Friday, March 29, 2013

Who’s Responsible for Watching Our Water?

One of the latest controversies in Chinese society has been the issue of groundwater pollution in Shandong and other provinces. Disillusioned by the ineffectuality of the government agencies responsible for monitoring pollution, a number of civil society advocates have emphasized the role of NGOs and the public in efforts to eradicate pollution.

By Amanda Brown-Inz
Associate Director, China Development Brief (English)
The first public discussions about groundwater pollution began on the Weibo microblog in mid-February, when microblogging stars such as journalist Deng Fei circulated allegations that businesses in Weifang, Shandong were using high-pressure pumps to dispose of wastewater, leading to high levels of underground pollution that affect the quality of the region's drinking water. The Shandong Environmental Protection Bureau responded that it had examined the waste disposal methods of over 700 companies and failed to find any evidence of inappropriate methods, a claim widely pilloried by the public. This controversy quickly became part of a larger current of public critiques of Environmental Protection Bureaus throughout the country, including an offer of RMB 200,000 which a Zhejiang businessman extended to any Environmental Protection Bureau official willing to swim in a polluted local river.
In response, a number of local Environmental Protection Bureaus sought to defend their work. The Shandong Environmental Protection Bureau put out an open call to the public, offering a hefty reward for evidence of groundwater pollution. The Wenzhou Environmental Protection Bureau took out a full-page ad in a local newspaper, arousing further opprobrium for misuse of funds. China Daily released a number of articles lauding the services offered by the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau, including an environmental protection hotline.  These efforts, however, were not enough to quell the growing tide of criticism directed at Environmental Protection institutions' failure to address the serious damage that industries are inflicting on the environment.
The fact remains that the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) is one of the country's weakest ministries, with little ability and, if rumors concerning corporate bribes aimed at MEP officials are true, little incentive to strong-arm wealthy, well-connected businessmen into following regulations. In a lawsuit recently submitted by a man whose son suffered from a lung disorder caused by proximity to a trash burning plant, he accused the Ministry of Environmental Protection of delaying a response to his queries until after major companies in the area had been consulted, violating an internal regulation that inquiries must receive a response within 15 days.
Disappointed with the government institutions intended to fight pollution, and conscious that local officials also frequently ignore environmental protection regulations in order to meet the economic development quotas which can determine their promotion, many civil society voices have turned to the role of the public and civil society institutions in fighting pollution. As laid out in a recent meeting of environmental NGOs, these include calling for transparency in government, utilizing public interest lawsuits, and encouraging public participation. If pollution data is openly reported, environmental NGO Nature University founder Feng Yongfeng emphasized that it will be easier for the public to call for a response from the relevant authorities, and more difficult for businesses to obfuscate the nature of the situation.
Unfortunately, another MEP scandal at the end of February, regarding its refusal to release data from a national soil contamination investigation in 2006, highlights the significant shortcomings in transparency and accountability in the environmental protection system. And while the newly revised environmental public interest lawsuit may well be a useful tool in addressing pollution damage, others have argued that China's weak legal system, and the lack of clarity in the civil procedure legislation, leave the mechanism ill-suited to taking on the large entities responsible for pollution.   
While all levels of government, businesses, and the public will have to participate in constructing a coherent response to pollution, the MEP stands as the conduit through which environmental protection action should take place. Time will tell whether the institution, only recently upgraded to ministerial level, will develop the ability to effectively monitor pollution, openly release its data, and work with the public, NGOs, and other parties to keep pollution damage in check.

Monday, March 11, 2013

College Entrance Exam Woes for China's Migrant Children

Here is another View from the Media that was posted several weeks ago on China Development Brief's website that highlights the plight of China's migrant children.

Amanda Brown-Inz
CDB (English) Associate Director
In recent months, a considerable amount of media attention has focused on the plight of migrant workers' children seeking to attend public high school and take the college entrance exam (gaokao) in a location outside of their legal residency (hukou[1]). This issue highlights the tensions arising from China's rapid urbanization, and the stress that new geographic mobility places on the hukou system.
There are reportedly more than 400,000 migrant workers' children living in Beijing alone, approximately 16 million throughout the country, and these communities have become increasingly vocal about their right to attend public high school and test for university in their place of residence. In urban metropoles such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, the issue has been particularly heated, as universities maintain higher placement quotas for these in-demand locations, and many claim that urban families hope to maintain a monopoly on their privilege by excluding the children of migrant workers from gaokao competition.
The first public debate on this issue centered around Zhan Haite, the 15-year-old daughter of a migrant businessman in Shanghai, whose plea for policy reform was featured in an op-ed in the state-owned newspaper China Daily.  More recently, the debate in Beijing focused on a controversial plan issued in December of 2012 that would allow migrant workers' children to attend vocational colleges in the capital beginning in 2013, and allow them to matriculate at universities after graduating from vocational colleges beginning in 2014. 
The plan would allow policy makers to kill two birds with one stone, skirting the gaokao issue and acquiring pupils for the city's unpopular (and reportedly subpar) vocational colleges. Following a public outcry, however, the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education announced on January 21 that it would reconsider this plan and develop a new action plan to allow migrant youths in Beijing to take the gaokao. This action plan will include creating a management regulation for migrant workers' schools and a special fund to guarantee that migrant children receive compulsory education in Beijing.
In the meantime, the Beijing Bureau of Education has turned its attention to the unregistered schools which provide education to migrant children. While migrant children at the junior high school level and below are technically entitled to attend Beijing public schools, exorbitant entrance fees and weak educational backgrounds often prevent their enrollment. Thus, private schools for migrant children have sprung up in recent years, attempting to address the unique needs and situation of the children of migrant workers.
Despite the benefits of  (and obvious need for) these types of schools, Beijing education authorities have frequently been quite hostile to their operations. Migrant children's schools face a constant battle against government closure efforts, and must often rely on their relationships or on appeals to the media to keep their doors open. Authorities argue, however, that many of these schools are not up to national standards, lacking professional teachers and proper curricula, and thus should not be allowed to operate. In January, Chaoyang authorities shut down 18 private schools.
More interesting initiatives related to the development and professionalization of migrant children's schools have emerged from the private sector. Over the last couple of years, for instance, the Narada Foundation (南都基金会) has funded a New Citizens Program (新公民), which develops and professionalizes already extant migrant children's schools. The Maple Women's Psychological Counseling Center  has also recently announced the development of its Beijing Migrant Children's Education Plan, which will unite a number of NGOs (including New Citizens) to form the Beijing Migrant Children's Care Alliance, carrying out Training-of-Trainers and other programs.
The cause of gaokao qualification for the children of migrant workers is one in a growing chorus of critiques of the hukou registration system. The challenge for the government, which is reticent to dismantle the system, lies in testing how many exceptions and tweaks may be made to its infrastructure in response to social welfare concerns before it snaps. While the halting of the hukou system is far from certain, its navigation will hold a crucial place in the struggle for social welfare reform in upcoming years.

[1] Hukou is the Chinese term for the household registration system which determines every Chinese citizen's legal residency. In this system every Chinese citizen registers in the city or town or township where they reside. Benefits such as medical insurance and access to public schools are tied to one's hukou and are not transferable. Thus, if someone moves to another city, such as Beijing, they generally do not receive those same benefits in their new place of residence, unless they are able to change their hukou. Getting your hukou transferred to a major city such as Beijing or Shanghai, however, is very difficult. As a result, the large majority of “migrants” in China's major cities lack the same status as hukou holders in those cities.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Getting Involved in the Nonprofit Community in Beijing - An Update

A while back I posted about different venues for getting involved in the nonprofit community for those living in Beijing. Some of these are no longer around, like Wokai Beijing Volunteer Chapters Drinks for a Better World event now that Wokai has closed shop. But others are going strong and there are some other emerging venues worthy of mention:

1) Beijing Community Dinner – BCD was started in 2007 and has been organizing dinners every two weeks at a Beijing restaurant specializing in Chinese regional cuisine.  Interested individuals can go for a meal and hear someone from a Chinese nonprofit talk about their work.  Diners pay for the meal and are encouraged to add a donation which goes to the nonprofit.  BCD has also organized several fieldtrips to visit selected nonprofits in Beijing. To get on their mailing list, go to their website to sign up.

BCD almost always gets very interesting speakers, many from Chinese NGOs, and is committed to making their events as inclusive as possible by keeping costs down, and is always looking for volunteers to help with their events.  To give you an idea of the events they put on, I post their most recent event here:

Migrant worker issues continues to remain on the agenda of the Chinese government, especially as we start the NPC and CPPCC sessions in Beijing this week.  We have 2 speakers from organizations providing services and legal aid to migrant workers.

- Mr Li (Tao):"Nong Min Gong Xie Zuo Zhe (Helper/Collaborator for Migrant Workers)"The Facilitator provides all kinds of services(i.e. legal aid, entertainment performances, training lectures, study groups etc.) for migrant workers to help them better integrate with cities where they work.  

- Mr Zhang (Zhi Qiang): Beijing Zhiqiang Legal Consultancy Service Center "Da Gong Zhi You(Friends of Migrant Workers) offers legal aids for migrant workers and he also cares about the development for schools built in cities for children of migrant workers.

Date: Sat, March 9

Please RSVP with us by Thurs, March 7 so we know how many people to expect.  Restaurant venue details will be sent separately.

As usual, we will have Crazy Bake bread for sale (RMB25 per loaf).  Enjoy bread freshly-made by patients at the Chaoyang Mental Health Clinic in Tongzhou.

Heads up for our next dinner (Sat, March 23)

In the current age of collective and industrialized breeding, animal welfare seems to take second place to production schedules and profit.  We invite a representative from Compassion in World Farming (CIWF, to speak to BCD about global trends and China's role in food production.
2) FYSE -  Andrea Krause has been working hard over the last few years to expand the trainings and talks offered by FYSE and regularly hosts valuable training sessions and talks (full disclosure: I gave one on NGOs in China last month). Following is a post about this month's talk, given by no less than Andrea herself.

[Beijing] Introduction to social enterprises in China
March 27, 2013

RSVP required to

FYSE invites you to learn about and discuss the current state of, as well as challenges and opportunities for social enterprise in China.

China’s development is at a critical stage. The country faces increasing social, economic and environmental challenges in diverse areas such as education, healthcare and water. Social entrepreneurs are providing solutions that tackle these challenges by combining a social mission with a sustainable business model.

On March 27, 2013  FYSE invites you to discuss the current state of social enterprises in China featuring the findings from FYSE's 2012 China Social Enterprise Report.

The Speakers
Andrea Lane, Founder and Executive Director, FYSE
Andrea founded FYSE in 2008, and grew it into a cutting-edge organization that currently provides support to social entrepreneurs in 10 countries in Asia. Andrea has extensive start-up and management experience in various Asian countries including Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Malaysia.

FYSE's mission is to support social entrepreneurs who have the potential to significantly address social and environmental challenges. The organization has a track record of managing regional and national projects in Asia through multi-stakeholder collaborations with a wide network of partners including companies, educational institutions and nongovernmental organizations.
3) Public Interest Happy Hour - For those interesting in learning more about the nonprofit space in a more casual setting, this event may be just the ticket. It's a new event being organized by Aurora Bewicke, who works for the international NGO, International Bridges for Justice. Here are the details:

Public Interest Happy Hour

The Year of the Snake has arrived and it is once again warm enough to venture outside. In celebration of the warming weather, I’m loosely organizing (in other words, sending out this email) a happy hour for Tuesday, March 12, 2013, from 7-9pm. The theme is public interest, with an aim of bringing together those working in NGOs, rule of law, embassies, etc., but feel free to pass the invite along to anyone who would like to come.

Location: Bar Veloce
Date: Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Time: 7-9

The last happy hour had about 20 people and I assume this one will also gather a good crowd. If you get a chance, send me an RSVP ( so that I can let the bar know approximately how many to expect, but feel free to decide last minute as well.

If you wish to be removed from future emails, just let me know.

For directions and information about the location:
  • Sanlitun 三里
  • Courtyard 4 (opposite west entrance of 1949 - The Hidden City), Gongti Beilu, Chaoyang District
  • 朝阳区工体北路4号院(1949西门对面
  • 6586 1006
Best wishes,