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Black and white cats must turn green, was the jokey phrase reportedly making the rounds before this year's National People's Congress (NPC).

The updating of Deng Xiaoping's rationale for economic reform, "A cat is good if it catches mice no matter whether it is black or white," was seen as a sign of the environment's newly-important political status.

With the Green Olympics on the way, even people who aren't "crazy environmentalists" value green thinking, said Beijinger Liu Hong. The 37-year-old investment consultant is not a stereotypical tree-hugger, but he said: "I care about environmental protection in my daily life. I plant trees on Arbor Day; I recycle bottles; and I try and conserve water since the whole world is suffering from water shortage."

Liu's lifestyle choices may seem small. But the question of who else will make changes and how is pressing. On April 13, one day after the Arbor Day or the national Tree Planting Day, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) admitted that eight of the 10th Five-Year Plan's 20 environmental goals were not achieved. And the "dilemma" facing China's cash-strapped green NGOs was soon revealed.

An All-China Environment Federation (ACEF) survey found almost four-fifths of the nation's 2,768 green NGOs were not registered with the authorities. More than 70 per cent said they had no fixed funding sources.

Like many green groups overseas, they rely on unpaid volunteers to do their day-to-day work. Beijinger Jonathan Zeng is one of the hundreds of unpaid, invisible supporters who keep green groups going. The 44-year-old telecommunications engineer first got involved with China's oldest environmental NGO, Friends of Nature, through his wife.

In 2004 he worked on the Beijing for Bikes campaign. "We had a meeting in a Houhai Hakka restaurant on Car Free Day," he said. "Some people gave speeches, then a group of us biked around the Forbidden City, Tian'anmen Square and Beihai Park giving out leaflets. We explained why Beijing needs bicycles, how they're good for your health and the environment."

While he enjoys the social side of volunteering, and says he's also learned a lot. Zeng is more circumspect about the influence he and other volunteers can have. "I'm not out to influence others, influencing people is difficult," he said. "I just try and do good things."

For the past three months, Zeng and others have been giving up their Saturday mornings to meet in Friends of Nature's small third-floor office to plan another project. Aimed at making it easier for people to do the right thing environmentally, the bilingual English and Chinese Green Choices website will go live in June.

Jeff Orcutt, 25, recently took over as the Green Choices project co-ordinator. The Chicago-born teacher said the project is "really just to let Beijingers know about the need to conserve energy and live a more environmentally friendly life."

Listing tips that should make being green easy, the site will tell readers everything from where to recycle their batteries to which endangered animals and plants to avoid buying.

Orcutt hopes making information easier to access will popularize green thinking. But, he said: "I do think that if things are voluntary people will take short-cuts and give things lip service. It's like that anywhere. I don't believe it's optional anymore, either for the United States or China, to become more sustainable. We're seriously stressing the earth's ability to sustain us already."

So should black and white cats be forced to be greener? Recent legislation has taxed disposable chopsticks, and sought to make smaller-engine cars more attractive.

Orcutt said such changes are cause for optimism: "Once the government throws its weight behind these things you've got 1.3 billion people who'll be working to make China the best, most environmentally-friendly country in the world. The number of people who are already putting energy into this makes me happy."

Rising awareness

Greenpeace spokesman Wang Xiaojun said bringing more people into the loop is crucial. The 32-year old Beijinger said the idea of "being harmonious with nature" has always been part of Chinese culture, through Taoism. But last century's "disastrous" focus on "restructuring or managing nature" has led Chinese people to now look at nature with both "fear and respect."

The ACEF statistics show that, as overseas, caring about nature is a minority interest. Around 80 per cent of green NGOs have less than 30 members, it reported.

Despite this, Wang said awareness is rising: "More and more people, starting with the generation in their early 20s, are really concerned about the conflicts between China's fast developing economy and the environmental problems that come along with the development. China's younger generation is waking up to the price developed countries have paid for damaging their environments, and started thinking about how these problems can be avoided in China."

And he counts himself among the converts: "I was writing financial news at my previous job. One day I looked up from a pile of annual reports and thought: 'Gee, who, at all, is reading my stories or what good are my stories doing to the earth or those people who really need help?'"

Academic Dr Eva Sternfeld, who has worked on Chinese environmental issues for the last 20 years, agrees the times are changing.

"It used to be very hard to get information," the 49-year-old explained. "In the 1970s no one realized China had environmental problems. They even thought it could be a model for developing countries. By the 1980s pollution was public knowledge."

Now working at the China Environment and Sustainable Development Reference and Research Centre in north Beijing, her job remit is "raising environmental consciousness." The centre's library, on the seventh floor of a non-descript grey building, holds about 8,000 Chinese and 6,000 English-language books on environmental issues. They also organize public lectures, photo exhibitions and film nights, and have taken desertification as this year's theme.

But, she concedes, environmental events are not mainstream entertainment. "Last Friday we had an event on farm animal welfare," she said. "I myself thought it was a very interesting topic, but nobody showed up. Maybe urban people don't realize how industrial farming works, because they don't see it."

Despite this, Sternfeld said she is impressed by Chinese people's general "optimism" that environmental problems can be solved. "When I go back to Germany, the people there are so pessimistic. It has something to do with the culture. They're very concerned about the issues, but sometimes I wonder why they're complaining, when their air is so fresh.

"Maybe I've been in China too long," she said. "I'm not pessimistic about China's air and water pollution because they're basically technical problems, that can be addressed. I am more concerned about climate change, and related energy concerns."

Sternfeld's point, that taking care of China's environment is only one of a number of challenges, is not lost on campaigners like Wang Xiaojun.

Getting your own cats in order is all very good. But the world's air, water, and energy resources are intricately inter-linked. The Inner Mongolian sandstorm that swept through Beijing recently was reported to be swirling towards South Korea. Other Chinese sandstorms have reportedly deposited pollutants in lakes in Canada, and traveled across the Pacific to the United States.

One Western idiom has it that getting different vested interests to agree is like "herding cats." But Wang thinks a global focus will be the next step for China's green cats.

"Hopefully, with a more stable and safer life, Chinese people can start paying attention to more global environmental problems, rather than what is happening inside China," he said.

(China Daily May 9, 2006)


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