China's green leap forward?

Activists must tread softly to avoid antagonizing Beijing, butthere’s much at stake in this rapidly developing country.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Yu Xiaogang was instrumental in suspending dam building along the Nu River in 2004. He stands by the Yangtze here.
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Every environmental movement has its ideas people, and Yu Xiaogang is among the emerging John Muirs of China.In a modest office, with the lights and heat turned off to conserve electricity, Dr. Yu is warming his hands over a cup of tea.

“Please excuse the books,” he says, as he clears a wide-ranging selection of titles, including “China’s Natural History,” “An Ecological Economy,” “Demanding Accountability,” “Choices for the Poor,” and “Feminist Knowledge,” from his desk and his visitor’s chair.

Yu is a former government scientist and today is director of an environmental nonprofit called Green Watershed that he founded in southwestern Yunnan Province.

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He is also the architect of what is widely considered the emerging Chinese environmental movement’s greatest victory to date: Five years ago, he led a campaign of coordinated green groups to successfully persuade the government to suspend a series of planned dams along China’s last wild river, the Nu.

Today he is pensive. With the rising demand for energy in China, a new hydropower boom is under way. In just one province, Gansu, the number of large dams has gone from three, 20 years ago, to almost 600 today.

Beijing’s current economic stimulus plan, announced in March, calls for $176 billion for infrastructure projects and $54 billion for rural public works, both of which include such projects as new dams, highways, and housing.

Yu follows such developments closely. Leaning forward in his chair, he points to a map unfurled on his desk, noting the planned construction sites he finds most alarming. “Some places, unique in the world, may be lost that can never be replaced,” he says.

“We cannot be against all hydropower,” he adds, “but we must have the precondition that projects pass environmental- and social-impact assessments. We still need to find that middle way.”

By this he means that dam planners should be required to pay greater attention to the impact of dams on local populations and ensure that adequate measures are taken to provide “poverty alleviation, local education support, and restoration of livelihoods,” as he puts it.

According to Yu’s estimates, in the past 50 years some 40 million people have been resettled as the result of large infrastructure projects in China, about 12 million due to dam construction alone. About half now live “in absolute poverty,” he says.

On paper, China’s resettlement compensation policies have become more generous in recent years. But while resettled families are often moved into newly built homes, land allotments are often inadequate to sustain farming. Villagers receive little help in finding new livelihoods. Such communities are called “empty economy towns.”

A lack of transparency in how compensation funds are distributed encourages corruption, with less money reaching intended recipients.

Yu’s idea is based upon similar requirements in many countries, including China, for environmental-impact assessments, which evaluate the ecological impacts of dams and other major infrastructure projects before construction begins.

He wants to extend that concept to include the concerns of local communities in China: “What would the Nu River be without the Nu people?” The Nu are a minority who live only in a small territory alongside the river.

“With one hand, we hold the environmental-impact assessment,” he says. “With the other hand, we must hold the social-impact assessment.”

He points out, knowingly, that following his suggestions would reinforce the central government’s stated goal of maintaining a “harmonious society.”

Yu’s promotion of social-impact assessments is an example of how the emerging environmental movement in China is adapting to the unique circumstances in which it is arising.

“Successful Chinese [nongovernmental organizations],” says Linden Ellis of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., “in stark contract to Western NGOs, make major efforts to support and work with the government, particularly the central government.

“In the US,” Ms. Ellis continues, “the environmental movement really got under way when people started suing the government; in China, good intentions seem to be still good enough.”

The Chinese environmental movement today, which has been growing rapidly since the first environmental nonprofits were allowed to legally organize in 1994, is often compared with the early years of the modern American environmental movement. But there are key differences.

Major antidam campaigns were a hallmark of the US environmental movement in the 1960s, during a cultural moment when activists in various spheres were organizing to say “no” to perceived ills – from racism to sexism to the Vietnam War.

That direct-confrontation approach has never been an option in China.

Rather than rejecting outright the government’s desire to make hydropower an increasing part of China’s energy portfolio, Yu wants to ensure that the dams that are built are as environmentally and socially sustainable as possible.

“In China, we don’t often have the option of saying ‘no’ to development,” he explains. “So we must find ways to make it the best development.”

He adds that some dams, such as a proposed hydropower project that would span Tiger Leaping Gorge, located within a United Nations-designated World Heritage site, should not be built at all.

Another defining aspect of China’s environmental movement is that it has always taken people into the equation.

“There are so many people in China,” Yu says. “There is no place in our country where there is only nature.”

Wen Bo, a well-known environmentalist in Beijing who is co-director of Pacific Environment’s China Program, uses the phrase “ecological justice” to describe Yu’s approach in “mobilizing grass-roots activists and empowering dam-affected communities.”

Yu did not start out as an environmentalist, but as a government scientist.

While working for a ministry in his home province of Yunnan, he became frustrated by his inability to challenge official assumptions. “I find that inside the system, you can do only so-called ‘decisionmaking supporting research,’ ” he says. “That means the government has already made the decision. You do research to support the decision. You never do something that changes the decision.”

His discontent with this mode of thinking led him to found his own environmental nonprofit, Green Watershed, in 2002.

Since then his work has entailed frequent meetings in both impoverished communities and government offices. A common theme in his campaigns has been advocating for greater public participation in environmental decisionmaking.

During the successful 2004 campaign against dams along the Nu, he brought villagers threatened with resettlement to visit other communities that had been moved for past infrastructure projects.

When villagers more clearly understood the implications of resettlement, they began to organize in order to articulate their concerns about how their livelihoods and culture would be affected.

That campaign galvanized national public attention, and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao personally intervened to suspend construction of the dams.

Provisions allowing for limited public input to major infrastructure projects were enshrined in 2003 and 2004 laws, but these statutes are still not well understood or used today. “Some people don’t believe their own strength,” says Yu.

He notes that there are “not many well-known success stories” about community organizers to look to for inspiration. Yet, even when dams can’t be stopped, communities may receive better resettlement options if they can make their concerns known in a strategic fashion.

Yu has also been active in promoting his ideas to government officials. In 2007, he was invited to give a presentation on social-impact assessments to a training seminar for Communist Party officials.

Later that year, he helped organize a conference in Beijing that brought together environmental officials and green NGO leaders to discuss “green banking,” another concept he has been championing. The idea is that heavily polluting enterprises would be denied loans by state-run banks.

Although penalties are not uniformly enforced, the national environmental ministry has begun to track the pollution violations and loan applications of large enterprises.

For his work on various fronts, Yu was recognized with a prestigious international award, the Goldman Environmental Prize, in 2006.

Today is a particularly tenuous moment for activists of all stripes in China.

Here, limits exist on what advocates can say and the issues around which they may organize. Monitoring of citizen groups was heightened in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics last summer.

Many observers had expected that there would be more latitude for civil society after the Games concluded, but that has not been the case. In February, the Yitong law firm, famous for its work defending human rights advocates in China, was preparing to fight a government closure order in court.

“The government does not feel that this is a good time to relax its control over society and allow freer political discourse,” says Drew Thompson, director of China Studies and Starr Senior Fellow at the Nixon Center in Washington, D.C. “The potential social dislocations caused by the global financial crisis will also lead the government to act conservatively and prevent any grass-roots movement from challenging the party’s authority.”

For his part, Yu says his emphasis is less ideological than it is pragmatic. A scientist by training, he says, “I am asking: ‘Is this data accurate? Are these promises enforceable?’ ”

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