History of Higher Education Student Environmental Associations in China

by Lu Hongyan, Director, Environmental Education Center, Sichuan University, Chengdu, People's Republic of China
October 2001

Most of the material in this paper was derived from two surveys conducted in 1999 and 2001, respectively, by Lu Hongyan and others. Twenty-seven HESEACs were covered in the 1999 survey, which was the first such survey ever conducted, and 94 HESEACs were covered in the 2001 survey.

1. Three development phases of Higher Education Student Environmental Associations in China

The first Higher Education Student Environmental Associations in China (“HESEACs”) were founded in the early 1990s. During the recent past, the number of HESEACs has increased dramatically. Their development can be divided into three phases.

During the initial phase, from 1990 to 1995, 12 HESEACs were founded. Six of them were in Beijing, three in Shanghai, one in Tianjin, one in Jilin, and one in Chengdu. Eight of these were established at the suggestion of university administrators in order to strengthen study and communication among environmental and related majors, while four were the initiatives of the students themselves in order to promote environmental awareness among all of their fellow students. During this initial phase, the activities of the HESEACs were primarily carried out within their own campuses, with little inter-communication among different HESEACs. They were simply considered to be exactly like any other extra-curricular group on the campus, emphasizing only personal development of the members. At that time, the attitude of university administrators was not conducive to expanding environmental study beyond environmental majors; for example, there were no environmental elective courses open to non-environmental majors.

During 1996 and 1997, 10 new HESEACs were founded, of which 8 were founded by students themselves. Four of these new HESEACs were located in parts of China other than the cities in which the first phase HESEACs were formed: one each in Kunming, Guangzhou, Nanning, and Chongqing. This may be considered an intermediate phase in the development of HESEACs. Irrespective of whether they were founded by administrators or students, during this phase all 22 HESEACs started to promote environmental awareness throughout their campuses and among the general public in their communities, and began to exchange information with one another. Local media began to report on HESEAC activities, and local governments started to become aware of the HESEACs. During Earth Day (April 22) and Environmental Day (June 5) in 1996 and 1997, local Environmental Protection Bureaus invited their local HESEACs to perform public environmental education activities in the streets. In addition, during this phase, university administrators began to offer elective environmental courses to non-environmental majors.

From 1998 to the present, the number of HESEACs exploded. From 22 in number at the end of 1997, they have no increased to at least 184, located at 176 universities in 26 provinces. On average over the past four years, 40 new groups were founded each year. Figure 1 shows the 7 cities in which there are now more than 10 HESEACs.

Fig. 1 Chinese Cities with More than 10 HESEACs in 2001
Number of HESEACs39201212111110

Each of these cities has many universities, among which are the top universities of China. In fact, the formation of HESEACs in these cities is roughly proportional to the number of universities in the city. The organizational form of some of these HESEACs has expanded to include unions of the HESEACs in each city, including those in Beijing, Tianjing, Shanghai, Xian and Dalian. These unions have established strong relationships with their local governments. HESEACs have now reached a critical point in their evolution: quantity is not enough. They must decide how to improve the quality of their activities.

2. Motivations and important events in the development of HESEACs

The economy of China has developed very rapidly over the past decade, bringing with it a rapidly deteriorating environment with strong negative impact on people’s health and daily activities. College students personally experience the shock of these sudden environmental changes, both in their university towns and upon return to their home towns. This constitutes one strong motivation for them to learn about how to improve the environmental and how o make the public aware of this great need. A second motivation stems from the students’ new exposure to parts of China they have never before visited, and observation of the interrelationships among industry, government and communities that they have never before had the opportunity to see or think about.

At present, HESEACs are the only extra-curricular campus organizations that are concerned about social issues. Unlike other campus organizations, the student founders and key members of the HESEACs were moved by their strong concern about the negative impact on society of environmental deterioration, and passionately applied their organizational skills to develop HESEACs programs for research, education, and direct action. In the process, their own awareness, knowledge, critical thinking, communication skills, and project design and implementation improved. Since graduation, most of the founders and key members are now environmentally aware as they pursue their professions in government, media, enterprises, schools, and NGOs.

In 1994, the first Chinese environmental NGO, Friends of Nature ("FON"), was established in Beijing. The FON stimulated public involvement in environmental activism, and was an impetus for the conversion of HESEACs from their first to their second phase. In 1995, the photographer Xi Zhinong of Kunming initiated action to protect the Golden Monkey habitat, which eventually drew the cooperation of HESEACs in Beijing and Kunming as well as FON. In 1996, the first annual National College Students’ Green Camp was conducted in the Golden Monkey habitat area in Deqing County of Yunnan Province (Note: Former editor of "Nature" magazine, Tang Xiyang and two students, Wen Bo and Yan Jun, were the initiators and important organizers of the National College Students' Green Camps that have continued annually under student direction, most of whom are members of HESEACS.) All of these activities induced the central government to preserve the Golden Monkey habitat. The publicity surrounding this project and its success was a great stimulus to the expansion of HESEACs and cooperation among HESEACs, government, concerned individuals, and NGOs.

In 1995, as a result of the communication among Beijing HESEACs and other concerned individuals during the above activities, the Green Student Forum was founded by students to maintain and expand these relationships through publication of a newsletter and joint meetings among members of different HESEACs. In 1999, the Green Student Forum began to receive a small amount of financial and technical support from Friends of the Earth, Hong Kong. The Green Student Forum has now become a communication hub for HESEACs.

In 1998, the flood disasters on many Chinese rivers were a strong impetus for the explosion in numbers of HESEACs. Since that time, local and national news media have also begun to report vigorously about environmental issues, and this has further influenced student concerns.

In 2000, a movement for protection of the Tibetan antelope became a hot topic. HESEACs from Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Xiamen, and Chengdu organized activities in support of protection of this endangered species. This was another stimulus to development of HESEACs and encouragement of critical thinking and discussion regarding the scope of their activities.

2001 is considered a high point in the development of HESEACs. In the first place, on April 22, 2001, for the first time ever, three HESEACs, two from Beijing and one from Chengdu, received national recognition and Earth Awards from the Chinese National Environmental Protection Agency. Until this year, the Earth Award, which was begun in 1997, had only gone to individuals. This was also the first year in which primary and secondary schools, as well as the three HESEACs, received Earth Awards.

In the second place, in May of 2001 the popular government-owned newspaper "China Youth Daily" announced that the Worldwide Fund for Nature, China Program ("WWF") would cooperate with HESEACs to protect wetlands along the Yangtze River, and invited HESEACs to submit proposals regarding which of their own student hometown wetlands should receive this protection. Proposals from 10 HESEACs were selected by WWF at the end of June. These 10 received 5000 RMB [$625] of financial support plus several days of training, and in August 2001 were sent to the wetland sites to carry out the proposed activities.

In the third place, in June 2001, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji delivered a speech in which he emphasized the importance of the involvement of media and artists by government environmental agencies to popularize information about the seriousness of China’s deteriorating environment. This speech announced government approval of public outreach, and encourages HESEACs to widen their scope of activities to include the general public.

3. Mission, scale and organizational structure of HESEACs

According to the 2001 survey of HESEACs, 90 of the 94 HESEACs surveyed listed promotion of college students’ environmental awareness as one of their principal goals, 81 listed promotion of public environmental awareness, 73 listed training for lifelong environmental protection activities, and 53 listed solving contemporary environmental problems as a principal goal.

At present, most HESEACs have 20 - 100 members. Only a few have more than 200 members. Furthermore, on average, only 20 - 40 members are active participants. Most HESEACs have a chairman, a secretarial committee, a publicity committee, a logistics committee, and a public relations committee. Eight HESEACs have a special program committee, and nine have a board of directors, usually composed of key members who set policy and make decisions. Special program committees may be involved with battery recycling, bird protection, forest protection, children’s environmental education, green camps, social issue surveys, or wilderness activities. The key members of HESEACs normally serve from 6 to 18 months.

Of the 94 HESEAC chairmen, 61 were selected by passive consent, 22 were elected by membership votes, 6 were appointed by a university administrator or faculty advisory, and 5 were selected by combination of these methods.

4. Funding of HESEACs and logistical support

One of the serious problems encountered by most HESEACs is lack of money, although a few are well funded. Major funding sources are member fees (usually 5 – 10 RMB per year) [about $1], universities, and enterprises. In 2000, the total funding of the 80 HESEACs that reported their funding was 225,209 RMB [$28,150]. (Fourteen of those surveyed did not respond to the funding question of the questionnaire.)

Figure 2. Funding of 80 HESEACs in year 2000.
Funds received100-499 RMB500-999 RMB1000-1999 RMB2000-2999 RMB>3000 RMB
in year 2000[$12 - $62][$62 - $125][$125 - $250]$250 - $375]>$375
Number of HESEACs201917915

Of the 15 HESEACs with funding above 3000 RMB, 3 are located in Fujian Province, 2 are in Kunming, 2 are in Chengdu, and one each are in Guangzhou, Nanning, Chongqing, Xian, Hefei, Wuhan, Beijing, and Harbin. Among these 15, the HESEAC in Kunming founded in 1997 (Yunnan University) received 45,780 RMB [$5723], in Chengdu founded in 1995 (Sichuan University) received 31,000 RMB [$3875], and one in Fujian founded in 1999 (Xiamen University) received 21,000 RMB [$2625]. The total funding of these three HESEACs constituted 43% of the funding of all 80 HESEACs. These funds were received from the universities and enterprises to support specific projects.

Twenty-eight HESEACs of the 94 surveyed have a room assigned to them by their university. Thirty-five have their own telephone number. Fifty-eight have their own association e-mail address. Forty-one of them have set up their own websites, and 33 of these 41 update their websites once or twice per semester.

Twenty-eight of the 85 HESEACs that responded to this question reported that they have no equipment at all. Forty-eight have an association flag, T-shirts, poster material, and office stationery. Only 25 have a sufficient number of books and magazines related to the environment to use for educational activities. Eight have video equipment. Eight have recycling receptacles or pollution monitoring equipment. Three have outdoor camping equipment. Figure 3 shows how the HESEACs would use more funds if they could obtain them.

Fig. 3. Proposed activities if greater funding were available (94 respondents)
Proposed Activity Number of HESEACs
Off-campus activities and/or campus lectures by invited speakers 42
Improve publicity, establish website, issue newsletter 20
Buy more environmental books, magazines, multimedia materials 18
Buy equipment such as computer, BP, poster material, office stationery 17

5. Activities and environmental concerns

Of the 399 activities listed by the 94 respondents to the 2001 survey, 58% were directed towards environmental education, 32% involved direct action to achieve positive environmental results, and 10% were on-site research surveys and environmental suggestions for decision-makers. Participation in all of these 399 activities was greater than 40,500 (including multiple participation by any one person).

Among the 58% of activities directed toward environmental education (230 in all), 167 activities were conducted on-campus for college students, and the other 63 were conducted in the surrounding commuity, including primary and secondary schools. The content of these environmental education activities was very diverse, including “"reduce, reuse, recycle" resources and energy; relationships among ecology environment and human behavior; and simple environmental technology. Methods of organizing these educational activities are also very diverse, including lectures, book-signing by famous environmental writers, forums, displays of handicrafts that use recycled materials, and signing pledges to support environmental protection. The results of these activities, as evaluated by the HESEACs themselves on the questionnaire, showed that 32% considered their results to be very good, 32% rated their results as good, and 17% rated them as fair.

The 32% of activities involving direct action (128 in all) include persuading university mess halls to convert to reusable plates and utensils, collecting used batteries, planting trees, and redistributing items that would otherwise be discarded by graduates for reuse by younger students and others. Almost all the HESEACs rated these activities as providing results superior to their educational activities: 54% rated them as very good, 35 as good, and 10% as fair. Only one HESEAC rated its direct action activity as poor. The reasons given for preference for direct action activities were: the ability to conduct them within a small area and the elation provided by clear observation of their achievements. On the other hand, more complicated direct action that students would like to engage in, like wetland/endangered species protection or water pollution control, will require much greater technical skills and funding, and currently remain beyond the capabilities of most HESEACs. It should be mentioned, however, that the HESEAC of Xiamen (Fujian Province) succeeded in preventing a commercial enterprise from purchasing land in an egret nature preserve and building on the land. Furthermore, the HESEAC of Guangxi Teachers College induced its local government to emphasize mangrove forest protection. In addition, the HESEAC of Zhejiang University persuaded the Dadi Company to recycle used batteries.

According to their self-evaluation, the type of activity that obtained the best results was on-site research and surveys. These activities were particularly attractive to the students because they gave them the chance to personally observe Chinese environments that they had never before had the opportunity to see. However, of the 399 activities listed, there were fewer than 41 of this hands-on type of activity, because it takes a long time to find an interesting topic and prepare to carry out a survey, it is difficult to obtain sufficient funding, and achievement of credible results requires a higher level of technical skills than other types of activities.

The HESEACs had very diverse environmental concerns. The most frequently mentioned are shown in Figure 4.

Fig.4 Issues of greatest concern to the 94 HESEACs in the 2001 survey.
Domestic issues of greatest concern Number of HESEACs Global issues of greatest concern Number of HESEACs
Desertification (especially sandstorms) 50 Global warming 37
Water pollution and scarcity 48 Ozone depletion 30
Non-biodegradable trash (one-time use) 21 Water pollution and scarcity 27
Air pollution 21 Deforestation (especially tropical forests) 26

6. Outreach and communication

HESEACs have many ways of obtaining information. Seventy-seven of the 94 get information from newspapers, 75 from the Internet, 61 from magazines, 61 from domestic environmental organizations and individuals (including teachers and environmentalists), 60 from TV, 51 from lectures, and 42 from the radio. HESEACs occasionally share information among themselves. Seventy-eight of the HESEACs have contacts with other local HESEACs, 62 have contacts with their local governments, 55 have contacts with Chinese environmental NGOs, 54 have contacts with local media, 44 have contacts with HESEACs in other cities, 42 have contacts with local enterprises, and 15 HESEACs have contacts with international environmental NGOs. Except for contacts among HESEACs in some cities, all of the contacts are still in the initial, somewhat underdeveloped stages.

Outreach methods are also very diverse. Among the 94 HESEACs, 81 use posters, 73 organize lectures, 70 use campus radio, 55 use local media, 41 use their own websites, and a few show environmental films, exhibit photographs, put information into campus window displays, promote student competitions for environmental writing, speeches or artwork, carry out neighborhood bicycle tours with message displays on their T-shirts, or organize concerts or parties, both on and off-campus, with environmental messages. Some HESEACs organize environmentally friendly outdoor camps.

7. Difficulties facing the HESEACs

According to the responses of the 94 respondents to the 2001 survey, 84 HESEACs stated that fund-raising is a major problem, 57 said that effective publicity is a major difficulty, 56 listed lack of spare time for environmental activities, and 55 listed lack of organizational skills and experience.

Besides these difficulties, most HESEAC chairmen are worried about their ability to devise original, creative activities that will achieve notice and effective results. They are also concerned about inadequate internal communication among their own members, the frequent turnover of membership including key members, and the ability of the HESEAC to achieve results and provide its members with a feeling of pride in the HESEAC's activities.