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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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April 24, 2008 2:05 PM

Beijing 2008 Q&A: Wu Dengming

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Mr. Wu Dengming is a force for nature. His business card, printed green on white, reveals as much.

  • President, Green Volunteer League of Chongqing
  • Director, Chinese Environmental Protection Federation
  • Vice-Chairman, Chongqing Behavioral Science Academic Society
  • Chairman, World Bank Loan Supervision/Cuonsultation Committee
  • NGO Representative, United Nations Sustainable Development Summit
  • China Environmental Journalists Association Earth Award Winner
  • National 'Lei Feng' Volunteer Role Model
  • Ford Motor Company Environmental Protection Award Winner
  • Top-ten Star, China Public Welfare
  • Chongqing 30 Years of Environmental Protection Tribute Recipient
  • Chongqing Youth Direction Award Winner
  • Top-ten Person, China Legal News 2007

Beneath his shiny bald head and worried brow, Wu's eyes are dancing. The bullish environmentalist, a former People's Liberation Army officer, has fought to save China's forests and streams for more than 20 years.


Campaigns to reign in Chongqing's biggest, baddest polluters haven't always endeared Wu to local leadership (Chongqing is a large municipality in western China). According to a Washington Post story from 2003 - "Wu Dengming has been roughed up and threatened. His researchers have been arrested. His petitions have been ignored."

Beijing's successful Olympic bid, however, has ushered in a new era for Chinese environmentalists. The central government has flipped its pockets inside- 'People's Olympics,' 'Hi-tech Olympics' and 'Green Olympics.'

According to the 2008 Beijing website:

Environmentally friendly technologies and measures will be widely applied in environmental treatment to structures and venues. Urban and rural afforestation and environmental protection will be widely enhanced in an all-round manner. Environmental awareness will be promoted among the general public, with citizens greatly encouraged to make "green" consumption choices and urged to actively participate in various environmental improvement activities to help better the capital's ecological standards and build a city better fit for all to enjoy.

This June, Wu will jog the Olympic torch through Chongqing. He's been named a Green Olympics torchbearer - one of ten men and women across the country so recognized.

Decades ago, the retired university administrator inspired student volunteers to collect garbage and plant trees. In 1995 he founded an NGO - the Green Volunteer League of Chongqing (GVL).

During the late 1990s, GVL helped villagers develop eco-tourism and forest agriculture as alternatives to illegal logging. Wu has also worked to keep the Yangtze river and its tributaries clean. In 2003, an enormous reservoir - 410 miles long and 575 feet deep - began to form behind the Three Gorges Dam, China's US$30 billion hydroelectric project. Sewage, agricultural run-off and industrial waste have seen poured in. GVL promotes eco-agriculture and environmental education as well.

I recently discussed the 2008 Olympic Games and environmental protection with Wu for Blogging Beijing.

Today, you're considered a sort of 'Green Hero' - how did you begin?

It all started at Chongqing University in 1985, a long time ago. We were concerned about the impact of rapid modernization on the environment. First, we organized a campus group. We took trips to Huang Mountain and planted trees. We visited parks in Chongqing and asked people to help protect the environment. We collected garbage.

How has the 'Green Olympics' concept affected your work with GVL?

The concept was actually introduced at the 2000 Games in Sydney; it just didn't catch on. 'Green Olympics' has been good for China - government officials' environmental awareness is much-improved. From the beginning, we hoped our organization could participate.

Of course, the Olympics are the Olympics and we're an NGO. We haven't benefited financially from the Games. We still belong to a poor sector. It's hard for Chinese NGOs - we don't get much money from the government, unlike NGOs in the United States.

If your money doesn't come from the Chinese government, where does it come from?

There are so many foreign NGOs in China, and many funders from the United States. They spend a lot of money, but not so wisely. Too little reaches the Chinese laobaixing (common people). Too little reaches the environment.

Not enough real work is done. It's a circus - zuoxiu (for show). If US$100 is allocated, perhaps US$4 reaches the laobaixing - not very fair. And so much money is being spent. For example, Coca-Cola Co. will spend US$20 million on river water conservation by 2012.

What new programs has GVL launched over the past few years?

In 2006, we organized Chongqing's first 'no car day.' We're also promoting a day where we tell people in Chongqing - set your air conditioning to 26 degrees (Celsius). Don't set it lower. We've been working on public health alongside environmental health.

How would you describe the state of the environment in and around Beijing?

Beijing is China's political and cultural capital - it should be protected. Beijing should represent the best of China. But Beijing's environment is not so good. This is unfortunate. There's no reason for Beijing to serve as China's industrial capital or even an industrial hub. It should be like Washington, D.C. or Paris - a preserved, beautiful city.

On the one hand, Beijing's air has improved. Many factories have been moved out or shut down. But the city remains polluted. And why? Too many cars!

You see all these campaigns in Beijing - campaigns to protect the environment. But people still abuse air conditioning, still wear fancy clothes, still build mansions. Meanwhile, those without money suffer. The environment suffers. The city has so many cultural resources - these shouldn't go to waste. Beijingers' attitudes and lifestyles must change.

The only way to change attitudes and lifestyles is through education - in school, at home, in the workplace, in the government.

Perhaps Beijingers' attitudes and lifestyles are related to China's rapid economic development - can the city grow AND protect its environment?

Economic development and environmental protection can move forward in harmony. In fact, there is a symbiotic relationship. If the environment is destroyed, Beijing will not continue to grow.

However, China needs help. Look at all of our mountains. Where there was once August snow-pack, there is none today. Look at the Yangtze and Huai rivers. Upstream vegetation has been destroyed. Both rivers are muddy rather than clear. Industrialized nations like the U.S. can help by lending China experience and by consuming less.

Beijing's environment is in trouble. But cities across the globe are facing similar problems. Fly over Los Angeles in an airplane and tell me it doesn't look like Beijing.

The Chinese government has pushed for environmental protection ahead of Beijing's Olympics - could China's green movement stall when the Games are done?

After the Olympics, this movement will continue. China can't go back. Now people know what needs to happen. Organizations like ours are starting to play a bigger role in society.

Interactive map of Beijing/China - follow up on posts and get oriented:



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