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  Chinese participants at WSSD:

September 2, 2002


A Personal View of Gabriel Lafitte, member of the


Tibetan Delegation to WSSD, Johannesburg, South Africa



During the past nine days of the WSSD meeting in Johannesburg, the Tibetan Delegation was able to meet with many participants from China and Taiwan.


During these meetings, we tried to engage in a dialogue with both the Chinese and Taiwanese groups, agreeing or disagreeing to various issues. The Tibetan delegation was also delighted to have met one Tibetan from Beijing who was attending the Johannesburg Summit as a representative of the "Chinese Society for Human Rights'. The People's Republic of China first presented this organization as an "NGO" during the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993.


A wide range of Chinese organizations, sponsored by the Chinese Government is attending WSSD Johannesburg. Mr. Gabriel Lafitte, a member of the Tibetan Delegation has been following their activities in the past few days. In this update, we publish his observations on these Chinese groups.


The Chinese groups here at WSSD Johannesburg are based in wealthy urban centres, but have a nostalgic concern for wilderness and the importance of conserving nature, which often leads them to work in remote areas, including the headwaters of the Ma Chu (Yellow River) and Dri Chu (Yangtze River). One example is Wang Li. She is a senior partner of one of China's biggest law firms, with a Beijing office in the prestigious Chang'an district, and also an office in The Hague. She has launched legal action against a paper mill in Inner Mongolia whose pollution is destroying the grassland of nomads in Inner Mongolia. I asked her what motivated her to do this, as the area is near the border of independent Mongolia, Inner Mongolia and Russia, very remote from Beijing. Her answer says much about today's China: "During the Cultural Revolution when educated youth were sent down to the countryside to serve the masses, my husband was sent to that area, and he stayed there for 11 years before he could obtain permission to get back to Beijing. He saw the hard life of the herders. He was there so long it became part of him, and it still is. He knows the grass used to be lush and long, but now it is so short."


So Wang Li launched a law case to hold the polluting factory and the local cadres accountable for the pollution, and seek compensation. She describes it as a case of implementing executive liability. She is also using the resources of her law firm to mobilise other resources to alleviate poverty among the nomads.


She has arranged for many of China's relevant laws to be translated into Mongolian, and had the copies distributed among the indigenous inhabitants, so they know their rights.


At WSSD she is urging the many Chinese participants to consider her idea for an action plan which would put proposals to WSSD that the rich countries should accept greater responsibility for poverty alleviation. This is very much in line with Chinese foreign policy and China's stance in the UN and WSSD, in particular.

  Wang Li's story emerged in a meeting of Chinese groups, fifty people packed tight into a small room, the entire proceedings in Chinese. Neither she nor any of the other Chinese who described their work were trying to impress the outside world, because the audience was entirely Chinese, and many of them did not know each other, as China is so big.


Of course not all these organizations were as inspiring. At the opposite extreme were several organisations that are direct organs of the Communist Party, or exist to directly implement government policy. This includes the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. They work in Africa, and say they have established relations with 100 NGOs beyond China. Another group argued that the rich globally should do more to help the poor is "Green Earth Volunteers" based in Beijing.


There are also several organisations seeking to boost their international standing, connections and access to money, including some semi-private academic think tanks, and even the Shanghai Venture Capital Company.


But most of the Chinese organisations, as they took it in turn to stand in the overcrowded room and introduce themselves, are closer to Wang Li's end of the spectrum. Some are small and very new, and work at the local-level. Some are well established and work in many areas. Many combine conservation work with uplift of the poor, and environmental education. Perhaps this is the rebirth of patronage by the rich, who make public their own high standard of civilisation by setting up projects for the poor.


Perhaps the best illustration of the extraordinary diversity of today's China is the All-China Women's Federation and the Chinese Women Entrepreneurs Association. On the surface the Women's Federation is a mass organ of the Communist Party. It has a huge membership. Yet anyone who has read the book of an American anthropologist Hill Gates (Looking for Chengdu) will know that the members use this legitimate structure to do many useful things, for which no other organisation can be formed. At the "Chinese NGOs Caucus" meeting, Women's Federation members made it clear that in addition to looking after the interests of women, they do much community development work. But they didn't say much, perhaps because they are so well known within China.


The Women Entrepreneurs are from China's most modern city, Shenzhen, a city without a past or roots. They say there are many tens of thousands of women in the organisation. They say they do poverty work, programs for the elderly and education. This is entirely believable as China's social security system even in rich cities is very limited, and it is up to community organizations to fill in the many gaps. Many entrepreneurs in Shenzhen are now so rich there is no longer anything left to buy, and they have wealth to spare. While their husbands spend money on junior wives and second apartments for these mistresses, the wives show they are more cultivated, by doing social work.


All these groups are loosely coordinated by a remarkable German woman Dorit Lehrack, who found herself in Beijing when her husband was transferred, and invented a new job for herself, and used her previous experience as a Friends of the Earth campaigner to write a grant proposal and obtain funding from the German government's Centre for International Migration (an offshoot of the German government aid agency GTZ). This energetic young women helped set up over the past 18 months the "China Association for NGO Cooperation" (CANGO), the first umbrella organisation for all "NGOs", with Huang Haoming its executive director.


Of special interest are the groups working in present-day western China. There are several. Among those listed in the CANGO booklet are the Snowland Great Rivers Environment Protection Association, Green Plateau Institute, Yunnan Eco-network, but these are just a few. Yunnan is especially a province where NGOs can set up, far from Beijing. Some, such as CBIK Centre for Indigenous Knowledge specialise in honouring the traditional knowledge of the indigenous inhabitants, who are many in present-day Yunnan.


We need not assume these Chinese groups operating in present-day western China feel as fondly towards Tibetans as they do towards the rivers that are the fount of all life in China. One participant from these groups said that the reason the west remains a "Shangrila" is because there are no roads, and it is important to promote the idea that no roads should be built, because roads will ruin "Shangri-la". This seems to me to be a very modern nostalgia for a lost golden age when life was simple, quite similar to the way the British in India loved the mountains, the wildlife, the rivers, Everything but the Indian people. Another man stood up and said he went into the mountains where the poor live, pointed to a tree and asked a child if it is permitted to cut it. The child said yes, we need to cut it. This proves the ignorance of these people, and why we need to educate them.


Some of the biggest Chinese organizations are based in Hong Kong, and it was the Conservancy Association of HK that hosted the caucus meetings and may be poised to take a parental role in the ultimate strengthening of a culture of NGOs in the People's Republic of China. The Conservancy Association is one of the few groups from PRC aware of global issues under debate at WSSD, and argued at the caucus for a World Environment Protection Association to keep environmental issues from being swamped by WTO and trade. Hong Kong based NGOs spoke about the need to focus on consumption, and promote Sustainable consumption. Oxfam HK is part of a worldwide organisation, familiar with critiques of globalisation.


From Yeke-juu League to Ordos Municipality: settler colonialism and alter/native urbanization in Inner Mongolia

Close to Eden (Urga): France, Soviet Union, directed by Nikita Mikhilkov

Beyond Great WallsBeyond Great Walls: Environment, Identity, and Development on the Chinese Grasslands of Inner Mongolia

The Mongols at China's EdgeThe Mongols at China's Edge: History and the Politics of National Unity

China's Pastoral RegionChina's Pastoral Region: Sheep and Wool, Minority Nationalities, Rangeland Degradation and Sustainable Development

Changing Inner MongoliaChanging Inner Mongolia: Pastoral Mongolian Society and the Chinese State (Oxford Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology)

Grasslands and Grassland Science in Northern ChinaGrasslands and Grassland Science in Northern China: A Report of the Committee on Scholarly Communication With the People's Republic of China

The Ordos Plateau of ChinaThe Ordos Plateau of China: An Endangered Environment (Unu Studies on Critical Environmental Regions)
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