Conference delegates urge officials to create partnerships and seek groups' help to solve environmental problems Mainland and overseas experts have called on Beijing to ease its control over non-governmental organisations and forge a partnership with them to encourage grass-roots participation in tackling worsening environmental woes. The appeals came at the first gathering of mainland green NGOs with government background and their grass-roots and international counterparts. Some 400 mainland NGOs attended the weekend meeting in Beijing. However, mainland officials who participated in the two-day forum, which ended yesterday, urged green groups not to confront the government. He Ping, chairman of the US-based International Fund for China's Environment, said Beijing had made little progress in making its NGO policies more transparent and adept at dealing with pollution disasters and social conflicts. 'Despite its commitments to carry out government reforms since former Premier Zhu Rongji's cabinet, the Chinese government has been too slow to relax the rigid restrictions on the registration of local NGOs and international groups, which has hindered their development,' said Dr He. Mainland NGOs, which numbered 320,000 last year, are required to register with the Ministry of Civil Affairs or the State Administration of Industry and Commerce. But a large number, mostly grass-roots organisations, have difficulty acquiring legal status due to restrictions in place since 1996. Dr He said the government should also be held responsible for the funding difficulties most mainland NGOs have encountered because it doesn't provide tax breaks for the groups. 'It doesn't encourage corporate sponsorship or public donation either,' he said. 'With growing social conflicts and environmental incidents, the authorities must break those policy barriers as soon as possible.' Jia Xijin , chief of Tsinghua University's NGO Research Centre, said the government should consider grass-roots organisations as real partners to be given wider freedom of participation and expression. But Dr Jia said 'such a partnership would probably be a challenge for the government'. Huang Haoming , executive director of China Association for NGO Co-operation, was more critical of the government restrictions on NGOs. He said the development of mainland NGOs had lagged behind social and economic advancement and would strain the building of a harmonious society, a doctrine of President Hu Jintao recently adopted by the party. 'Grass-roots organisations have represented the will of the people in many aspects, which I think the government can not afford to ignore,' he said. 'Otherwise, the stability and harmony of the whole society will be put to the test.' Central government officials emphasised the regulation of the growing NGO community and its increasingly visible role in public life. State Environmental Protection Administration deputy director Zhu Guangyao said NGOs should work under the direction of the government and try to protect China's international image. 'Environmental NGOs should not become opposition groups for the government,' he said. 'Instead, they should engage in the cause of environmental protection under the guidelines of the government.' NGOs should advise and help the authorities tackle pollution hazards and disputes, which have seriously threatened the country's stability, he said. 'Mass incidents sparked by environmental issues have been on the rise in recent years at an annual rate of 29 per cent and have greatly affected social stability,' he said. Mr Zhu said the mainland faced critical challenges in dealing with environmental problems. 'China's environmental protection is confronted with three main conflicts: between worsening environmental problems and the slow transition of the economic growth model; between soaring public aspirations for improvement and the difficulties in pollution control; and between increasingly severe pollution and growing international demands,' he said. Ministry of Civil Affairs official Liu Zhenguo said mainland NGOs should play a greater role in implementing the social harmony doctrine. He also predicted the number of mainland NGOs would expand at an annual rate of 10 per cent in the next five years. According to All-China Environmental Federation, the country's largest NGO backed by Sepa, only about 200 of the 2,768 green groups on the mainland lack an official background.