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Year : 2008  |  Volume : 6  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 141-153

Urban Environmentalism and Activists' Networks in China: The Cases of Xiangfan and Shanghai

1 Policy Studies Institute, 50 Hanson Street, London W1W 6UP, UK
2 College of Humanities and Development, China Agricultural University, No. 2, Yuanmingyuan West RD, Beijing 10094, Peoples Republic of China and International Development Studies, Faculty of Spatial Sciences, University of Groningen, Dierenriemstraat, 100, 9742 AK, Groningen, The Netherlands

Correspondence Address:
Lei Xie
Policy Studies Institute, 50 Hanson Street, London W1W 6UP, UK

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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0972-4923.49208

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Date of Submission10-Feb-2008
Date of Decision10-Apr-2008
Date of Acceptance02-May-2008
Date of Web Publication26-Jun-2009


Despite China's repressive environment, the public, organised by environmental non-governmental or­ganisations (ENGOs), are represented in local environmental governance; their voices are articulated and policy-making is affected. Empirical findings from ENGOs in two Chinese cities demonstrate that envi­ronmental activism is not an activity with a fair degree of autonomy and self-regulation, but occupies a social space that is enmeshed in a web of interpersonal relations and informal/formal rules between po­litical and social actors. Contextual factors of economic development, openness of the political system and local culture also have impacts on movement dynamics in different locations.

Keywords: environmental movement, personal network, ENGOs, campaign, China

How to cite this article:
Xie L, Ho P. Urban Environmentalism and Activists' Networks in China: The Cases of Xiangfan and Shanghai. Conservat Soc 2008;6:141-53

How to cite this URL:
Xie L, Ho P. Urban Environmentalism and Activists' Networks in China: The Cases of Xiangfan and Shanghai. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2008 [cited 2020 Jan 21];6:141-53. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2008/6/2/141/49208

   Introduction Top

SINCE THE MID-1990S, a blossoming of environmental non-governmental organisations (ENGOs) has been wit­nessed in China. By participating in ENGOs and various citizen groups, the public has begun to play an increas­ingly critical role in Chinese environmental governance at various levels. While data are mostly unreliable and vary widely, some believe that until 2005, approximately 2000 environmental groups were officially registered as NGOs, with probably as many registered as for-profit business entities or not registered at all (Ho 2001; Econ­omy 2005). The significant amount of unregistered envi­ronmental social organisations reflects the government's rather ambiguous attitude toward NGOs.

In terms of movement strategy and movement devel­opment, coordinated actions that are not completely in line with or fully supported by the government are diffi­cult to be made. Special tactics are needed in protesting and campaigning activities that include using key figures and leaders' personal networks (Xie & Mol 2006). This strategy seems crucial in organising environmental cam­paigns and obtaining various resources. While in the early stages of ENGO development (i.e. in the late 1960s and 1970s) in Western societies, personal and individual networks were also highly relevant as resources for movement formation, the fact that a large number of Chi­nese ENGOs rely strongly on personal connections of their leaders or key figures is not unlike their Western counterparts.

Yet, several key questions concerning Chinese envi­ronmental activism remain unclear. How do the environ­mental movement actors in China establish coordinated actions? Particularly, what role do personal networks play in this process? How do movement actors interact with political authorities and generate social influence in China's current political conditions? This article intends to analyse the characteristics of the Chinese environ­mental movement in terms of their organisational devel­opment and strategies. A comparative study of two Chinese cases is conducted to illustrate the dynamics of environmental activism and how they are affected by the social contexts based on their location.

   Formalisation and the Formation of the Chinese Environmental Movement Top

Major social movement theories have raised different views on social movement organisations' (SMOs) forms and their development in collective actions. In this section, we will at first review such debates, then develop a framework to analyse the degree or level of formality of movement organisations and its relevance in explaining ENGOs' reliance on personal networks.

The resource mobilisation theory suggests that the formality and institutional level of social movement or­ganisations determine how they perform within the social movement. Their internal organisation and structure is di­rectly related to the strategic and tactical manoeuvres of SMOs (Staggenborg 1988). Thus, SMOs with a formal­ised structure tend to adopt more institutionalised tactics and work through organisational networks, while those with less formalised structures will be more likely to rely on individual and personal networks. Furthermore, it is believed that informal SMOs have a tendency to develop a formal organisational form in the maturation process of the movement (cf. McCarthy & Zald 1973, 1977; Gam­son 1975: 91).

However, according to the new social movement theory, the organisational structures of new social movements are said to consist of 'diversified and autonomous units' (Me­lucci 1996), forming a fluid structure where borders and morphology of movement organisations constantly change (Diani 1990). Different from conventional social move­ments in which organisations are characterised by hierarchy and centralisation, the protest groups of the new social movements are characterised by decentralised networks of groups with direct participation of people involved.

These conclusions are based on research on social movements in Western democracies and do not necessar­ily hold for China-a country that has its specific cultural and political system. A decisive factor in this regard is the 'semi-authoritarian' political context in which move­ment dynamics takes place in China. The semi­authoritarian political constellation features formal state limitations on the freedom of association and speech, but at the same time also offers increasing social spaces for civic and voluntary action (Ho & Edmonds 2008). Against this backdrop, it is necessary to distinguish the level of formality of SMOs. There are three aspects that characterise the level of formalisation and institutionali­sation of SMOs, namely, the membership system, the in­ternal institutions and the mechanism for decision­making. With these characteristics, SMOs can be placed on a continuum, ranging between formal and informal or­ganisations [Table 1].

Firstly, the membership system relates to the degree of collective identity among those associated with a SMO. In informal SMOs, the constituency is often not clearly specified, which is indicated by a poorly-established mem­bership system. In contrast, a well-established membership system will boost a sense of belonging among members, and increase the common identity of the organisation.

Secondly, the internal institutional system-the rules and norms that govern the internal organisation-are not properly established and articulated in informal social or­ganisations. A social organisation is a system that coordi­nates people's behaviour by means of rules and norms (Katz & Kahn 1966), which direct attitudes and behav­iour of an individual belonging to that organisation.

Thirdly, in informal social movement organisations, a mechanism for internal decision-making is often absent or poorly defined and formalised. Consequently, individ­ual members will have little power in deciding organisa­tional profiles, priorities and strategies. In formal social movements these internal decision-making processes are clearly structured and formalised, providing clear points of access for members in decision-making processes.

   Social Context of the Chinese Environmental Movement Top

While analysing the emerging environmental movement in China, we will have to interpret it against the specific social context of the Chinese society. As noted by Diani and Donati (1999), the structure of environmental organi­sations and the environmental movement is not similar in every society. It is related to two specific dimensions in which such movements emerge and function: the political conditions of movement activism and the cultural context of China.

Political Conditions of Movement Activism

The development of the Chinese environmental move­ment and green activism is closely related to and struc­tured by the specific political environment in China and has exhibited its own characteristics. Though the idea of democracy as multitudes of citizens taking to the streets may be attractive, it is as Ho and Edmonds maintain: 'si­multaneously misleading as it disregards the nature of po­litical change taking place in China today: a gradual shift towards a polity adapted to a pluralist society' (Ho & Edmonds 2008: 10).

In general, the Chinese authorities are not keen on en­couraging organised efforts from the public, which is often associated with political dissent. The state has esta­blished restrictive administrative procedures to govern NGOs and is particularly strict in the registration of vol­untary organisations. A dual supervising mechanism is utilised to control the growth of voluntary groups and or­ganisations, which requires each NGO to find an organi­sation as its 'mother-in-law institution'. The political authorities also regulate the areas of activities in which voluntary organisations or NGOs may work in.

The state plays a monopoly role in Chinese ecological governance. Since the mid-1990s, aiming at complement­ing weaknesses of its administrative system, the central government established dozens of environmental gov­ernment-organised NGOs (GONGOs), which have been playing an increasingly important role in China's envi­ronmental protection 1 . They responded to the internalisa­tion of environmental protection, obtained international assistance and benefited from international expertise (Wu 2002).

Contradictorily, the restrictive 'semi-authoritarian' context was also conducive to green activism that can be seen from the rapid growth in ENGOs over the past years. By establishing informal organisations-facade institu­tions or 'companies'-ENGOs were capable of circum­venting the stringent regulations for NGO registration. In addition, green activists made avid use of informal net­working with Party and state officials. Through a web of informal ties, social structures were developed that were capable of effectively mobilising resources, appealing to citizens' newly perceived or desired identities, and build­ing up a modest level of counter expertise against state dominated information on social cleavages and prob­lems-be it labour rights, gender issues, dam building or nuclear energy.

This contradictory duality-a semi-authoritarian set­ting that is restrictive and conducive at the same time- forms the essence of what Ho and Edmonds termed 'the embeddedness of Chinese social activism' (Ho & Ed­monds 2008). A striking illustration in this regard, is the way urban activists in Shanghai have used the state's en­vironmental discourse to achieve their own aims. By rely­ing on Chinese official legal discourse, activists rendered themselves less vulnerable to political attacks and criti­cism by the local government. Eventually, this strategy gained the activists a victory over local state organisa­tions (Zhu & Ho 2008).

Cultural Context of China

The second aspect that makes Chinese ENGOs different from 'Western' ENGOs is the specific Chinese cultural context, which frames and structures the development, organisation and operations of environmental groups.

The impact of cultural traditions can be witnessed by the significance that informal rules, ethics and customs have in structuring social practices and institutions in China. The authority, norms and rules of the traditional Chinese state were prescribed by the principles of Confucianism (Duara 1995), and thus differed from the Western societies, in which individuals are bound by laws and le­gal institutions with different religious inspirations (Lan­des 1998; Metzger 2001). In China, individual ties and relations are prevalent. They are often referred to as the practice of guanxi, a special phenomenon of Chinese so­ciety. Guanxi, loosely translated as 'connections', is a specific Chinese idiom for characterising social networks in China, integrally linked to other building blocks of Chinese sociality, such as ganqing (sentiment), renqing (human feelings) and mianzi (face) (Gold et al. 2002).

It is suggested that guanxi function as a mechanism for coping with the absence of a formal and reliable system of laws and regulations (Yang 1994; Guthrie 1998; Xia 2000; Gold et al. 2002). For example, in the hierarchical one-party political system, individual networks are an es­sential element in successfully accessing the government, while at the same time it preserves the strength of the hi­erarchy and elitism of the political system (Guthrie 1998; Xia 2000). In the economic realm, industries construct, maintain and utilise 'guanxi' frequently. Where market economic incentives and rules are often unclear, 'private' economic actors tend to rely on guanxi and a gift econ­omy to organise the necessary resources to keep their business going (Guthrie 1998).

   Functions of Social Networks in the Chinese Environmental Movement Top

Thus, both the young character of the movement and the specific political and cultural context of China frame the development of environmental activism. Seeing that all sectors in Chinese society are penetrated by these per­sonal networks, it is no surprise that the complex of per­sonal connections or 'guanxi' can be essential in environmental activism. In addition, pre-existing personal ties from previous social movements and collective ac­tions are often well preserved, for example, those from the 1989's student movement at Tiananmen Square. It is, therefore, very relevant that environmental activism rely on personal networks to produce social leverage.

In an environmental movement, personal networks function primarily in two specific ways. Firstly, with the characteristics of Chinese political institutions, personal ties are used in accessing the political system. Secondly, personal networks promote the establishment of coordi­nated actions.

Accessing China's Political System

Interactions with the political system constitute one im­portant aspect of using personal networks in China's en­vironmental movement. As governments at different levels are merely monopoly actors in environmental gov­ernance, environmental activists have to interact with Chinese political authorities if they want to influence environmental governance. Their interaction with govern­mental and political authorities focuses on two aspects: mobilising political protection and generating influence on the government's policy agenda.

Firstly, personal networks are used to acquire political protection from the current political system. The legal framework on NGOs is at present weak; the ENGOs as representatives of the public have to acquire a certain level of protection and recognition from governmental agencies, before they can produce social leverage. Infor­mal interactions and personal networks play an important role in gaining and safeguarding such protection.

Secondly, personal networks are used to generate pow­er and influence, and participate in policy-making proc­esses. Environmental issues are not a major priority for the Chinese government. Through individual networks with key officials in the government, ENGOs have a bet­ter chance of influencing the political agenda, and being acknowledged by the government as participants in the discussion of policy processes. In this way, interest articulation in the political arena is possible without ac­cess to formalised channels.

Promoting Coordinated Actions

Experiences in many developing countries have shown that networks play a crucial role in strengthening the ca­pacity of ENGOs, where the latter are weak in resources and capabilities. Networks substantially facilitate com­munication with other constituencies inside and outside the environmental movement, and also within and beyond a locality (Royo 2000). The loosely structured forms of networks can link both large and small organisations effi­ciently, and help local NGOs to grow and develop. In this way, personal networks can be important in promoting collaboration between ENGOs and a variety of other ac­tors.

Chinese personal networks also allow interest ex­change between private and public affairs (Hwang 1987). In Western societies, contracts, laws and institutions gov­ern conflicts between private and public interests (Yum 1988). In China, with many of these institutions, con­tracts and laws still in the making, individuals and social movements use the practice of guanxi and personal con­nections to mix private with public affairs (Wang 1987; Yum 1988).

   Methodology Top

In this article, the cases of Xiangfan (in Hubei province) and Shanghai are analysed to examine the dynamics of Chinese environmental movements [Figure 1]. Each case investigates the environmental networks comprising EN­GOs and their communities. From these networks, sub­cases are selected, consisting of an ENGO or a personal network of activists. Before analysing the cases, we will briefly reflect on the diversity of the case studies, by re­viewing the relevant contextual aspects of each case.

Xiangfan, a poor metropolis with a relatively long his­tory compared to other Chinese cities, has developed under the influence of Confucian traditions and conven­tions. Although in transition, the city still witnesses a strong reliance on a planned economy in its economic growth model, much more than other Chinese cities of comparable size. Located in middle China, this city sees relatively slow economic development, in comparison to those along the east coast. Its political system is relatively constrained and seems to be not very efficient in promot­ing an economic transition to establish a well functioning market economy locally. Influenced by local culture, citi­zens highly value families and personal connections. Building personal relationships and practically using them in economic and political engagements are very prevalent in Xiangfan. In the growth of green activism, personal networks are essential in mobilising common identities and organising collective actions.

Shanghai is the second largest metropolitan city in China and has experienced rapid economic development. It is a model for the east coast cities that have all develo­ped prosperously and have witnessed a quick transforma­tion towards a market oriented growth model. Shanghai has been an important city in Chinese contemporary his­tory. As a port city it represents a mixture of both Chi­nese and Western cultural values. Its political and economic systems rely less strongly on personal networks than the other Chinese cities. The local culture equally witnesses less strong interpersonal relationships. Its po­litical system is strongly repressive to citizens' political articulation, which distinguishes this metropolis clearly from other major Chinese cities.

Together these two cities reflect environmental activ­ism in two typical cities from middle China and the coast. Looking at the location of ENGOs, they seem to develop only in several focused regions across China. According to the survey conducted by the All-China Environmental Foundation, currently, ENGOs develop mainly in four ar­eas: Beijing and Tianjin in the north, Shanghai in the east, the southwest area of the Sichuan and Yunnan prov­inces, and Hunan and Hubei in the middle provinces where ecological resources are relatively rich (ACEF 2006). Thus, these two cases cover the major locations where southeast ENGOs are active.

But we should also recognise that important loadings of these contextual factors are not included in our selec­tion of case studies. The two cities were of considerable size (>1,000,000 inhabitants) leaving the more rural de­velopments in towns and villages out of our analysis (which might affect the relevance of personal networks and of the degree of repressiveness of political systems). Further, the types of ENGOs that are found are primarily those committed to environmental education (which might not cover all possible strategies that Chinese envi­ronmental organisations adopt).

   The Case Studies of Xiangfan and Shanghai Top

Environmental Activism in Xiangfan

Regulations by the restrictive Chinese law allow only one organisation of any one type to register at each adminis­trative level; the Green Han River (GH), a grassroots ENGO founded in 2002, appears to be the only independ­ent registered environmental group among the very few ENGOs that exist in Xiangfan 2 . Its goal is to raise the public's environmental awareness, and the main area of activity is environmental education. Although the GH has 122 individual and forty-one collective members 3 , it strongly relies on its three full-time staff.

Since its establishment, the GH has been autonomous from the city government, mostly because it does not rely on government subsidies, like most of the local social or­ganisations do. Its income is mainly composed of aid from international foundations, government subsidies (which form a small part), and membership fees. Financial support from international organisations accounts for the majority of its income since its establishment in 2002 [Figure 2]. The major international sponsors are the Ford Foundation, the Global Grant Foundation, the Canada Civil Society Fund and the World Bank. A small amount of income also came from the government to subsidise par­ticular projects, in which government actors participated.

In order to be effective in organising an environmental movement, the GH has also set up relatively formal insti­tutions. Decision-making mechanisms are built according to the nature of the tasks [Figure 3]. Three levels of meet­ings are held, namely the president's meeting, the coun­cil's meeting and the members' meeting. Authority and frequency of these three meetings differ, with the presi­dent's meeting being organised most often and composes of a small circle of top officials. A democratic system ex­ists for selecting leaders - the president and vice­president are selected from councilors, and councillors are elected by members of the GH during the members' meeting, which is held every 4 years. This system follows a democratic procedure and is effective in making mem­bers realise their rights of management in the GH (Inter­view with Mr. Sun, member of the council's meeting, 14 September 2005).

However, the mechanism to maintain members is through connections, mainly composed of Ms. Yun's per­sonal networks. The leader of the GH, Ms. Yun, has a relatively broad personal network that is composed of lo­cal civil servants and members of the Xiangfan City Peo­ple's Political Consultative Conference (XCPPCC) and the Xiangfan City People's Congress (XCPC) [Table 2]. These connections, partly through her work and partly through a shared residential area that form her personal network, account for a major proportion of the total num­ber of members.

Through her work, Ms. Yun has gained a rich experi­ence in local politics. She worked for 20 years at the Of­fice of Overseas Chinese Affairs in the Xiangfan government before she retired. Furthermore, she was a mem­ber of the XCPC and the XCPPCC, serving in each for one term [5] . Ms. Yun developed close relations with her colleagues and co-members in the XCPC and the XCPPCC. Additionally, Ms. Yun lives in the same area where the compounds of the XCPPCC and the XCPC are located. Both these institutions are danwei that provide housing for its employees 6 . Thus, Ms. Yun developed close ties with governmental individuals, whose homes were in the same residential area as well. In all, these two factors enabled Ms. Yun to build personal connections with civil servants and members from the XCPPCC and the XCPC. Ms. Yun's network was maintained in an in­formal way and continued to exist even after she retired. Furthermore the longer they are maintained, the stronger the personal relations can become, because the personal ties that are developed bring a sense of familiarity and connection to the counterparts.

Campaign Initiating Environmental Education

To demonstrate the roles of grassroots activists' efforts in promoting Xiangfan's environmental reform, a campaign led by the GH is presented, showing the tactics used to articulate and demand environmental reform-in this case the initiation of environmental education. The GH suc­cessfully achieved its goal by organising coordinated actions with the Friends of Nature (FON) and two gov­ernment agencies, the city Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB) and the Bureau of Education. As a result of this effort, environmental education was institutionalised in the local educational system.

In order to initiate environmental reform of education, the GH had to build organisational linkages to access re­sources and mobilise coordinated actions. "We need all kinds of resources, no matter non-material resources or material ones", as remarked by Ms. Yun (Interview with Ms. Yun, president of the GH, 19 December 2003). A dynamic and strategic use of personal networks is recog­nised in the interactions between the GH and other actors. Besides, organisational networks were also built with a small number of collective actors.

The GH acted as an important structural linkage coor­dinating various actors. Under Ms. Yun's efforts, co-operation was reached among three organisations, the EPB, the Bureau of Education and the GH. Through these link­ages with government units, the GH acquired some sup­port for transportation and small financial donations. As for the two governmental agencies, environmental educa­tion was of importance; by sponsoring this joint pro­gramme, both government organisations could achieve political credits. In the process of initiating such coopera­tion, the role that Ms. Yun played was critical. Having had connections with both the EPB and the head of the Bureau of Education, Mr. Yun bridged the gap between the EPB and the Bureau of Education with little difficulties.

In the implementation of public education, the World Bank covered most of the expenses. The GH, as the main actor in the programme, completed the majority of the work: it invited professionals from the FON, designed the education programmes, organised participants, arranged venues and so on (Interview with Ms. Ye, vice-president of the GH, 6 September 2005). For the GH, the most es­sential resource needed for the implementation of the educational programme was authority, issued by the gov­ernment. Under Ms. Yun's design, in the process of or­ganising this programme, the Bureau of Education and the EPB jointly promulgated a document titled the 'Noti­fication to launch environmental education in middle school, primary school and kindergartens'. Through this document, the GH could smoothly mobilise participants. Talking about the issued document, Ms Yun remarked: "[I]t is a powerful sword for us…[We have] no need to worry about getting participants''(Interview with Ms. Yun, president of the GH, 18 December 2003). When conducting the training course, political leaders of the two government agencies participated in important events such as the opening ceremony and 'graduation day'. They gave speeches, distributed certificates to participants and thus brought authority to the programme.

This programme was a success. Five hundred teachers who came either from the city or rural areas were trained. Lectures were organised in eighty schools from 2002 to April 2005 7 . A large number of students and young chil­dren were imparted environmental education, through which their environmental awareness was raised. The en­vironmental programme was also institutionalised in the local educational system. Schools are now required to in­clude environmental courses and thus receive lectures provided by the GH. Later, this programme was establi­shed as a citizen's educational programme by the Spiri­tual and Civilization Construction Office, as an experiment that was started by four residential communi­ties and which was to be broadened later on to include the whole city. The four communities were Wangfukou, Tan­xicun, Shuixingtai and Gaozhuang that are all located in urban areas. In this way, the GH could widely lecture on environmental protection, and also teach the public how to protect itself when its rights were affected by environ­mental pollution.

The success of the GH in initiating and implementing this educational programme is based to a significant ex­tent on the GH's strategy to initiate coordinated actions with government authorities. In the context of Xiangfan, this seems very necessary for launching NGO's projects. By utilising its personal network, the GH acted as a bro­ker, building structural linkages and institutionalising en­vironmental issues in policies.

In this case, personal networks appeared to be an effec­tive mechanism utilised to mobilise environmental im­provements. The ENGO, due to the social elite who have personal ties with officials, played a key role in the envi­ronmental reform processes. Personal involvement ap­peared to be a crucial strategy to facilitate communication and coordination among the movement actors.

Environmental Activism in Shanghai

Review of Shanghai's Environmental Community

The emergence of environmental activism in Shanghai appears to be relatively late for a cosmopolitan city of its size and development. Shanghai's NGOs have only begun to launch environmental projects since 2000, when it be­came fashionable to contribute to activities to improve the environment [Interviews with Ms. Shao, programme officer of the grassroots community, 11 January 2005, and Mr. Qian, previous participant of the Shanghai Green Student Forum (SGSF), 13 January 2005]. The growing environmental activism in this cosmopolitan city was strongly deterred by restrictions applied to environmental organisations, mostly related to the registration of such groups 8 . Illegal groups can hardly survive in the local po­litical environment (Interview with Ms. Fang, core mem­ber of the grassroots community, 25 January 2005). A small number of ENGOs exist in Shanghai solely because they are not confrontational to the government. Similar to groups in other places across the country, Shanghai's ENGOs lack a professional knowledge base (Lee 2003, 2007).

In Shanghai, three types of groups can be identified: GONGOs, international NGOs (INGO) and grassroots voluntary organisations. Shanghai's GONGOs are active in complementing government agencies within their re­sponsibilities. Several of them play a strong role in Shanghai's environmental protection, and can be divided into three kinds: a) traditional mass organisations, such as the Youth League [9] , that act as bonds to link the grass­roots NGOs with environmental agencies, and channel public participation into this process; b) organisations that are affiliated with environmental protection agencies, such as the Shanghai Environmental Educational Com­mittee that conducts environmental education and is also in charge of mass campaigns and environmental educa­tional projects of the Shanghai Environmental Protection Bureau; and c) professional organisations that promote environmental protection in specific fields of activities, such as the Shanghai Wild Animal Protection Association (SWAPA) that acts as a professional association dedi­cated to the protection of animals. GONGOs initiate and implement their activities strongly depending on the ad­ministrative structure. Owing to the effective bureaucratic system of the municipal government, Shanghai's GON­GOs are capable of playing a prominent role amongst the various environmental organisations in the city.

The second types of environmental group in Shanghai are the INGOs. They work mostly on issues of nature conservation. With a largely undeveloped green civil so­ciety in Shanghai, very few international ENGOs exist, and even fewer conduct projects in the city. A majority of international groups have their projects outside Shanghai, and use the city as a base. An example of these groups is the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)[ 10] . Shanghai's INGOs work closely with international companies, par­ticularly in providing environmental education to the public [11] . Unlike Beijing's INGOs, they are less involved in mobilising local environmentalism. Recently, the Shanghai Oasis (SO), a local grassroots group, was estab­lished with the support of the WCS, as a part of its grow­ing scale of activities. Also, the success of this facilitation can be attributed to the fact that the work of the SO is 'politically innocent'.

Currently, only a limited number of grassroots groups are specifically dedicated to environmental protection ac­tivities. Though their focuses are different, a general sense of environmental activism is gradually being formed amongst grassroots NGOs. Grassroots NGOs committed to environmental protection are mostly regis­tered organisations that can be distinguished into three kinds: social associations, non-profit enterprises and stu­dent environmental groups. At the same time, a small number of them are not registered and some are Internet­based.

In general, Shanghai's grassroots NGOs have difficul­ties in getting a legalised status. Because of the restrictive regulation of the municipal government, very few mem­bership- based NGOs are allowed to exist. So, they are often registered as non-profit enterprises. And very few social organisations specifically devote themselves to en­vironmental protection. Most of the ENGOs cover a vari­ety of goals in addition to green activism; they are religious associations and NGOs that provide social ser­vices. Currently, the number of ENGOs-primarily com­posed of social associations and non-profit enterprises- account for a very small proportion of the total number of NGOs in Shanghai; numbers of these two types of NGOs are also not available.

Apart from these types of NGOs, student environ­mental protection associations are another type of grass­roots groups that were established in universities. The emergence of these groups was a result of growing envi­ronmental concerns among students. The groups function as a means for young people to articulate their common interests towards nature protection and environmental education. Currently, several dozens of student environ­mental protection associations exist. The SGSF was formed especially to build coalitions between them.

Besides registered ENGOs, web-based environmental groups are an important type of unregistered NGOs in Shanghai. This type of ENGO is organised among indi­vidual citizens who share common interests, such as trav­elling, protecting animals and conducting social charity activities. Green activism is a growing interest among in­dividual citizens in Shanghai. In recent years, the cosmo­politan city has experienced a boom in various kinds of online groups, through the intense usage of the Internet. These groups consist of individuals who share interests in, amongst other things, cars, pets and travelling. The number of participants in this kind of web-based NGOs is large [12] . They are characterised by a weak organisation and a strong reliance on computer-based communication (CBC). This type of a group is formed informally by in­dividual volunteers. Because of the difficulty in finding a supervising institution, very few of them get registered, and most of these groups thus remain loosely organised.

Case Study of the World Wide Fund for Nature, Shanghai

As grassroots NGOs are the main focus of this study, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Shanghai has been selected because it represents a successful organisation in the local environmental community, it has a significant number of members and a longer history. Originally es­tablished by the WWF International, the WWF Shanghai was one of the online forums of this organisation that started around 2000 [13] . Like the WWF's web pages in oth­er cities, the WWF Shanghai's website receives a loose supervision from the WWF China's general office in Bei­jing, mainly on affairs related to the Internet site. Very little formal linkage exists between the group of environmentalists in Shanghai and the Beijing office. However, a number of local residents became members of WWF Shanghai's digital forum and developed face-to­face interactions. In 2005, the WWF Shanghai had 1000 members, although the core participants that logged onto its website numbered only several dozens [14] . What is spe­cific to the informal relationship formed among the WWF Shanghai's members was their low level of internal or­ganisation.

Unlike other voluntary groups, CBC was the main mode of communication. To each insider, the virtual space created by the Internet appears as another world, which provides a platform for communication. Through the Internet, environmental concerns were discussed and knowledge and information about watching birds were exchanged. What is more, offline activities were organ­ised, which further led to the development of friendships and intimate personal relationships among them. With face-to-face networks being formed, the network built through virtual communications was consolidated. The instrumental use of new technology in building personal contacts implied that levels of trust among these individ­ual citizens in Shanghai were relatively high. This me­thod became an alternative for individuals to realise their right to freely express themselves under Shanghai's restrictive political censorship [15] . The activists felt more secure and there was a greater secrecy in organising collective actions [16] .

In the WWF Shanghai a very low level of internal organisation exists. No individuals act as leaders. Several fig­ures that participated in the group longer than other members were active in initiating activities and projects. Yet, because this group had no legalised status, its mem­bers did not find it necessary to become further organised. Individual members were equal, with their voluntary will as the primary principle directing informal management.

However, the informal status of the WWF Shanghai af­fected its organisational development. In particular, building organisational linkages was not very successful. The illegal status of the WWF Shanghai prevented activ­ists from developing organisational linkages with other actors, such as GONGOs, ENGOs and scientific experts. Only a few scientists who had sympathy for the informal group were contacted. For instance, professors from the biology department of the East China Normal University and the Shanghai Normal University were contacted often (Interview with Mr. Zhao, core member of the WWF Shanghai, 14 April 2005). In addition, only personal net­works were formed between active members of the WWF Shanghai, individual media staff and scientists. Such in­teractions functioned as linkages between the volunteers and a small number of university professors of ornithol­ogy. Yet, because such relationships are informal and flexible, only limited cooperation was facilitated between the WWF Shanghai and the academic scholars they con­tacted. The WWF Shanghai's illegal status prevented ac­ceptance by other institutions and actors, who feared the troubles that may come along as a result of contacts with this unregistered mass group. In other words, registration and formalisation of the WWF Shanghai was greatly needed for its further development.

Under such conditions, around 2005, the core members formed a new voluntary group, called the Shanghai Wild Birds Protection Association (SWBPA). After a year, it was registered as a secondary social organisation under the supervision of the other GONGO-the SWAPA [17] . With a legalised identity, the SWBPA participated in activities oriented at protection of birds, together with professional organisations from the government and uni­versities. It began to collaborate with Shanghai's govern­mental agencies in various kinds of bird investigations.

The establishment of the SWBPA represented the de­velopment of another grassroot ENGO in Shanghai. In­ternal institutionalisation is very important for a group, not only for the group's survival, but also to gain social influence and build organisational collaboration and net­works. Informal structures prevented the WWF Shanghai from being recognised by other organisations, and thus constrained the formation of organisational development in the long term.

Environmental Campaign in Shanghai

Built in 1922, Jiangwan Airport was the first military air­port in China. After being deserted for decades, this area turned into a marshland covering more than 8 sq km, and accounted for more than 1 per cent of the land area of the entire city. Because of its rich water resources and the lack of human disturbance, the area evolved into a com­plete ecological network and a heaven for wildlife. Since 1997, the Shanghai municipal government has been plan­ning to develop it into a high-class sub-city centre in the northeast of the city [18] .

Yet, this project was only acknowledged to the public at the end of 2001, when construction of the New Jiang­wan Town began. During the formation of this policy, no Environment Impact Assessment was conducted, and nei­ther was the public consulted for their opinion on this policy. Under such circumstances, environmental activ­ists began to protest against the marshland's destruction (Interview with Mr. Li, core environmental activist of this campaign, 8 January 2005). A campaign by environ­mentalists from the WWF Shanghai was developed, which can be divided in two stages. In the first stage, the group acted mainly as a leader, while the second stage marked a decline in its impact.

The WWF Shanghai was the main actor that coordi­nated the campaign against Jiangwan Town construction. It organised a limited number of events, which illustrated its central role among actors in this campaign.

In the initial stage, environmentalists faced difficulties in effectively mobilising resources they needed. Pre­vented by its informal organisation and illegal status, the WWF Shanghai could hardly build a professional scien­tific team for exploring the value of the marshland. Al­though investigations on the Jiangwan marshland were organised using 200 of WWF Shanghai's members, inter­ested citizens and a small number of academic scholars, no concrete scientific report was put together to prove the biological and ecological value of the marshland.

In addition, what also weakened the environmentalist force was that very few social groups joined this cam­paign, mainly because of the issue's political sensitive­ness. For ENGOs that the WWF Shanghai had links with, such as the Grassroots Community (a local ENGO) and students' groups, opposing the government on this issue meant serious risks to their status. As a consequence, no integrated alliance could be organised in this campaign. Only environmental activists in web-based groups, such as the Shanghai Nomad Club (a travelling group) and the Common Wealth Management Project (an online group committed to providing education and services) were mobilised to join the investigation and sign the petition19.Such linkages were built through personal networks among the common members that the WWF and several web-based groups had (Interview with Mr. Zhao, core member of the WWF Shanghai, 11 May 2005). Yet, be­cause of the loose organisation of both the counterparts, limited collective efforts were made.

Lacking experience and careful planning, building pub­lic opinion constituted the primary strategy that environ­mentalists utilised to attract political recognition through the campaign. It was mainly organised through the con­ventional mass media and the Internet, and local journal­ists were contacted. Yet, under pressure from the Yangpu district government, only a limited number of preliminary news reports were completed and published on the marsh­land 20 . Soon, further reports on this issue were banned. CBC then remained as the only tool for releasing news and constructing public consensus. Such a strategy was still quite influential among the public that had access to the Internet. Information on the destruction of the marsh­land was distributed to a number of online forums of web-based groups, including the Shanghai Nomad Club and the Common Wealth Management Project. In addi­tion, a special website dedicated to the marshland's pro­tection, named 'The event of Jiangwan', was developed, on which comprehensive information and pictures were placed. In order to increase the number of readers, this website was also linked to the official website of the Shanghai Municipal People's Congress (SMPC) that was holding a conference in 2002. In a week's time, the visi­tors to this site reached 3000 and the number continued to grow. Though the government blocked this site after a month, it was efficient in spreading the news up till that moment. In early 2002, through interaction on the Inter­net, public opinion towards protecting Jiangwan, as the last marshland of Shanghai was influenced.

Later on, meetings were organised among environmen­talists to further disseminate information on this issue. In order to broaden the campaign's influence, botanists, ecologists, ornithologists and environmental scientists were contacted and invited to participate in meetings 21 . A meeting at the Huadong Normal University was held, with around 70-80 people, including scholars, experts and activists from the WWF Shanghai. On this occasion, the values of the Jiangwan marshland were discussed, which led to the signing of both off- and online versions of a petition. As a result, 1000-1500 signatures were col­lected. Since several scholars served as members of the SPMC, this petition was inserted into the formal policy process, by submitting it to the 10 th SPMC of Shanghai in 2002. There it was suggested that the Municipal Con­struction Department should reconsider the original plan of city construction, and to establish a nature reserve around the Jiangwan marshland area. [22]

Following the SPMC meeting, the municipal govern­ment halted the construction. The Shanghai Construction Commission was ordered to reinvestigate this issue. For the first time, the public, led by activists, scholars and po­litical representatives successfully influenced local gov­ernment policy. Although the district government took strong measures to repress publications in the mass media about the campaign, the scientific support appeared to be an important resource that effected local policy. And it demonstrates that the public could influence this process through institutionalised policy channels.

Starting in late 2002, the Yangpu district government, supported by the City Planning and Construction Bureau of the municipal government, adopted repressive actions to weaken the coalition of environmentalists and scien­tists. The collaboration between the WWF Shanghai and its partners in the movement was counteracted through interventions of political authorities. In addition, gov­ernmental agencies took the chance to initiate a green washing of the project through its control of the majority of mass media in Shanghai. As a result, a revised con­struction plan was brought out, and only an area of around 200 sq m of the marshland was preserved (Inter­view with Mr. Li, core environmental activist of this campaign, 8 January 2005).

With the short duration of protest and limited revision of the original plan, we can conclude that the social lev­erage of this campaign was very limited. Nevertheless, individual activists articulated their opinions through col­lective efforts, and expressed their demands for transpar­ent policy-making. In the enclosed political atmosphere of Shanghai, this is one of the few cases where environ­mental policy was influenced by civil society groups.

   Comparison of Environmental Activism in Urban China Top

As illustrated by the cases, the Chinese public, for the first time is represented in the local environmental gov­ernance, their voices articulated and policy-making af­fected. In this section, we will compare organisational development and strategies of ENGOs and discuss the use of personal networks as movement strategies in varying social contexts.

Formalisation Level of the Environmental Movement

Despite the repressive environment in the two case stud­ies, growing green activism can be recognised in both Xiangfan and Shanghai. Regarding internal organisa­tional development, both cases illuminate that Chinese ENGOs are less than 10 years old and yet to develop into professionalised organisations. As to the strategic adop­tion, being young organisations makes Chinese ENGOs have the specific characteristics of all young or embry­onic NGOs, among which is a stronger reliance on personal networks. This aspect is especially evident in Xiangfan. As shaped by the city's past, the reliance on guanxi is rather strong. It appears that the adoption of in­formal mechanisms can hardly be replaced by formal in­teractions of organisational networks, and this continues to be the case. In comparison, Shanghai's ENGOs show little sign that close personal contacts are crucial move­ment strategies to adopt. The specific social circum­stances have not led to a strong reliance on and utilisation of personal linkages.

Adoption of Personal Networks

Although the phenomenon of using guanxi networks is widely recognised in the Chinese green activism, the two case studies illustrate interesting differences in the utili­sation of these personal networks in Chinese ENGOs. In Xiangfan, personal networks proved to be important in the development of the GH and the initiation of its activi­ties. Consequently, it was found that the dependency of this organisation on the personal relationships of its lead­er makes it very vulnerable. However, relatively weak use of personal networks was recognised in the case of Shanghai. In Shanghai, personal networks were devel­oped through common membership of NGOs without one member acting as a clear leader. A small number of common members acted as linkages bridging different ENGOs. Because the identity of these individuals to­gether defined the profile of the organisation they be­longed to, the personal linkages that were formed also bear organisational characteristics. The Shanghai NGOs were less likely to be formed through or draw upon per­sonal relationships.

As to the functions of personal networks in environ­mental activism, the case of Xiangfan illustrates that per­sonal networks were used in two dimensions: 1) the interaction between ENGOs and the political authorities, through which political resources were garnered; and 2) personal networks used for linking various movement ac­tors and forming coordinated actions.

First, by using personal networks, the GH was able to acquire political protection and assistance from autho­rities of various kinds. The ENGOs, as representatives of the public, have to gain access to authority and protection by governmental agencies before they could produce social leverage. This often starts early in the phase of registering NGOs, and continues when ENGOs carry out various environmental protection activities through which they criticize current (economic, political or societal) developments. Linked through personal ties, political officials could endow key figures of ENGOs with certain resources, authority, legitimation and protection in carrying out these activities. Such interaction generally is conducted based on face-to-face contact, personal trust and exchanges of mutual advantages, and could hardly be replaced by organisational networks.

Second, personal networks are functional in forming coordinated actions. In Xiangfan, Chinese ENGOs acti­vated personal networks in linking with other sectors in society to build pressure, organise activities and develop consensus in support of their ideas and goals. Through using the personal networks of leading figures of ENGOs, movement actors are not constrained by organisational boundaries. It is difficult to see how in these situations personal networks could be replaced by organisational networks. This distinguishes Chinese environmentalism from its Western counterparts, where institutionalised mechanism and organisational networks are crucial ele­ments of coordinated actions, rather than personal net­works. Chinese environmentalists manage to generate a certain social leverage through their coordinated actions and activities, and personal networks usually play a sig­nificant role in this.

Under the coercive political atmosphere of Shanghai, very little space was available for organising collective campaigns. Although highly committed to this campaign, individual activists were too inexperienced to develop a successful protest against their repressive government. Personal networks were rarely used in movement dynam­ics. Collaborating with the media and the scientists and relying on an institutionalised channel to affect policy­making were the primary strategies adopted in the cam­paign of Shanghai.

Media staff is a very important partner for the Chinese environmental movement. They prove to be active col­laborators in building public consensus on the objectives and ideas of ENGOs. Whereas efforts of building public consensus through the media take a longer time, the so­cial impact can also be powerful.

The reason that media representatives are an important partner in the contemporary Chinese environmental movement is related to two major developments. Throughout the last decade, the media has increasingly gained a growing independence from the Party-state. To some extent they had to become more economically inde­pendent as state subsidies diminished, while at the same time state control relaxed somewhat on those issues that were not of high political importance [23] . In this process, the public's growing environmental awareness could be strongly reflected through increased coverage on televi­sion, radio and in newspapers. Secondly, in recent years, the central government, particularly led by the State En­vironmental Protection Agency (SEPA) [24] , has begun to strengthen environmental education at the local level. Larger numbers of news reports and programmes are required to educate citizens on environmental protection, in order to realise the central government's policy. This has provided more possibilities for environmental media re­porting at various levels and through different media.

Like in many other countries, scientists composed an­other strategic partner for the Chinese environmental movement. Many personal networks of leading environ­mental activists included scientists. As argued by Cao and Suttmeier (2001), with the development of a market economy and the transition of the new political leaders, scientists and scholars began to be better supported by the ruling authority.

   Discussion and Conclusion Top

The cases of Xiangfan and Shanghai illustrate that the Chinese environmental movement is still in its early stage, with ENGOs incompletely formalised and relying on personal networks [Table 3]. Some indications are found in the establishment of formalised and professional NGOs in both cities. This indicates that the end stage of the dynamic development of Chinese ENGOs till this moment largely differs from their Western counterparts that are highly formalised organisations utilising organ­isational networks. In the case of Shanghai, direct trans­formation to this form is found. It is no accident that these ENGOs are strongly linked to and supported by in­ternational umbrella organisations that operate from the 'Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Develop­ment' countries in the West. In the case of Xiangfan, the path of development shows early signs of becoming insti­tutionalised. Yet, the GH's organisational structure also shows that personal networks play a strong role inter­nally, which are important in constructing and developing a civil society group. Intimate connections were utilised to exchange resources and power in organising this ENGO. As a consequence, the utilisation of individual ties is likely to continue for some time under the influ­ence of the local culture and current political system.

Our case studies show that environmental activism in China may not be an activity with a fair degree of auton­omy and self-regulation, but it occupies a social space that is enmeshed in a web of interpersonal relations and informal/formal rules between political and social actors. Yet, different from a situation in which activism is merely repressed, the Chinese embedding conditions both limit the development of environmental organisations, and also make it possible. These 'embedding ties' that can successfully cross the divides between the Party-state and society have enabled the young environmentalists to play an increasingly critical role in the greening of the government (Ho & Edmonds 2008). At the same time, 'the embedding ties' also bear local cultural features that influence the functioning of the environmental movement across the country. Located within a distinctive network society that sees prevalent use of personal networks in both political and economic spheres, the Chinese envi­ronmental movement can hardly be left unaffected. In this study, different degrees of reliance on personal networks in the two cities reflect dynamics of local cultural tradi­tion and customs between the coastal metropolis of Shanghai and Xiangfan in middle China. From this per­spective, we can conclude that the Chinese environmental movement is characterised by interactions and dynamics that vary at specific locations.


The authors would like to thank the two anonymous re­viewers of this journal for their comments and sugges­tions. Special thanks also go to Xiaoyun Li, Dean of the College of Humanities and Development, China Agricul­tural University for his continuous support that made this publication possible.[28]

   References Top

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  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3]

  [Table 1], [Table 2], [Table 3]

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