Wednesday, Sep. 24, 2008

Wang Yongchen

After decades of enduring widespread pollution, Chinese citizens are beginning to stand up for their environment. From the coastal city of Xiamen, where residents blocked construction of a chemical plant last year, to the capital Beijing, where the local government recently pledged to clean up a massive garbage dump after protests, citizens are increasingly willing to confront industry and the government over China's toxic air and water. As countries become richer, it's no surprise that people have more time to worry about the planet. But in China, where speaking out can bring reprisals, it helps to have the courage and persistence of Wang Yongchen.

In 1996 Wang, a journalist with China National Radio, co-founded Green Earth Volunteers, one of China's first environmental NGOs. The group's earliest projects — tree-adoption and bird-watching — were aimed at teaching people, especially students, about their natural heritage. "Environmental protection and economic planning are longtime national policies. But while economic planning was managed really well, environmental protection was just an empty slogan," says Wang. "I felt that if we really want to have environmental protection, then people have to learn about the environment." Since then, 50,000 people have joined Green Earth programs such as environmental classes and trips to wilderness areas. Says Wang: "When [children] grow up to become bosses and have to weigh growing the economy and protecting the environment, they'll have a different response than people who haven't experienced nature."

Wang has now turned to influencing policy. A plan to build 13 dams along the Nu River was postponed in 2004 by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao after fierce opposition from Wang and fellow activists. That fight isn't over, but Wang is working on other ways of making China's green movement more effective. She organizes monthly meetings of reporters to raise pressing issues, and is also pushing for better environmental and public-disclosure laws in China. "Sometimes it's very lonely," she says. "People support the environment, but say there's nothing you can do about it." Wang is heartening proof that they're wrong.