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

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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?’ ”