Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

Zhou Xiang: Green Activism in China, 'The Grassroots Way'

Green Anhui director Zhou Xiang. (Asia Society Northern California)

Green Anhui director Zhou Xiang. (Asia Society Northern California)

Civic Engagement in China

In the 20th century, a lot of Chinese scholars wrote about China's "pan of sand" issue. That is, they bemoaned the inability of Chinese people to group together and fight for a cause. Do you think this is still the situation today?

There have been some changes since then. But there are so many people in China that a big change still has not happened. It is still in the beginning stages. Nowadays, a lot of young people are very highly educated. They've gone to college and gotten master's degrees. They are more willing to talk about certain issues. In the past, it would have be very difficult to hear of a demonstration like the one against the PX program. So there is a trend of increased social awareness. And now, with social media, people will come together much more. )

You may know about the Guangzhou protests against trash incineration. Beijing has also had similar protests, in Sanlitun. Nanjing also had protests against cutting down its trees. That these issues are happening more often shows that the masses have increasing levels of civic engagement. But, again, in these cities the people involved have often been very highly educated, or they are part of the media, or they are lawyers, or NGO members. So I think it's a gradual, step-by-step process for China.

Do you think that people who exercise more civic engagement necessarily have better educations? Or is it that they have more channels, such as the Internet and texting? Because the people of Qiugang were not very educated, but they were very civically engaged.

Hm... right. I don't think that civic engagement and education have a direct relationship. For instance, why have the people in Qiugang had their mentality? First, it's because the people in Bengbu city dare to campaign. They dare to fight. So the mentalities of people there make them more willing to fight for human rights. But it may not be like this in other places.

Also, it's not to say that if you get a good education and can go on the Internet, or that you definitely are civic-minded. It's not that direct. But these two factors are pretty necessary.

Environmental values and conservation are often a part of the school curriculum in the U.S. What is China's primary education on environmentalism like?

It exists in China, but it's not very widespread. Why? Because even though education departments in all places have acknowledged the need for environmental education, it's still abstract. You probably know that Chinese students need to test into high school and college, and the pressure is very high [to test well on conventional subjects in order to get into the top-tier schools].

Final Thoughts

When Warriors of Qiugang was nominated for an Oscar, did this affect your normal life?

It did not have a big influence...but now when we go out and give talks, we have more credibility. For instance, if we were to talk to a polluting company, we would say, "Look at our previous successes. If you don't do like you're supposed to, you might turn into another Jiucailuo."

Do you feel like a hero?

I am not a hero. I didn't even appear in the movie. [Laughs.]

Like that Bei Dao poem which says, "I am not hero, I am just doing what I must do"?

Yes, just like that.