China's new environmentalists

Film charts lasting effects of Mao's development policies and rise of a new generation of environmentalists campaigning against dams

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 December, 2013, 5:25am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 December, 2013, 5:25am

A documentary about a grass-roots movement that stopped the destruction of a World Heritage Site is testament that the environmental crisis on the mainland is not insurmountable.

Waking the Green Tiger, by Gary Marcuse, Betsy Carson and Shi Lihong, chronicles the era of ecological degradation under Mao Zedong and introduces a new generation of environmentalists spearheading the nation's green movement.

Through one of his most potent slogans - "Man must conquer Nature" - Mao directed comrades to ruthlessly push forward with development and ignore sustainability.

The masses, eager to gain favour with Mao and in fear of being labelled counter-revolutionists, flooded ecologically valuable sites, dug ditches, cut down trees and refashioned the landscape, leaving a trail of desertification, deforestation and erosion in their wake.

Green Tiger, which is being screened as part of "Green Docs", a series organised by the Centre on US-China Relations at the Asia Society in Hong Kong, shows Mao's legacy remains deeply embedded in Chinese society.

In the late 1980s, construction of the Manwan hydroelectric dam began on the Lancang, or Mekong, River, costing 7,500 farmers their land and livelihoods. When the government floated proposals to build similar dams in Tiger Leaping Gorge, on the Jinsha, as locals call an upper stretch of the Yangtze River, and at 12 other places in 2004, Shi, along with other journalists and environmental activists, used the plight of the Lancang farmers to organise resistance.

In 2005, then-premier Wen Jiabao intervened and only four out of the 13 planned dams were built. Tiger Leaping Gorge stayed intact, and the victory by the people was seen as a precursor to real change.

"That's the big thing about public participation - you take the lid off, let opinions come up, more information comes to light, and then you can really begin to explore the real cost of these things. I think we're just at the beginning of that process," Marcuse said.

Indeed, it's only a beginning. Hydropower construction is still seen as essential to energy-poor areas, and some of the scrapped projects have resurfaced as part of another round of dam building that includes 21 areas.

"There is a lack of responsibility in the private sector. Many companies have developed projects not for the sake of the project itself but for the subsidies that come with it," said Benoit Vermander, a Sinologist and expert on corporate social responsibility. "But the question is: will the state continue to allow land to be directed to these projects?"

Despite the potential for environmental catastrophes caused by massive dam building, the central government continues to assert the benefits of construction outweigh the negatives.

"If the state allows companies to take land, they must make sure the parties affected have a sustainable future," Vermander said.

"Monetary compensation has been the norm for approving projects that relocate people, but that is not sustainable. There has to be developmental planning, for example, assessment of the skills of the people to be relocated, and whether those skills can be used in the creation of jobs," Vermander said.