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Unexpected Opportunities for NGO Work

February 1, 2012

There are two main points I would like to make, which are based on my own experience in running an environmental policy think tank, and what I learned from working with the mainland both in terms of policy makers and government officials who are in Beijing—the central authorities—as well as in the regional areas. Actually, I’m quite encouraged. It is possible to change policy, which is what a think tank tries to do.

My first point is that, whatever you’re doing in China, including work on the environment, it’s critical to have a basic understanding about Chinese politics. When I say “Chinese politics,” I’m talking about the broader sense of the word. With China being a country where the government and Party have such a strong, influencing role on pretty much everything, if we don’t have a basic familiarity with just how they function, it is insufficient. And what do I mean when I say “have a basic understanding of the government and the Party system”? I’ll use an example of an NGO.

Let’s say you are an NGO providing an undoubtedly good service somewhere in China. You may have a board which sits in Hong Kong or somewhere else, and your mission is, say, education. Your mission is not about human rights, and your issue is nonpolitical—this is made very clear. And then, when you’re trying to implement your project, you find that some decisions that you have to make involve navigating a part of the Chinese political system, and government departments and units, and dealing with Party officials and the Party infrastructure. You may have people on your side who are trying to make this project work, but also some other interests inside the government that are difficult to navigate.

If people who are in managerial positions—from NGOs to business to governments, including the government of Hong Kong—don’t have a basic understanding of just how politics work, it keeps them on the back foot. We’re all afraid. We keep trying to shield off politics by repeating “we’re non-political.” I’m not suggesting we all become “political” in the Western context of entering into elections and that sort of thing. I am simply saying that when working in China, having a basic understanding of how China works is essential.

That’s not any different in the environmental sector either. We’re working at the policy level, so that’s the framework. We need to know how policy is made, what intervention is important, how you build up support, who are likely to be the people against it, and what you need to do, etc. I do feel the environment is important. And this is one area where at a very high level in the Chinese government there is implicit, even explicit, acceptance of NGO activities to help improve the environment.

My second point is it’s possible to target policies that address Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta as a whole. And in these policies, there are windows opening up for contributions from the traditional legal community, human rights community, or labor rights community—opportunities that are sometimes missed.

There was a document published about two weeks ago by the Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Macao authorities outlining a vision and specific measures to turn the Pearl River Delta Region into a green-living and healthy region.1 Those working in the human rights area might say, “Well, I don’t need to read this. This is not about me.” I suggest that you read these documents—at least, read this particular document. You’ll certainly see a lot about the transformation of the economy to cleaner production, greener, low-carbon, and so on. And then you will see specific measures and proposals to create biodiversity corridors, clean up the ports, and so on. But then there’s a section that obviously came from Guangdong—all three governments are co-writing it—that talks about how to enhance social harmony and how to create healthier living. It talks softly about NGO types of activities. So, for Han Dongfang’s organization, this may present opportunities.

My point is, for those working in the human rights areas, particularly in labor rights, that this is such a good document to insert something in, because these authorities are projecting a new vision of economic rights that has social and economic impact.

To conclude, there are increasingly going to be documents that are coming out on the economic, environmental, and urban planning spheres that are usually not looked upon as areas where you can make contributions. I can even see opportunities for contributions in the legal area, as there has to be some kind of regulatory context that will set the foundation for a green pilot region. The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) has given Hong Kong and Guangdong and Macao this task to deliver a new vision that has higher services, including legal services and so on. So, the task for NGOs is to figure out how to respond in ways that build on that framework. So, don’t miss out on these other opportunities.

Editors’ Note

1. The aim of the study, commenced by the Guangdong provincial, Hong Kong SAR, and Macao SAR governments in October 2009, is to propose long-term cooperation directions for development of the greater Pearl River Delta region. It sets forth specific proposals for cooperation in five areas—environment and ecology, low-carbon development, culture and social living, spatial planning, and transport planning—and covers a period lasting until 2020. The cooperation plan is now in a public consultation phase in each of the three jurisdictions. See Guangdong Province Housing and Urban-Rural Development Department, Environment Bureau, Hong Kong SAR Government, and Secretariat for Transport and Public Works, Macao SAR Government, Regional Cooperation Plan on Building a Quality Living Area: Consultation Document (September 2011), available at ^

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