving lasting organizations in their wake.  So far, it appears that no organizations are working on questions concerning the growing number of workers in China’s rapidly expanding renewable energy sector. This may be due to a number of reasons. On the one hand, work conditions in the sector may actually be relatively good, although this may not in fact be the case, we do not have any concrete information about working conditions in the sector. On the other hand, the geographical location of most of the renewable energy installations and factories is far from Hong Kong. This is an issue that needs further research and analysis.