China’s Water Warriors Grab Oscar Attention

Katy Yan

Lu Guang,
Over 70% of China's rivers and lakes and 90% of its groundwater are polluted. In addition, large dams often gather wastewater discharge from nearby factories and farms in a toxic soup behind their gates, further exacerbating the environmental and human health crisis.

The World Health Organization estimates that polluted water causes 75% of diseases in China and over 100,000 deaths annually. Many of these pollution-related deaths involve cancer victims living near factories spewing chemicals into their air and waterways – and their stories would have gone untold just a few decades ago. However, a growing civil society in China is making sure that the voices of ordinary farmers, villagers, and workers are being heard both on the national and international stage.

Farmer Zhang Gongli and his wife
Farmer Zhang Gongli and his wife
The most recent example of this is the film Warriors of Qiugang, a Yale360 film that was recently nominated for the 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). It tells the story of how villagers in a small hamlet in China's industrial heartland fought to shut down a chemical plant despite threats, harassment and minimal resources. In particular, it travels with the leader of this effort – a farmer named Zhang Gongli – who, with the help of the young environmental group Green Anhui, took the Qiugang case all the way to Beijing.

At one point in the film, as he gazes out the train windows on his way to Beijing, the soft-spoken Zhang says, "I feel scared – I really don't want to be a hero. But the next generation will suffer. We risk our lives for their happiness." (That last bit sounds very familiar if you're a young Chinese.)

Besides the sheer courage and commitment of these villagers, many of whom have only a middle school education and yet manage to master China's environmental laws, you also witness the emergence of China's NGO community. Green Anhui expertly supports the villagers' campaign by bringing other NGOs and journalists to visit and document the polluting practices of Qiugang's factories, thereby putting pressure on Beijing to take notice. Does it work?

To these and other unsung heroes and water warriors across China, I thank you for your courage and tirelessness. May you continue to inspire the next generation of young activists in China and abroad. 

More information: 
  • Green Camel Bell, an offshoot of Green Anhui, recently helped the village of Liangjiawan to demand water quality data and a new water pipe from a large hydropower station. Read their story.
  • There are now 3,539 officially registered environmental groups in China and counting. Read about the latest book that examines how this movement came about.