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Explorations in Environmental Protection: A Conversation with Guo Yunzhe

I met Guo Yunzhe in the mid-2000s when we belonged to the same university students’ environmental protection association, Green Hope (绿色希望). I led the association before him; he took over later. Yunzhe currently works for a nongovernmental organisation (NGO) in Yunnan Province focusing on community development and environmental protection. He is also a board member of the China Youth Climate Action Network (CYCAN; 青年应对气候变化行动网络), a well-known environmental protection NGO that he was involved in founding in 2007. Yunzhe agreed to talk to me about his experience in the environmental NGO (ENGO) field over the past 10 years, during which time he has worked in different types of NGOs, starting out at our student association, going on to co-found CYCAN, a new internet-based ENGO for young people, and later moving to Green River (绿色江河), another well-known ENGO. His experience in this field is rich and, in a way, reflective of the richness and variety of the field itself.

My questions for Yunzhe focused on broad trends in the ENGO sector but, during this conversation, Yunzhe sometimes disagreed with my train of thought. Instead, he answered in his own way, prompting me to think about whether sometimes, by focusing on macrolevel trends, we ignore important details. Perhaps this is particularly a problem in environmental protection because while at a macrolevel these issues will always demand global governance and cooperation, on an operational level, we need a deep understanding of specific local contexts. We might think back over the development of the ENGO field and see changes in the domestic institutional and political contexts and shifts in country-to-country relationships. Yet regardless of how things change, the need for humankind to cooperate and face environmental issues together remains. Yunzhe’s reflections suggest that some of the answers to how we do this may be found tucked away in the detail, and not in sweeping summaries of broad trends.

Wang Weinan


Wang Weinan: How about you start by talking about your experience of working in ENGOs. You can start from the beginning or begin with your recent work, whatever you prefer.

Guo Yunzhe: Okay. I will start from the beginning. I chose to go to Minzu University to study Environmental Science as a major, and it was there that I got involved in the environmental protection students’ association where we met. I found the kinds of activities that this students’ association was doing really interesting because at that time, in Beijing, it gave us a lot of opportunities to engage with all kinds of people and groups beyond the university bubble.

That year there was a Green Students’ Forum [绿色大学生论坛] and the forum organised capacity-building, arranging for core members of each university’s environmental protection association to go along. I was able to meet associations from other universities as well as some ENGOs from outside the university. I found out a lot that way. During my second year, I became the leader of our students’ association, organised different activities, and was able to engage a lot with different researchers working on the environment.

At that time, climate change had just begun to gain a lot of attention, and it was a topic of debate in environmental protection circles. In 2007, we participated in an annual meeting of the Chinese University Students Environmental Organisation Cooperation Forum [中国大学生环境组织合作论坛] held in Wuhan and funded by the International Fund for China’s Environment, an American foundation. It gave us the chance to go beyond Beijing and to meet environmental organisations from all over China.

The meeting in Wuhan focused on ‘global warming and university students’ environmental responsibility’. At that meeting, some of us from different universities came up with an idea. We thought: wouldn’t it be great to establish an organisation that was not limited to one specific university and that could do things a students’ association could not? That was how we started CYCAN. That was during summer vacation when I was a second-year student and, from then, right through my third year, I gradually became involved in building CYCAN and working to coordinate around the country [CYCAN is made up of groups from around China].

To begin with, our team was mostly made up of student volunteers. By the time I was in my fourth year, I had begun working for CYCAN full-time. I continued right up until I graduated and, by that time, the organisation had become more developed. At most, we had three or four full-time members of staff as well as student volunteers. For funding, we got support from some Chinese and foreign foundations. The organisation developed well and is still going today. I left at the end of 2010, and it later changed leaders a few times, but it is good to know that it is still operating today.

After leaving in 2010, for a long time I was not involved in CYCAN but a couple of years ago they invited me to come back and so I re-joined them as a supervisor on the board of directors.

So, I became involved in the ENGO field by working on young people’s involvement in action on climate change. But eventually I felt that I had reached a kind of bottleneck. It was partly that I felt that the topic of climate change was too abstract [虚], and partly because I felt that if I was to choose this field to work in full-time then I was lacking capacity, especially in terms of taking on management roles. Now that I think back, maybe it also had something to do with the pressure of life in Beijing.

After leaving CYCAN, I came across another opportunity. Since I had been working in environmental protection circles for quite some time, I had long heard people talking about an NGO called Green River [绿色江河] and its leader, Yang Xin, who, inspired by Friends of Nature, started the NGO in 1994–95 with a group of like-minded people and a desire to set up environmental protection stations. At that time, Green River wanted to build a protection station in Qinghai Province and was looking for a project manager. I took the job and went there in the spring of 2011 and stayed for just less than two years.

Green River, compared with other ENGOs, is not big. It never had more than 10 full-time employees. Compared with CYCAN, working for Green River was a very different experience. Green River was quite strongly influenced by its leader’s ideas, and it did not focus directly on climate change. Thinking back to my time at CYCAN, we were more of an advocacy-type organisation: although we did do some projects within the university, on the whole, we focused mostly on raising awareness among university students of climate change and advocating to those in positions with capacity to act. But Green River was basically rooted at the source of the Yangtze River and focused on concrete protection issues. It is registered in Sichuan Province and operates from Chengdu, but much of its work is at the source of the Yangtze in Qinghai Province. It began by building the Suonan Dajie Nature Protection Station [索南达杰自然保护站] in Kekexili, Qinghai Province. I was later involved in setting up a protection station at the Tuotuo River [Ulan Moron] and doing some rubbish collection and ecological protection projects there.

I stayed at the Tuotuo River protection station for just less than two years, and my work typically involved recruiting and managing volunteers, enabling them to participate in protection work. Some of our volunteers were already environmental experts and able to contribute a lot, but for many, my job was to help them become involved and to gain experience through the process. That was a great thing; they gained a real sense that in Chinese environmental protection there was citizen-led [民间的力量] work going on, especially in some areas where ecosystems are weak or fragile and where economic development is behind other parts of the country.

Then in 2013, when the Lushan earthquake [芦山地震] happened in Sichuan Province, a lot of NGOs got involved in the rescue, recovery, and reconstruction work. Among those organisations involved was The One Foundation [壹基金]. To me, it seemed that the post-earthquake reconstruction really needed nongovernmental actors involved and so I went to work for The One Foundation. I know that was quite a big shift, working on disaster recovery work, but I did that for three years. I later came to Yunnan Province, to the NGO where I work now, an NGO that tries to integrate environmental protection into community development.

The organisation I am at now is called Mengnanshe [梦南社]. It originated with a foundation based in Hong Kong [the Kadoorie Charitable Foundation, 嘉道理基金会]; they have an organisation called Partnerships for Community Development [PDC; 社区伙伴]. Mengnanshe is registered in Kunming, Yunnan. The policy on foreign (including non–Chinese mainland) NGOs is such that it was better to support some of PDC’s staff to set up their own local NGO and to let that locally registered organisation develop independently. That is how Mengnanshe started out. It has been formally registered for about 18 years, and about 10 years ago it began working on community development in Blang communities in Yunnan.

Students’ Associations, Young ENGOs, and an Enabling Atmosphere?

WW: That is well over 10 years of working in different NGOs. I wonder whether in some ways your experiences in the mid to late 2000s might be familiar to others in our generation who were involved in NGOs and environmental protection? For example, you talked about how CYCAN came about. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

GY: My involvement in NGOs began when I was a student, and I gradually went from the university into an ENGO in the city, and from there to ENGOs in different parts of the country. I was a little naive and fearless. I just thought that climate change as an issue was so connected to myself, to other young people, to society, and to the world, and so I felt a sense of mission, a sense of responsibility, and it was this that got me involved in this work.

CYCAN started out as an internet-based NGO with seven organisations involved (I was not the main founder, I just worked with the others). We were quite different from a students’ association based within one single university. At first, I was involved in CEF [the Chinese University Students’ Environmental Organisation Cooperation Forum, 中国大学生环境组织合作论坛], which was one of the seven. The others included an association founded by Peking University graduate students called the Clean Development Forum [清洁发展机制研究会], and so on. Our seven organisations worked together online. There were some main members, like Fei Xiaojing from the Green Students’ Forum and Li Gen, who were both founders. At that time, I was still an undergraduate. Some were graduate students or were already working, so those with a bit more experience took leadership roles. I think I was CYCAN’s first full-time employee. Together there were three of us working full-time for a while.

WW: That makes me think about the connection between civil society in the environmental protection field and university students’ associations. You and I both started out in the same students’ association, and I wonder whether you have a similar sense that back then there was a lot of engagement among students from all over the country? I feel like that really encouraged and inspired a lot of us or sparked something in us. What do you think?

GY: The connection is pretty strong. I have chatted about this with other friends in environmental protection and I think a lot of us in ENGOs, and also in NGOs working in other fields, started out in university associations. But it was not every year that environmental students’ associations fed a lot of people into the field. I feel like it works in phases; I could not say when there were the most people that began working in NGOs in this way, but in my experience, there were a lot who began as undergraduates in 2005 or 2006 who started out in environmental students’ associations and went on to work in ENGOs or other NGOs.

Thinking back now, that might have been influenced by a number of things. For example, there was funding from foreign foundations and also government support. Around that time (beginning in 2008), Pan Yue was Vice-Minister of Environmental Protection [Pan was an environmental journalist before working in government]. The Ministry of Environmental Protection was very supportive of associations like the China Environmental Culture Promotion Association [中国环境文化促进会] and the All-China Environment Federation [中华环保联合会]. Often that kind of organisation went about its activities with a kind of semi-official identity, and every year for their annual conference they would invite students’ environmental protection associations. At that time, they offered a lot of support to students’ associations, and they would convene meetings and organise exchanges. There was a lot of engagement, and gradually more and more discussion, planning, and opportunities for different associations to work together. At that time, the environment for organising domestic NGOs was a bit more relaxed, and the atmosphere for debate and exchange was alive and vibrant. That had a big impact on a lot of young people who back then decided what courses to follow in our own lives, what fields to work in and such.

It is about 11 or 12 years since I graduated, but I heard that later in some universities, associations came to be managed more strictly, the government has been tightening up, and foreign funding has slowly dried up.

WW: I agree, there was a lot of communication at that time, the atmosphere for that was great, there were a lot of chances to engage with different people on the environment, there was a lot of enthusiasm for it; it influenced young people who were involved. You mentioned several different factors: foreign funding, government support, and semi-official associations and their support—those are all important to think about. I wonder whether there is something else that was important, too—that is, the support of senior generations, earlier activists involved in citizen-led environmental protection initiatives? I am thinking, for example, of initiatives like Green Camp [大学生绿色营], which was started by environmentalist Tang Xiyang in 1996.

GY: Right, Green Camp had a big influence. When I was in my first and second years of undergraduate studies in 2005 and 2006, Green Camp was developing fast. It had activities going on all over the country and all kinds of camps. I did not get to join one of the camps myself, but I was involved in exchanges with Green Camps going on in different regions. I remember there was the Jixi Forum [济溪论坛, a Bulletin Board System forum], where people interested in environmental protection would post and debate. There were those forums like Green Camp where earlier activists like Tang Xiyang and those involved in founding Friends of Nature [自然之友] would engage with and support young people. Some people, even if they did not make careers in this field, were still interested in it, and they continued to show concern, support, and engage. This was all a great help to the field.

WW: I remember some regional networks or federations of NGOs were quite active and maybe that was another thing that supported the development of ENGOs. Was that the case in your experience?

GY: At that time, a number of regional networks were forming, and a large part of the funding for some came from the Global Greengrants Fund (GGF), an American foundation, though it was not a huge foundation. Back then, they had a member working for them called Wen Bo. He was involved in setting up the Greenpeace office in China. When he was involved, he managed to fund a lot of young people active in environmental associations to work full-time on their development. They had one way of funding that enabled people in different areas to directly spend funds on buying or renting office space. That meant that groups had a space to operate from and, for young people from across an area or region, those spaces could act as a kind of public space for them to come together and communicate. I remember that at the time there were spaces set up that way in Beijing, Shanghai, Hefei, Lanzhou, Xinjiang, Ha’erbin, and Guangzhou. Although I do not have the data to hand, I know that those spaces were quite influential. That kind of funding was quite directly involved in supporting the development of some environmental organisations, like Green Stone [绿石环境保护中心] in Jiangsu Province, which focuses on industrial pollution; Green Camel Bell [绿驼铃] in Gansu Province, which works on environmental protection in western China; and Green Anhui [绿满江淮], which works on public education and policy advocacy. The GGF played a kind of angel investor role for those groups.

WW: That period had a big impact on the development of civil society. It influenced organisations and individuals, including you and I. Those were pretty exciting times.

Citizen-Led Protection at Green River

WW: Can you tell me more about the next stage of your own experience? You moved from CYCAN to work for Green River. How did they differ? Were Green River’s operating model and way of working different?

GY: It was quite different. Also, when I started at the protection station, it was different to my expectation. To begin with, I was not directly involved in a lot of protection work but instead was mainly developing processes for participation. I did a lot of managing volunteers and coordinating their participation, which was a bit like my work at CYCAN. But at CYCAN I was working with university students. At the protection station, there were all kinds of volunteers—members of society interested in environmental protection. Another difference was that out there at the protection station, it was at the source of the Yangtze River, and that area really made people feel attached. There is something about that kind of area, like the Qinghai Plateau. While the living conditions are not so good, since they were involved in something meaningful there, most of our volunteers left there with a real sense of attachment to the place. That continues to have a lasting impact on them, and on their attitude towards environmental protection, their awareness, and behaviour.

There were other similarities. For example, different types of NGOs were all mainly foundations dependent on funding to survive and develop. But at Green River, when Yang Xin wanted to set up his first protection station, his first sum of money came from the royalties from his book The Soul of the Yangtze: Diaries of Drifting on the Yangtze River [长江魂一个探险家的长江漂流日记]. Of course, after that he also applied for funding from Chinese and foreign foundations, and within China there was support from organisations like Friends of Nature. Green River differed from other ENGOs that relied more on funding from foundations. It always derived part of its funding from its founder’s activities as a photographer, an explorer on the Yangtze, and other things; through this, he was able to draw on broad and diverse social resources, so Green River’s funds did not come just from the environmental protection field.

Related to this, Green River’s projects were not so limited by funders. That is not to say it was not limited at all, but that it was relatively autonomous. In this respect, when it came to autonomy, Yang Xin was quite forward thinking. For example, when he thought something was worth doing, even when it was still unlikely that a foundation would fund it, he would persevere working in this direction, make an impact to show for it, and then retrospectively apply for an award that enabled the organisation to gain some funds and influence. That helped the organisation’s development. That was something different about Green River compared with a lot of other ENGOs.

Meeting a Bottleneck

WW: Something else interesting comes out of this: your experience seems to reflect the broader changes in the agenda and discourse in the environmental protection field. Would you agree?

GY: I have heard people discussing some kind of ‘change in discourse’ but I am not convinced that it is true of my experience. Whether we are talking about individuals or organisations, our development is influenced by an array of different factors. Who knows which factors are most prominent? But when it comes to the development of a whole social group, on the one hand, we are influenced by the context of the times we live in, and on the other, the orientating influence of funding stands out. It might be that for a period funding is oriented towards one particular issue.

WW: Let me go back to something you mentioned when talking about your move from CYCAN to Green River. You said that after working for a few years at CYCAN you felt you had reached a kind of ‘bottleneck’. Can you explain that?

GY: That does relate to the agenda in environmental protection. In around 2009 or 2010, there was more debate over climate change; of course, that was around the time of the UN Copenhagen summit on climate change. The thing that had the biggest impact was that I had originally understood climate change as an environmental issue, but the deeper I got into related debates, the more I came to realise that this was not just an environmental issue at all. The summit involved a lot of politics, relating to how different countries were developing, and to economics, and in terms of the environment itself there was still a lot of debate.

When we were working on issues related to climate change, as young people, we were participating in and coming to understand something about public affairs. It helped us to become global citizens with an international perspective and, in that way, participating was a positive thing. But I started to think that maybe this topic was quite different to my original understanding and hopes when I first became involved in the students’ association. At that time, I felt a lot of confusion. So, when I talked about coming to a bottleneck, I meant that when I got deeper into these debates, I felt like I was fine talking about the general, surface-level issues, but when it came to those deeper, more complex issues, I felt unable to explain this clearly for other people.

Also, in terms of developing as an organisation or as an individual, the agenda now has already changed, and China is much more actively talking about its commitment to ‘peak carbon emissions’ and pursuing ‘carbon neutrality’. At that time, there were already some among us talking about these topics, about how to solve carbon emissions; there were a lot of technical debates going on. For CYCAN, this also presented some opportunities, but we were limited by the nature of our organisation. We were more involved in university student advocacy activities. At the time, when we had the option of getting involved in some more concrete work, to get involved in some of the cutting-edge technologies and so on, we had to decide whether or not to develop in this direction. That kind of thing seemed outside the scope of what we were able to manage. From a management perspective, we started out as a team of student volunteers, developing towards becoming an NGO. There were also opportunities to get involved in the business sector and we had to think about whether that was something we should get involved in, whether it was where our strengths lay. That all came with some difficult decisions. In the end, I made my own decision and moved on to Green River.

Future Direction: Cultural and Environmental Protection

WW: What are your thoughts on the environment in which this sector exists and develops? Has it changed in ways that have had an impact on you?

GY: The change in the context in which ENGOs work has changed in quite obvious ways. First, restrictions on foreign funding have had a big impact. Then there are other factors: individual activities in environmental protection and more radical methods have become less welcome. This has a big influence on the way ENGOs operate. And in terms of methods and techniques, the internet and other new tools have a big influence.

WW: What are the fields you think have real potential for ENGOs? What have you been working on recently?

GY: In the past few years, a clear trend in China’s environmental protection field is for NGOs to work in education about nature; a lot of new organisations are making this their focus. It is a direction that interests me, too.

The NGO that I am working in now focuses on facilitating sustainable development from the perspective of the cultures of different ethnic minorities. Its past projects were also developed from a culturally informed perspective while focusing on livelihoods and local economic development. Its focus is on the notion of ‘sustainable development’. I recently developed a project that encourages communities to establish ‘community conserved areas’ [社区保护地]. The concept comes from the International Union for Conservation of Nature. But actually, in this ethnic minority area, there is already a tradition of the idea of a ‘conserved area’. They have given these areas special names, like ‘竜山’ [long shan; ‘long’ is an old character for ‘dragon’ and ‘shan’ can mean ‘mountain’ or ‘hill’], and believe them to be sacred. Local people in this area have a kind of concern for environmental protection rooted in this faith and culture. To them, this place or this area is inviolable.

They will not hunt living creatures or pick plants here, and humans are not even permitted to enter some places. Due to economic development over the years, these cultures have been affected, and this tradition of protection has also felt some impact. Today, in some ethnic minority areas, protecting culture and nature are one and the same thing. That is to say that if that culture is protected, the protection of nature is a corollary of that. The project I am working on at the moment relates to this. I just mentioned that the local people have many names for these areas that they want to protect, like ‘竜山’, and traditionally they have lots of different conservation areas.

A scholar named Pei Shengji at the Chinese Academy of Sciences has done a lot to study environmental protection in the traditions of different ethnic groups in China and understands the Dai and Blang ‘Long Shan’ areas to be a ‘sacred place of nature’ [自然圣境]. He has found that in the 1960s in Yunnan Province there were a great many places like this—over 1,000. Then in the 1980s and 1990s, because of the rubber industry, only a few hundred remained. This is an enormous reduction. Rubber, and now sugar cane and tea, are plants that consume a lot of water, and growing them too much in one place has a big impact on the environment. The trees here originally were cut down to grow rubber, sugar cane or tea, and then there was the use of chemical fertilisers, and this has done damage to these sacred places of nature, also impacting the ways that local people live. So, our current projects relate to the loss of local cultures and the impact on the environment and on conserving these sacred places of nature.

Wang Weinan

Wang Weinan worked as a research assistant at Tsinghua University’s NGO Centre and as a project manager at several small NGOs including the Philanthropy and NGO Support Centre (明德公益研究中心) in Beijing. He is currently a PhD candidate at Beijing Normal University where he is writing a dissertation on Chinese nonprofit sector evaluation, based on years of experience working for third-party NGO evaluation teams.

Guo Yunzhe

Guo Yunzhe has been working in the non-profit sector on environmental protection for over ten years. In the mid-2000s, while still an undergraduate, he was involved in founding China Youth Climate Action Network (CYCAN, 青年应对气候变化行动网络). Currently, he works in Yunnan Province on the protection of ethnic minority cultures and biodiversity.

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