The Chongqing Two Rivers Center: An Environmental Watchdog

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In recent years cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have frequently enacted new policies and led discussion on public topics such as social construction and social management innovation. In contrast, the industrial city of Chongqing in the southwestern corner of the country has been a backwater for civil society organizations in China. For a long time Chongqing’s government has actively promoted economic development, but social construction has not been on the government agenda and ignored by observers. Even though the face of the city has changed dramatically since it became a province-level municipality, spiritual concerns and social awareness of public issues remains weak.

According to Pu Qijun, the director of the Institute of Sociology of the Chongqing Academy of Social Sciences (重庆社科院社会学所), social construction in Chongqing lags behind the rest of the nation. This could be due to its geographic position in the hinterlands and its weak economic base. But Chongqing’s traditional state-led development model, its indifference to civil society organizations and the overall lack of civic awareness are all major factors hindering the development of NGOs and the civil society in Chongqing. Pu calculates that the number of NGOs per 10,000 inhabitants is 3.14, which places it in 18th position nationwide, below the national average of 3.28. Among the 10 western provinces it ranks 7th. The promotion of social reform and civil society in Chongqing has clearly not kept up with the progress it has shown in economic reform. ((Pu Qijun, Report on the Development of Civil Society Organizations in Chongqing (A). In: Huang Xiaoyong. Civil Society Organisations Blue Book: China NGO Report (2011-2012) (C). Social Science Documentation Publishing House, March 2012.))

Nevertheless, there has been some development of grassroots organizations, mainly consisting of volunteer charity organizations and community development organizations. One of these is the Chongqing Two Rivers Voluntary Services Center (重庆两江志愿服务发展中心, hereafter referred to as the Two Rivers Center), an environmental grass-roots organization which has evolved quite quickly.

Through the initiative of the Two Rivers Center, a sustainable and effective tripartite interaction has been established between the NGO, the local Environmental Protection Bureau and polluting companies. Browsing through its monthly newsletter, one can see how the Center with its limited resources gathers information on pollution, follows trends and works towards the resolution of problems. It’s uniqueness lies in its continuous interaction with the government. It gathers evidence on pollution that it has collected to push the government’s environmental protection agencies to fulfill their obligations. It also participates in the public comment period of a project’s environmental impact assessment, raising concerns and submitting them to the government for clarification.

As an organization that attaches importance to professional capacity building, the Two Rivers Center has developed a strategy, philosophy and working procedures for combating pollution. Perhaps it is precisely because of its relatively effective approach and grasp of the nuances that it can enter into sensitive situations without getting into trouble.

The Center’s effectiveness comes from using the administrative power of the Environmental Protection Bureau, in accordance with the law. Since the government enforces the law, and should be responsible for pollution control, it has to be forced to fulfill these obligations. On the topic of its relationship with the Environmental Protection Bureau, the Center does not call itself an “advisor”, “assistant” or “partner” but rather talks of “interacting” with the bureau. This “interaction” means that it neither has to position itself as an opponent nor as a partner of the bureau, but can develop measures and strategies to make recommendations to it. In line with changing circumstances, its main goal is to be an independent third party that encourages the government to carry out its duties in accordance with the law, and environmental authorities to understand and respond to its work. Currently the government-led public sphere does not lack “advisors and supporters” but it does lack independent third parties. This is true for the Environmental Protection Bureau as well as for the farsighted Civilization Office (文明办) of the Chongqing city government which had the courage to assume the role of the Two Rivers Center’s professional supervising unit. ((Editor’s Note: The Civilization Office is an organization within the Communist Party system. In order to register as a “social organization” with the local Civil Affairs bureau, the Center needs to find a party or state agency willing to be its professional supervisory unit and to assume responsibility for the Center’s work. Many grassroots NGOs in China are unable to register because they are unable to find a supervising unit willing to assume that responsibility.)) Facing numerous complex environmental issues, the Center has moved beyond taking on one or two cases, to carrying out more regular and effective civil society engagement in the environmental protection field.

Secondly, the Center considers the accumulation of professional competence as very important, using data collection and research to improve the quality of its recommendations. Research, monitoring, legal analysis, and environmental impact assessments require professional competences. As such, the Two Rivers Center takes staffing as its starting point for strengthening its capacity. Only through these means can their suggestions be convincing and taken seriously by the government.

Of course, environmental advocacy is not a purely technical job. In order to have an impact on society by putting pressure on the government to assume its responsibility and on companies to restrain themselves and to improve their environmental performance, an effective strategy is necessary. The measures of the Two Rivers Center include public participation in environmental impact assessments, provisions for public information disclosure, sample collection and testing, disseminating information, increasing the degree of openness, using the media and the internet and paying visits to the director of the local Environmental Protection Bureau. In contrast to regions where the media is strong and environmental NGOs can exert pressure through media exposure, the Center has to rely on “interaction” with the Environmental Protection Bureau to achieve its mission.

Pursuing a strategy of interacting with the government seems to differentiate this next generation environmental organization from others. Working under high pressure and making sacrifices, environmental organizations generally exhibit a pessimistic attitude. Instead the Two Rivers Center sees environmental protection as a profession and tries to use existing legal procedures to its advantage. It has been effective in ‘managing’ conflicts between the organization and the government or polluting companies, and even sometimes takes the expression of anger in the quarrel with the environmental bureau officials as a strategy to push ahead. Through regular institutionalized interaction with the Environmental Protection Bureau, it has become an important social force that the Bureau must pay attention to, and sometimes uses to deflect pressure from polluting enterprises.

If finding pollution sources and dealing with them would solely lie in the hands of the few professionals at the Two Rivers Center it would be very difficult to keep up the work. The Center thus relies on a team of local residents and volunteers or “River Monitors”( “河流守望者”). The Center provides financial assistance, research on the pollution sources and interactive trainings for the River Monitor volunteers who mainly consist of university students. The trainings take place along riverbanks and include practical work like testing samples. Environmental education and active participation are thus brought together in a way that effectively utilizes resources.

From a legal perspective, other unregistered grassroots organizations are at a disadvantage compared with the Two Rivers Center which is “affiliated” with the Chongqing Civilization Office (文明办). The fact that its supervising unit is the bold and farsighted Chongqing Civilization Office is something that cannot be duplicated, but there are lessons to be learned from its working mode and strategy. Being “registered” as the Two Rivers Center obviously gives it more legal space and confidence, but even in its earlier “illegal” phase, the organization had already begun to interact beneficially with the government.

If you look beyond this case study and think about the relationship between state and society in general, the Two Rivers Center and similar environmental organizations and their practice of working together with the government to combat pollution, constitute an indispensible part of what “social construction” means. ((Editor’s Note: The term “social construction” (shehui jianshe) is a very broad term used by government to describe a wide range of social activity, including the construction of a civil society.)) From the observations described in Pu Qijun’s “Report on the Development of Civil Society Organizations in Chongqing”, we can get several insights.

Pu points out that “civil society organizations have long not received the recognition they deserve. The way government and society see NGOs now can be compared to how private enterprises were seen at the beginning of the era of reform and opening up: as a “useful supplement filling the gaps.” Therefore when vigorously implementing social construction and management innovation in the future, properly defining the relationship between government and civil society organizations is very important. In the social sphere the leading role of NGOs has to be recognized and an equal, fair and cooperative relationship between government and civil society organizations has to be firmly established.” In his concluding remarks Pu suggests that the orientation towards public interest and public welfare among NGOs should be strengthened, so all types of civil society organizations can really represent the interests of the people and the public, and in this way ensure that they do not become the spokesperson for any donor or subservient to those in positions of power ((Pu Qijun. Report on the Development of Civil Society Organizations in Chongqing (A). In: Huang Xiaoyong. Civil Society Organisations Blue Book: China NGO Report (2011-2012) (C). Social Science Documentation Publishing House, March 2012.)).

Recent social conflicts in the field of the environment such as events in Shifang in Sichuan province and Qidong in Jiangsu province can be seen as a microcosm of China’s social transformation. “The Path Towards the Reconstruction of Society, ” a 2010 report produced by the Social Development Research Group in Tsinghua University’s Department of Sociology, sees the restriction of state power as an immediate response to the crisis of social transformation in China: “At the historical juncture of China’s social transformation, facing the challenges of growing complexities in economic and social life and a decline in social order, the traditional fear of society has to be overcome. Instead society has to be transformed with courage and boldness, power should be restricted, governance capabilities enhanced, and a pluralistic social governance model established. Therefore creating a system that strikes a balance between the government, economy and society should be our objective and urgent task.

The report also points out that “the basis for social construction lies in fostering society as the main actor, especially by fostering the self-organization of social life. “Social construction” should not be led by the authorities, and should neither be dictated by the authorities nor by the market. Social construction is more than just promoting the development of all kinds of social undertakings, strengthening social management and setting up social communities; it also means to make full use of society’s strength and thereby setting up an autonomous civil society and creating an active society. The goal of social construction lies in restricting power, managing social capital and curbing social disorder. ((Tsinghua University, Department of Sociology, Social Development Research Group, The Path Towards the Reconstruction of Society [J]. In: “Strategy and Management”, No. 9/10, 2010.))

Even though the economy is strongly government-led with social construction only playing a marginal role in Chongqing, civil society organizations are slowly developing, with most carrying out charity and volunteer work. Under these circumstances, the existence and dynamics of advocacy organizations such as the Two Rivers Center, functioning as a watchdog for environmental and societal interests, are attracting greater attention.

In Brief

Fu Tao, CDB’s Senior Researcher, reports on a relatively new environmental NGO in Chongqing that has established a regular pattern of interaction with the local Environment Protection Bureau.
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