This Sunday, after an hour and a half of a typically frantic and heart-stopping taxi ride through the dusty and congested streets of Lanzhou, we arrived at the Lanzhou Business School to participate in an International Youth Environmentalist Exchange Salon, organized by several university-based environmental clubs. I gave a presentation on Pacific Environment’s work, highlighting each program’s unique focus and approach to demonstrate the diverse ways that U.S. NGOs deal with different environmental issues. Simon, a French student and volunteer with Green Camel Bell (GCB) talked about sustainable development in France and Ran Liping, Green Camel Bell’s Water Program Officer presented on GCB’s work.
Although China now has over 3,500 NGOs, most concentrate in big and high profile cities like Beijing and Yunnan. In backwater regions like Western China, the concept of NGOs is still foreign. Being the only registered environmental NGO in Gansu Province and with a growing reputation both domestically and internationally, Green Camel Bell is nonetheless finding it challenging to hire qualified people to join its expansive programs. They hired two people a few months ago through a recruitment event they held at a university; one left after seeing the homey but sparse GCB office located on the ground floor of a residential complex, the other left after a field visit to GCB’s rural project after realizing how difficult the work is.
The event today was designed to generate interest among the students on Gansu’s many environmental issues and promote their active participation through GCB. Throughout my presentation, I continued to remind people that the growth of civil society in China is in many ways inevitable as Chinese people become more and more educated, wealthier and assertive of their voices in society. I also explained how in every developed nation, NGOs play a crucial role in shaping development and if they join now, they would be in the forefront of this growing and cutting edge trend.
One student stood up and commented in hesitant English that our presentations focused on how people protect the environment in the West but that those tactics are not applicable to the Chinese situation because China is very different from the West. By the time Simon finished his presentation on sustainable development in France, a wave of hands rose in the crowd of two-hundred and most questioned how they could make a difference in protecting the environment in China while having to deal with so many government restrictions. Simon was surprised to find that many students actually thought the government was a hindrance in environmental protection.
At the end of Ran Lipings presentation about the few successes they’ve had in Gansu, including helping the village Liangjianwan secure access to clean drinking water and successfully conducting an independent audit of a polluting enterprise with the explicit blessing of the Gansu Environmental Protection Agency, some students finally became inspired. A crowd of students surrounded Liping for a long time after the conference ended to ask her about volunteering for the organization. Liping was so pleased with the result that she joked that from now on she will focus on presenting only about her Water Program and not about the other projects of the whole organization. The hope is, by the time these students graduate from school and after volunteering with GCB for a couple of years, they too would join the growing movement like Ran Liping did a little over a year ago.
In early April, 34 Chinese environmental NGOs wrote letters to 29 IT companies regarding members of their supply chains violating Chinese environmental laws and regulations. The list included suppliers for global brands like Apple, IBM, Intel, Sony and Lenova.
Ten days of mostly silence on the part of these companies led to a press conference that attracted widespread media attention and finally some responses. According to an insider source, some companies claimed that these violations took place before they became buyers; others made vague promises of investigations and redress. Hundreds of letters and phone calls are being exchanged between the parties and much work is still needed to be done.
Some of these suppliers committed a number of gross violations, including using secret pipes to discharge untreated wastewater directly into the waterways. Several companies most frequently appearing as key suppliers are subsidiaries of Kingboard Chemical Holdings, which was already infamously denounced in a Green Peace report on water pollution in the Pearl River Delta. Another company Huaqiang Battery Ltd, is located near a village where more than a hundred children was most recently found to be poisoned by excessive lead. The company is also a supplier for a Dongguan company, South Capital Inc. that just went public on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange a month before and was also ironically honored with the “Outstanding Supplier Award”.
China’s intricate and convoluted web of IT supply chains makes monitoring and enforcement of environmental regulations daunting even for local governments. Many companies had been repeatedly fined and ordered to clean up by their respective provincial governments. Some simply close down and set up new shops under new names or move to another province. The sheer scale of China’s export processing industries is simply beyond the capacity of China underfunded and rigid environmental protection bureaucracy. China’s growing environmental movement is well positioned to fill the monitoring and advocacy vacuum.
Backed by official government data and using media savvies, these 34 NGOs are forcing brand-conscious global IT corporations to face up to the discrepancy between their glorified “Supplier Code of Conduct” and actual implementation on the ground. We as consumers of many of these global brands must play our part in supporting these efforts. It will only lead to greener and safer products and environment for all of us.