Cablegate: Ngos and Media Finding Space to Advance Environmental
RR RUEHAST RUEHCN RUEHGH RUEHHM RUEHLN RUEHMA RUEHPB RUEHPOD RUEHTM
DE RUEHGZ #0418/01 1970918
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 150918Z JUL 08
FM AMCONSUL GUANGZHOU
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 7414
INFO RUEHOO/CHINA POSTS COLLECTIVE
RUEHZN/ENVIRONMENT SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY COLLECTIVE
RUEAEPA/HQ EPA WASHDC
RHMCSUU/DEPT OF ENERGY WASHINGTON DC
RUCPDOC/DEPT OF COMMERCE WASHDC
RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHDC
RHHMUNA/HQ USPACOM HONOLULU HI
UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 GUANGZHOU 000418
STATE FOR EAP/CM, OES/PCI, DRL, AND EAP/PD
STATE PASS USTR FOR STRATFORD/ALTBACH/WINTER
EPA FOR OFFICE OF INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS
E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: SENV PGOV PHUM CH
SUBJECT: NGOs and Media Finding Space to Advance Environmental
Protection in South China
REF: Guangzhou 139
1. (SBU) Summary: NGOs and the media in south China are managing to
find ways - within the limited space the government allows them to
operate - to advance environmental protection in south China.
Although local authorities permit little if any direct criticism of
their handling of environmental issues, NGOs have had some success
by focusing instead on raising public awareness. The media,
including newspapers and Internet message boards, are also
contributing to heightened public concern about the environment.
The Guangdong government appears to be encouraging media coverage of
environmental problems, as long as any criticism is directed at
other parts of China; the public readily understands that such
criticisms often are actually directed at the poor performance of
the local authorities. Our contacts feel that the Sichuan
earthquake may have helped change the Chinese government's attitude
towards NGOs and the media, and they are optimistic that
opportunities and openness will increase in the next few years,
including perhaps more openness about the Internet, which is
increasingly difficult to censor. End Summary.
Direct Challenge to Local Government Brings Crackdown
2. (SBU) Greenpeace became the first independent environmental NGO
to operate in south China when it opened its Guangzhou office in
2002, according to Lai Yun, a Greenpeace employee based here.
(Note: The Chinese government sponsors many organizations that it
calls NGOs, but which function more as extensions of the government
- the ubiquitous "GONGO." End note.) Growing to eleven staff
members, the Guangzhou office had what it considered a major success
in 2006, when it publicized research showing that many vegetables
sold in supermarkets in Guangzhou and exported to Hong Kong
contained unsafe levels of pesticides.
3. (SBU) Although the pesticide report generated extensive media
coverage and brought promises of change by the Guangzhou government,
it also resulted, Lai said, in a crackdown. Soon after the report
was publicized, police raided the Greenpeace office and forced it to
shut down because it lacked the proper license. (Note: None of the
independent environmental NGOs in south China have been able to
obtain licenses to operate as NGOs; they instead have business
licenses. This prevents them from raising money through donations
and thus places them in constant danger of being shut down. End
note.) Lai explained that, after lengthy negotiations, the
government allowed them to reopen a cramped and anonymous office
with just two staffers; they have to refrain from speaking to the
media and can not conduct public education programs.
4. (SBU) Chastened by this experience, the two remaining staff
members focus on research on environmental issues facing south
China. They pass along their reports to Greenpeace offices in Hong
Kong and Beijing, which can publicize the research. Lai told us
that relations with the Guangzhou government have improved somewhat
the last year, and he was hopeful of reaching an agreement to expand
Greenpoint Takes the Long View
5. (SBU) The most active environmental NGO in south China is
Greenpoint, which was founded last year by Zhang Lifan, formerly an
official at Guangdong's Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB).
Through his work at the EPB's education center, Zhang developed
close relationships with many of the student environmental groups
springing up at university campuses across the province. Zhang left
the EPB last year and started Greenpoint, which he said has nearly
6000 student members and four permanent staff.
6. (SBU) Zhang told us he viewed Greenpeace's experience as proof of
the futility of direct confrontation with polluters and the
government. He asserted that the best strategy was instead to avoid
controversy while promoting public awareness of environmental
problems. In organizing seminars and educational campaigns directed
primarily at university students, Greenpoint has adopted a
gradualist strategy. Zhang said that his goal was for Greenpoint's
student members to develop an environmental awareness that they
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would carry with them years from now, as they move into the elite of
7. (SBU) Many of Greenpoint's campaigns are actually at the
government's behest. Zhang told us that they are often asked by the
EPB to publicize new environmental regulations and policies.
Greenpoint even collaborated on a road show that visited 22 cities
in Guangdong to tout the EPB's accomplishments during 2007.
Greenpoint's close ties to the government call into question just
how independent it really is. However, Zhang, along with his former
EPB colleague Yuan Shuwen, who now works for the Hong Kong-based NGO
Friends of the Earth (HK), clearly consider their organizations to
be completely independent of the government. Zhang and Yuan both
said that they view the EPB as having far more environmentally
progressive views than the rest of the provincial government, and so
they are happy to use their NGOs to help promote the EPB,
calculating that a strong EPB advances the cause of environmental
The Role of the Media
8. (SBU) Despite their differing strategies, one thing about which
the two NGOs agree is that the weakness of the NGO community in
south China increases the importance of the media in promoting
environmental awareness. Both Lai and Zhang complimented the
Southern Metropolis Daily, noting it had published several
widely-read stories that had increased public concern about
environmental issues. Lai also mentioned the importance of Internet
message boards, which he said played a major role in organizing the
protests over the proposed chemical plant in Fujian (reftel).
9. (SBU) Lu Hui, a Southern Metropolis Daily journalist who last
year wrote a series of articles on water quality problems in central
China, agreed that the media had played a major role in increasing
environmental awareness. According to Lu, the articles in his paper
about environmental problems have been so popular that they increase
newspaper sales. Because of their potential as a revenue generator,
Lu said, his paper is planning to increase the number of stories it
will run this year about environmental issues.
10. (SBU) Lu explained that central government support had enabled
Chinese newspapers to report more openly on environmental issues.
Still, he noted that the paper was careful not to report on problems
within Guangdong, for fear of reprisals from the local government.
(Note: Southern Metropolis is widely considered to be one of the
most daring newspapers in China in challenging the government. This
has caused problems in the past; for example, the paper's deputy
editor was sent to prison in 2004 in what many believed to be a
politically motivated case related to the paper's coverage of SARS.
End note.) Lu pointed out that all of the major environmental
stories published by the paper had been about problems elsewhere in
China, and were not embarrassing to Guangdong officials, though
readers would certainly wonder to themselves whether problems were
similar here. He added that the paper frequently ran positive
articles, in part to give it more freedom to print negative
Optimism about the Future
11. (SBU) All of our contacts agree that South China is an
especially difficult environment for NGOs. Greenpeace's Lai told us
that while Beijing and northern China have dozens of active
environmental NGOs, Guangdong has just a handful -- the three
mentioned above, as well as Green Camp, a Beijing-based group that
seeks to involve students in ecological projects. Still, Southern
Metropolis' Lu and the NGO representatives all expressed optimism
about what the future holds for environmental NGOs and the media.
Lu asserted that the growth of the Internet would force the
government to loosen its control over the media, because it is more
difficult to censor. Lu further argued that the Chinese government
was starting to understand that the internet not only posed a threat
to, but that it could also strengthen support for governmental
policies. He pointed to the online response to the "Tibetan riots"
this spring as an example.
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12. (SBU) Greenpeace's Lai told us that he had noticed a major shift
in the government's attitude towards NGOs and the media while he was
working in Sichuan following the May earthquake. Zhang and Yuan
Shuwen, the China Manager for Friends of the Earth, a Hong
Kong-based NGO that has partnered with Greenpoint on several
projects, echoed this sentiment, arguing that the earthquake
demonstrated to the government that NGOs play a necessary and
important role in society. Yuan added that the earthquake had also
showed the government that the small NGO community in China lacked
the resources to fully meet government needs in the event of a
13. (SBU) Zhang and Yuan both told us that they believed the role of
environmental NGOs would increase rapidly over the next few years.
Yuan asserted that the government was mainly concerned with making
and enforcing regulations, and that it had little ability to promote
public participation, leaving a void to be filled by NGOs. Zhang
agreed, explaining that he had left the government last year because
he believed the NGO community would, over time, become the leading
force in environmental protection in China.
14. (SBU) Our contacts told us that the best website for public
discussion of environmental issues in China is the Green Society
Environmental Action Network: http://www.gsean.org/site/index.html.
It includes some information in English, although the bulletin board
is entirely in Chinese.