Anxiety and Ambivalence: NGO–Activist Partnership in China’s Environmental Protests, 2007–2016


This article examines how partnership between social organizations and popular protests is affected by the state in the field of environmental activism. Drawing upon content analysis and in-depth interviews, we study non-governmental organization (NGO) engagement with 22 grassroots environmental protests in China, 2007–2016. We find that NGOs and grassroots protesters were mostly distant from each other to avoid state repression and retribution, but NGOs occasionally collaborated with protesters in an ambivalent manner because state control was contradictory, fragmented, and varying. NGOs either used institutional means to support the protesters or were informally and invisibly involved in those protests. Our research contributes to studies of the triangular relationship between the state, NGOs, and social movements. Specifically, we find that when NGOs lack the institutional access to policy making but are not fully controlled by the state, they have both incentives and spaces to make joint actions with grassroots activists.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1

Sources: LexisNexis Database


  1. 1.

    Some grassroots environmental protests are NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) movements (Almeida and Stearns 1998).

  2. 2.

    However, the Chinese state became increasingly autocratic in recent years. Its implications on NGO–protester partnership will be discussed in the “Conclusion” section.

  3. 3.

    This is similar to the curvilinear relationship between state openness and protests that has been reported in social movement studies: the median level of regime openness creates the most favorable opportunity for protesters because the regime is not institutionally inclusive enough to co-opt contentions but is also not entirely closed to stifle contentious potentials (Eisinger 1973; Tarrow 1998: 76–78).

  4. 4.

    PX is the abbreviation for paraxylene, a widely used petrochemical. China accounted for 28% of global PX production capacity in 2016 (AsiaChem 2018).

  5. 5.

    By May 2016, there have been 246 waste incinerator plants in operation in 29 provinces of China (Zheng 2016).

  6. 6.

    We conducted additional search with key Chinese terms including “strolling” (sanbu, a Chinese euphemism for March) in Chinese newspapers and found nine additional anti-incinerator protests during this period. Notably, no NGO activity was mentioned in the Chinese reports of these cases.

  7. 7.

    We focus on urban mobilization and thus leave out similar protests in rural settings, mainly because there is much greater coverage bias for rural protests (for a rural case, see: Bondes and Johnson 2017).

  8. 8.

    We acknowledge some limitations to our interviews. We have not interviewed individuals related to all 22 cases to examine why partnership did not emerge in most cases. Neither have we interviewed public security officers because we did not have access.

  9. 9.

    This agency was renamed the Ministry of Ecology and Environment in March 2018.

  10. 10.

    Interview, MEP officials, NGO leaders, activists, and reporters, 2012.

  11. 11.

    Interview, Ms. Wang and Mr. Huo, NGO leaders, 2012.

  12. 12.

    Other notable cases include unrests over the Maglev Train in Shanghai (2008), a copper ally plant in Shifang (2012), and a nuclear-fuel processing and recycling plant in Lianyungang (2016).

  13. 13.

    Interview, Mr. Zhang, 2018.

  14. 14.

    Interview, Ms. Ma, 2008; Interview, Ms. Wang, 2012.

  15. 15.

    Interview, Ms. Ma, 2008.

  16. 16.

    Interviews, Liulitun activists, 2008; Interviews, Ms. Wang and Mr. Huo, 2012.

  17. 17.

    Interview, Mr. Zhang, 2018.

  18. 18.

    Interview, Mr. Jian, 2018.

  19. 19.

    Interview, Mr. Jian 2018.

  20. 20.

    Interviews, Ms. Ma and volunteers of Green Cross, 2008.

  21. 21.

    Interviews, NGO activist Mr. Ye, citizen activist Mr. Huang and Mr. Wu, 2008.

  22. 22.

    Interview, Mr. Li, 2008; Interview, Mr. Fei, 2018.

  23. 23.

    Interview, Mr. Gang, 2018.

  24. 24.

    Interviews, MEP officials Mr. Mou, 2012, and Beijing NGO leader Ms. Wang, 2012.

  25. 25.

    Interview, Beijing NGO leader Mr. Bo, 2018.

  26. 26.

    Interview, Mr. Gang of Green Watershed, 2018.

  27. 27.

    China’s first environmental public interest lawsuit issued by a social organization was brought forth in Kunming in 2010 (Stern 2013: 120).

  28. 28.

    Interview, Mr. Gang, 2018.

  29. 29.

    Interview, Mr. Bo, 2018.

  30. 30.

    Interview, Mr. Yun, Guangzhou NGO activist, 2018.

  31. 31.

    Interview, Mr. Luo, leader of Eco-Canton, 2018.

  32. 32.

    Interview, Mr. Chen, NGO activist and researcher, 2018.

  33. 33.

    Interviews, Beijing NGO leaders, 2018.

  34. 34.

    Interview, Kunming NGO leader Mr. Mo, 2018.

  35. 35.

    Interview, Mr. Chen, 2018.

  36. 36.

    Interviews, Ms. Wang and volunteers, 2008.

  37. 37.

    Interview, Mr. Xiao, 2018.

  38. 38.

    Interview, Mr. Xiao, 2018.

  39. 39.

    Interviews, NGO leaders in Beijing, Xiamen, and Kunming, 2012 and 2018.

  40. 40.

    Interview, Mr. Yang, 2018.

  41. 41.

    Interview, Mr. Mo, 2018.

  42. 42.

    Interview, Mr. Li, 2008.

  43. 43.

    Interview, Mr. Fei, 2018.

  44. 44.

    Interview, Mr. Li, 2008.

  45. 45.

    Interview, Mr. Fei, 2018.

  46. 46.

    The full name is the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Administration of Activities of Overseas Nongovernmental Organizations in the Mainland of China.

  47. 47.

    For example, Friends of Nature alone has lodged 40 environmental public interest lawsuits in more than 10 provinces by August 2018 (Interview, Mr. Zhang, 2018).


  1. Albertson, B., & Gadarian, S. K. (2015). Anxious politics: Democratic citizenship in a threatening world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Almeida, P., & Stearns, L. B. (1998). Political opportunities and local grassroots environmental movements: The case of Minamata. Social Problems,45(1), 37–60.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Alvarez, S. E. (2009). Beyond NGO-ization? Reflections from Latin America. Development,52(2), 175–184.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. AsiaChem. (2018). Zhongguo PX Chanyelian Niandu Baogao 2018 [China PX Industrial Chain Annual Report 2018].

  5. Bondes, M., & Johnson, T. (2017). Beyond localized environmental contention: Horizontal and vertical diffusion in a Chinese anti-incinerator campaign. Journal of Contemporary China,26(106), 504–520.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Brass, J. N. (2012). Blurring boundaries: The integration of NGOs into governance in Kenya. Governance,25(2), 209–235.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Brass, J. N. (2016). Allies or adversaries: NGOs and the state in Africa. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Chen, X. (2012). Social protest and contentious authoritarianism in China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Dai, J., & Spires, A. J. (2018). Advocacy in an authoritarian state: How grassroots environmental NGOs influence local governments in China. The China Journal,79(1), 62–83.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Earl, J., Martin, A., McCarthy, J. D., & Soule, S. A. (2004). The use of newspaper data in the study of collective action. Annual Review Sociology,30(1), 65–80.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Eisinger, P. K. (1973). The conditions of protest behavior in American cities. American Political Science Review,67(1), 11–28.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Eysenck, M. W. (1992). Anxiety: The cognitive perspective. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Fligstein, N., & McAdam, D. (2011). A theory of fields. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Fu, D. (2017). Fragmented control: Governing contentious labor organizations in China. Governance,30, 445–462.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Gao, H., & Tyson, A. (2017). Administrative reform and the transfer of authority to social organizations in China. The China Quarterly,232, 1050–1069.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Gasemyr, H. J. (2017). Navigation, circumvention and brokerage: The tricks of the trade of developing NGOs in China. The China Quarterly,229, 86–106.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Glasius, M., & Ishkanian, A. (2015). Surreptitious symbiosis: Engagement between activists and NGOs. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations,26(6), 2620–2644.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Hauf, F. (2017). Paradoxes of transnational labour rights campaigns: The case of play fair in Indonesia. Development and Change,48(5), 987–1006.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Heurlin, C. (2010). Governing civil society: The political logic of NGO-state relations under dictatorship. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations,21(2), 220–239.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Hildebrandt, T. (2013). Social organizations and the authoritarian state in China. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Ho, P. (2001). Greening without conflict? Environmentalism, NGOs and civil society in China. Development and Change,32, 893–921.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Ho, P., & Edmonds, R. (Eds.). (2007). China’s embedded activism: Opportunities and constraints of a social movement. New York, NY: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Hsu, J. Y. J., Hsu, C. L., & Hasmath, R. (2017). NGO strategies in an authoritarian context, and their implications for citizenship: The case of the People’s Republic of China. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations,28(3), 1157–1179.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Jia, F. (2014). MEP officials: Some anti-PX activists received instructions and funding from professional organizations. Retrieved October 20, 2019 from

  25. Johnson, T. (2010). Environmentalism and NIMBYism in China: Promoting a rules-based approach to public participation. Environmental Politics,19(3), 430–448.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Karriem, A., & Benjamin, L. M. (2016). How civil society organizations foster insurgent citizenship: Lessons from the Brazilian Landless Movement. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations,27, 19–36.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Kostka, G., & Zhang, C. (2018). Tightening the grip: Environmental governance under Xi Jinping. Environmental Politics,27(5), 769–781.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Lang, G., & Xu, Y. (2013). Anti-incinerator campaigns and the evolution of protest politics in China. Environmental Politics,22(5), 832–848.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Lee, C. K., & Zhang, Y. (2013). The power of instability: Unravelling the microfoundations of bargained authoritarianism in China. American Journal of Sociology,118(6), 1475–1508.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Lei, Y.-W. (2017). The contentious public sphere: Law, media, and authoritarian rule in China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Li, S. (2019a). Global civil society under the new INGO regulatory law: A comparative case study on two INGOs in China. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations,30, 1–11.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Li, Y. (2019b). Playing by the informal rules: Why the Chinese regime remains stable despite rising protests. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Lorentzen, P. L. (2013). Regularizing rioting: Permitting public protest in an authoritarian regime. Quarterly Journal of Political Science,8, 127–158.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Mertha, A. C. (2008). China’s water warriors: Citizen action and policy change. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Merton, R. K. (1976). Sociological ambivalence and other essays. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Migdal, J. S. (2001). State in society: Studying how states and societies transform and constitute one another. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Mitchell, T. (1991). The limits of the state: Beyond statist approaches and their critics. American Political Science Review,85, 77–96.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Moss, D. (2014). Repression, response, and contained escalation under ‘liberalized’ authoritarianism in Jordan. Mobilization,19(3), 261–286.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. O’Brien, K. J. (2003). Neither transgressive nor contained: Boundary-spanning contention in China. Mobilization,8(1), 51–64.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. O’Brien, K. J. (2008). Popular protest in China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  41. O’Brien, K. J., & Li, L. (2006). Rightful resistance in rural China. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Schock, K. (2005). Unarmed insurrections: People power movements in nondemocracies. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

    Google Scholar 

  43. Shapiro, J. (2016). China’s environmental challenges. Cambridge: Polity Press.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Shieh, S. (2018). The Chinese state and overseas NGOs: From regulatory ambiguity to the overseas NGO law. Nonprofit Policy Forum,9(1), 1–10.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Small, M. (2009). ‘How many cases do I need?’ On science and the logic of case selection in field-based research. Ethnography,10(1), 5–38.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Smelser, N. J. (1998). The rational and the ambivalent in the social sciences. American Sociological Review,63, 1–16.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Spires, A. J. (2011). Contingent symbiosis and civil society in an authoritarian state: Understanding the survival of China’s grassroots NGOs. American Journal of Sociology,117(1), 1–45.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Steinhardt, H. C., & Wu, F. (2016). In the name of the public: Environmental protest and the changing landscape of popular contention in China. The China Journal,75, 61–85.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Stern, R. E. (2013). Environmental litigation in China: A study in political ambivalence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  50. Stern, R. E., & O’Brien, K. J. (2012). Politics at the boundary: Mixed signals and the Chinese state. Modern China,38(2), 174–198.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Sun, X., Huang, R., & Yip, N.-M. (2017). Dynamic political opportunities and environmental forces linking up: A case study of anti-PX contention in Kunming. Journal of Contemporary China,26(106), 1–13.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Swidler, A., & Watkins, S. (2017). A fraught embrace: The romance and reality of AIDS altruism in Africa. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Tarrow, S. (1998). Power in movements. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  54. Teets, J. C. (2014). Civil society under authoritarianism: The China model. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  55. Van Dyke, N., & Amos, B. (2017). Social movement coalitions: Formation, longevity, and success. Sociology Compass,11(7), 1–17.

    Google Scholar 

  56. Watts, J. (2009). China’s green champion sidelined. The Guardian. Retrieved October 28, 2019 from

  57. Wong, N. W. M. (2016). Advocacy coalitions and policy change in China: A case study of anti-incinerator protest in Guangzhou. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations,27(5), 2037–2054.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Wu, F. (2013). Environmental activism in provincial China. Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning,15(1), 89–108.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. Yang, G. (2005). ENGOs and institutional dynamics in China. The China Quarterly,181, 46–66.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  60. Yuen, S. (2018). Negotiating service activism in China: The impact of NGOs’ institutional embeddedness in the local state. Journal of Contemporary China,27(111), 406–422.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  61. Zhang, Y. (2015). Dependent interdependence: The complicated dance of government–nonprofit relations in China. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 26(6), 2395–2423.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Zhang, Y. (2018). Allies in action: Institutional actors and grassroots environmental activism in China. Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change,42, 9–38.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. Zheng, J. (2016). The burning question of household waste. China Daily. Retrieved March 5, 2017 from

Download references


The fieldwork of this research was sponsored by the Paulson Institute at Chicago and International Travel Award from American University. During the fieldwork and writing process, Daniel Esser, Hank Johnston, and Yan Long have offered thoughtful suggestion and valuable help.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Yang Zhang.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.



See Tables 2 and 3.

Table 2 Anti-PX protests in urban China, 2007–2016.
Table 3 Anti-incinerator protests in urban China, 2007–2016.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Zhang, Y., Bradtke, M. & Halvey, M. Anxiety and Ambivalence: NGO–Activist Partnership in China’s Environmental Protests, 2007–2016. Voluntas (2020).

Download citation


  • NGOs
  • Environmental grassroots protests
  • State control
  • Alliance
  • Anxiety
  • Ambivalence