Wang Yong Chen: The Clark Kent of China

China Program
Wang Yong Chen in action
Wang Yong Chen in action
I first met 62-year-old Wang Yong Chen, our July River Guardian, in a hotel conference room during the summer of 2015, when she attended the public launch of International River’s benchmarking report. Soft-spoken and dressed in dark business attire, Wang blended in with the other attendees. Like a Chinese Clark Kent (Superman's secret identity), she gave little hint that she’s responsible for the first victory in the environmental movement in modern China.

But what Wang Yong Chen has accomplished is truly inspiring. At the beginning of the new millennium, Wang and a few other Chinese environmentalists intensified efforts to cancel plans for 13 large hydropower dams along the Nu-Salween River  in Southwestern China. The river crosses impressive mountains and valleys in Western Yunnan, and it hosts the most biodiverse part of the entire country. The environmentalist had directed comments to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Chinese media, and to the local and national government about the dams. But the turning point came when Wang Yong Chen used a connection from her previous work as a State Agency news reporter to send a memo about the importance to of conserving the Nu River to then-Premier Wen Jia Bao. 

Not long after Wang sent the memo, Premier Wen announced that no construction would occur until further notice, and until better Environmental Impact Assessments could be conducted. This was an important and unprecedented victory for environmentalists and civil society, who for the first time, felt that their voices and participation mattered in the government’s decision-making process. Today, the Nu-Salween is the only free-flowing river remaining in China, Myanmar and Thailand. 

Wang Yong Chen began her career as an environmental reporter for China National Radio. She pioneered radio programs about the environment, encouraging public awareness and debate. As a journalist, she won several Chinese and international awards. In 1996, Wang Yong Chen founded Green Earth Volunteers , one of the first NGOs in China. Since then, her work has earned her accolades and titles, including that of one of Time Magazine’s Environmental Heroes

Wang Yong Chen and me in March 2016
Wang Yong Chen and me in March 2016

In March 2016, I travelled with Wang  and a small group of environmentalists to the Nu River. Colorful and outgoing, Wang Yong Chen was the essential ingredient that bound the group together. Other participants included Doctor Yu Xiao Gang , one of Wang Yong Chen’s peers who also played an important role in the 2004 victory, as well as up-and-coming environmentalists in their twenties and thirties. Dr. Yu founded Green Watershed  in the 1990s, and was awarded with a prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2006. 


During our trip along the Nu River, the young environmentalists really enjoyed and valued their interactions with these two mentors. Despite the casual nature of their chats and pleasantries exchanged throughout the days and nights, our group always addressed and referred to them as “teacher Wang” and “teacher Yu.” Wang Yong Chen’s quick wit and no-nonsense personality shone throughout the trip. Wang would never be without her camera, and she’d also always have her phone in hand, ready to snap shots which could be shared instantly. I was impressed by her remarkable energy and alertness despite the long days: She would stay up late into the night, writing articles to push through her social media channels. During the trip, her media feeds buzzed with photos of her and the river, and articles about her experiences. She didn't sleep much, attributing her vigor to a special brew of flowers and tea which she sipped from her thermos.

Wang’s long career has not gone unnoticed. During each day of our trip, Wang wore either a bright yellow raincoat or a bright pink jacket. It’s possible that she did this to ease the jobs of the six national security and local police officers who had been tasked with following and monitoring her activities at every moment during her time along the river. 

Wang Yong Chen joking around with one of the security officials who followed her throughout the trip
Wang Yong Chen joking around with one of the security officials 
Stephanie Jensen-Cormier

She pointed out one of the officers: “That guy has followed me for every single one of my seventeen trips here.” The longstanding nature of the relationship revealed itself when, during a rest stop, the officer told Wang that he wanted to buy her a bag of sunflower seeds because he knew that she liked them. Wang declined, but she got the bag of sunflower seeds anyway. The officer also gave her a huge bag of freshly cut sugar cane to share with everyone on the bus. 

Wang Yong Chen has a very natural approach when interacting with locals, the majority of whom come from 22 ethnic minorities in this region. Many find it very difficult to communicate or create a rapport with ethnic minorities- most use their traditional dialects instead of Mandarin and have customs and lifestyles which differ greatly from city dwellers. Wang Yong Chen’s natural gregariousness and her experience documenting hundreds of families in the area for the past decade have helped her build lasting relations with locals. One of these families even invited us into their home to catch up.  


Wang Yong Chen, a resident of Liuku and Dr. Yu Xiao Gang
Wang Yong Chen, a resident of Liuku and Dr. Yu Xiao Gang
Stephanie Jensen-Cormier

Wang Yong Chen is often asked to explain why she cares so much about protecting the beauty and biodiversity of the Nu region. Wang’s family is originally from Anhui and she was born and raised – and still lives – in Beijing, which is more than 2,600 km away from the Nu River. Many wonder why she doesn’t focus her conservation efforts on rivers in the north.We met several individuals who live along the river and who’ve enjoyed a decade-long relationship with Wang Yong Chen. One man was one of the first residents of Liu Ku, which is now a town of 46,000. He joked that just a few years back, whenever Wang Yong Chen or someone else travelled into town, the few residents would get very excited and talk about it for weeks. The speed with which Liu Ku has grown is astounding, yet not uncommon in China, and it points to the need to preserve magical places like the Nu River before they are irrevocably changed.

In fact, Green Earth Volunteers, the NGO that Wang founded, does also turn its gaze northward. The group has been hosting weekly neighborhood river watch excursions in Beijing and other cities since 2003. Wang gets up early and joins those walks whenever she is in town. 

But Wang admits that the Nu River holds a special place in her heart. She cares about the Nu River because of its beauty and its tremendous importance for all of China. The region is the epicenter of biodiversity for the country, home to half of China’s animal species and one of the most biodiverse places on earth. Wang points out that hydropower and other large-scale developments can be unfair. “Local inhabitants feel like their lives are rich and meaningful before. Then you ask them to move, their lives change, and they become poor.” 

Wang Yong Chen awoke to the difficulties faced by displaced people when she attended International Rivers’ “Rivers for Life”  conference in Northern Thailand in 2003. The five-day conference provided a space for 300 activists and dam-affected people from 62 countries to exchange experiences and devise new strategies. Since then, Wang Yong Chen has developed strong relationships and friendships with a number of us at International Rivers. She has become an advocate for protection of the Nu River and has spoken in the US, Japan and Korea. She has been invited to share her insights at many of the world’s most prestigious universities, including almost every Ivy League school in the US.

By supporting Wang Yong Chen and Green Earth Volunteers, International Rivers has played an important role in increasing environmental activism and opening up space for public participation in the Chinese government’s decision-making process. 

Individuals like Wang Yong Chen are very rare in a country of over one billion people. She is inspiring the next generation of Chinese environmentalists and continues to reawaken the duty for Chinese to become a more responsible part of nature. The struggle to keep the Nu-Salween River free-flowing has continued since the initial victory in 2004, and Wang Yong Chen has been instrumental in this long effort. 

Wang Yong Chen is truly one of the leaders of China’s modern day environmental movement. Her dedication to the Nu-Salween River is a huge inspiration to me and many others concerned about the health and future of China’s rivers.

Nu child playing in a village along the Nu-Salween River
Nu child playing in a village along the Nu-Salween River.
Stephanie Jensen-Cormier


Wednesday, July 20, 2016