Amelie Van Den Bos is program coordinator for Global Village of Beijing (GVB), and she is helping to organize Earth Day 2000 in China.
Monday, 28 Feb 2000
This week Global Village of Beijing (GVB) is fortunate to have Denis Hayes, chairman of the Earth Day Network, as a guest. GVB is a Chinese non-governmental organization specializing in environmental education through media and community activities. Founded by Sheri Xiaoyi Liao in 1996, GVB is currently the coordinator for the China Earth Day Committee, a group made up of six Beijing NGOs. A series of Earth Day 2000 China activities begins this week with a launching ceremony to be attended by NGOs, journalists, students, scholars, government officials, and industry representatives.
Denis arrived in Beijing last night, weary from a long journey but ready to tackle his full China schedule. He checked into Room 2222 on the 22nd floor of his hotel, which we all took to be a good omen. Early this morning, we had a welcome breakfast for him, with the other members of the China Earth Day Committee: China Youth Development Foundation, World Wide Fund for Nature, China NGO Cooperation and Promotion Committee, China Environmental Journalists Association, and the Environmental Development Research Institute.
After a short press conference — attended by reporters from China Central Television (CCTV), China Environment Daily, China Youth Daily, and China Daily — Denis, the China Earth Day Committee, and several reporters proceeded to the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) to meet with its head, Mr. Xie Zhenghua. Denis and Mr. Xie discussed China’s environmental accomplishments, including legislation, model cities, eco-agriculture sites, and the government’s relationship to environmental NGOs and the media. Denis stressed the importance of energy-efficient technology as a means of environmental protection for China. At the end of the meeting, Mr. Xie promised his support and participation in Earth Day 2000.
By the time noon rolled around, we were on our way backwards in time to visit the former head of SEPA, Mr. Qu Geping, the current chairman of the Environmental and Natural Resources Protection Committee of the National People’s Congress of China. While fumbling with chopsticks and meat in slippery sauces, Denis and Mr. Qu had a frank conversation about China’s environmental shortcomings and the role of NGOs.
Qu: The NGO voice is not loud in China, but it is getting louder, especially in Beijing.
Denis: How loud a voice is necessary?
Qu: Sheri Liao’s voice is loud enough, and it is broadcast nationwide on CCTV, but there are few like her.
Sheri sure enough began to talk, using GVB’s work in “green communities” in Beijing as an example of Chinese NGOs’ work with the public. She explained that, right now, changing people’s daily habits is one of the most important ways to promote sustainable development in China. Yet NGOs need the government’s help to establish citywide garbage collection and recycling programs.
Mr. Qu concluded the meeting one and a half hours later with the announcement that he would accept Denis’s invitation to become an Earth Day Network Council member. It was the perfect ending to a very successful morning.
Tuesday, 29 Feb 2000
The large room was crowded with environmentalists of all kinds, making today’s Earth Day 2000 China Launching Ceremony an exciting, noisy NGO event. Located in the conference hall of the Beijing Environmental Education Center, there were inflatable toy globes hanging from the ceiling and brightly painted boards with environmental slogans in Chinese and English. Television cameras were all angled toward the center table, from which representatives of the China Earth Day Committee introduced the Earth Day 2000 China plans to the crowd.
Sheri Liao encouraged everyone to sign environmental commitment cards and energetically waved ones signed by environmental officials Xie Zhenghua and Qu Geping. Li Lailai of the Environmental Development Research Institute talked about the activities planned for Earth Week, the week immediately preceeding Earth Day. Other ceremony participants included Mr. Zhu Zaibao of Yueyang, Hunan Province, a septuagenarian Green Citizen Award winner and dedicated activist seeking to protect Dongting Lake. The youngest speaker by far was a 10th grade student from the Shanghai Youth Association, who said she was relieved to find that the commitment cards were printed on recycled paper. Other noteworthy people included representatives from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Earth Day 2000 Japan, Earth Day 2000 Korea, Friends of Nature, Women’s Federation, Consumer Rights Association, NGO Research Center, and Friends of the Earth Hong Kong.
The highlight of the morning came when three middle-school students from the Jiangongnanli green community sang the Chinese environmental song “Liu Gei Wo” at the end of the ceremony. Afterwards, everyone rushed up to the front of the hall to mingle, sign and drop off commitment cards, and get Denis Hayes’s signature and photo.
Following the launching ceremony was a press conference. Given the “Daily Commitment” theme of Earth Day 2000 China, many journalists were interested in what the U.S. is doing about its problem of overconsumption. As the largest developing country, China especially resents the fact that the richest 5 percent of the world’s population consumes 86 percent of the world’s resources, while the poorest 5 percent must live off of only 3 percent of the world’s total resources. Denis spoke about the U.S. Earth Day campaign and the need for people to be environmentally responsible all over the world.
Since Earth Day is a new phenomenon in China, the media had many questions about the creation of Earth Day and its achievements. In addition, journalists were curious about Denis’s personal lifestyle, his vision of the future, and his suggestions for China. The editor of China Environment News asked Denis if the Earth Day movement had cooled in the U.S. since 1970. Denis spoke about the ups and downs of American politics and the current internationalization of Earth Day.
Denis’s work with the media is only one example of his numerous exchanges in this last two days with people from various sectors in China, which are making his time in Beijing extremely worthwhile. More high-level communication of this kind is needed to further NGO development and environmental issues in China.
Wednesday, 1 Mar 2000
Fresh air at last! Today was the first time that all of Earth Day China’s guests had an opportunity to leave downtown Beijing for the snow-covered Chinese countryside. Kikuko Mizuno and Toshiya Hirose of Earth Day Japan, Choi Ye-yong and Jeong Mi-hyang of Earth Day Korea, two Global Village Beijing staff members, and I went on a hike on GVB’s 187-hectare piece of land, the site of the GVB Environmental Education Center. The area currently serves as the setting for environmental training programs targeted toward families, teachers, journalists, and NGOs. Still in its developmental stages, the Center will eventually feature green building and eco-farming models.
After eating lunch at a Duijiushi villager’s home, Earth Day Japan, Earth Day Korea, Denis Hayes, Sheri Liao, and I held the Earth Day 2000 Asia meeting. We sat on a kang (a raised brick platform heated from underneath which is found inside houses in the North China countryside) and discussed collaboration on Earth Day 2000 plans for all three countries.
Unfortunately, because of the countries’ political differences, groups’ funding issues, and histories of conflict, the cooperation attempt faced some tough challenges. In the end, China, Korea, and Japan ag
reed to work together on the Green Life Commitment, Environmental Survey, Air Check, and Bicycle Parade. To someone as young, naÃ¯ve, and foreign as I am, it was surprising to be part of a somewhat tense meeting of Asian NGOs who share a common goal.
It never ceases to surprise me how difficult it is for environmental NGOs in general to work together. While most NGOs in China speak supportively of each other, they rarely work together because they are part of a very small community and therefore in competition with each other for the same funds. In addition, every NGO has its own precious individuality, leader personality, and “face” it must keep up. On the international scene, these particular problems are exacerbated by the language barrier.
Despite the above-mentioned difficulties, NGOs in China are moving in the right direction. Today’s Earth Day 2000 Asia meeting and yesterday’s Launching Ceremony created some hope for future NGO cooperation in China and Asia. Denis’s presence lent weight and experience to the international collaborative efforts. Everyone will be sorry to see him leave tomorrow.
Although Denis was only in Beijing for three days, NGOs and journalists had the opportunity to be impressed by his patient and thoughtful manner. His genuine interest in others, positive words, diplomacy, and above all environmental knowledge left their mark on NGOs from all over the country. He wasn’t the 80-year-old radical that many Chinese expected, but instead a calm, rational man.
In the words of a Beijing University student who participated in the Launching Ceremony on Tuesday, “We hope that China will have many Denis Hayeses in the future — so many that we won’t be able to tell who the real one is!” My guess is that the growth of NGO environmental leadership and the growth of NGO capacity for cooperation will go hand in hand.
Thursday, 2 Mar 2000
Horns blaring, people getting out of their cars, everyone in a hurry with no choice but to let the precious minutes go by — a typical Beijing traffic jam. In the taxi on the way to see Denis Hayes and Earth Day Japan off this morning, I was stuck in this kind of traffic jam for about half an hour. At least it gave me time to reflect on the results of our Tuesday meeting with Mr. Zhou Dadi, president of the Beijing Energy Efficiency Center.
When Denis asked Mr. Zhou about the automobile and its future in China, Mr. Zhou began by talking about the past. Thirty years ago, most Chinese people rode bicycles, no matter the time, weather, or distance. In 1980, there were only 2 million vehicles in the entire country. Now there are 20 million vehicles. Every year, 1 million cars and minivans are produced in China.
Mr. Zhou proceeded to explain that in China, cars are very expensive. Prices are at least three times higher than in the West, due to import taxes rather than environmental disincentives. For example, a Toyota Camry in China costs 450,000 RMB ($56,250). In addition, car maintenance costs are estimated at 10,000 RMB ($1,250) per year, equal to the average annual salary.
So how can Chinese people afford cars? Half of the cars in China are purchased with government money for use by government officials. But in the future, it will be easier to own a car. Volkswagon and Honda have opened factories in China, and if China enters the WTO, the import tariff will drop by 20 percent.
Given this information, Denis wondered aloud about China’s perspective on renewable energy. In response, Mr. Zhou described the Great Leap Forward. In the late 1950s, Chairman Mao plunged the whole country into one of the greatest failed economic experiments in human history. The Chinese people were told to build blast furnaces and melt down everything from farm tools to cooking implements in order to increase steel production. Large numbers of rural workers abandoned their fields for the steel effort and caused an enormous drop in grain output. Combined with bad weather and the withdrawal of Soviet aid, the result of this experiment was a famine and the deaths of at least 30 million people. Mr. Zhou said that developed countries should not expect China to take the risk of leaping from the coal era toward renewable energy — the Chinese people have not forgotten the dangers involved when gambling with untested theories. Economically, China currently ranks seventh in the world, and it will not forfeit that standing lightly.
Concerned about China’s stance regarding renewable energy, Denis asked what China’s plans were: “Is anything beyond subways being considered as an alternative to the private car-based transportation system?” At this point, Mr. Chen Heping broke into the conversation and said that in the future the Chinese government wants to create a market for clean fuel and high-efficiency automobiles. From the government’s point of view, some of the main advantages of car-based transportation are that it requires less government initiative and promotes economic development. China is currently implementing higher auto emission standards and traffic management to make this system viable both in the present and the near future.
As I sat resignedly in the taxi and stared at the dim outlines of cars ahead, I couldn’t help but feel little hope. Burdened by history and an all-consuming desire for short-term economic gain, China’s transportation future seems to be without definite long-term plans. The carefree words of Mr. Zhou represent the general attitude of Chinese officials, asking the U.S. to act on its own advice before urging China to do so.
Friday, 3 Mar 2000
Telephones are ringing off the hook, and it’s hard for me to write this diary entry! This is the aftermath of the Earth Day 2000 China Launching Ceremony — journalists want more information and interviews, and they want them now!
Everyone at the office has bags under their eyes from a hard week that is almost over. We had a staff meeting to discuss Global Village of Beijing’s accomplishments and areas for improvement, then a banquet to celebrate everyone’s efforts. Sheri Liao went around the table, praising each of her staff members. The truth is that because non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are a recent phenomenon in China, it isn’t easy to get a group of people together who will bear the burdens of overwork and underpay for the environmental cause.
As I was explaining to the person who will eventually replace me, GVB is the largest Chinese NGO in Beijing, and it has been a struggle all the way. Although China has government-sponsored NGOs, GVB was formed independently from the government and registered with the Civil Affairs Bureau as a nonprofit company. GVB therefore must pay annual taxes, which are one of the deterrents to establishing independent NGOs.
Getting the money to operate a successful NGO and implement its programs is another challenge to NGOs in China. As the Chinese economic and legal systems do not yet accommodate NGOs, private donations from Chinese people to charity organizations are quite rare. Most of GVB’s funding comes from abroad, from international organizations like the United Nations and World Bank, and foundations like Global Green Grants and the Rockefeller Foundation. Finally, because many Chinese people have not heard about the existence of NGOs, we often have to spend at least half an hour legitimizing ourselves at the beginning of activities involving unfamiliar groups of participants. (People here often associate non-government with anti-government.)
Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean more and more NGOs aren’t being created. Part of GVB’s mission is to help other NGOs get on their feet by providing advice and, in a few cases, start-up funds. Because of China’s geographical size, population, environmental conditions, and political system, it is perhaps people in China who are most in need of the services offered by NGOs — raising public e
nvironmental awareness so people will act in an environmentally conscious way on the individual level and demand action from their government.
To survive, NGOs in China must seek partnerships with the government, create a solid base of media support, and develop international support. How can the international community help NGOs in China (in addition to providing funding)? They can provide sustainable NGO training, assist with NGO networking, and demand NGO participation at all levels of program exchange.
This week has shown how much NGOs in China are capable of accomplishing. They are ready to collaborate in celebrating the first countrywide Earth Day in China. As a result of the last two decades of economic reform, NGOs in China are on the rise. Indeed, they are absolutely necessary for China to address its overwhelming environmental problems and develop a new civil society