Bittersweet triumph for eco-warriors

The Warriors of Qiugang, a new video report by Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon, documents an environmental campaign in eastern China. Sam Geall spoke to the filmmakers.

“In our village many are saddened, we are sorry to be born in this place. But we had no choice.” Farmer Zhang Gongli’s melancholy words open The Warriors of Qiugang, a new video report by Chinese-American director Ruby Yang and New York-based producer Thomas Lennon, makers of 2006 Academy Award-winning documentary The Blood of Yingzhou District. Local pesticide and dye plants and the officials that backed them fostered this sorrow, according to Zhang. He and other villagers in Qiugang, near the banks of the Huai River, in east China’s Anhui province, blamed the Jiucailou chemical factory for crop failure, fish die-offs and an unusual frequency of cancer deaths.

But this carefully observed 39-minute video, published online this week at Yale Environment 360, does not only depict the hardship experienced by rural pollution victims. It also follows a change of attitude among the villagers, from the sadness and resignation of Zhang’s opening words towards greater organisation and awareness as they mount a five-year campaign against the factory, using petitions, politics and pressure from local media and NGOs in Anhui and Beijing (and the documentarians themselves).

This was no simple campaign, and The Warriors of Qiugang lets us see its intricate, convoluted negotiations. Speaking in a coffee-shop in Beijing, director Ruby Yang told me: “These efforts are very complex: it’s not like we can celebrate one hero. It’s all these forces coming together at the right time – and we were able to film that.” Thus the report tracks the complex political ecology of an unfolding (and successful, up to a point) environmental protest in China in a thoughtful and affecting way that is rarely seen on screen.

Villager Wang Yongcui and her grandson outside the factory plant.
Photo from 
The Warriors of Qiugang.

There had been a number of confrontations between authorities and residents concerned about the private chemical factory (which replaced a state-owned enterprise in 2004), including two unsuccessful attempts to sue. But, as in many spheres of life, turning points are often contingent and unexpected. In this case, when a Qiugang elementary school asked children to write essays about the local environment, all 40 students penned letters of protest about the pollution and sent them to the environmental protection bureau. This energised Green Anhui, an NGO that had previously traced the chronic contamination of the Huai River back to Qiugang, and created a good story for the local and provincial media.

But still the factory opponents had little strength, explained Yang, since they had no clear leaders or political power. So another breakthrough came when Zhang, who unsuccessfully ran for village head in 2008, found out that the factory was breaking the law: hazardous chemicals cannot be legally produced within 1,000 metres of residents in China. That discovery effectively “gave him some power”, said Yang. The documentary shows Zhang’s subsequent transformation into an activist and community leader as he makes connections with environment and civil-society groups in Beijing. “What’s amazing is that you see the transformation right there on the screen,” said producer Thomas Lennon in an email message. “You’re watching a farmer discover new possibilities for himself.”

Reflecting on the obstacles faced by China’s many environmental campaigns, Yang said: “Leaders like Zhang Gongli are so few. If there were more leaders like him who can galvanise villagers, there might be a little less instability.” And Zhang – who became closely involved in the documentary, shooting his own stills and video footage – led his village to a victory: the factory was dismantled and moved last year. “The success of this campaign,” said Yang, “was really due to the diligence of the villagers, the presence of an NGO and of the media, which put a lot of pressure on the local environmental protection bureau to act and also put pressure on the Ministry of Environmental Protection in Beijing.”

But to what extent was it a genuine triumph? “For the villagers themselves – on a superficial level – it’s over,” said Yang. “If the factory’s not producing, at least they have clean air – and that’s important.” Alex Wang, senior attorney and Beijing-based director of the China Environmental Law Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, agreed that the shut-down was a “ray of hope” for the villagers. But he continued: “Nonetheless, serious problems, such as the legacy of accumulated soil pollution, remain unresolved to be faced another day. The story also lays bare the challenges in using China’s courts and dispute resolution mechanisms.”

Lennon concurred: “For Qiugang villagers, the story isn’t completely played out. There’s still the question of the clean-up – who’s going to pay for it, and how well it will be done.” But, he added: “To see a factory dismantled and moved as a result of your efforts, that’s quite something. Quite a message to other polluters.”

Sam Geall is deputy editor of chinadialogue

Homepage image from The Warriors of Qiugang shows a village campaign meeting