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Editor’s note: Charles Bedford, the state director for The Nature Conservancy in Colorado, is living and working in China for the next year and will be writing about conservation issues there. Read all his posts.

Who’s going to lead the way for conservation in China? Local grassroots groups? International NGOs? The government?

Here’s another thought: What about Chinese capitalists?

Wang Zhi speaks softly into the microphone and wears the traditional uniform of the Chinese worker — blue collarless jacket with large buttons, matching pants. He introduces the evening with a history of the organization which he chairs — Society-Entrepreneurs-Ecology (SEE). It is hard to discern in his manner, words or style that he is one of the wealthiest men in China. Over the last 20 years he amassed a fortune through savvy real estate dealings. Three years ago, concerned with China’s environmental conditions and the limits that the country’s polluted air and water, degraded soils and dammed rivers will place on its economy, he joined with over 100 other Chinese tycoons to take action on the environment here.

They created SEE, an unprecedented new form of civil society organization in China. Wang and his friends created this organization in a country in which civil society had been virtually subsumed in government for the last 50 years, where “membership” has long been a concept reserved jealously for the Communist Party. In three years, SEE has forged a new power movement, with nonprofit/NGO rules and a personality unique to China.

SEE, quite simply, is a club of like-minded entrepreneurs with a commitment to support the government’s environmental agenda by funding local NGO’s that also embrace that agenda and that are committed to principles of “cooperation” and “win-win” solutions. They have raised and spent millions of dollars. They have grant cycles and annually give out over 70 prestigious (and monetary) awards for good works in the field that meet their criteria. SEE acts like a cross between a foundation and a country club — members pony up a certain amount every year and participate in the grant-making and awards decisions in what can only be described as a very garrulous democracy.

Tonight, I’m in attendance at this year’s awards meeting, along with China Central Television and reporters from all the national papers — who will later describe the event in glowing terms. Deeper into the evening, Wang Zhi is questioning one of the finalists for this year’s awards when an argument erupts about whether the ballots should be anonymous and who should be in charge of the vote tallying. The room explodes in spirited but smiling argument. After 20 minutes and seven voice- and hand-raising votes and recounts, unanimity appears to have broken out that the ballots will not be counted unless they have the judge’s name and phone number — proto-democracy at work in civil society.

Wang resumes his questioning, which becomes a debate between he and the finalist about whether the methods they used can be characterized as “cooperative” or should be thought of as “independent.” The unspoken subtext is — what should be the appropriate level of engagement with the powers-that-be … namely, the government.

Some of the questioning takes on the character of a venture philanthropy audition. The next contestant gets grilled by the sharp finance minds in the room about the cost/benefits of pollution control equipment in a monosodium glutamate (MSG) factory on the Huai River. After asserting that the benefits of this water-quality-monitoring project far exceed the costs, the potential awardee also claims that his project had only a one-year payback, reduced emissions to 10 percent of the previous year’s levels, and also literally “saved” the MSG industry in the country by driving the technology changes necessary to bring the industry into compliance.

The claim is verified by a SEE entrepreneur who has visited the site and gotten involved intellectually and financially with the local organization. The entrepreneurs erupt in shouts of approval mixed with disbelief. Mr. Wu, whose diversified holdings include provincial vineyards, leads the questioning about the organization’s financial backing and structure. You can almost hear the checkbooks being pulled out.

SEE has evolved over the years from trying to implement its own projects — such as planting trees in the desert — toward acting as a foundation and discussion group for grassroots conservation. Its governance has evolved as well, from a “vote your amount of contribution” model to more stable processes of decision-making. The group also reached out to The Nature Conservancy to bolster its engagement and fundraising systems as well as partnering to create this extraordinary media event, highlighting the power of grassroots organizing on the environment.

Contrast all this with the way that the Chinese government deals and has dealt with issues such as Falun Gong, Uighur or Tibetan separatist groups or the 1989 student movements and the impression you get is of a set of party elders working behind the scenes on the massive hot water boiler that is modern China, making adjustments to this valve or to that pipe, directing pressure towards social goals and away from disharmonious activities. The management of the economic system seems to happen in this way as well, having allowed the wealthy young entrepreneurs in the room to, as Deng Xiaoping said, “get rich is glorious.”

The evening continues to roll along, changing from pep rally to venture capital pitch-meeting and back to discussions of scoring. The prevailing attitudes are hope, optimism and humour, which serves these entrepreneurs well in this incredible Chinese context — a country with the worst pollution on Earth, the world’s most-populated country, its wealthiest country, its poorest country, its fastest-developing country, and mega-biodiverse on top of all that.

The view in the room is of the future, the future of the world, which is happening fast. And these are the new leaders of this world, perhaps the only ones that can save the rest of us.

— Text by Charles Bedford, Cool Green Science Blog
From China: Entrepreneurs, conservation and the future of the world
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