Back to Blue: The Race to Salvage China’s Environment and Its Past

Margaret Zhou

China’s economy is developing quickly – at great cost to the environment. But things are looking up now, as a new generation of environmentalists finds its way into newly-minted Chinese NGOs. Can they turn China’s grey skies back to blue? 

Blue sky over Beijing's Olympic Park
Blue sky over Beijing's Olympic Park

I hadn’t even been in China a week and I’d already seen something amazing happen two days in a row – Beijing’s skies were blue. Crystal clear blue with even bluer mountains visible on the horizon – the kind of sky we call beautiful even in sunny California. I was on a two-week trip to China, first to meet with International Rivers’ China Program, and then to visit family in Shandong. While the sky was grey during most of my trip, the few blue skies we had weren’t a complete shock to anyone – friends and even taxi drivers told me that weather had improved this year, with more sunny days than they’d seen in years. I wondered – could a decade of governmental and popular awareness around air quality finally be paying off?

It’s well known that China’s runaway growth has come at the cost of its air, rivers, soil, food safety and wildlife. Hydropower in particular has been falsely hailed as a source of energy with little or no cost, and Chinese hydropower companies have flung their investments throughout the rivers of the Global South. In this context, my colleagues on International Rivers’ China Program face a task that could help shape the future of the planet: convincing Chinese dam-building companies to take the environment seriously.

Toward this end, the China Program engaged in a two-year-long investigative project that culminated in the release of a Benchmarking Report. During my visit, I attended the Benchmarking Report launch conference, and I took the opportunity to talk with our staff and local partners in Beijing.

I sat among a crowd of journalists, academics and environmental activists as Grace Mang, Co-Director of Programs, presented the report. Several aspects of the report and its process stuck out to me. First, my colleagues had diligently consulted Chinese dam-building companies throughout the process, forming useful relationships where information was shared transparently on both sides. Many of the companies actually appreciated and welcomed the exercise, which was done in a collaborative rather than adversarial spirit.

But the report was not just about forming relationships. Going forward, governments can consult the report when they’re considering Chinese hydropower investments. These governments will be able to see the social and environmental track records of companies approaching them, and can now make more informed decisions about which projects and companies they allow on their rivers.

The Campaign to Keep the Nu River Free

The day after the launch of the report I sat down with a local environmentalist, who will go by the alias Wang Lan here, to talk about China’s environmental movement. Wang Lan agreed that the climate for environmentalists in China has been changing, and that a new kind of civil society, adapted to China’s unique challenges, has been rising up. She cited the campaign around the Nu River as a prime example. 

The campaign for the Nu River – China’s last free-flowing river – started over ten years ago when a 13-dam cascade was planned for the river. The region where the river crosses into Burma and Thailand is an epicenter of biodiversity that contains over 6,000 plant species and supports over 25% of the world’s animal species. Intense resistance by environmentalists, scientists, and solidarity groups flared up in opposition to the projects. Thirty years ago, this kind of resistance would have been dismissed. Instead, in 2004 Premier Wen Jiabao announced the suspension of all projects on the Nu River pending further scientific study. It was a monumental victory for the rising Chinese environmental movement, and a quiet example of how the government is becoming more responsive to civil engagement. 

Then, devastatingly, in February 2011 Chinese officials revealed plans to resume the Nu River dams. A newly planned five-dam cascade, scheduled for construction in 2015, would displace 60,000 largely ethnic minority people. At least one village has already been relocated. 

Wang Lan has joined the renewed campaign to protect the Nu River. Despite the odds, Wang is hopeful that China's growing environmental movement can face the challenge successfully and keep the Nu River free-flowing once and for all. Ten years ago, environmental NGOs struggled to gain a foothold in China, but the movement is now supported by dozens of domestic and international NGOs and staffed by China’s savvy young professionals who stay connected using mobile apps like WeChat. More formal publications like the Benchmarking Report show that NGOs in China are gaining the skills, capacity and expertise that will allow them to wield greater influence in policy and decision-making – despite the legal limitations they face

But it isn’t just an environmental struggle. It’s a historic campaign to preserve a place that gives us a glimpse of the might and magic of China’s landscape. For many, the Nu River is one of the last remnants of the natural world on which Chinese civilization and culture were founded, a place where rivers roared like dragons and shaped the mountain ranges and plains we have today. That place is slipping through our fingers all too quickly.

Salvaging Remnants of China’s Past

There is something incredibly heavy about watching one of the world’s oldest civilizations – one whose art, music and even language mimic the natural world around it – abandoning the very land and rivers that have sustained it for centuries. As China takes center on the global economic stage, ties to tradition, lineage and land have fallen at the wayside. 

My father and I ask my grandmother about her past
My father and I ask my grandmother about her past

So perhaps in the same spirit as the people who struggle to ensure that the Nu River flows freely into China’s future, I returned to my father’s hometown with a mission to collect stories to preserve what family memories we have of China’s recent past. 

I sat facing my grandmother on her small couch draped in a dusty piece of orange velvet, in a living room of barren cement walls and floor. A small TV blared world news, and her two chickens could be heard clucking outside the door. At 83, my grandmother is fiery. As she talked, her hands motioned above her head and all around her, occasionally brushing aside the soft grey bangs that hang near her eyes. 

With very little prompting, as if these stories had lived at the tip of her tongue for the past 50 years, she told me stories of warfare, famine and hard labor. One story in particular stood out to me. Our family lives near the banks of the Yellow River, where a man-made dam was once erected using nothing but rocks and mud. Every year, a delegation from each village gathered at the dam to make repairs and add a new layer of mud to the top of the dam. The work was treacherous, especially for women of my grandmother’s generation, who had bound feet. 

The Yellow River runs along the border of Shandong province
The Yellow River runs along the border of Shandong province

The year my grandmother made the journey, she had my father, then an infant, strapped on her back. She and the other workers stood on the soft banks and in the water, digging as much as they could without sinking too far into the mud. Then they carried the mud up the steep slope of the dam, at an almost 90-degree angle, to pave the top. 

Because my grandmother’s team consisted of mostly women whose small bound feet kept sinking painfully low into the mud, they were the slowest team. The project manager yelled at them until finally a team from another village came to their rescue. That night, my grandmother slept in a crowded barracks near the work-site. As soon as she crawled into one of the top bunks of a cramped room, she passed out into a sleep so deep that she urinated in the bed. She was awoken by her bunk-mate shaking the bed angrily, a stream of urine trickling into the bottom bunk. My grandmother brushed the woman off, telling her that her baby had had an accident. She told me this story with no trace of embarrassment or shyness, joking that fortunately she had a good cover-up.

My grandmother in her living room, June 2015.
My grandmother in her living room, June 2015

From hand-made mud dams to industrial dam cascade projects like the ones now planned for the Nu River, China has risen literally out of its rivers within the past 50 years. The work of salvaging what’s left – both of rivers and stories – is the responsibility of all of us who live in this cusp of time, before landscapes and ways of life that persisted for generations come to an end.

As my grandmother’s stories showed me, momentous changes can occur in just one lifetime. In the case of China’s environmental movement and the new generation of environmentalists joining its ranks, change may be in their favor. When I asked Wang Lan what she hopes for her child’s future as she raises her family in Beijing, she replied without a moment’s hesitation, “I just hope that at least the sky will be blue.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015