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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)

By Hannah Lincoln and Neha Sakhuja

SAN FRANCISCO, August 23, 2011 — Chinese environmental activist Zhou Xiang is a founder of the non-governmental organization Green Anhui, which was established in 2003 in order to promote environmental awareness and protection in China's Anhui province with a particular focus on the Huai River.

In 2008, Green Anhui led the residents of Qiugang village in a successful bid to shut down three chemical factories that were polluting local waterways — a campaign that was captured in the Academy Award-nominated documentary short The Warriors of Qiugang.

In town for a talk co-sponsored by Asia Society Northern California, Zhou later sat down for a candid conversation in which he shed light on his work promoting sustainable development through creative environmental activities and public education and advocacy. The interview was conducted in, and translated from, Mandarin by Hannah Lincoln and Neha Sakhuja on August 23, 2011.

Green Anhui: Working "The Grassroots Way"

ASNC: How did your career in environmental activism begin? Can you tell us about your experience as an environmental activist in China and how you came to found Green Anhui?

ZHOU XIANG: In 2003, a group of us from Anhui got together and founded Green Anhui. At the same time I went in 2004 to work with the Wildlife Conservation Society, an American international NGO with an office in Shanghai. I was the Chinese delegate, in charge of the Chinese Alligator Program. The program took the New York Bronx Zoo's Chinese alligators and Chinese zoos' Chinese alligators and put them on Shanghai's Chongming Island, as a way of introducing them back into the wild.

So I did four years of field work, from 2004 to 2008, and then returned to Anhui. Now I consider myself a full-time staff member, someone who, in the U.S., would be called an environmental activist.

Where does Green Anhui get its funding?

We had a small start-up cost of $200USD donated by the U.S.-based Global Green Grants Fund. Today the group's funding comes primarily from foundations, companies, and local governments. Right now, 55 percent of our funding comes from Chinese foundations and the remaining 45 percent from overseas sources.

Do the Chinese foundations that fund you have any connection to the government?

No, the NGOs have no connection to the government. They are established by Chinese individuals with no governmental ties.

Do the other provinces have similar NGOs? Do you work together with them?

There are not others like Green Anhui. China's NGOs are very few.

So what are Green Anhui's primary activities?

We have three offices. One office is in the city of Bengbu, near the Huai River, and an office in Hefei the capital city of Anhui, near Chao Lake, which also serves as our headquarters. We also have another office in Wuhu.

In Hefei we do education, training, workshops, and policy. In Bengbu, we do more campaign stuff — things to do with human rights and environmentalism. Wuhu's office deals with waste. Now we're building the fourth office at Yellow Mountain, huang shan. There is a river there that we look after, called the Xin'anjiang, that leads to Hangzhou.

So what is the pollution situation like for these rivers and Chao Lake?

Chao Lake and the Yangzi River were not always alright, but the government recently invested a lot of money in cleaning them up. They are OK now. Chao Lake is China's fifth-largest lake, and it has seen the largest government investment in lake clean-up. They spent $100 million (USD) cleaning up Chao Lake. Right now, the worst pollution is of the Huai River.

So even though the documentary was about your success on the Huai River, Huai River is still not in good shape?

Huai River is very long. It crosses four provinces. Our staff is just at one section. Later on, we may map out a plan along the Huai in other places. But right now we are just focused on Anhui. Other than that, we will be most effective by slowly influencing local people in all these places.

And what about Xin'anjiang River?

Xin'anjiang should have some of the best water in all of China. But downstream it's all polluted. So what's to be done? Upstream, we have to protect the water, otherwise downstream, no one can drink it. Yellow Mountain is extremely beautiful, and that's where a lot of the water comes from, so it's important to protect it.

So at the Yellow Mountain office, do you have any specific plans?

In June, we carried out an investigation with the help of Alibaba, China's eBay. They gave us money to build the Yellow Mountain office. Xin'anjiang is a beautiful river and Yellow Mountain is a beautiful mountain, and we are a small organization. So Alibaba is helping us protect them.