Situating chinadialogue.net: An interview with Sam Geall
Being the only fully bilingual website in English and Chinese focusing on the environment in the world, chinadialogue.net is trying to promote direct dialogue between China and the West on their shared environmental challenges. Sam Geall explains the difficulties this intiative has encountered and the prospects it now faces.
An interview to William McDowall and Panos Papoulias for Re-public
William McDowall and Panos Papoulias: In what kinds of activities is chinadialogue.net involved in? Do you aim to influence policy, or simply provide a forum that highlights environmental issues?
Sam Geall: Chinadialogue is aiming to be a forum for dialogue, aside from everything else. If policy implications come out of it that’s a great thing, but the website is not exactly focused on the discussion of policies per se. It is primarily trying to open up a wider debate amongst the people in China and the rest of the world on environmental issues. This doesn’t mean that we don’t commission articles from experts and policy-makers –there are indeed people working for the Chinese or the British governments who are writing for us. We are taking an interest in various policy initiatives, but we do not aim at being policy-focused.
William McDowall and Panos Papoulias: Your website is bilingual, targeting both Chinese and English-speaking audiences. To what extent does this work…to get both audiences involved to the debate?
Sam Geall: It has worked really well till now. About half of our readers live in China and the other half come from the rest of the world. We have a good spread of readers from Africa, South America, Europe, the U.S., but the greatest concentration of our readership comes from China. Chinese is the most spoken language in the world. With English being the second, one might say that we covering a quire large proportion of the global population.
The Chinese public has been actively involved in the discussions so far. Of all the comments we have received, around half have come from our Chinese readers. This is something that we want to build up more.
We initially thought that mostly Chinese students would be involved in this project. However, although chinadialogue is generally available to Chinese Internet users, it is not currently possible to log onto it from a university campus. Students are not allowed to read websites based on servers in the West, when on campus. This restraint has given the website a readership much more diverse that we anticipated; our readers in China come from a wide range of ages, backgrounds, and educational levels.
I will mention one example. We published an article on the sell-off of the natural forests of the Fujian province to local companies, written by the Chinese journalist Yongfeng Feng. One of the comments on this article, was written by a local villager, living in the nearby Fuzhu Village, highlighting the struggle of the local population against the local forestry department.
William McDowall and Panos Papoulias: That’s great! But you’ve raised the issue of internet controls in China. Can you tell us how has the website been received by the central Chinese Government?
Sam Geall: I don’t want speak on their behalf…I think that the goals of our initiative parallel many of the aims of the central Chinese government. The increase of the concern on environmental issues in China is overwhelming and there is a general trend towards the notion of harmonious social development. So, yes I think that they share some of our concerns.
In any case, chinadialogue does not aim at filling any gaps in Chinese society. We are acting more as a channel for dialogue, which initiates a huge debate amongst the members of the Chinese civil society. What we are trying to do is to open up this debate so that the people in the West can find out what is happening in China. This is how a truly international dialogue about environmental issues can emerge.
William McDowall andPanos Papoulias:Can such an international dialogue really work? We are thinking of a comment on the Stern report, published in your website, entitled “Preaching”. The author of the message –he is Chinese- was saying that the West is preaching to us, and so on and so forth. Do you think, in other words, that the outcome of this dialogue will favor sustainable development?
Sam Geall: Regarding this comment (“Preaching”), I have to state that what we are trying to do is to overcome this sort of impasse that comes out in both Chinese and Western commentaries on these issues. On the one hand, you have this Chinese response which is dismissive of the West, because it is dictating to China its own terms in relation to development. The argument goes that since China is a developing country, it needs to follow a different path from that specified in international agreements. On the other side, there are many Western commentators who accuse China of not taking any responsibility for its emissions, they are blaming multinational corporations for the environmental degradation in China, and so on. This debate is ultimately counter-productive.
Chinadialogue is certainly going past this sterile dispute; it puts these questions aside and tries to be a little bit more constructive. I am really optimistic about creating an open forum which highlights common environmental framework that China and West can share. But, am I reasonably optimistic about the environmental future of China, or on whether chinadialogue will be able to promote sustainable development in China? I can’t really say, I think it could go either way.
William McDowall and Panos Papoulias: There is a growing number of environment-related civil society organizations active in China. What has been their relationship with chinadialogue so far?
Sam Geall: We have had some positive responses from some people involved in these organizations. When the project started we’ve made a decision was made not to partner with any NGOs in China whether they were government-organized, grassroot-based, or international. Our purpose is, like I have said, to open up a discussion between people involved in the NGOs sector with people who are involved in grassroot organizations and even get state officials involved. If this dialogue is to be open and constructive, it has to be as inclusive as possible.
William McDowall and Panos Papoulias: Were you reluctant when you first undertook this project? I mean China is quite controversial a place for this sort of initiatives, which are based on free dialogue and participation.
Sam Geall: When chinadialogue was conceived, it was agreed that the environment is the most urgent issue for Chinese society and we’ve made the decision to focus on the environmental challenges that the West shares with China. Within China, there has been a general consensus that environmental issues are worth debating and that they need to get more actively involved since these challenges are threatening not only to their environment but also to their prospects for further economic and social development.
In terms of the political situation, China isn’t of course exactly like the West. However, there is real and active debate on the environment that is going on in Chinese society. It is taking place within the Communist Party, but also outside the Party, in university campuses, on the internet. I think that chinadialogue has managed to bring forward some of these debates.
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