Meet Me In The Backroom: Environmental NGOs & China/U.S. Climate Cooperation

Joshua Brown is currently a master’s degree student of International Relations at Peking University in Beijing, China. Prior to pursuing graduate studies, Joshua worked in the international development sector with a focus on strengthening trade links and promoting sustainable development practices throughout Latin America, including managing a multimillion dollar fund to eliminate deforestation in the South American soy supply chain. You can find Joshua Brown online at his blog personal blog or on Twitter/X at @Brown_Joshua_J

Dan Nott (he/him) is an artist and author living in Vermont. His debut nonfiction graphic novel exploring the history and workings of infrastructure, called HIDDEN SYSTEMS, was longlisted for a national book award in 2023. He can be found on Instagram and Twitter at @Dan_Nott.

As the two largest economies in the world, the U.S. and China are naturally also the two largest emitters of greenhouse gasses contributing to human induced climate change, and although China has historically contributed far less to both total and per capita emissions than the U.S., it is
quickly catching up. But Mother Earth is unconcerned with human political distinctions. The consequences of climate change, including sea level rise, more unpredictable weather patterns, and desertification, result from total emissions, irrespective of who emitted them when and in what density. Therefore, as major emitters and stakeholders in the international community, Washington and Beijing have both a moral responsibility and an enlightened self-interest in decarbonizing their economies and leading global climate policy efforts through decisive and ambitious action. Similarly, the highly globalized and interconnected nature of both economies means that sustained progress on climate change will require not only committed domestic policy, but also stable bilateral coordination to ensure maximum impact.

For much of the 21st century, the need for Sino-American climate coordination was common knowledge across the Pacific. As Brookings Institute fellow David Victor poignantly noted in October 2021, it was the U.S.and China that led the world to the Paris Agreement and inaugurated the pledge system which defines contemporary national climate plans. Victor also reasoned that faltering cooperation between both sides could be resuscitated by targeting the technologies critical to decarbonization, including wind and solar power, advanced batteries, and carbon capture. This vision seemed to be proceeding well when Beijing and Washington issued a joint declaration at COP26 the following month, wherein they pledged cooperation on developing global regulatory frameworks and scaling up solar, in addition to establishing a climate working group to unite experts and policymakers from both countries. However, these promises vanished the following summer when China unilaterally terminated all bilateral climate coordination in retaliation for Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Since then, the Biden administration has passed the largest climate bill in American history in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act, but it also has effectively blocked all imports from Chinese solar companies on allegations of human rights abuses within their supply chains. Additionally, some 1,400 ethnically Chinese scientists have fled the U.S. for China due to discriminatory policies allegedly designed to prevent the theft of American intellectual property. Unfortunately, these developments demonstrate that not even climate policy is safe from the acrimonious Sino-American relationship, and the stable long-term coordination necessary to address the climate crisis is unlikely as long as fundamental geopolitical tensions remain.

Thankfully, we have options besides the apparatchiks in Beijing and Washington. Indeed, various environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) from the U.S. and China are actively cooperating to promote decarbonization, clean air, and public awareness over critical environmental issues. In fact, these ENGOs and the networks they have built over decades of collaboration offer a form of “safety net” for bilateral engagement that could be leveraged by the U.S. and China to lock in long-term climate cooperation even as official coordination remains lackluster and politically unfeasible. But before diving into the details, a brief overview of the landscape of Chinese civil society is necessary.


You Say You Want a Revolution

Due to the dominance of the Chinese Communist Party within China, it is often presumed by U.S. observers that civil society is either nonexistent within the country or exerts no impact on policy as compared to NGOs in democratic states. This view would accurately describe the Maoist era, when civil society was nonexistent and establishing any organization not controlled by the Party could get you labeled as a counterrevolutionary. But by the late 1970s, the reforms of Chairman Deng Xiaoping gradually relaxed state control over the private lives of individuals, laying the groundwork for civil society by allowing citizens the resources and freedom to form voluntary associations. As the state shrank, social organizations proliferated to fill the gap, operating in diverse sectors like philanthropy, scientific research, and political reform, although the latter were largely shuttered following the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

Although these early organizations offered space for citizens to organize outside of the Party, many were not yet true NGOs, but rather government organized NGOs (GONGOs) allowing citizens to organize through venues neither totally connected to, nor totally disconnected from, the dominant Chinese state. This caveat aside, estimates suggest around 2,000 NGOs were registered in China by 1991, four of which were Environmental NGOs. Beijing signaled still greater openness to NGOs by signing UN Agenda 21 in 1992, emphasizing their importance in promoting participatory democracy and sustainable development. During the 4th World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, the concept of NGOs was popularized among the Chinese public and Chinese citizens connected with international civil society, inspiring a rapid proliferation of Chinese NGOs. Yet although the Party permitted the expansion of NGOs, it also limited their growth by promulgating a suite of NGO laws between 1989 and 2000, specifically the principle of “dual-registration” obligating all NGOs to operate under the supervision of an official government sponsor and register with the Civil Affairs Department, as well as the “one NGO per sector” principle, which permits only a single NGO to operate in a given locality for a given issue area.


The Modern Age

Thanks to Deng’s reforms and the subsequent exposure of Chinese citizens to international civil society, the current operating environment for domestic NGOs is far more tolerant and open than during the Maoist years, offering unprecedented opportunities for citizens to influence policy. However, this ecosystem is still far more rigid than what prevails within democratic states and has discouraged the formalization of Chinese NGOs, with many choosing to either register themselves as for-profit companies or exist as unregistered organizations. Estimates suggest that these unregistered NGOs could number as high as 2.7 million, although the most commonly accepted figure among scholars is somewhere between 1 to 1.5 million. Technically, these unregistered NGOs are illegal organizations liable to be banned at any time, but in practice the Party adopts a more flexible “three nos” practice of no intervention, no bans, and no recognition, allowing NGOs to operate freely as long as they are not perceived to threaten social stability or the dominant role of the Party. 

Since the government provides no precise legal definition of what behavior threatens social stability, many NGOs over comply by exercising extreme caution and self-censorship, focusing on service provision, and cooperating with the government rather than criticizing it. This dichotomy of registered-legal and unregistered-illegal organizations is further compounded by the variability of resource endowments available across China which influences how NGOs can engage with citizens and policymakers. For instance, one 2017 study found that NGOs in eastern megacities like Beijing and Shanghai leverage their unique location to gain privileged access to high level national decision makers and more easily tap into international donor networks, thus avoiding dependency on the state. In contrast, NGOs in a poorer inland city received significantly less international funding, pushing them to seek state support that increased their proclivity for self-censorship. Interestingly, NGOs in the second-tier city of Nanjing took a leaner volunteer focused approach, allowing them to grow without attracting undue government attention and ensuring they enjoyed independence from both international and state donors, though they still could not touch politically sensitive issues.

Despite these harsh regulations, ENGOs have successfully leveraged the limited opportunities of the system to both survive and thrive across China. In fact, the number of both registered and unregistered citizen organized ENGOs in China has increased considerably since the 1990s, with a particularly stunning annual growth rate of 25% from 1995 to 2004 alone. Key to this proliferation was a favorable political environment wherein Party authorities have either supported ENGOs, as in the case of the Beijing city government including them to coordinate the 2008 Olympics, or been divided in their opinions, as in the case of dams along the Nu River which were backed by economic authorities but opposed by the environmental ministry, which utilized ENGOs to press its case. The less politically sensitive nature of environmental issues has also allowed ENGOs to generally avoid the repression meted out to groups like the Falun Gong or human rights organizations, a fact exemplified by Beijing’s deregistration of over 50,000 social organizations from 1996 to 2002 while permitting ENGOs to grow at an impressive clip during the same period. Beyond this more favorable political context, ENGO founders have tended to come from highly prestigious backgrounds boasting impressive degrees and careers, allotting them more social capital and stronger social networks which they can leverage to influence authorities for the benefit of their organizations, such as facilitating sponsorship by a government partner.

Yet even with the beneficial circumstances enjoyed by Chinese ENGOs, the state dominated nature of the broader NGO ecosystem has limited their ability to organize, especially in comparison to their counterparts abroad. One analysis of ENGOs in Nanjing found that despite overall growth in their capacity, the local government nonetheless constrained their ability to influence policy by constructing a hierarchical and state-biased relationship between itself and ENGOs and even among ENGOs themselves. Specifically, the local environmental GONGO had much easier access to Nanjing’s policymakers and a greater resource endowment than true ENGOs, which had to either filter their views through the GONGO or take the much less successful route of directly contacting state institutions for any hope of advancing their reform plans. 

Additionally, some scholars have argued that the restrictive operating environment for Chinese NGOs hampers their ability to develop valuable knowledge and expertise in their particular field by incentivizing a conformist approach that does not innovate. As a result, the state has little awareness of the contributions made by NGOs and little incentive to change its engagement with them, leading to a vicious cycle. In sum, contemporary Chinese ENGOs do benefit from an operating environment that is more open and formalized than during the Maoist years and even enjoy greater freedoms than other NGOs, but this space is still limited to ensure that the Party remains the dominant actor.




With a Little Help from My Friends

Many American, Chinese, and multilateral ENGOs are currently doing the hard work of climate cooperation on the ground, proving that the U.S. and China can engage constructively on this issue, albeit indirectly. What follows is an illustrative overview of the progress made by three such organizations.


Clean Air Asia (CAA)

Founded in 2001 under a partnership with the Asian Development Bank, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and the World Bank, CAA works to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in over 1000 Asian cities by helping policymakers develop and implement pollution control policies, raising awareness, building technical capacity, and linking pollution to environmental preservation and public health. In response to public pressure from a 2019 CAA air quality report, multiple Chinese city governments improved air cleanliness and adopted best practices to ensure long-term improvement. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, CAA supported six Chinese ENGOs in reducing emissions from over 20 seaports across the nation in addition to raising public awareness about port pollution and submitting suggestions to government agencies to improve port city air quality. 

CAA has also trained over 60 representatives from 36 local ENGOs on air quality advocacy and published 10 articles offering suggestions on national and regional level pollution controls for the 14th Five Year Plan. On World Environment Day, CAA launched a multi-platform social media campaign to raise awareness on air pollution and climate change by gathering ten celebrities, five leading environmental experts, and 40 ENGOs to publish 100 articles and 30 short videos attracting over 14 million views in total, pushing World Environment Day to the top three trending environmental topics on China’s biggest social media site Weibo. Perhaps most impressively, CAA accomplished all of this and more across Asia with an annual income of slightly over $2.7 million.


Friends of Nature (FON)

Operating since 1994, FON has been working for nearly three decades to address environmental harms within China and raise public awareness about critical environmental issues like air pollution, biodiversity conservation, and climate change. For instance, in 1995 FON saved the habitat of the endangered Yunnan snub-nosed monkey after highlighting the issue in the media and pressuring Beijing to prioritize its conservation, and since 2000 the ENGO has taught more than 20,000 students across 200 schools valuable lessons about environmental issues. In 2017, FON joined forces with an ENGO coalition to mobilize public opposition to a hydropower project which would have destroyed the habitat of the Chinese green peacock. Following intense public backlash, the billion-yuan project was tabled, and the peacock was elevated to “extremely endangered” status. FON has also been at the forefront of bringing polluters to justice, winning the right to bring a public interest lawsuit against a polluting firm in 2011 after seven of its previous cases had been rejected by the Chinese government. Thanks to FON’s concerted activism, NGOs across the country finally gained the right to sue private firms on behalf of others through amendments to the national civil law in 2012 and environmental protection law in 2014, resulting in more than 40 such cases from FON being accepted by courts across China as of 2021.  Besides litigation, FON has also coordinated directly with the Chinese government at multiple levels to promote over 40 different pieces of environmental legislation, including those addressing air and soil pollution, transparency in public records, and general environmental protection.


Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

Established during the U.S. environmental awakening of the 1970s, the NRDC has grown into one of the nation’s leading ENGOs and began operating in China by the mid-1990s, becoming one of the first foreign ENGOs to do so. Among NRDC’s many other firsts in China, it launched the country’s first clean energy program, developed the first building energy codes, established the first research program for green energy vehicles, and implemented the first utility-based energy conservation initiative. In fact, NRDC’s pilot efficiency programs in Jiangsu province proved so successful that Beijing required all grid companies to invest in similar programs, and the 13th Five Year Plan’s mandatory coal reduction target drew directly from an NRDC strategy. No less important, NRDC has increased the capacity of domestic ENGOs within China, including through its 2013 Coal Consumption Cap project with some 20 civil society groups and its 2018 Oil Consumption Cap project organized with more than 10 Chinese partners.


Harness Your Hopes?

American and Chinese ENGOs have been working tirelessly over the past few decades to address environmental harms by sharing best practices and technical skills, mobilizing their respective publics to fight for their environmental rights, pressuring government officials for policy reform, and holding polluters accountable. Although impressive declarations by Washington and Beijing capture more attention, those declarations are big on rhetoric, small on substance, and entirely at the mercy of the increasingly acrimonious bilateral relationship. In contrast, the daily grassroots-level work conducted by ENGOs produces stable cooperation yielding tangible results, even when the geopolitical winds are unfavorable. Certainly, this work is not without challenges which are influenced by worsening Sino-American relations. For example, some congressional conservatives lambasted the NRDC as a “foreign agent” for its environmental work in China, while Beijing’s recently implemented Foreign NGO Law, adopted to combat so-called foreign interference, has made it far more difficult for domestic and international ENGOs to operate within the country.

Despite this, and given all the positive results seen thus far, leaders in Washington and Beijing would be wise to facilitate rather than suffocate the activities of ENGOs operating across their borders. An easy start for the U.S. would be to reengage with CAA, which it originally cofounded but has since been largely absent from, either directly through USAID or indirectly through federal grants to charitable foundations like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund or the Macarthur Foundation. The latter route could be a particularly effective one, considering that many such U.S. foundations already have designated climate programs providing grants to ENGOs like FON and NRDC to implement practical projects with high-impact, meaning that Washington could outsource the difficult work of identifying feasible projects while also maximizing the impact of taxpayer dollars. Lawmakers and media could also help by not demonizing ENGOs for simply operating within China on climate issues, given that such rhetoric could spook individual and foundation donors that provide critical funding. On the other side of the Pacific, Chinese policymakers should simplify and streamline the cumbersome “dual registration” process for ENGOs. Facilitating the legalization of its mountain of unregistered NGOs would greatly expand the opportunities for local collaboration available to foreign ENGOs operating in China while also increasing the technical and administrative capacity of local ENGOs. Although less likely, it would also be of great benefit to the ENGO community if Beijing rolled back some of the more draconian aspects of its new foreign NGOs law so that ENGOs could more easily operate within the country. 

These recommendations are by no means exhaustive and only serve as an illustrative list of options open to policymakers across the Pacific to bolster bilateral cooperation on shared climate goals. Of course, in an ideal world the first-best option would be for Washington and Beijing to engage regularly and directly to address the climate crisis, but unfortunately we do not live in an ideal world, and it is all but certain that bilateral competition rather than cooperation will remain the norm. That being the case, adopting a second-best option of indirect climate cooperation via ENGOs would provide both countries and the international community with a workable method for ensuring stable progress on the most pressing issue facing the world today, even as its two most powerful countries seem destined for entrenched rivalry and competition.