Books: another milestone on the long road to openness

Liu Bing welcomes the latest volume in Friends of Nature’s “Green Paper” series. It’s readable, he writes, and -- despite its limitations -- reflects the concerns of Chinese civil society.
Crisis and Turning of China’s Environment (2008)
Friends of Nature (Yang Dongping, editor)
Social Sciences Academic Press, 2008

Crisis and Turning of China’s Environment (2008) is the third in the China Environmental Green Paper series from the well-known NGO Friends of Nature. The compilation and publication of these books is a milestone on China’s journey towards democracy and openness. In the past, China’s environmental protection has been carried out, in the main, by top-down government instruction. But as environmental NGOs have grown and developed, the voices of civil society have become ever louder.  

Although the traditional powers and models of growth, systemic inertia and lack of conceptual awareness mean that there is still a long way to go before the goal of a public-led environmental movement is achieved, this series is a sign of the gradual change taking place.  

The key concept in this book – besides the “crisis” and “turning” of the title – is public participation. In fact, the very publication of the volume is a positive and important method of public participation in environmental protection. The crucial difference between Crisis and Turning and traditional government publications is that it observes and records from the point of view of the people. Naturally, the points of view of government and the people differ – and within that difference lies the book’s value.   

The editors review environmental protection in China in 2007 under the headings of “water crisis”, “climate change”, “urban environment” and “policy and public participation”, and also recount debate and research on particular topics. The selection of material for the record of important events and the appendixes reflects — although less obviously — the characteristics of the public’s point of view. The conclusions reached on the water crisis, climate change, and policy and public participation are seen clearly as key when compared with the urban environment, which is covered in only two chapters.  

And these points are used to reach the conclusion of the main report, which goes beyond the issues of a single year and incorporates the knowledge gained in long-term observation from the public’s point of view: “In 2007, China’s environment remains beset by numerous crises, deep-lying conflicts constantly erupt, and environmental protection is transforming and under pressure from different interests . . . At the same time, there are glimmers of hope, and the hints of a change for the better can be faintly seen.”

Actually, that conclusion is open to debate. The talk of “crisis” can be agreed on by all, albeit to differing degrees. But talk of a change for the better – even limited as it is – may be seen as over-optimistic. The existence of special-interest groups — paid particular attention alongside many system and awareness factors in the main report — and their unseen influence on environmental policy make them a crucial factor in China’s environmental protection.  

And this power structure explains why energy-use and pollution-reduction targets for 2006 were missed, and why the publication of green GDP and regulations on environmental appraisals met obstacles. So the writers’ comment, at the very end of the main report, that interest groups are the barrier to progress is, in fact, a more real, powerful and incisive conclusion than the book title’s hope of a turning point.  

Each chapter of Crisis and Turning displays the characteristics of the people’s point of view. This means the descriptions and analysis of each incident is vivid and reflects the main areas of public concern – making what might have been a serious, perhaps even dry, annual report into a readable book. Due to the limited development of NGOs in China and the implicit rules of publishing, the data in the book is that openly available or from official sources. But as the point of view and position differ, they are interpreted differently, allowing the reader to see thought-provoking information that is unavailable elsewhere. 

Interestingly, although a few pieces in the book are written by environmental researchers or academics with an interest in the environment, the majority are written by reporters or other media workers. While naturally making the book more readable, such authorship also detracts from the professionalism of the research. This is a current limitation of the personnel structure and research ability of China’s NGOs. Perhaps one day Friends of Nature will have the strengths in research, propagation and activism that Greenpeace has – and its publications then will be of greater quality and influence.

Of course, we hope that before that day arrives we can, in our faint hope of a turn for the better, pass through the current crisis.

Liu Bing is a professor and doctoral tutor at the Institute of Science, Technology and Society (STS) at Tsinghua University.