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In Depth: Environmental Activists

Going Green in China

By Christopher Allen

In China, environmentalists lead the way in challenging the status quo and mobilizing ordinary people around a cause. While political and human rights activists risk retribution from the government, those campaigning for a greener China are actually encouraged by some circles of government. They have become whistleblowers in a country where local and national government policies are often at odds.


The Green Han River environmental activist group campaigns regularly along the river banks. One of the group's main tasks is educating local people about ways they can help protect the health of the river.

China's first environmental non-governmental organization (NGO), Friends of Nature, was officially approved and registered by the government in 1994, and since then smaller environmental organizations have sprouted up all over the country. China's green movement does face aggressive opposition on several fronts, but it has made significant strides in recent years, particularly in protecting China's rivers.

Government Support

In government circles, green NGOs' strongest supporter is the State Environmental Protection Administration -- commonly known as SEPA. SEPA's Deputy Minister Pan Yue told the China from the Inside team that he considered himself a "good friend" of green ventures. "Of all of the departments, ours has the best relationship with them," he said in an interview. "We do sometimes have debates and differences of opinion, but the two sides communicate very well. I personally think we should continue to support the work of environmental NGOs."

Environmental groups often act as SEPA's on-the-ground eyes and ears, sending in reports on polluters and local problems. Because local environmental protection departments in towns and cities are appointed by local governments, not by SEPA, and because these local governments often part-own polluting projects or receive tax revenues from them, it is often not in their interest to appoint officials who are actively pro-environment. Without information on local events, such as a factory disposing dangerously of its waste, from green NGOs, SEPA would often operate without any sound information.

But that's not to say that the growth of green NGOs has been universally welcomed in top government circles. Wu Dengming, head of the Chongqing Green Volunteers, a group dedicated to environmental education and sustainable development in the upper Yangtze region, said, "There have been people in the government who don't understand our work. They say we have sacrificed the government's economic development, or the development of the local economy, for our own gain."

It's true that green practices do have economic consequences: industry -- even polluting industry with devastating long-term environment effects -- brings short-term benefits to local economies. For example, when a leather factory that dumps dyes and acids into a river is shut down, local people lose jobs (the unemployment rate in China is estimated at 20 percent), local government loses tax revenue and local officials lose the status that comes from leading areas of thriving industry.

Popular opposition to environmental regulation plays out in a variety of ways. Wu Dengming remembers going with government officials to remove polluting machinery from an old paper mill in Chongqing: "The workers wouldn't let us enter the factory. They stood around [the machinery] and wouldn't let us get near and dismantle it. They were crying and shouting, trying to keep it."

And given how unpopular going green can be with local government and workers, environmental activism can be downright dangerous. Threats, attacks and even beatings aren't unheard of. Wu himself has been threatened that he will be killed if he goes into certain areas.

The Green Hanjiang: local government and NGOs cooperate

Despite the danger, central government has tried to encourage the rule of law and public participation in decision-making, and green NGOs like the Green Hanjiang have shown that activists can join forces with local government to clean up polluted areas.

Group of kids sitting down listening and smiling

Children getting the green message from the Green Han Jiang group on a school visit in Miao Tan township, Hubei Province.

The Green Hanjiang group is devoted to protecting the Han River (Hanjiang), the largest tributary of the Yangtze, and one of China's major waterways. The fragile Han is threatened by pollution flowing in from many of its tributaries as well as the coming South-North Water Diversion Project, which will divert a third of the river's water north to Beijing. With such a significant proportion of clean water taken away, the river will be far less able to cleanse itself and recover from pollution.

Teachers, engineers, police officers and business people have joined Green Hanjiang in its mission to protect the river by encouraging local people to reduce pollution, largely through education. On weekends, Green Hanjiang members patrol the river's banks and talk to farmers about how runoff from agricultural chemicals -- often pesticides -- damages the river. They also visit schools to raise awareness among the younger generation.

Green Hanjiang leaders maintain that if the government lacks the resources to monitor pollution, then the people must do it for them; fortunately, local government in Xiangfan, Hubei province, strongly supports the group and relies on it for reports on the state of the river. According to local official Ma Li, the group has organized scouting expeditions up the Han's horrendously polluted Tangbai tributary in order to pinpoint the sources of pollution and report them to the government. Ma told China from the Inside that Green Hanjiang's actions "have helped the government solve a lot of environmental problems. We feel their work is very helpful to the government. That's why we support them."

But working with local officials doesn't always work. Some activists, like Huo Daishan, have to go over the heads of local officials to report environmental damage directly to SEPA.

A photographer/activist documents the decline of a river

Huo Daishan, 54, has spent his whole life by the banks of the Huai River and has seen it turn from what he calls a "paradise on earth" to a "river of death." The river that in his childhood supported abundant fisheries and water resources for the 150 million people who live in its drainage area is now blamed for at least 50, 000 deaths from cancer, plus countless other health problems such as skin conditions and diarrhea for others who live nearby. Pollution in the river was at one point so bad that monkeys in a zoo by its banks went blind from exposure to its vapors. Despite strong attempts by the government to clean up the river, as in 1997, when hundreds of factories were shut down for failing to meet environmental standards, its state has not much improved in the following years.

Huo Daishan was a photographer for a newspaper, but in 1998, with the support of SEPA, he gave up his job to focus full-time on documenting the state of the river. He photographed the river's foamy waters polluted with chemicals such as cyanide and arsenic, as well as the factories such as MSG plants and tanneries that caused the pollution. Through public exhibitions displaying his work, everyday people became aware of the situation.

He soon learned the hard way not to get too close to the culprits. Once when he was spotted taking photos of an outlet pipe, he was chased as he tried to return home. "In front of me there was a motorbike, which stopped. Behind was a car, and two people got out," he said. "It happened very quickly. My camera was smashed, and I was hurt. They smashed my glasses and my eyes were injured. They swelled up and I couldn't see anything."

Still, Huo's work publicizing the plight of the river and its people caught the attention of the media and eventually shamed the local government into action. Deep wells were built for people in some of the worst-affected "cancer villages." Huo continues to advocate alternative measures such as water filters to help sufferers in other villages, as underground water supplies are finite.

Huo has become known as the "Guardian of the Huai."

Limited success defending the Angry River

In a country that generates most of its electricity by the highly polluting method of burning coal, hydropower would seem like a good, clean and logical approach to meeting China's rising demand for electricity. But hydropower means dam construction, and this in turn means disrupting China's already-troubled rivers.

One of the last great untapped sources of hydropower in China is the Nujiang ("Angry River"), which gushes out of the Tibetan Himalayas and through Yunnan Province and then through Burma and Thailand, where it is known as the Salween. It cuts through a region known as the Grand Canyon of China, that UNESCO has declared "may be the most biologically diverse temperate ecosystem in the world" -- it's home to 80 rare or endangered animals and fish and 7,000 species of plants -- and designated a World Heritage Site in 2003.

But later that same year, the Yunnan Provincial government, together with large state-owned power companies, announced a massive hydropower project on the Nu. The project would involve the construction of thirteen dams in Yunnan province and the relocation of 50,000 people.

Industrial section of Chongqing towers above the green fields below.

Xinhua news agency admits that the city of Chongqing alone dumps over a billion tons of untreated waste into the Yangtze River every year.
Environmentalists were horrified, and Green NGOs across China flew into action. The Green Earth Volunteers, led by journalist Wang Yongchen, organized an event in conjunction with SEPA in support of pristine rivers. Celebrities and film stars appeared. The country's largest NGO, Friends of Nature, and smaller local NGOs rallied international support from organizations such as UNESCO.

During delays to the project, a new law came into effect requiring that such projects undergo environmental review prior to construction. After months of uncertainty, in February 2004, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao declared that the project should be halted temporarily while an environmental review was carried out -- a major victory for environmentalists.

The outcome of the review was by no means certain, and it was possible that many people would still face relocation. In May 2004, while the review was still in progress, a Yunnan-based environmentalist named Yu Xiaogang decided that local people needed to see exactly what a dam might mean for them. He was concerned that they were too easily accepting the government line that their relocation would be easy sailing. He organized a trip for villagers who would have to be resettled to visit villagers who had already been moved as part of a previous project. When they saw the conditions in which previously resettled people were living, they were shocked, and their passive attitude toward relocation became one of resistance.

Such measures are extremely risky. According to Elizabeth Economy, an expert on the Chinese environment, Yu's actions almost resulted in imprisonment. Environmental activism crossed into social activism and hence became much more politically sensitive.

Currently, the green NGOs have a new battle on their hands. Now that the environmental review of the dams has been finished, they are fighting to have the results made public. Some parts of the report have been declared national secrets and may never reach the public eye. The future of the downstream Nujiang beyond China's borders also remains uncertain -- especially since an April 2006 agreement between the Thai and Burmese governments to build a $6 billion dam in northeast Burma.

The story of the Nujiang River is far from over, but as yet constitutes one of the greatest successes of Chinese environmentalists in persuading the central government to reassess its policy.

Hard times ahead?

Although green NGOs in China do have the support of SEPA, other parts of the central government are increasingly wary of them after witnessing the role similar groups played in the so-called "flower revolutions" in Central Asia. The New York Times reported in December 2005 that Chinese leaders fear that the United States is funding such groups in order to cause political instability, and President Hu Jintao himself has ordered an investigation into groups that receive and rely on foreign funding, including many environmental NGOs.

Christopher Allen is a researcher on the China from the Inside series and currently lives in China.


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