While Optimistic About the Nu River’s Future, Chinese Women Environmentalists Also Face Government Clampdown

By Hannah, MK31 Fellow


Whether we won because of NGOs’ success or because the government found that the dam wasn’t feasible, at least the river has been saved

-Women Environmentalist Working to Protect Nu River

Chinese Nu river environmentalists

Chinese politics and civil society can seem both complex and difficult to understand for outsiders. However, my curiosity to better understand what is happening in the world’s rising superpower led me to choose women’s civil society in China as the focus for my fellowship research on water governance on the Salween River (known as the Nu or Nujiang in China).

Yet doing research in China is not easy. Access to information is often limited, and due to the political restrictions, few people in China are willing to openly discuss controversial environmental or political issues. But after having witnessed these challenges, I believe that it is even more important for those of us in the Mekong region outside of China to try to better understand the current situation of civil society in China, in order to enable stronger collaboration and engagement between upstream and downstream communities.

One piece of the puzzle for me has been to understand the scope and space of what environmental civil society in China can achieve. While many people outside of China might assume that there is very little space for civil society or public participation, in fact environmental organizations can be found operating across the entire country, and protests are also relatively common. By some estimates there were 3,500 registered environmental NGOs in China in 2012[1][2] and over 180,000 incidents of protests, demonstrations or riots in 2010.[3] In addition, Chinese environmental groups have had some significant and impressive victories, especially with regards to hydropower issues. One of many examples is the situation in Yunnan province, where the Tiger Leaping Gorge dam located in a famous tourist and biodiversity hub was cancelled after strong local opposition and international concern.[4]

The First Bend of the Nujiang River in Yunnan Province, China. (Photo credit: Hannah.)

The First Bend of the Nujiang River in Yunnan Province, China. (Photo credit: Hannah.)

Furthermore, environmentalists are also cautiously optimistic about the future of the Nujiang river, where the proposed mainstream dams continue to be suspended since 2004 following a long campaign by Chinese and international groups. In December 2015, officials from the Yunnan government announced that all micro hydro construction on the Nu River in Yunnan province would be stopped and that the focus of development in the area would be on eco-tourism and creating a national park.[5] While the situation remains unclear, many environmental groups working on the Nujiang believe that this announcement means that the mainstream dams are also unlikely to go ahead. While we cannot fully claim this as a “success” for civil society, it is still an impressive achievement for China’s environmental movement to have made it this far in their struggle to preserve the Nujiang.

Over the course of my research, I have also come to learn another surprising and impressive aspect of the Nu River campaign: the fight for preserving the river is being led mainly by women environmentalists. Women can be found at the forefront of their activities in almost all aspects of civil society in China, where they lead organizations and manage campaigns. However, even as this victory unfolds, women activists and environmentalists in China have also found themselves under the highest degree of political pressure in a long time.

During Meetings in Kunming, Women Environmentalists Shared Concerns about the Future of their Work. (Photo credit: Hannah.)

During Meetings in Kunming, Women Environmentalists Shared Concerns about the Future of their Work. (Photo credit: Hannah.)

Over the past two years, the climate for all NGOs in China, including those working on water governance and environmental issues, has become noticeably more restrictive, with women’s groups suffering particular targeting. Government scrutiny over NGOs has resulted in at least 20 groups receiving notice to register as “foreign agents”, and at least 55 groups receiving warnings, according to Human Rights Watch. However, these numbers might in reality be much higher.[6] In just one weekend in July 2015, over 100 lawyers and human rights activists were arrested.[7] Furthermore, a new proposed law will prevent NGOs from receiving any foreign funding in the future, and requires them to both register with the public security apparatus and submit their activities and budgets for approval by the government each year. These moves have been widely interpreted as signs of suspicion by the government towards civil society, particularly NGOs with international connections, who are seen as potential Western or foreign agents.[8] This situation is causing deep pressure, anxiety and fear for civil society activists. As one woman environmentalist from Yunnan province stated, “now it’s so difficult for NGOs to register in China, to get funding from outside, or even to get funding from inside of China. We are pressured from every angle as the government increasingly controls and supervises our work.”[9]

In ethnic minority areas, the likelihood of government scrutiny of environmental groups is even higher. Shangri La, Yunnan. (Photo credit: Hannah.)

In ethnic minority areas, the likelihood of government scrutiny of environmental groups is even higher. Shangri La, Yunnan. (Photo credit: Hannah.)

Stories of these experiences are making women environmentalists in China think twice about their work, and many of the people I interviewed were considering to study or go abroad for a few years until the situation gets better. Furthermore, as civil society workers, many of the women that I interviewed felt that they faced additional burdens to deal with, including low wages, fear for their personal security when working in the field, and a general lack of respect among society for those working in NGO jobs.Other women active in civil society shared their concerns for the future of women environmentalists in China. As one woman from Qinghai province stated, “in fact we cannot really be successful in our work, because if you get high profile (as an activist in China), then you’ll be put under house arrest and called for meetings all the time. No one really wants to work in civil society here anymore because if you do, you’ll get an “uncle” (an official from the government) who will come and “visit” you for tea and want to know what you are doing all the time. ”[10]  For ethnic minorities, particularly Tibetans who work in civil society organizations, the pressure and scrutiny from local government officials can be even stronger.

Yet despite this overwhelmingly difficult situation, I have found so far that women are using ingenious strategies to adapt, and to continue their work related to water governance. One means that many organizations use is to focus on evidence-based research through partnerships with scientists, which they feel gives their work more credibility and respectability with the government. Another strategy used by some individuals is to informally engage others in public awareness through channels such as social media instead of operating as an official NGO. A third strategy that some groups have used is to fully partner with a government agency to make their work official and legitimate. While this third strategy allows them to work openly, it also tends to restrict their scope of work to less sensitive issues such as garbage management and education rather than hydropower. Although these strategies may imply some form of limitation on civil society, I believe that they also illustrate the resilience and adaptive spirit of women environmentalists to find ways to continue their work under intense pressure.

Understanding the complex and shifting political situation in China is absolutely crucial for my research to meet its goal of producing useful, relevant, and ethical insights about women’s role in civil society on the Nu River. On the one hand, a partial victory can be seen in the cancelation of micro hydro dam projects on the Nu River and the announcement of a national park area for the Nu. On the other hand though, the past two years have caused many women environmentalists in China focusing on water governance to stop their work, move underground, or change their scope of work to less sensitive issues in order to prevent getting arrested or harassed. Both aspects of environmental issues in China need to be known and discussed, because to only focus on temporary victories or present day political restrictions would only show half of the picture. This is the current situation in China today and one which I hope to be able to share about more deeply by the end of my research project.

Edited by Siri Luther



[1] http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/714330.shtml

[2] http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/714330.shtml

[3] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2011-03-06/china-s-spending-on-internal-police-force-in-2010-outstrips-defense-budget

[4] https://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/yunnan-scraps-tiger-leaping-gorge-dam-2982

[5] http://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/new-hope-for-china%E2%80%99s-last-free-flowing-river-9231

[6] http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1736852/crackdown-foreign-ngos-not-chinas-own-interests

[7] http://time.com/3954935/china-arrests-lawyers-human-rights/

[8] http://www.economist.com/news/china/21661819-new-draft-law-spooks-foreign-not-profit-groups-working-china-uncivil-society; http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/30/ngos-china-fear-security-clampdown

[9] Interview with civil society worker in Kunming, December 4th, 2015.

[10] Interview with women environmentalist, Kunming, November 29th, 2015.