Wang Yongchen, A Warrior for China’s Free Flowing Rivers

Katy Yan

Wang Yongchen at the 2010 Rivers for Life meeting in Mexico
Wang Yongchen at the 2010 Rivers for Life meeting in Mexico
A growing environmental movement has taken hold in China. Since the late 1970s, more than 3,500 Chinese NGOs have been formally registered, bringing positive change and a sharpened focus on major environmental challenges in China. A new book, Stories of China's Environmental NGOs (Foreign Languages Press), follows some of the movement's more charismatic leaders. One of the few women profiled in the book is Wang Yongchen, a senior reporter with China National Radio and founder of Green Earth Volunteers.

Wang has been called an "environmental poet," as she has spent her lifetime making poetry out of the places she visits with her camera, pen and recorder. She says: "I am often regarded as a woman who is building a grand environmental-protection project. But I think that I am part of nature. And I am only doing what everyone should be doing."

According to Wang, women have been critical to the growth of NGOs in China, and indeed are the majority of those participating in NGO activities. Women in China are also often the most negatively impacted by large dam projects. Wang says, "They lose the land, their cultural tradition and their livelihood, particularly those who are part of ethnic minorities. Their lives are urbanized, and they shoulder more of the burdens after the men have gone to work in cities."

Wang led an unprecedented public campaign to save the Nu River, which flows from the Tibetan Plateau, and becomes the Salween in Burma and Thailand. It is one of China's last free-flowing rivers. 

In July 2003, China's "three parallel rivers region" – encompassing the basins of the Jinsha, Lancang and Nu rivers – was added to UNESCO's World Natural Heritage list. In August, the National Development and Reform Commission passed a plan to construct a cascade of 13 hydropower stations on the Nu. In response, Wang rallied support for protecting the Nu by organizing seminars, engaging fellow journalists, distributing pamphlets, and organizing a petition to call for an environmental and legal evaluation of the hydropower projects. In 2004, she organized a nine-day river expedition for reporters, which resulted in strong media coverage of the issue within China , and ultimately a photography exhibit in Beijing.

That year, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao wrote: "Given the high level of social and environmental concerns over the large scale hydro project, further careful research is required in order to reach a scientific decision"-effectively halting the Nu River projects.

In an essay to mark the 12th anniversary of Green Earth Volunteers in 2008, Wang wrote about her biggest challenge: "After six years of continuous action over the Nu River, we are still uncertain of its future. At the end of the day, will it flow freely as it does today? Will there be the same torrents, the gatherings of bathers, and the lovers on the beach? Will our faith, our participation, and our action keep the river rolling as it does today?"

Despite their victory in 2004, China's upcoming Five-Year Plan, due to be published in March, calls for ramping up large hydro projects like those on the Nu River, which have lain dormant for several years. The government proposes to approve 140 GW of new hydropower capacity – almost twice what the US, Brazil or Canada have built in their entire histories.

According to Wang, "A deteriorating environment makes economic development a ‘mission impossible.' It is just like when people sacrifice health to make money and then have to spend that money to recover their health."

The new push for massive damming has her concerned, but she has not given up hope. "China's rivers are facing a huge challenge," she says. "We are now pushing for information disclosure and public participation so that China's rivers can have further protections." Her group and others will continue fighting to keep these rivers free flowing for generations to come.