Toxic China

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TERRY McCARTHY Beijing and JAIME A. FLORCRUZ DalianThe Chinese Communist Party is not given to admitting it is wrong. But when President Jiang Zemin stood up last September at a rally celebrating the victory over the Yangtze River floods, he did just that. The flooding, which killed 3,600 people and left millions homeless, showed that for too long China, in its drive for economic development, had ignored nature. From now on, Jiang said, there should be coordinated development of the economy and ecological environment.

Now comes the hard part: translating Jiang's formula into action. The Chinese President's words may have been insightful, but will they be heeded when memories of the flood recede and economic imperatives again loom large? Confronting China's environmental problems is like counting fish in a river--it's hard to know where to start and impossible to end. Except that in China, 70% of all waterways are drying up or so polluted there are no fish.

Zhaba Duojie thought he had found a good place to start, on the vast Tibetan plateau in northwestern Qinghai province. A Communist Party functionary, Zhaba began patrolling the plains as a self-styled game warden. In that corner of China, armed men in four-wheel-drive pickup trucks routinely hunt the endangered chiru antelope for the soft fur under its chin that is used to make shahtoosh shawls. Trade in shahtoosh is outlawed across the world, but the shawls end up on the black market, where they sell for as much as $10,000. Life on the snowy wastes of Qinghai is unforgiving: last October Zhaba, 46, showed Time pictures of two antelope poachers he had shot dead after they attacked him and his men with automatic rifles. But Zhaba was happy to be out on patrol. His men seemed to worship his fearless good nature, and he felt he was finally doing something worthwhile with his life. To further guard against poaching, he was drawing up a plan to protect the newly established nature preserve Kekexili in western Qinghai.

But on Nov. 8 Zhaba committed suicide by shooting himself in the head--three times. Or so the local authorities improbably claimed when news of Zhaba's death reached Beijing. Environmentalists in the capital were incredulous, suspecting the involvement of poaching interests. The specific cause of his death needs further investigation as there are many questionable points in this case, editorialized the Beijing Youth Daily. The paper said Zhaba's wife had left their house at about 10 p.m. to look for their youngest son at a neighbor's home when she heard three shots. She rushed back and found her husband slumped in a pool of blood. He was taken to a hospital and declared dead-on-arrival.

Cynics pass the same judgment on the state of environmentalism in China: DOA. For every concerned individual, they say, there are tens of millions who are little inclined to ponder the ecological consequences of their actions as they eke out a meager living. And if that is the case in many developing countries, in China the problem is infinitely more acute because of the sheer size of its population--at 1.2 billion, China is home to nearly one-quarter of the world's people--trying to exist on barely 7% of the earth's cultivable land. And with its reliance on coal to produce 75% of its energy, China also exports a lot of its pollution--acid rain to Korea, smog to Hong Kong.

The problems are daunting. Nine of the 10 most air-polluted cities in the world are in China, according to a recent report by the World Resources Institute in Washington, and respiratory disease is the leading cause of death. Even China's topography works against it: mountains cover 58% of the country--compared with only 15% of the United States, for example--exacerbating China's shortage of farmland while heightening susceptibility to soil erosion.

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Go south to Guangdong province, where the main tributary of the Pearl River has been popularly renamed the Heilongjiang, or Black Dragon River, because pollution has turned it the color of night. Go north to the petrochemical center of Lanzhou in Gansu province, No. 1 on the World Resources Institute's report. Local officials have concocted a last-gasp plan to level a mountain close to the city in hopes of allowing winds to blow through and disperse the pollution. Go west to Sichuan's Min River valley where every few kilometers hillsides denuded by logging are collapsing into the river, the beginning of an erosion process similar to what caused last summer's disastrous floods. Go east to the Yellow River, whose waters no longer reach the sea for most of the year, so silted-up has that once-mighty waterway become.

China is physically exhausted. And yet every day 1.2 billion people further dig, burn, cut, mine, pollute and process what is left in their frenetic drive to create and consume new wealth. And with the very survival of the Communist Party dependent, no doubt, on continued high growth rates, officials at all levels are slow to criticize the depredations of industry.

Confronting centuries of environmental neglect, as well as the inertia and indifference of a state whose own factories are creating much of the pollution, is no easy task. But growing numbers of committed individuals are prepared to try, and gradually their efforts are being noticed across the nation. Unlike the established and influential pro-ecology movements of the West, environmentalism in China has been promoted mostly by individuals. The Communist Party does not allow organizations to be established outside its control, and therefore, the concept of a non-governmental organization, or NGO, is anathema to it.

Still, some people are pushing the limits, and Liang Congjie is at the forefront. A 66-year-old Beijing professor of history and the editor of a Chinese encyclopedia, Liang decided in 1993 that he would try to set up China's first NGO. Told he had to apply to a government department, he went to the National Environment Protection Agency (NEPA) but was turned down.

Then he tried the Ministry of Culture, explaining that he wanted to set up an Academy of Green Culture. The Ministry did not know what it was, so I gave them a long explanation and said everything was about being 'green,' so they approved, says Liang with a chuckle. It helped that Liang comes from a prominent family: his grandfather, Liang Qichao, was a leading reformer at the end of the Qing Dynasty and his father was a renowned architect who returned from the U.S. in the 1930s and subsequently founded Qinghua University's school of architecture in the capital. The government has to be a little polite to me, says Liang. And they know I am not a political dissident or anything.

Liang's group, now called Friends of Nature, has more than 500 members, many of them from the Chinese press. We have the greenest media in the world, he says. You never see as many reports on the environment in U.S. papers. His first big success was in getting the government to curb logging in Deqing county in the southwestern province of Yunnan--an area that is home to the golden monkey. Only about 200 of the primates were thought to be alive in 1996 when Liang coordinated an aggressive letter-writing campaign that forced the government to ban further logging in Deqing. But in a follow-up visit some months later, Friends of Nature members found that illegal logging was continuing. Liang managed to persuade China Central Television's influential news magazine Focus to run a story on the endangered monkey. Premier Zhu Rongji reportedly saw the program and issued one of his thunderous edicts; the logging was halted.

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Liang has also worked to stop deforestation in Sichuan province and the Inner Mongolia region, and has started a campaign to stop the caging of wild birds. There is very little progress, but it is like sowing a seed in people's hearts, he says. I am sorry to say that the idea of environmental protection is a Western concept. The more I learn, the more I see traditional Chinese culture is so unfriendly to nature.

As elsewhere, lobbying for environmental protection often means opposing someone else's economic interests. Last fall Friends of Nature sent a team to Sichuan's Hongya county, a major logging area. That was just after Beijing had announced a ban on cutting trees to help avoid further flooding on the Yangtze. Posing as tourists and using hidden video cameras, the activists taped conversations with local officials. They boasted that they could deliver as much timber as we wanted in a few days' time, Liang says. They even showed off how they could use an electric saw to cut a 1.2-m-diameter, thousand-year-old tree.

A member of the Friends of Nature team smuggled the tapes out in the middle of the night and handed them over to a national television station: when the exposé ran, the team members who had stayed behind in Hongya received death threats by telephone. Says Liang: We have a battlefield here saving the antelopes, another battlefield there saving the golden monkey and still another in Sichuan saving the forests. We're very busy. Looking back over the last five years, Liang takes comfort in his initial string of successes. When we first started to talk about our goals, the typical reaction was, 'Are you crazy?' But now that we have some solid achievements, people are starting to ask, 'May I join?'

If Liang is the most visible pioneer of a green movement, the loudest single voice in the environmental debate has belonged to veteran journalist Dai Qing, whose campaign against the building of the Three Gorges Dam has attracted attention within China and overseas. Environmentalists lament the impact the $24 billion project will impose on the ecology, the 1.2 million people it will displace, the cultural relics it will flood over and the silt buildup it could create. Dai has pushed her cause to the limit, and authorities banned her 1989 book Yangtze! Yangtze!, which explored the dam's potential consequences. Nonetheless she continued to lobby against its construction, contributing to increasing international opposition to the dam. Dai, who lives in Beijing, has no illusions about the forces arrayed against her. I am quite constricted while fighting this fight, she says, noting the constant presence of Public Security Bureau monitors. She overcomes such restrictions primarily by teaming up with foreign activists, and although her movements are closely watched, the fact that she has not been completely silenced shows that, while the government will not tolerate political opposition, it seems prepared to allow environmental criticism.

Even if the campaign against the Three Gorges Dam has so far failed--the massive project is due to be completed in 2009--it has helped to raise awareness of the damage rapid industrialization is doing across the country. The problem, says Liao Xiaoyi, is how to get people to act. Many Chinese are worried about the environment, says Liao, who runs a Beijing ecological group called Global Village. They can tell the air or water is bad. But they think it is only the government who can fix it. Since April 1996, Liao and two assistants have been trying to change that, putting together a weekly 15-minute television program called Time for the Environment. The programs are practical and cover simple act locally concepts. We try to tell individuals how they can help by adopting environmental-friendly life-styles, says Liao. By recycling things, for example.

Liao first saw how NGOs functioned when she was living in North Carolina, where her husband was in graduate school. When they returned to China, she set up Global Village--technically it is a commercial organization, to get around the ban on NGOs. Of course many people hate what I say, says Liao. They think they have a right to have air-conditioners and a car because that is a modern life-style. But I think a modern life-style is being friendly to the environment.

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Persuading people of that fairly simple message is no easy task. John Liu works in Beijing for Television Trust for the Environment, importing foreign documentaries and having them dubbed into Mandarin for broadcast throughout China. Since 1997 he has brought in 110 films on everything from coral reefs to desertification. He knows how steep the slope is: The situation is grim. We have to educate 1.2 billion people--about everything. And it has to be done in league with the government, he says. The TV programs are popular with viewers. And, says Liu, among all the films his group has selected, officials have edited only one--a short scene in a program about forestry that featured the Dalai Lama--and the authorities told us in advance they would have to cut that out.

If Beijing is ready to accept some criticism on environmental issues, there are limits to its tolerance. In 1995, Greenpeace unfurled a banner at Tiananmen Square to protest Chinese nuclear testing. It lasted about 45 seconds before they were stopped and put on the next plane out of the country, says Liu. They had no effect. But Greenpeace's cheeky antics have found some followers among younger Chinese, even if they know they cannot get away with such stunts inside China. Greenpeace made me into an environmentalist, says Wen Bo, a former reporter for China Environment News, a paper devoted to conservation and other environmental issues. He recalls reading about the group's anti-nuclear campaigns in the Pacific, widely covered in the Chinese press, and thinking it sounded like a lot of fun.

Wen decided that environmentalism was to be his life. He initially calculated that he could have a greater effect on more people not by studying science, but by getting a liberal arts education and learning to write. The crackdown on liberal thinking that followed the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 nearly caused him to abandon his goals. But he persisted, studying journalism and eventually working for China Environment News in Beijing. Wen set up China Green Student Forum, a network of 20 universities' environment groups. Linked through the Internet, they exchange environmental information and coordinate meetings and other activities. Conservation is in line with government policy, so you can do something, says Wen. But you have to know your limitations. Industrial pollution becomes a political problem, for example, because local governments rely on factories for their revenue. The bosses pay bribes to avoid being shut down. Corruption is often at the root of environmental problems.

Wen, who left China Environment News last year to take up a grant to tour NGOs in the U.S., now aims to work his way through government red tape to set up his own form of NGO. He is working closely with Mei Ng, head of Friends of the Earth in Hong Kong. Ng has spent six years acting as a bridge between Western environmental groups and counterparts in China that are seeking to lay the groundwork for an indigenous green movement. The U.S.-based Friends of the Earth helped raise $36,200 to establish the Kekexili anti-poaching station; Ng herself gives out an annual award to dedicated environmentalists in Hong Kong. She visits China frequently, and mainland officials have enthusiastically adopted her idea for green schools, establishing dozens of primary and secondary schools across the country in which textbooks and lessons all bear an environmental focus.

Her greatest accomplishment, though, may have been to accustom China's powerful bureaucrats to the idea of grassroots environmentalism. In the early 1990s, the term 'NGO was equivalent to 'troublemaker,' Ng recalls. I had to convince them we were coming to help. She did that in part by speaking their language: in 1994 Ng won over NEPA chief Xie Zhenhua by arranging for him to meet in Hong Kong with then-Governor Chris Patten and then-U.S. Consul-General Richard Mueller. Isn't it amazing? Xie later gushed to his staff. A small NGO can do what a government does.

Now even top officials have begun to speak her language. After Jiang's September speech on the need to understand nature, leaders in Beijing came out strongly in favor of protecting forests. In Shanghai, the government has taken steps to reduce airborne industrial pollution and clean up the infamously dirty Suzhou creek. In Dalian, charismatic Mayor Bo Xilai has so transformed the city into a paragon of environmental progress that it has been officially exempted from the central government's annual clean city inspection.

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Bo, whose father Bo Yibo was one of the founders of the People's Republic and a vice premier, concedes that when he became mayor in 1993 he was not particularly sensitive to environmental issues: I merely had a deep affection for Dalian and wished to turn it into a nice-looking artistic creation.

As he pursued his civic beautification campaign, he found himself naturally slipping into the role of environmental protector. He had polluting industries moved away from the city center or shut down entirely. The Malan River was dredged of decades of contaminated sludge. In five years the city laid down 5.7 million sq m of lawns and gardens. That's the size of 10 Tiananmen Squares, says Bo. Dalian plants 10 million trees a year, and the city--unlike nearly any other in China--has air so clean it can't be seen. Bo is given to personally phoning local officials if he sees a dirty smokestack or some other eyesore. I will do so even if they are asleep, says Bo. People will carry out orders immediately if it comes from the mayor.

Bo picks up many of his ideas are from his foreign travels. In Japan he learned how to pave elevated sidewalks to avoid killing trees that stand in the way. In Europe he saw the value of non-polluting electric trams and later put Dalian's back into service. From Britain and the U.S. he learned how to plant lawns in public spaces to beautify the city and offer space for recreation. He likes to knock down hindrances: Chinese gardens are good, but you can only see them once inside the walls. By tearing down the walls, residents can see greenery every day.

Bo's critics say he has achieved so much only because of his family pedigree. That may be true in part, but few children of China's élite have pursued such an active pro-environment agenda. His latest target is reducing noise pollution. Last November, he decreed a ban on the honking of horns in the center of Dalian. Violators are fined $24, about one-fifth of the average wage of a worker in Dalian.

China's environmental movement is in its infancy: even if many people are becoming aware of the pollution that surrounds them, more often than not economic concerns and the rush to make money come first. And if the economy continues to slow, local officials are even more likely to resist any curbs on industry that could inhibit production and cost jobs. But as long as there are individuals who are prepared to stand up to the odds--like daring to stop taxi drivers from using their horns--there is some hope that China will slowly start to take more care of its environment.

With reporting by Isabella Ng/Hong Kong and Mia Turner/Beijing

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