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

Zhou Xiang

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.

Warriors of Qiugang

Have average Chinese people heard of your movie?

Yes, many have, especially people with environmental interests. Government officials have, too. [Laughs.]

When Warriors of Qiugang began filming, how was it received by the villagers? Were they suspicious of you in any way?

When we started out, the villagers thought the movie director, Ruby Yang, and her cohort were reporters. The villagers hoped to expose what was going on and attract the government's attention. So from the beginning, the villagers were very supportive. When they realized we were making a movie they were happy because in the end, this is a problem that the government does want to solve. The governmental departments all handled it differently, though. Some of the departments were not too pleased. But the environmental ministry really liked it, because the villagers' success was also a success for them. The villagers had been hoping that someone would pay attention to them, so they do not fear the media!

So did the villagers see the movie?

Yes, they saw it. They thought it was pretty interesting. They smiled a bit and cried a bit — because during the time it took to make this movie, some of the villagers died. Some of the people we interviewed died; you can see it mentioned at the end of the movie.

In Warriors of Qiugang, village leader Zhang Gongli goes to Beijing to attend a conference and also to appeal to the higher authorities about Qiugang's issue (a common undertaking known as shang fang, 上访). The video shows several people at the conference passionately discussing environmental issues, in particular the role of law and authority. Can you tell us about what Zhang Gongli did in Beijing?

He went to shang fang, but he also went to join a conference. The conference was a meeting of NGOs in Beijing, environmental activists, and many village leaders like Zhang Gongli who were victims of pollution. He had already appealed to some authorities in the Anhui province city of Bengbu, and the next step was to shang fang in Beijing as well. We told him about a conference and helped him get there. The goal was to study how to protect oneself and one's environmental rights and interests.

Do you think the Qiugang story is the norm or the exception? And when people shang fang, do they usually succeed [as Zhangli did]?

Some win, some lose, and I'd say that there are fewer wins than losses. Many will not succeed because they do not have a method or a foundation [base, not NGO]. Even though the Qiugang documentary is only 39 minutes long, you can see that we used a lot of different tools. For instance, we used the media. We had the elementary school children write essays [to newspapers about the environmental situation of their town].

You guys orchestrated that activity?

[Laughs.] Yes, that was one of the activities we planned. This is a long-term project that we started in 2006. We spent four years on Qiugang's pollution issues – a very long time. They had stand-out community leaders, like Zhang Gongli. We also had overseas support. So I think the success of Qiugang is not inevitable, because there are a lot of contributing factors. But China's environmental activities must have the support of the media, NGOs, and community leaders in order to succeed.

Is the Jiucailuo company [the chemical factory that was shut down] still polluting?

After it closed, it was moved to a chemical-factory district. There are a lot of companies together there, and no residents. There is also a water treatment facility there, and it cleans up the water. If they start to pollute again, [laughs] we'll just go back and do it again!

Would you sue them?

In China, we don't really sue. We use the media. We will write a report and give it to the government. We won't use a lawyer until the last minute.

Have you worked on any other Qiugang-like cases?

Yes: Wanggang village and Xiaogang village. We are still working on these cases. Their pollution is also very serious. They probably won't need to shang fang. We use the media. We pressure our local governments. Our main office is located in the capital of Anhui, Hefei. So we can broadcast to all of Anhui. Hefei is the highest, and with higher status, it is easier to govern the offices underneath. So because we work out of the capital, we know a lot of people in the government and in media. So the lower levels may have some concern.

So do your activities and the law system have a tight relationship? Does the legal system as it now exists suit your activities?

Yes, there is a very tight relationship. Why, at the end of the day, did the chemical company have to move? Because according to Chinese law, a chemical factory cannot have residents living within one kilometer of it. But the company was just 20 meters away. So it was violating the law and it was shut down. The legal system is very broad. We may need a few specific problem-solving methods. That is to say, we need specific environmental protection laws. So they are in the process of being written. Afterwards, they will be applicable and usable. But, China's standards need to be lower than, say, Europe's.

Why's that?

Because only if standards are low will companies be willing to build. For instance, today I went to Asia Pacific Environment Network in Oakland. They told me that a chemical company in Oakland closed and moved to Shanghai, due to Shanghai having lower legal standards.

State of Environmental NGOs in China

So to what extent do you represent a trend? How many environmental NGOs are in China, and where are they?

China's environmental NGOs over the past few years have started to increase in number. But most of what they do is education and training. They do not do things like what we did in Qiugang, because they think the issues are too sensitive. The other problem is that the groups are all very young — four years old or younger — and a lot of their staff is also pretty young. So they focus on education and training.

So our activities in Qiugang are not typical of all NGOs. It is not typical for us, either. We also mostly do education and training.

The number of NGOs in China will continue to increase because China has recently opened up registration. In the past, it was very hard to register because we had to go through multiple departments for permission. Now you just have to register with one bureau. It's like in the U.S., where if you want to become a 501(c) [non-profit classification], you register for it, and then you get certain tax benefits. This is now available in China, too. So lately regulations have loosened up a bit.

Most of all, NGOs in China need time. The need to build up experience. They only have a little money. Some only have one or two staff members – extremely small.

In the past year it became a new rule that if you receive foreign funding, you must get it notarized. Is this a problem?

As far as we're concerned, it's not a big problem, because we don't have to get notarized. For instance, the American Bar Association [a law-related NGO] gives us money to train environmental lawyers. And this is not a problem. As long as we write a report that says who we invite for training and what we are teaching, then it's fine. Once it has been approved, we can go ahead.

With regards to your NGO, or environmental NGOs in general, what political obstructions exist?

Our NGO manages to stay out of the fray, because we don't touch on politically sensitive issues. We don't get involved in political problems; we focus purely on environmental protection issues. There of course will be a little overlap of environment and politics. But we aren't left-leaning or right-leaning – we stay in the middle. Most of China's NGOs are going to be in the middle, or in the middle with a very slight leaning.

In terms of civic or personal freedoms in China, in particular Internet-related freedoms, have things been harder for you this year, or do these matters not affect you?

A lot of people say this year is a pretty strict year. But our set-up still has not been influenced. You probably know about the paraxylene (PX) incident in Dalian in August 2011? [A PX factory leaked its chemicals into the water supply of Dalian, igniting protests. In response, the government quickly shut down the factory and relocated it]. So I think it depends on the situation and what you are doing. Of course human rights issues are a little more difficult, whereas issues having to do with the environment are less so.

A top priority in the central government's current Five-Year Plan is environmental protection, so it must have a pretty supportive attitude toward environmentalism?

I wouldn't say they are very supportive. If certain matters become very prominent, then they may voice support. But if no one knows about an event, they won't pay attention to it.

So the role of activism by common peoples [in environmentalism] must be very big?

They have the most important role. But they also suffer the most.

You've said that Green Anhui was training community leaders. Can you explain how you identify community leaders and what methods you use to train them?

First, in towns, we will disseminate information about environmentalism, try to educate people, and also do some social activities. And then some people will stand up and say that they want to help out. These people tend to be teachers and principals, or older villagers – they are often the ones willing to help out. One training method is to hand out pamphlets which explain environmental law. It lists articles and regulations they can refer to if their environmental rights and interests are threatened. On the back of the pamphlet is our telephone number and the Environmental Protection Bureau's number, which they are encouraged to call if they are being harmed by pollution.

So you train these few people, and then they will...?

Bring power to the rest of the people. They will give a call to the Environmental Protection Bureau and say that such-and-such chemical company is polluting, and invite the ministers over to check it out.

A lot of villagers do not have Internet access. So what kind of role does social media – such as microblogs, cell phone texting, short message services, et cetera – play in your activities?

We don't use these methods much. A lot of people have not graduated from high school, or even middle school. They might not be using texting yet. We still use traditional methods such as newspapers and posters and such. That way the local people will understand.

If it is in the city, people use texting and microblogging. For instance, in a big city like Dalian, a lot of people were aware of the PX incident because of social media. Similarly, after the [July 2011] Wenzhou high-speed train crash, a lot of people used microblogs to get information.

Are city people interested in what is happening in the countryside?

Yes, they are interested. You can see from our magazine that we also have a lot of city activities. Take a look — open up to page 62. This driver is wearing a Green Transport shirt. We encourage everyone to travel by public bus, not by car. And this is us at the World Expo, where we had some activities at the China kiosk. And this is a bunch of college students doing some activities they planned. This picture shows corporation training. We are training companies how to be environmentally aware.

Can you explain more about the activities you do in the cities?

We encourage everyone to use public transportation – do you know about "No-Car Day" [9/22]? We work hard to promote that event. Hefei city government deployed a new electric bus this year, and through our magazine we encouraged everyone to ride it. We also gave bus drivers shirts with green logos. Also, on our website, we have a Carbon Calculator. For instance, if you drive a car, you may generate 100 tons of carbon dioxide in one year. By bus, you might not even make 20 tons of carbon dioxide. We train corporations to calculate their carbon production and teach them how to cut back.

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.