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A Conversation with Chinese Fellow, Environmental NGO Leader Lican Liu

September 17, 2014

Asia Foundation 60th anniversary seriesIn Asia editor Alma Freeman recently interviewed co-founder and Director of Programs and Communications at the Greenovation Hub, a grassroots NGO that focuses on LicanLiuenvironmental protection and innovation in China. Liu was selected as one of the inaugural 2014 Asia Foundation Development Fellows and is currently in San Francisco for the Foundation’s “2014 Asia Foundation Development Forum: Challenges and Voices for Asia’s Future.”

China recently passed sweeping revisions to its Environmental Protection Law that aim to take a tough stance against industrial polluters. What are your thoughts on this development?

The new Environmental Protection Law, which will come into force in 2015, is really encouraging – at least on paper. Despite some shortcomings, I have to say that it still exceeds my expectations. At the same time, we have to keep in mind that the current revisions came from many rounds of discussions that took place over 10 years. This long tug of war indicates that parts of the government are still more concerned that environment protection could become an obstacle to economic growth.

Also changes in a law do not necessarily lead to changes in behavior. The actual implementation of the new law is key to real change. However, implementation can be problematic. For example, there has been a regulation on environmental information disclosure for several years, yet many local environmental protection bureaus still do not follow the regulation.

We need to observe how local governments implement the law, as that will be critical to its success. Since the law has promised the right of information, monitoring, and participation, it is always good for NGOs to encourage or push local governments to disclose environmental information, organize hearings, punish polluting sources, recover polluted areas, and rescue environmental victims. The law also makes it clear that NGOs can file lawsuits on polluting sources that do not take their responsibilities. It is a relatively recent phenomenon that NGOs can contribute to putting more pressure on local governments to help them implement the law.

As we look to the next UN Global Climate Change conference in Paris next year, which plans to finalize a comprehensive global greenhouse gas reduction protocol for the period beyond 2020, what are some examples of progress and commitments that China has made in reducing emissions and negative impacts on the environment?

In the past several years, China has cut its carbon intensity (CO2 emissions per unit of GDP) by more than 20 percent. In some areas where air pollution is most severe, the central government has demanded that coal usage be reduced.

China has announced that by 2020 it will cut its carbon intensity by 40-45 percent from the 2005 level. Even though this target has been criticized by some other countries and organizations for being too conservative, it still means that China will need to do a great deal to achieve this goal given its strikingly tremendous consumption of resources for its economic growth.

China also aims to develop cleaner technology and sustainable energy. It has been the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels since 2008 and overtook Germany in 2013 to become the biggest market for solar power. It is also the largest producer and market of wind power. China has a very ambitious development plan on nuclear power and hydropower. Although the latter two are not considered clean or green technology by some environmentalists, it still shows that China wants to cut emissions through technology improvement, energy efficiency, and reduced use of fossil fuels.

Another way that China is looking to reduce CO2 emission is through adjusting its economic structure by promoting the service sector and high-end operations in manufacturing. China has shut down many heavily polluting factories and pushed industries to adopt advanced technologies to meet environmental standards and reduce CO2 emission. Chinese government also tries to increase the service sector’s share in national economy through a series of policies such as tax cut.

Ahead of this global conference, what are China’s biggest priorities related to protecting the environment and natural resources?

Actually climate change is not the biggest priority of China’s environmental protection work. If you consider that there are more than 100 million (the actual number should be more) rural residents who still do not have access to safe drinking water, many areas suffering from severe air pollution, and that food safety is a daily issue, you can understand that the biggest concern among the public and the government is pollution. That’s why in March Premier Li Keqiang declared “a war on pollution.”

We’re also seeing China incorporating new technology role in tackling environmental problems. For example, in the effort to cutting down CO2 emission, China emphasizes developing sustainable energy and improving energy efficiency. China has quite advanced technologies and significant share in the market of photovoltaic, wind tribune, electric automobile, etc. I think that China’s efforts in dealing with climate change and air pollution can somehow showcase to other countries, especially the developing ones, how to balance development and environmental protection and how to embrace technology in the process of rapid industrialization and urbanization.

What are the biggest challenges to grassroots environmental work China?

A lack of skilled workers and sustainable funding are always a problem, which prevents organizations from addressing more critical problems and developing skills like research, advocacy, and communication. But I think this is the case in many developing countries. Particularly in China, there is another big challenge that green groups have to face and cannot easily find a solution: politics. Civil society organizations, including environmental ones of course, are usually considered threats instead of supporters for governance by China’s government. Even though environmental organizations have become one of the most active social sectors, it is still very hard for a green group to register as an NGO or a charity, which hampers the ability to raise money from the public and attract qualified employees. Plus, governments do not want environmental organizations to always monitor their work, criticize their policies, repel polluting industries, and mobilize people. They want to “birdcage” the environmental movement and grassroots organizations by guiding green NGOs to focus more on “soft” topics like environmental education than “hard” topics like fighting against polluting sources.

Can you say a few words about what Greenovation Hub is working on now?

“A Glass of Clean Water” is our star project, which provides safe drinking water solutions to rural areas. Since ordinary people aren’t really aware of their water quality, we also initiated a social enterprise project that produces and sells water-quality testing toolkits to the public. Our policy center focuses on climate change and energy issues through organizing workshops, attending climate change talks, and producing policy briefings. We also created an index to rank cities annually based on their environmental governance and qualities.


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