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Worldwide Locations

Zhou Xiang: Green Activism in China, 'The Grassroots Way'

Green Anhui director Zhou Xiang. (Asia Society Northern California)

Green Anhui director Zhou Xiang. (Asia Society Northern California)

Have you worked on any other Qiugang-like cases?

Yes: Wanggang village and Xiaogang village. We are still working on these cases. Their pollution is also very serious. They probably won't need to shang fang. We use the media. We pressure our local governments. Our main office is located in the capital of Anhui, Hefei. So we can broadcast to all of Anhui. Hefei is the highest, and with higher status, it is easier to govern the offices underneath. So because we work out of the capital, we know a lot of people in the government and in media. So the lower levels may have some concern.

So do your activities and the law system have a tight relationship? Does the legal system as it now exists suit your activities?

Yes, there is a very tight relationship. Why, at the end of the day, did the chemical company have to move? Because according to Chinese law, a chemical factory cannot have residents living within one kilometer of it. But the company was just 20 meters away. So it was violating the law and it was shut down. The legal system is very broad. We may need a few specific problem-solving methods. That is to say, we need specific environmental protection laws. So they are in the process of being written. Afterwards, they will be applicable and usable. But, China's standards need to be lower than, say, Europe's.

Why's that?

Because only if standards are low will companies be willing to build. For instance, today I went to Asia Pacific Environment Network in Oakland. They told me that a chemical company in Oakland closed and moved to Shanghai, due to Shanghai having lower legal standards.

State of Environmental NGOs in China

So to what extent do you represent a trend? How many environmental NGOs are in China, and where are they?

China's environmental NGOs over the past few years have started to increase in number. But most of what they do is education and training. They do not do things like what we did in Qiugang, because they think the issues are too sensitive. The other problem is that the groups are all very young — four years old or younger — and a lot of their staff is also pretty young. So they focus on education and training.

So our activities in Qiugang are not typical of all NGOs. It is not typical for us, either. We also mostly do education and training.

The number of NGOs in China will continue to increase because China has recently opened up registration. In the past, it was very hard to register because we had to go through multiple departments for permission. Now you just have to register with one bureau. It's like in the U.S., where if you want to become a 501(c) [non-profit classification], you register for it, and then you get certain tax benefits. This is now available in China, too. So lately regulations have loosened up a bit.

Most of all, NGOs in China need time. The need to build up experience. They only have a little money. Some only have one or two staff members – extremely small.

In the past year it became a new rule that if you receive foreign funding, you must get it notarized. Is this a problem?

As far as we're concerned, it's not a big problem, because we don't have to get notarized. For instance, the American Bar Association [a law-related NGO] gives us money to train environmental lawyers. And this is not a problem. As long as we write a report that says who we invite for training and what we are teaching, then it's fine. Once it has been approved, we can go ahead.