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Environmental NGOs Aspire to Bigger Role
Chinese environmental non-government organizations (NGOs) are determined to make themselves more audible in Johannesburg.

More than 100 world leaders including Premier Zhu Rongji are expected to attend the World Summit on Sustainable Development, being held in South Africa from today to next Wednesday.

China is sending an 18-member delegation of environmental non-government organizations (NGOs) workers.

The Johannesburg summit is considered a milestone for China because it marks the environmentalists' debut on the international stage with a common voice.

Since the first registered environmental NGO -- Friends of Nature -- was founded in Beijing in 1994, the non-profit sector in China has grown significantly and has done much to raise awareness nationwide about environmental protection.

But their voice remained weak at various international meetings in recent years, "partly because we had no experience playing the game on the world stage," said Liao Xiaoyi, president and founder of the Global Village of Beijing, one of China's leading environmental NGOs.

"Another reason is that people in other countries think China's NGOs are made up of people who actually work in government, so they don't arrange seats for us.

"One of our key missions is to change this bias and let the world know that real NGOs do exist in China and are doing and have done a lot of effective work."

Liao was born in 1954 in Sichuan Province and eventually taught philosophy at Sichuan University.

In 1995, Liao began to develop television programs for China Central Television about protecting the environment.

She directed "Environment and China" and "Environmental Time," which together attracted more than 150 million Chinese viewers.

Liao, regarded as one of the pioneers in environmental protection in China, won the Sophie Award, one of the largest and most significant environment awards in the world, in 2000.

She has attended many international meetings since the Global Village of Beijing was founded in 1996, but none of them excited her as much as the upcoming South Africa summit.

"We have looked forward to this day for a long time," Liao said.

Dozens of environmental NGOs were set up across China after the Friends of Nature was founded by Liang Congjie, a retired professor.

But there was hardly any contact between them until they jointly hosted a nationwide program "Earth Day 2000 -- China Action."

About 300,000 environmental survey cards were distributed across China and those returned so far indicate that more than 70,000 people have promised to adopt an environment-friendly lifestyle, Liao said.

But this united action is not enough to gain recognition on the international stage.

The Johannesburg summit is expected to be another opportunity for the Chinese NGOs engaged in environmental protection work to build up good links between themselves and join hands to make themselves known to their counterparts in the world.

Eleven environmental NGOs will represent China from all parts of the country.

The delegates come from Beijing and Hebei Province in North China, Southwest China's Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, East China's Jiangsu and Shandong provinces and Northwest China's Shaanxi Province.

The local grassroots organizations acknowledge that they still operate on a small scale.

"The size of our organizations are still small and most of us don't have experience attending world gatherings," said Wu Dengming, head of Chongqing's Green Volunteer League.

At 62-years-old, Wu is the eldest member of China's delegation to the South Africa summit.

He has been involved in environmental protection work for more than 10 years and his organization, founded in 1995, is known for its protection of virgin forests in western Sichuan Province, helping to keep the ecological conditions of the upper reaches of the Yangtze River intact.

"China's large population and rapid economic growth will affect the future of the world," Wu said. "We are doing a lot of environmental research and education work on the front line so that our voice cannot be ignored."

During the latest preparation meetings at the Globe Village of Beijing, the delegation decided to make water its most urgent issue.

Other agenda items include sustainable development, rural development and poverty reduction.

"It is effective to work with the media to make Chinese people more aware of environmental problems and to know how their own behavior affects the world at large," said Wang Yongchen, a reporter with China National Radio and president of Green Earth Volunteers, an environmental NGO in Beijing.

Green Earth Volunteers, founded in 1996, has organized people to plant trees on weekends and holidays in the deserts of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and along the banks of the Yellow River.

It promoted the protection of white-flag dolphins in the Yangtze River and protected the swamplands and riverbanks where migratory birds settle.

Many reporters have joined the Green Earth Volunteers and Wang said their coverage about environmental problems had aroused public support for protection activities.

Wang, who will attend the summit, said she hoped it could lead to a closer interaction with the Chinese Government.

Chinese NGOs say they need to explore more channels to voice their opinions to the government and to share their knowledge of environmental situations in society.

"We want to monitor pollution for the government's legal enforcement arm, while contributing to policy-making," Wang said.

"We would be a good partner and a bridge between the government and the public."

Liao said NGO workers were going to the summit to share their experiences with groups from other countries, in addition to getting a clearer picture of the next 10-year plan for promoting sustainable development in China.

(China Daily August 26, 2002)

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