July 12, 2017; New York Times
When it comes to moving China on issues in civil society, nonprofits often run up against complicated regulations, a unique business environment, and a general resistance to outside interference. Recently, however, a grassroots environmental movement has sprung up among China’s citizens, and many credit the rising popularity of religion in the country with inspiring concern for protecting the environment. How are these things related, and can civil society advocates apply the lessons here to other issue areas?
China’s pollution problems are well known, from major rivers that are estimated to be 10 percent sewage to air so dirty that breathing it for a day has been compared to smoking an entire pack of cigarettes when it comes to lung damage. President Xi Jinping’s administration has enacted environmental protection laws; according to the Washington Post, “On the sidelines of the  annual meeting of the country’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, President Xi Jinping vowed to punish ‘violators’ who destroy the environment ‘with an iron hand.’” However, because coal, steel, and other industries generate tens of millions of jobs and represent an enormous portion of the country’s wealth, those regulations are often merely decorative. Just a month ago, the New York Times reported that “more than 4,700 companies were in unauthorized locations, lacked the proper certificates and failed to meet emissions standards.”
In a manner similar to how local U.S. governments stepped up to lead after President Trump disowned the Paris Accords, local environmental movements have cautiously sprung up in China to voice disapproval where the government fails to punish. Unlike in the U.S., the Chinese advocacy groups are limited by laws that prevent government criticism, but many people have nonetheless protested construction, pollution, and other activities.
The rising profile of environmental concerns has a distinctly moral tinge to it, which is related to a growing return to religious faith among ordinary Chinese citizens. Abbot Yang Shihua of Mao Mountain said, “China doesn’t lack money—it lacks a reverence for the environment…Our morals are in decline and our beliefs have been lost.” Yang and others are working to revitalize the country’s moral and physical environments in tandem.
Fenggang Yang, Professor of Sociology and the Director of the Center of Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, wrote for Slate that “The [Chinese Community Party] leaders appeared to believe that religion would die out…they were confident that the Communist-educated younger generations would not need religion at all.” Instead, religious participation has grown steadily over the last decade. China is estimated to contain nearly 250 million Buddhists and 60 million Protestant Christians, plus smaller numbers of Catholics, Muslims, and other faiths. Unlike prior party leaders, Xi has “genuine respect for traditional Chinese faiths, such as Buddhism, Taoism and folk religion” and “sees religion as a way to promote China’s position” in the world.
Scholars and religious leaders firmly believe that the parallel rise of religion and environmentalism are linked. “As Taoists, we have to work to influence people in China and overseas to take part in ecological protection,” said Abbot Yang, who has made his eco-friendly temple an example of environmental stewardship.
Liang Congjia, who is chairman of Friends of Nature, said, “The experiences of environmental protection in the West are valuable for us to learn from, but it is not possible for us to just copy them.” Tashi Sange, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, told PBS, “Who will protect the environment? In the West and in China, it’s the government’s responsibility. But the Tibetans don’t think this way. This is not the Buddhist way…You are all responsible.” Dai Binnguo, a diplomat, said, “Traditional Chinese culture promotes harmony between man and nature and encourages limited consumption and a simple way of life. We support this. We don’t oppose taking from nature. We do oppose over-exploitation.”
The creeping reemergence of traditional religion as part of a larger Chinese identity has encouraged people to feel stewardship of their country and a responsibility to protect it. Community cohesion in religious groups has empowered people to take up environmental causes collectively. Ian Johnson of the Atlantic saw that Protestant churches were “contributing to a sense that it was ordinary people who possessed real power in a country where all authority seemed to belong to the state.”
Internal pressures, such as the rising health costs of unhealthy environments and the sense of empowerment and concern among citizens, have combined with the external pressure of the Paris Accords and global supply chain accountability to force China to pay more attention to environmental concerns. The links between identity, empowerment, and activism have allowed citizens to form an environmental movement that resonates with Chinese people, and the connection to traditional religions and values helps leaders to see the movement as something that empowers China, rather than as another imposition of the colonial West.
The way in which this grassroots movement has sprung up as the result of collective revival is a reminder to nonprofits that the work they do cannot be transferred wholesale from place to place. Activism that is rooted in community ownership has a particular staying power, and we hope that China’s nascent environmental movement can help the country take a leading role in the fight against climate change.—Erin Rubin