Foreign environmental groups can help China and its companies improve

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 September, 2013, 4:46am

The environmental impact of Chinese companies at home is plain to see in the smog-choked air of cities, sludge-filled rivers and barren hillsides. Pollution scandals and a realisation that economic growth at all costs is not in the nation's best interests are changing attitudes. But building awareness is a slow process that needs help. Foreign non-governmental groups, armed with decades of experience from the developed world, are well placed to provide expertise. Whether on Chinese soil or abroad, officials and firms should be open to their advice, not reject or scorn it.

Yet Beijing has long had mixed feelings about foreign NGOs, especially those that broach matters that appear to be of a political nature. How they are funded can mean the difference between acceptance and exclusion. But mainland companies, usually not well versed in the ideas of corporate social responsibility, often also view environmental groups as an impediment to operations - even more so when overseas and beyond the demands of an evolving civil society.

The gap was plain in a report last week by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. It claimed Western-funded green groups were trying to curtail the economic influence of China in Southeast Asia by accusing companies of causing environmental damage. The report cited the cancelling or suspension by host governments of major projects in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Chinese firms had suffered, as had the economies of the affected countries, and politics was seen as the reason; overemphasising environmental protection was ultimately threatening sovereign rights.

It is an old argument, one the people of developing nations where Chinese firms are increasingly active are less willing to accept than they once were. As in China, they want a balance between development and growth. Green guidelines for firms operating overseas have been in place since 2005. Not only should companies follow them, but they would also do well to be receptive to the advice of environmental groups.