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China's green leap forward?

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

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

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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.”