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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)

With regards to your NGO, or environmental NGOs in general, what political obstructions exist?

Our NGO manages to stay out of the fray, because we don't touch on politically sensitive issues. We don't get involved in political problems; we focus purely on environmental protection issues. There of course will be a little overlap of environment and politics. But we aren't left-leaning or right-leaning – we stay in the middle. Most of China's NGOs are going to be in the middle, or in the middle with a very slight leaning.

In terms of civic or personal freedoms in China, in particular Internet-related freedoms, have things been harder for you this year, or do these matters not affect you?

A lot of people say this year is a pretty strict year. But our set-up still has not been influenced. You probably know about the paraxylene (PX) incident in Dalian in August 2011? [A PX factory leaked its chemicals into the water supply of Dalian, igniting protests. In response, the government quickly shut down the factory and relocated it]. So I think it depends on the situation and what you are doing. Of course human rights issues are a little more difficult, whereas issues having to do with the environment are less so.

A top priority in the central government's current Five-Year Plan is environmental protection, so it must have a pretty supportive attitude toward environmentalism?

I wouldn't say they are very supportive. If certain matters become very prominent, then they may voice support. But if no one knows about an event, they won't pay attention to it.

So the role of activism by common peoples [in environmentalism] must be very big?

They have the most important role. But they also suffer the most.

You've said that Green Anhui was training community leaders. Can you explain how you identify community leaders and what methods you use to train them?

First, in towns, we will disseminate information about environmentalism, try to educate people, and also do some social activities. And then some people will stand up and say that they want to help out. These people tend to be teachers and principals, or older villagers – they are often the ones willing to help out. One training method is to hand out pamphlets which explain environmental law. It lists articles and regulations they can refer to if their environmental rights and interests are threatened. On the back of the pamphlet is our telephone number and the Environmental Protection Bureau's number, which they are encouraged to call if they are being harmed by pollution.

So you train these few people, and then they will...?

Bring power to the rest of the people. They will give a call to the Environmental Protection Bureau and say that such-and-such chemical company is polluting, and invite the ministers over to check it out.