Public interest groups: important in an invisible way

The key challenge of introducing public interest groups to environmental foreign relations is the dearth of established cases and the absence of a vaunted victory' in exerting influence on foreign affairs. Yet NGOs contribute to the formulation of a new developmental paradigm through the provision of public goods49 and play an active part in fostering international cooperation. The overseas operations of NGOs are made possible by the idea of people-to-people diplomacy, which bridges non-state Chinese actors and foreign partners and builds a positive image for the Chinese state.50 In fact, NGOs are seen as helping government authorities to convey messages to both domestic and international audiences. In other words, NGOs are not only relevant for the China Model debate but are at the frontline of sharing Chinese experiences and showcasing the attractiveness of the China Model.

A rare find is a Chinese environmental NGO called the Global Environmental Institute. Established in 2004, which coincided with the discussion of the Beijing Consensus, the GEI and its founder were clear in their ambition to share Chinese experiences in sustainable development with other countries. This international outlook immediately distinguished the GEI from its NGO counterparts, whose operations were confined to domestic affairs. The leaders of the GEI believe that China is a perfect laboratory to test foreign practices from developed countries. They argue that through the process of experimentation, they can remove inappropriate or irrelevant components and generate an adapted development strategy that is tailored to developing countries, one that is based on experiences in the People's Republic of China.51 Hence, in concrete terms, “Chinese experience” means filtering out unwanted elements (such as pollution, market failure and overconsumption) of development while simultaneously modifying developmental strategies in accordance with national conditions.

NGOs have specialised skills in the making of the “Chinese experience” due to their ability to interpret “social facts” based on experience—their interpretive and their symbolic power—the ability to convey legitimacy and credibility.52 Both of these abilities are particularly characteristic of the GEI. In fact, “experiences” are the cornerstone of the GEI's influence. The organisation has both cross-institutional and trans-border mechanisms for sharing experiences. On the institutional level, just one year after its establishment, the GEI signed an agreement with the Central Party School on the Capacity Building Programme to train local caches and central bureaucrats on environmental governance.53 Unlike other NGOs, which are often afraid of the government poaching their ideas,54 the GEI has actively fed its novel measures to the administration and synchronised its own institutional expertise with that of government agents. Trans-border sharing of experience can be observed in the rural development programme: GEI teams developed demonstration projects—pilot projects that demonstrate then expertise in combining poverty reduction and environmental protection in rural Chinese areas—which were then expanded to neighbouring countries such as Sri Lanka and Laos. The rationale behind frying to replicate the projects that proved feasible in the PRC in other countries is derived from the assumption that it is more effective to extrapolate Chinese practices than the practices of developed countries.55

One condition which facilitates the synchronisation of the GEI’s experiences with the success stoiy of China is the career backgr ound of the founder and members of the GEL Its founder, Mrs Jin Jiaman, is a veteran government official with decades of experience in environmental governance and expertise in collaborating with international organisations. In its early years, the GEI recruited a significant number of staff who had worked for the Chinese government. Previous experiences as civil servants socialised the GEI staff to communicate then ideas and strategies in a language which presents NGOs' role as complementary and beneficial to good governance.

The GEI was founded with the goal of promoting the cross-section between environmental sustainability and economic development, not only domestically but also in how Chinese players interact with foreign players. One area in which the GEI attempts to exert influence is in reforming foreign aid to be more sustainable, or “green”. It is one of the first social organisations within China which explicitly identifies South-South Cooperation as one of its primary concerns.56 Its highlighting of South-South Cooperation resonates with the ambition of the Chinese state to represent interests of the developing country block. The glue which binds the Southern countries together is “their common experience, and rejection, of the neoliberal development model''.57 In fact, the term “South” is used strategically as a “mobilising symbol and ideological expression of the range of shared development challenges” facing governments of developing countries.58

The focus on South-South results largely from Dr Zhang Jiqiang, the director of the China Programme in the Blue Moon Fund, and Mis Jin Jiaman, the executive director of the GEI. Described as a visionary thinker by GEI staff. Dr Zhang sees China as a laboratory for sustainable development, which allows the GEI to investigate what is working within China and then to share the experiences with other developing countries.59 Mis Jin Jiaman has two decades of experience as an official in the Chinese government, non-govemmental organisations and international organisations in the field of environmental protection. Both Dr Zhang and Mrs Jin have rich experience in working with the Chinese government and are strongly committed to bringing positive change to the establishment, a prerequisite for then creative projects and strategic thinking. The difference between the GEI and the government is that the former is forward thinking and explores what the government has not yet achieved but could in five years’ time.60 In this way, the GEI accumulates experience before the government does.

The fust South-South Cooperation project of the GEI was the Sri Lanka Biogas Commercialisation Project, launched in July 2005.61 The GEI opened its local office to implement the project in 2006. It became the very first foreign NGO authorised by the Sri Lankan government since Sri Lanka gained independence in 1947 and the very fust international NGO to obtain financial support from the Sri Lankan government.62 The GEI collaborated with the Ministry of Livestock of Sri Lanka. The aim of this project was to introduce the latest made-iu-Chma biogas technology to Sri Lanka and, furthermore, to develop a business model in which livestock waste is transformed into renewable energy. The business model is drawn from the GEI’s previous experiments and experience in rural Sichuan and Yunnan.63 One key lesson from Sri Lanka for the GEI is that it not only has a role to play in South-South Cooperation projects but also that it has hands-on experience. Hence, the GEI has initiated a second overseas project in Laos.

The case of Laos is substantially more important than the GEI’s first attempt, because it is no longer an ad-hoc and temporary operation, and its ambition is to institutionally station the GEFs presence in Laos, like international NGOs’ existence in China.

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