China surpassed the United States this year as the world's top producer of carbon dioxide emissions. This came as no surprise given China's size, growth, and environmental record. According to the World Bank, 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China, and as many as 750,000 premature deaths occur in China each year due to water and air pollution. Although the country's civil society is similarly stifled, the Chinese environmental movement has taken great strides—and made great progress—in combating the harms of rapid development.
China's social entrepreneurs have taken up the environment as a principal concern, aided by international expertise and funding for a range of activities. The Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporation has partnered with design and engineering firm Arup to build the Dongtan eco-village on a marshy island off the coast of Shanghai. Dongtan, slated to sustain 500,000 people with renewable energy and emission-free transportation, could serve as a model for green development in other cities around the world.
To promote sustainable projects in China's already inhabited areas, New Ventures, a project of the World Resources Institute, funds Chinese businesses that focus on organic agriculture, clean technology, and renewable energy. And a group called Green Choice has used a State Environmental Protection Agency document to create a blacklist of polluting companies so that consumers can avoid selected products.
Eco-entrepreneurs can also be found in China's rural areas. Cao Hai Nature Reserve receives support from the Trickle Up Program and the International Crane Foundation to implement microfinance programs designed to encourage conservation through small business. The goal is community development that provides local farmers with alternative sources of income so as to decrease their dependence on behaviors that harm the Reserve, such as fishing, hunting, and land clearing. Rather than merely setting regulations, the Reserve now cooperates with farmers and allows them to develop their own solutions to the area's environmental problems, giving them business skills to create and run their own enterprises. This model has been used to develop more than 800 small businesses across China, and local governments have begun earmarking funds to emulate the process.
Nongovernmental organizations have been similarly effective at developing innovative methods to promote environmental awareness and participation across various sectors of society. Friends of Nature (FON), the oldest environmental NGO in China, stands out in this regard. FON organizes environmental camps through its Antelope Van project, a mobile classroom designed to bring eco-friendly projects to schools in China's rural areas and raise environmental consciousness among young people. FON also trains teachers to better promote environmental values in their classrooms, and has co-sponsored, along with Shell Foundation, contests for Chinese students to propose ideas for better environmental policies.
The organization's activities go beyond raising awareness. FON began discussions with Beijing's hotels in 2000 to implement green hotel certification in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. FON will also monitor and assess the environmental implications of the Olympics, and will be guiding Olympic visitors on environmental tours of Beijing's neighborhoods through a partnership with Green Map System, a New York-based civil society collaborative.
Green Map System opened a branch in FON's Beijing office in 2004, with dozens of volunteers coming together to map out the Shichahai area so that tourists and community members can explore the area's parks and lakes and find out where to rent bicycles and receive pedicab tours. The maps also include reminders of some of the consequences of rapid environmental changes, such as road congestion and deteriorating water quality.
FON, while an exemplar, is not the only organization engaged in this work. Despite constraints such as rigid registration processes and funding shortages, more than 2,000 environmental NGOs exist in China, not including those that skirt regulations by registering as for-profit entities, and unregistered student and community groups. These other groups work to educate journalists on environmental issues, engage with industries to create energy efficiency standards, and use technology such as text-messaging and blogging to steer clear of censorship regulations and spread awareness of environmental problems.
On the policy side, public outreach is having an effect. Environmental protests against dam construction and chemical plants have become more common, drawing tens of thousands of Chinese civilians. The government has been responsive. In January 2005, the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) halted construction of 30 infrastructure projects in 13 provinces pending more in-depth environmental assessments.
China's most recent five-year development plan allotted $175 billion to environmental protection and includes language about conserving resources and moving toward a recycling economy. The government has largely recognized the role NGOs can play in developing environmental policies and garnering the social capital needed to implement them. To this end, the Chinese Communist Party recently introduced a decree that orders public disclosure of official information regarding environmental issues, a move that will allow citizens to petition the government to release such information.
Despite these trends, the environmental movement should not be confused with systemic political reform in China. Instead, these activities have been labeled "advocacy with Chinese characteristics" (a reference to the country's open door economic policy, "socialism with Chinese characteristics"). The government's receptiveness to the work of environmentalists can be seen more as a means of making the country's development sustainable.
In 2000, Jiang Zemin introduced the policy of "Three Represents," which describes China's progress as dependent on upholding the values of economic production, cultural development, and political consensus in China. This was widely interpreted as the CCP's acceptance of the ability of capitalists and private entrepreneurs to spur economic development. While the government is now adjusting its economic policies to better accommodate public opinion on the environment, it remains to be seen whether more accountability will emerge when entrepreneurs with greater access to information have other social objectives in mind.