Xie Zhenhua (left) meets Chinese NGO workers Fei Xiaojing and Lu Sicheng.
During the Tianjin talks, senior Chinese official Xie Zhenhua praised China's NGOs for their important role in the fields of environmental protection and climate-change. In the past, such open support for NGOs from senior Chinese figures has been rare.
Xie Zhenhua is the highest-ranking official responsible for climate and carbon-reduction negotiations in the State Council, China's chief administrative body. On the afternoon of October 8, Xie, the assistant head of the National Development and Reform Commission, talked with a group of NGOs for two hours. He said he hopes to frequently meet and exchange ideas with China's NGOs, and welcomes NGO oversight of the government's work.
Over 60 Chinese NGOs, including chinadialogue, SEE, Shanshui, Friends of Nature and Greenpeace's China office, attended the climate meetings in Tianjin, and there were an unprecedented 20-plus side meetings organised there as well. This is the biggest case yet of China's NGOs working together with the greater international movement.
China's top environmental NGO, Friends of Nature, was founded in 1994, but at that time China's civil society was still developing very slowly. After 2000, the number of NGOs in China soared and the most active domains were the environment, public health and assistance to the poor. The Chinese government showed a mixed attitude towards the development of NGOs; it was totally aware of how the "public participation" represented by NGOs could become a major trend, and that NGOs could help alleviate the social issues in the three areas mentioned above, but it still held doubts about the movement as a whole. As a result, the development of China's NGOs hasn't been smooth, as registration is still tedious and many NGOs can only list as companies.
Xie Zhenhua was previously head of China's Bureau of Environmental Protection, and under his watch the bureau's deputy head, Pan Yue, lent strong support for environmental NGOs' participation in public affairs. After Xie Zhenhua's appointment as assistant head of the National Development and Reform Commission for climate-change affairs, China's climate-change NGOs began communicating with the government with much greater ease. This September in Beijing, Li Gao, one of China's high-level negotiators, said that the National Development and Reform Commission's climate department had organised a briefing with some NGOs and informed them of the current situation. Various arms of the Chinese government have reached out to the NGOs -- something that is hardly ever seen in other areas.
Analysts think there are a few central reasons for this. First, during his tenure at the Bureau of Environmental Protection, Xie Zhenhua cooperated well with the NGOs and began to understand how important they could be for management of the environment. Second, environmental NGOs avoid politics, and all have strong hopes of working together with the government. Third, Xie Zhenhua and the National Development and Reform Commission's climate department had a broad international scope, understanding the development and use of NGOs abroad and not believing, as some Chinese officials do, that NGOs only have political goals.
In a meeting on October 8, Xie Zhenhua said that before the Copenhagen conference, he travelled to America to conduct dialogue with more than 100 American NGOs and saw an outstanding result. He said that, in the coming years, China's NGOs could play a highly important role in environmental protection and responding to climate change. "We hope NGOs can become the bridge and bond between society, the common people, and the government," he said.
Image by Lu Sicheng.