Books: the fight for China’s environment

Feng Yongfeng’s book on the green movement’s “legends” provides a glimpse of the early years and 30 extraordinary leaders. But 20 years on, argues Huo Weiya, the country needs the every-day involvement of “normal” people.

How to Protect the Environment: Green Tales From China
Feng Yongfeng
World Affairs Press, 2011

Twenty years have passed since the start of China’s environmental protection movement in the 1990s. As with many new things, its appearance and growth were a challenge to the existing order. It was unusual, even abnormal.

But the unusual or abnormal stories have not really been told. There is no oral history; there are no biographies, no academic studies. Still, the attentive reader can catch a glimpse of those early years of the movement in How to Protect the Environment: Green Tales From China.

Author Feng Yongfeng is a reporter for the Guangming Daily and also works with the Green Beagle. This dual role means he maintains close links with Chinese environmentalists, and is also able to write about them. As he says in the book’s preface, “They are all my friends” and “They are great legendary figures who leave me in awe.” To express that awe, he describes “their actual lives” – and that became this book.

Wei Dongying is a village woman from China’s east coast. In 1997, land in her village began to be appropriated for an industrial park, and gradually the local people started to suffer strange, even fatal, illnesses. Wei Dongying’s husband wanted to report the situation to the authorities, but was illiterate, and so she — with her junior middle-school education — ended up an environmentalist concerned with the water and air around her.

Yun Jianli has been a biology teacher, and is a member of the Hubei Political Consultative Committee. She saw the filthy water flowing into the Han River, a tributary of the Yangtze, and was moved to take action for the sake of her children and grandchildren. In 2002, at age 58, she started an environmental organisation.

Liao Xiaoyi was once an academic. While others were striving to move abroad, she gave up her US “green card” – the document that granted her permanent residence in the United States — to concentrate on environmental work in China.

Wang Zha was a farmer; Wang Yongchen, a reporter; Ma Jun, a consultant in a company; Chen Zhe, a dictionary editor; Liu Zhenxiang, a taxi driver; Chen Jiqun, a painter; and Zhang Jiao, a businesswoman.

The 30 featured environmentalists come from different backgrounds and livelihoods, but for various reasons all dedicated themselves to China’s environmental movement.

Some had no choice but to protect their most basic right to life when their homes were polluted; some were perceptive enough to spot the environmental crisis early on and were driven to cry out by a sense of social responsibility; some have a simple but deep love of nature and are unable to accept its destruction by an economy-led society.

Protection of rights, social responsibility and a simple love of nature: these are the three forces that sparked the Chinese environmental movement.

Most of the pioneers covered in the book are still pillars of the movement today. Ma Jun’s Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) brings together over 30 environmental groups and is engaged in a battle with the computer giant Apple over issues in its supply chain. Liao Xiaoyi is busy advocating environmental principles. Wang Yongchen – author of another book on China’s environmental pioneers, Seeking the Footprints of Wild Man — is still working on water issues. Chen Jiqun is using the law to protect the grasslands.

These are not ordinary people. They accept the financial and social pressures of a lifestyle that mainstream Chinese society does not entirely approve of, and have abandoned opportunities to become officials, to earn money and to become famous.

And they are not “normal”, in that they do not worry only about their own lives, families or health, and often spend much of their money on their passion to protection the environment. It is this extraordinariness that has left the sustainable development of the movement in difficulty.

The book’s aim is teaching people how to protect the environment, but even if someone is willing to teach for free, newcomers to the movement may not be able to accept the “legendary” teachings of these pioneers. For example, Zhang Jiao made her first fortune while still young, at the start of reform and opening up. She then leased a mountainside in order to restore its ecology – spending 18 million yuan in savings and taking on huge amounts of debt.

This type of almost “crazy” environmentalism is a kind of radicalism, and was common in the early days of the movement. But extolling such examples will leave the youth of an urbanising China, left without cars, houses or welfare, feeling unable to participate.

Many of the young people involved in environmental protection today are university graduates, with little in the way of financial or social resources. And their participation already results in too much pressure: society does not always recognise their contribution and their families often do not approve. They are unable to “go crazy” for their cause, or to become legends. They are not like their predecessors, who at the very least had some financial resources before joining the movement, and in some cases already were members of the elite, with both financial and social resources.

Those legendary figures and the youth of today are situated in entirely different social environments. If civil society environmental protection is to continue developing, we cannot provide only extraordinary legends – we need new, every-day and valuable lifestyles.

It would be best if the earlier age of the Chinese environmental movement now fades, and if we see no more environmental legends and heroes. Let the movement become normal.

Huo Weiya is editor of
Youth Environment Review.