China's Dams

Undaunted by a critical barrage

South China Morning Post
March 4, 2002

“We are not blindly opposed to dams,” says activist Wang Yongchen. She just wants a fair decision-making process on projects.

Wang Yongchen still regrets that a high-profile debate early last year between mainland environmentalists and pro-government researchers in the wake of the catastrophic Asian tsunami was abruptly halted.

The war of words quickly expanded from tsunami lessons to a highly charged domestic issue: the damming of rivers for hydropower, which has sparked a spate of demonstrations since last year.

The scientists called Ms Wang, of the Beijing-based Green Earth Volunteers, ‘a bogus environmentalist’ who advocated anti-dam sentiments.

Nevertheless it was one of the first times hydropower was debated so publicly and gave Ms Wang a national profile as an environmentalist. Her outspokenness also made her a target for opposition.

‘I still believe humanity should hold nature in awe, although [this view] has been condemned by those self-righteous scientists as anti-scientific and anti-human,’ Ms Wang said.

It was regrettable the debate had been banned after physicist He Zuoxiu complained to the Communist Party’s central publicity department about the political motivation of the newspapers that carry such views, she said.

Professor He, 78, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is well known for his relentless attack on any views deemed as pseudo-scientific, such as Falun Gong.

Ms Wang says her NGO had to press on and had been busy organising two field trips for journalists and volunteers this year to the Nu River in Yunnan, where up to 13 dams have been planned.

The damming of the river, one of the country’s last untapped waterways, was approved by the National Development and Reform Commission in August 2003. Activists say the project will destroy the area’s pristine environment and strip the locals, who come from 22 ethnic minorities, of their livelihood and traditional cultures.

‘We are not blindly opposed to dams,’ she said. ‘We want to let the public know the environmental pros and cons of such projects. What green organisations demand is a fair decision-making process. Has the environmental assessment been done? Will there be a public hearing? How will the interests of those affected be protected?’

The authorities have turned a deaf ear to calls to make public a compulsory report on the Nu River project, a requirement of the country’s Environmental Impact Assessment Law.

But, Ms Wang said mainland activists had been heartened by an announcement by Premier Wen Jiabao in February, 2004, that the project had been halted following a public outcry.

According to state media, Premier Wen said large, environmentally controversial hydropower projects had to be subject to rigorous assessment.

‘I burst into tears at the good news,’ she recalled.

The threats posed by a new round of ‘dam fever’ driven by the mainland’s energy-hungry development, especially the damming of the Nu River, have prompted green organisations to unite.

‘Green groups usually carry out their work in their own ways. But the common interest in rivers has brought us together to consult on a regular basis on how to make our voices heard,’ she said.

And, while mainland NGOs may not be strong enough to influence public policy, they can affect public opinion by championing green ideas and calling attention to environmental degradation.

Ms Wang’s group was founded in 1996 and, like most other environmental groups emerging on the mainland in recent years, has yet to be allowed to register formally with the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

‘We have not actually had legal status since the founding of the group due to restrictions put in place since 1996,’ she said. ‘But fortunately it has not been a major problem for us because most of the group’s members have dual roles.’

Ms Wang says her capacity as a popular radio host and journalist at China National Radio helped her push for more discussion about green issues.

Born in 1954 into a family of intellectuals, she said her parents were happy when at the age of 16 she went to work at a printing factory during the Cultural Revolution. She got her bachelor’s degree from Beijing University in 1983 and became a reporter in 1986 for a popular lunchtime radio talk show on China National Radio.

Her interest in green issues, coinciding with radio’s golden years in the 1990s, soon made her one of the country’s most well known environmental reporters.

She won a top government award for environmentalists in 1999 and the 20,000 yuan prize became the financial foundation for her group’s operations.

Ms Wang has had more time to commit to her group since her radio show Reading the Green was cancelled in 2002.

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