ISSN: 1550-7521

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Research Article Open Access

Legitimization Communication Tactics of Environmental NGOs in China: A Case Study of Greenpeace


In the authoritarian state of China, non-governmental organizations (NGO) are consistently exposed to the issue of legitimacy. Compared to China’s grass-rooted NGO, international non-governmental organization (INGO) receives more scrutiny from Chinese government due to a longstanding ideological distrust, or as defined in this study, the double legitimation dilemma. Whereas traditional party-state media have been vigilant to NGOs, the booming Social Networking Sites (SNSs) provide alternative discursive resources for these organizations. Hence, this study adopts a critical discourse analysis approach to examine how the legitimacy of INGOs operating on Chinese soil is discursively constructed on Sina Weibo (Weibo) amid double legitimation dilemma. Based on a comparative study of Greenpeace (GP), an international environmental NGO that has operated in China since 1997, and Friends of Nature (FON), a grass-rooted environmental NGO founded in 1994, this study aims to answer three specific questions: what are the discursive strategies used to construct the legitimacy of INGOs on Chinese soil; how do these strategies develop over time and if INGOs and grass-rooted NGOs differ in their legitimation strategies. For the specific purpose of this study, the “smog” issue is selected and a total of 290 Weibo posts (164 by GP and 126 by FON) are collected for a discourse analysis. Based on a modified version of Theo van Leeuwen’s framework of the discursive construction of legitimation, this study finds GP’s legitimation endeavor is mostly invested on moralization and rationalization, and, over time, to an increasing extent, on authorization and de-politicization; mythopoesis is marginally used. Besides, GP and FON are significantly different in the use of the five legitimation categories. Overall, Greenpeace turns from a “fearless activist” into a “mild advocate” over the years, which, to some extent, has departed from its mission of promoting “environmental activism” and “social change”. This article proposes that the diverse legitimation strategies used by GP are effective in obtaining organization legitimacy and making advocacy in China.

Haiyan Feng,Qiyan Zhang

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