In March 2006, 10,000 farmers surrounded the Deqin County government office in Sichuan Province to protest plans to build a dam on the Tiger Leaping Gorge—a dam that would inundate rich farmland and displace thousands of villagers. The tense two-day standoff ended without violence and the dam plans were canceled. Speakers at this April 30th CEF meeting heralded this case as a sign of the growing power of civil society organizations, journalists, and citizens to demand more accountability in dam building and pollution control.
China’s Environmental Challenges
Professor Judith Shapiro from American University presented a macro view of how environmental civil society organizations (CSOs) utilize an array of tools to achieve their objectives, some of which were not readily available in the past. Besides public demonstrations, which are often organized as “taking a walk” to avoid censorship by internet filters, her anecdote-rich presentation described how CSOs, journalists, and citizens have used public interest lawsuits, undercover investigations, supply chain, naming and shaming, symbolic demonstrations, and information dissemination to pressure companies and governments to change policies, block infrastructure projects and halt pollution.
Early environmental groups were often clubs organized in schools under the auspices of the Communist Youth League. In the 1990s, historian Liang Congjie spearheaded the environmental movement in China when he registered the country’s first nongovernmental organization Friends of Nature. He took a conservative approach to engage citizens in environmental protection, initially organizing groups to pick up trash and recycle batteries. He went on to play a pivotal role in the campaign to save the Tibetan antelope, which, according to Shapiro, is the first national campaign that brought civil society groups and citizens from around the country together for a green cause. This case highlighted that there was political space for citizens to organize around environmental issues.
More recently, Chinese environmental activist, Ma Jun, pioneered a hard-hitting information politics strategy by creating and disseminating a map of water pollution hot spots via the Internet. CSOs such as Greenpeace have amped up the use of naming and shaming campaigns, placing a greater emphasis on supply chain analysis, keeping corporations accountable for their environmental track record at all points of production. An example is the Detox ZARA campaign which Greenpeace used to raise consumer awareness of the toxic chemicals produced in the process of manufacturing clothes.
Professor Shapiro concluded by discussing the special role for journalists, embedded deep within Chinese culture. She pointed to the oft-cited idea that “the emperor is high but the emperor is benevolent,” and that “if the emperor could just hear (the complaint), he would fix it.” Shapiro stated that the Chinese tradition is to find a person of influence to take on your case, rather than going to the court for legal redress. So if a citizen who has a grievance on some pollution issue is unable to access the courts, local government or Communist Party for redress, then he or she may go try to contact a journalist such as Liu Jianqiang to raise their problem. She argued that Chinese journalists often end up taking on a sense of obligation to address wrongs.
Defending Tiger Leaping Gorge
Beijing Editor of chinadialogue, Liu Jianqiang, focused on the environmental activism opposing dam construction at Tiger Leaping Gorge, which is recognized as “one of the most important victories for China’s environmental movement over the past ten years.”
In the summer of 2004, news trickled down that there were plans by a Chinese hydropower company to build eight dams on the Jinsha River, which would demolish the spectacular canyon of Tiger Leaping Gorge. A villager from the would-be affected region, Xiao Liangzhong, brought the issue to the attention of Southern Weekly where Liu Jianqiang was then working. The article Liu wrote with another journalist on the dam eventually reached the eyes of former Premier Wen Jiabao, who asked the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) to investigate. Evidently NDRC had no knowledge of the dam plans.
Xiao Liangzhong introduced a community leader, Ge Quanxiao, to a workshop where information on dam building and the deleterious effects on the surrounding environment was discussed. Ge brought the information back to the local community, which began to voice its opposition to the dam building. The hydropower corporation and local government suddenly face a situation that they had never before. News media across the country focused on the narrative of the Tiger Leaping Gorge dam. Civil society organizations became increasingly involved and disseminated information to citizens in the region about the danger of resettlement. Village leaders emerged, pledging to defend people’s rights.
A major turning point in the level of activism was the sudden death of Xiao Liangzhong. Known as the “son of the Jinsha River,” Xiao’s death spurred the local residents to work together for the subsequent two years to protect their home from the dam project.
Still, the local government and hydropower companies kept up the pressure to proceed with the dam project. In March 2006, more than 10,000 farmers gathered to protect the dam plans, culminating in a standoff at the local government building that became known as the “March 21 incident”. A government official, who wished to resolve the dispute peacefully, tipped off local citizens that they had to leave or else “something very bad would happen.” The citizens eventually left and the local government decided not to build the dam unless it had agreement from the local people.
From Liu’s perspective, a successful environmental campaign in China requires three factors:
- Involvement of NGOs
- Press coverage
- Attention of top government officials
These three factors were also present in the successful opposition of dam building along the Nu River in Southwest China in 2005. But, according to Liu, what made Tiger Leaping Gorge a standout case was three additional factors:
- A leader who grew up in the village with a sense of sacrifice and fighting spirit: Xiao Liangzhong
- Local leaders such as Ge Quanxiao who helped to organize and mobilize the local community as well as disseminate information
- March 21 incident, which demonstrated the determination and force of local opposition
Liu concluded by saying that Tiger Leaping Gorge was “the most successful environmental movement in China” and thanks to it, one can still view the beautiful canyon. But, as a word of caution, he also noted that hydropower companies will not give up easily because of the financial gain and relative ease of dam building in China.