Mao's War Against Nature
by Judith Shapiro
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CHINA’S ENVIRONMENTAL FUTURE
Environmental problems have become a genuine central concern of China’s government, not least because policy-makers have recognized that they carry a high price in health and cleanup costs, increased erosion, flooding, desertification, and sandstorms. Many leaders are aware of studies showing that costs of environmental degradation through disease, lost productivity, and cleanup costs have effectively wiped out China’s rapid economic growth rate, and there is eager acceptance of green technologies if they come at low cost and contribute to economic development. More stringent emissions standards are being implemented, and heavily polluting factories are being shut down or, in an interesting echo of Mao-era solutions, are being moved into more remote areas. In 1998, the State Environmental Protection Administration was elevated to the level of Ministry in an effort to give it greater oversight authority, and there has been a significant increase in the environmental agencies’ powers to enforce the strong environmental regulations that exist on paper. Although resources for enforcement remain limited and violations widespread, China’s government seems determined to turn around the country’s reputation for being one of the most polluted in the world.
In another promising development, despite government nervousness about the institutions of civil society, environmental nongovernmental organizations, quasi-nongovernmental organizations (GONGOs, or government-organized nongovernmental organizations), and student environmental clubs and activist groups are starting to flourish. These groups often share information and conduct joint projects with overseas environmental NGOs like the World Resources Institute and Resources for the Future, and draw support from Western foundations such as the Ford Foundation and WWF-Beijing. In Beijing, the well-known NGO Friends of Nature organizes public cleanups, tree-planting drives, and efforts to save endangered species. Global Village Beijing, whose founder, Sherri Liao Xiaoyi, was recently awarded a major international environmental prize, produces educational materials and television programs. A legal clinic, the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims, opened in 1999 and is swamped with requests for help. In China’s interior, the Shaanxi Mothers Environmental Protection Association organizes cleanups, workshops, and children’s art competitions. In Yunnan, quasi-academic umbrella groups such as the Center for Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge are studying the environmental values and sustainable practices of minority nationalities, including the Dai, Aini, Jinuo, Lahu, Bai, and Naxi. Meanwhile, student and neighborhood environmental groups throughout the country are beginning to protest and publicize violations by polluters and poachers and otherwise act as monitors and pressure groups. Ironically, high pollution levels have raised environmental consciousness and promoted environmental values. In autumn 1999 in Beijing, for example, the Communist Party’s temporary shutdown of polluting industries so as to be able to show the world a glorious fiftieth anniversary of the P.R.C. reminded Beijingers what it was like to glimpse blue skies and created public pressure to make this a regular event.
On the biodiversity issue, courageous groups and individuals have acted to publicize the plight of the Tibetan antelope; one such activist was martyred by a poacher’s bullet. A nationwide student campaign to save the Tibetan antelope, in collaboration with Friends of Nature, recently established a web site and is conducting environmental education workshops and putting on theatrical performances. Similar activism centers around a campaign to save the rare Yunnan snub-nosed monkey. The young leader, a photographer and filmmaker Legacy named Xi Zhinong, has become a local environmental hero. He first discovered that the monkey’s Deqin County habitat was about to be logged when he was on assignment for China Central Television. Appealing to top environmental officials, he gained the state’s intervention, but the logging resumed as soon as officials’ backs were turned. He and his wife, Shi Lihong, a former China Daily reporter, have since established the Yunnan Plateau Research Institute, a nongovernmental organization devoted to the monkey’s cause, and they have moved with their infant child to the region to work with poor villagers and local leaders to enlist them in the monkey’s protection, help them find development alternatives, and monitor and publicize the situation.
China’s youth, particularly those pursuing higher educations, yearn to join the world community, to become global citizens, and to link with their peers overseas. Many of them are deeply concerned about China’s environmental health. Student environmental organizations (formed under the aegis of the Communist Youth League, their activities approved by its leadership) have undertaken a wide range of activities. In Shenyang, for example, Northeast University’s “Green Power” publishes a magazine and has adopted the Liao River, educating people who live along the riverbanks about fertilizer and pesticide use. Sichuan University’s Green River Environmental Conservation and Protection Society has adopted Chengdu’s waterways, while other groups are linking to protect and clean up the Yangzi, including a desperate effort to protect the highly endangered white river dolphin, which is likely to become extinct in the wild when the Three Gorges Dam is completed. Other groups organize “green camping” outings in a sort of student-based ecotourism, arrange Earth Day activities, and otherwise try to spread their environmental messages. These activities are on the whole supported by the universities and virtually every major Chinese university has one of these clubs.
Inspiration and hope for a better environmental future also lie in the nostalgia of China’s elderly for the deep forests in which they once played and the clear waters in which they once swam, and in their memories of wild animals, large fish, and the songs of numerous birds. One such older-generation Chinese, a writer named Tang Xiyang, has written a sort of environmental rallying cry for China in his book, A Green World Tour, an account of his ecotour of the world’s nature reserves. He explicitly links his environmental awareness and compassion to his own victimization during the Cultural Revolution.
In sum, if China’s leaders can see their way toward loosening controls on public participation, a government may yet evolve that is environ-mentally responsible and responsive, backed by citizen awareness of environmental issues and support for strong environmental enforcement. Notwithstanding the arguments of some scholars who believe that authoritarian governments should be in a better position to regulate and control pollution than freer societies, in China, at least, top-down regulation has not thus far been successful on its own in dictating significantly better environmental behavior.
Significant citizen support for sound environmental practices must come from an informed base of knowledge, for ecological literacy has a critical role in propelling action and shaping environmental values and behavior. As we have seen, Mao systematically suppressed intellectuals and scientific knowledge, supplanting scientific warnings concerning objective limitations with his own preferences and desires, in accordance with his vision of the capabilities of a mobilized society. China is still compensating for those decades of lost expertise and training. Ecological literacy and basic environmental education are now critical, yet few ordinary Chinese citizens understand about watersheds, food chains, toxic materials that they cannot see, smell, or taste, not to speak of the consequences of transnational problems like ozone layer depletion and climate change. China’s environmental future thus rests in part on its ability to integrate environmental education into the curriculum and convey basic scientific knowledge to its citizens. Fortunately, the central government and educators recognize this, and they have taken dramatic steps to integrate environmental sciences and awareness of environmental issues into the curriculum at all levels. In some universities, a course in such issues is already mandatory for all students, and there is a laudable plan to make this a nationwide requirement. On a recent lecture tour, I found Chinese college students as well if not better informed than some of their Western counterparts about basic environmental problems, and very receptive to learning about how nongovernmental institutions have promoted environmental values and policy in other parts of the world. Moreover, when asked why we should care about the environment, a surprising number responded that we should care about nature because we are an integral part of it, a philosophical approach to the human–nature relationship that is best described as “deep green.”
© Judith Shapiro - Cambridge University Press 2001