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.
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Some grassroots environmental protests are NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) movements (Almeida and Stearns 1998).
However, the Chinese state became increasingly autocratic in recent years. Its implications on NGO–protester partnership will be discussed in the “Conclusion” section.
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).
PX is the abbreviation for paraxylene, a widely used petrochemical. China accounted for 28% of global PX production capacity in 2016 (AsiaChem 2018).
By May 2016, there have been 246 waste incinerator plants in operation in 29 provinces of China (Zheng 2016).
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.
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).
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.
This agency was renamed the Ministry of Ecology and Environment in March 2018.
Interview, MEP officials, NGO leaders, activists, and reporters, 2012.
Interview, Ms. Wang and Mr. Huo, NGO leaders, 2012.
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).
Interview, Mr. Zhang, 2018.
Interview, Ms. Ma, 2008; Interview, Ms. Wang, 2012.
Interview, Ms. Ma, 2008.
Interviews, Liulitun activists, 2008; Interviews, Ms. Wang and Mr. Huo, 2012.
Interview, Mr. Zhang, 2018.
Interview, Mr. Jian, 2018.
Interview, Mr. Jian 2018.
Interviews, Ms. Ma and volunteers of Green Cross, 2008.
Interviews, NGO activist Mr. Ye, citizen activist Mr. Huang and Mr. Wu, 2008.
Interview, Mr. Li, 2008; Interview, Mr. Fei, 2018.
Interview, Mr. Gang, 2018.
Interviews, MEP officials Mr. Mou, 2012, and Beijing NGO leader Ms. Wang, 2012.
Interview, Beijing NGO leader Mr. Bo, 2018.
Interview, Mr. Gang of Green Watershed, 2018.
China’s first environmental public interest lawsuit issued by a social organization was brought forth in Kunming in 2010 (Stern 2013: 120).
Interview, Mr. Gang, 2018.
Interview, Mr. Bo, 2018.
Interview, Mr. Yun, Guangzhou NGO activist, 2018.
Interview, Mr. Luo, leader of Eco-Canton, 2018.
Interview, Mr. Chen, NGO activist and researcher, 2018.
Interviews, Beijing NGO leaders, 2018.
Interview, Kunming NGO leader Mr. Mo, 2018.
Interview, Mr. Chen, 2018.
Interviews, Ms. Wang and volunteers, 2008.
Interview, Mr. Xiao, 2018.
Interview, Mr. Xiao, 2018.
Interviews, NGO leaders in Beijing, Xiamen, and Kunming, 2012 and 2018.
Interview, Mr. Yang, 2018.
Interview, Mr. Mo, 2018.
Interview, Mr. Li, 2008.
Interview, Mr. Fei, 2018.
Interview, Mr. Li, 2008.
Interview, Mr. Fei, 2018.
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.
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).
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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.
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Zhang, Y., Bradtke, M. & Halvey, M. Anxiety and Ambivalence: NGO–Activist Partnership in China’s Environmental Protests, 2007–2016. Voluntas (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11266-020-00237-2
- Environmental grassroots protests
- State control