Voices from China

Farewell, Wu Dengming, “China’s green hero”

(July 25, 2013) Wu Dengming, praised as “China’s green hero” for his tireless dedication to protecting the environment, passed away this month, aged 73. He is remembered here by those who knew and admired him — even those commercial interests he challenged — as a remarkable and devoted advocate to the end.

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Compiled by Mu Lan for Probe International

Wu Dengming, renowned Chinese environmentalist, and founder and president of the Green Volunteer League of Chongqing, died on July 19, 2013 in Chongqing, at the age of 73. Nearly a thousand Chongqing residents, along with friends and representatives from NGOs across the country, paid their last tribute to the elderly environmental fighter who contributed enormously to China through his dedication to the cause of environmental protection.

As Chongqing Business News (Chongqing shangbao) reported on July 22, 2013, even five polluting enterprises that Wu Dengming had criticized sent representatives to mourn and pay their respects, thanking him for effectively promoting the transformation and upgrading of their enterprises, and pushing their development.

Wu Dengming, praised as “China’s green hero” by the Chinese media, was the first person to protect natural forests in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River in west China. As early as the mid-1980s, as an environmental protection volunteer, Wu Dengming made numerous trips to the southern and western regions of Sichuan Province to conduct investigations and, while there, called for the protection of natural forests along the upper Yangtze River. He successfully organized thousands of volunteers to plant more than 100,000 trees in Chongqing’s Zhongliangshan area, turning a 500 mu (1 mu =1/15 ha) of burned forest into a green hill.

In 1995, he founded the Green Volunteer League of Chongqing (GVL) the first NGO in Chongqing, only one year after the establishment of Beijing’s Friends of Nature (China’s oldest environmental non-government organization). The Chongqing-based organization of “few words and much action,” as Wu Dengming himself described GVL, focuses on grassroots projects and activism to influence policy change and solve environmental problems. One of the projects that he highlighted as most successful was GVL’s efforts to protect forests along the upper reaches of the Yangtze River.

In 1998, along with several volunteers, Wu Dengming made an investigative trip to Hongya County, in west Sichuan Province, which is well-known for its wealth of natural forests and abundance of 100-year-old trees. What they found, broke their hearts: the original scenery had been completely transformed by deforestation, leaving bare hills and stumps everywhere.

In order to direct media attention to the situation, Wu Dengming invited the country’s state media  Beijing-based CCTV (China National Television) staff to produce a documentary film about what was going on in Hongya County. The first attempt failed due to lack of experience and the destruction of video equipment, brought by CCTV staff, at the scene.

But Wu Dengming never gave up: after his return to Chongqing, he briefed himself thoroughly and talked to many people, including experts, about the crisis. Well-prepared and wiser, Wu Dengming accompanied by CCTV staff, traveled to Hongya County again. This time things went smoothly for their unannounced visits and hidden camera recordings. Their findings in Hongya County shocked the whole country after the TV program was broadcast by CCTV, China’s No. 1 television media outlet. A series of decisions and policies to ban the logging of natural forests by both the central government and provincial government of Sichuan followed in the wake of the broadcast of the logging event in Hongya County.

Another success included a legal challenge with the Beijing-based Friends of Nature. Wu Dengming won a lawsuit against a private chemical company in Yunnan Province. Wu’s group claimed the company had contaminated soil and water with chromium waste, which had resulted in the death of livestock and high levels of cancer among residents. In October 2011, a court in Yunnan Province accepted the industrial pollution case, marking the first time a Chinese court had accepted a public interest lawsuit.

As Wu Dengming said, “Filing this case means that the public will be able to participate in legal proceedings, and that we can use the law to monitor the government and businesses. We can use the law to protect people’s rights and ensure justice in society.”

On December 28, 2012, organized by the court, the two sides reached a preliminary settlement agreement: the defendant was willing to assume full legal responsibility for environmental tort which included stopping the infringement, eliminating environmental hazards, and restoring the environment. The chemical company also accepted public oversight and third-party audits.

Although Wu Dengming became well-known inside and outside China, he lived a modest life. On July 20, 2013, the day after Wu passed away, a reporter from the Chongqing Evening News (Chongqing wanbao)  paid a visit to his home on the campus of Chongqing University. The reporter noted Wu’s courtyard home was only around 50 square meters in size, filled inside with old furniture made in the last century, bookcases and thousands of books on the environment. It had been a hot day but there was no air conditioner at all, only an old fan standing on a table. Here, his wife told reporters, Wu Dengming had lived for more than two decades, though, she added, he was constantly on the go, travelling here and there all year long. His last stay at home had been one of his longest due to illness.

Wu Hong, Wu Dengming’s daughter, speaking to reporters from the Chongqing Evening News, said that initially she was unhappy with her father’s chosen life: he was so dedicated to the cause of  environmental protection, using his own salary to cover the costs of the organization, at the expense of his own family. Though she complained because the family suffered financially, she gradually realized the importance of what her father was doing and understood why he did it. Today, as a member of her father’s organization, Wu Hong is in charge of the office of the Green Volunteer League of Chongqing.

People pay their tribute to Wu Dengming. Credit:  Chongqing Business News, July 22, 2013.

Paying their tributes to “China’s green hero”. Credit: Chongqing Business News, July 22, 2013.

Wang Yongchen, well-known environmentalist and founder of the Beijing-based Green Earth Volunteers, paid her respects most eloquently by saying that Lao Wu always put work before everything else. As Wang Yongchen wrote in her memorial article posted to the Green Earth Volunteers’ website on July 21, 2013:

On December 21 last year, on the investigation trip of “River Decade Project,” we, a group of people from NGOs, went to the hospital in Chongqing to see you, you were not there. It turned out later, you had left the hospital secretly and walked to the mountain opposite the hospital to test whether you would still be able to do fieldwork, breathe fresh air and climb the hill. True, you made it that time, as you told us, you successfully reached the summit of the hill.

Lao Wu, you have done so many great things, one of them I have never forgotten. It was in 2003, when you led ten thousand students and teachers from dozens of universities and colleges in Chongqing, to demonstrate in a street “parade,” calling to keep the Nu River a dam-free river. Thanks to your efforts and our efforts, the Nu River still flows freely today, making it the last and only dam-free river in China for now.

Lao Wu, when you heard that the government of Chongqing Municipality was working on a plan to build a hydro dam at Xiaonanhai on the main stream of the Yangtze River, which would seriously threaten the survival of the treasured and rare fish species in that river section, you were the first person to submit a petition letter to the Ministry of Environmental Protection after three months of investigation, speaking for the fish and trying everything possible to save the precious species.

Lao Wu, we have so many things to do, and we want to work on so many things together; It’s true that you don’t want to go, and we don’t want you to go; But Heaven is ruthless, the disease is merciless, and reality is ruthless …

Lao Wu, we believe you have not gone very far away, you might be able to hear us, so please listen to us and take it easy: we will continue what you have not completed. We also believe you are too tired, so please don’t you get too tired in another world; find something new to do, to play, to enjoy, and be happy …

For more on Wu Dengming’s work and life see:

Wu Dengming, “An Investigation into Wastewater Treatment in the
Three Gorges Reservoir Basin
,” February 2013, Probe International.

Three Gorges Dam tipped scales on river waste dump problem

Wu Dengming — The Economist obituary

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