Off the Cuff: Wang Yongchen, Chinese environmental activist and reporter


Yingran Nan Zhang

Wang Yongchen, environmental activist and reporter, who gave a talk on Tuesday

Oliver Bok , Editor in Chief

Wang Yongchen is the founder and president of the environmental NGO Green Earth Volunteers and the Senior Environmental Reporter for China National Radio. Wang hosted two pioneering radio programs on environmental concerns: “Classroom on Wednesday” and “Journalist’s Salon”. In 1994, she was the first winner of the Prize for Environmental News. Wang also won the Earth Award in 2001 and was selected as the World Environment Figure by Conde Nast Traveler in 2004. Wang has reported on and engaged with a wide range of environmental issues in China, including the effect hydropower dams have on China’s rivers and air pollution in Inner Mongolia. Wang’s visit to campus was supported by the Henry Luce Foundation,  the Office of the Dean of College of Arts and Sciences and the East Asian Studies and Environmental Studies Programs.

What does your organization, Green Earth Volunteers, do?

We set it up in 1996. I work in National Radio China. Before I was thinking that China is very poor, but we do have a very beautiful area of nature — animals, trees. But after developing so quickly, the sky [was] polluted, the rivers [were] stopped by the hydropower, the people forgot that nature is our friend. So I was thinking for the media, “We need nature.” I wrote articles but I couldn’t [do] some activities. If we can spend our holidays, our weekends and do some education not only for the normal people but also for many journalists, together we do it. So it must be very interesting and also influence our media, I think. In 1996, the Luce Foundation support[ed] this activity. … They also have a project called China Woman Leaders program. In 1996, I came here to the United States; I understand the United States and how [it] can manage volunteers who care about the nature. So after I came back, I asked journalist friends [about] how we can come together. …

We have bird watching, tree planting, conservation [of the] Yangtze dolphins. But from 2003 we heard [that at] every river they set up big dams except one river, called Nu River. So from 2003 until now, we’ve used the 12 years to keep this river free. Green Earth Volunteers is already 19 years old. Every day we have the news. We collect the whole country’s environmental news. We publish this on the website. Every weekend on Saturday we … enjoy home towns’ river[s]. More than 10 cities have a river watch, to understand the history, the culture, the nature. … If some environmental issue happens, like an earthquake or pollution, we can ask scientists and officials [to] give the journalists education. And also, we can have dialogue[s] and argue with each other; it’s different every week. Every year we have two big trips — river trips [to] Southwest China, with the six biggest rivers the government is planning more than 100 big dams. … From 2010, we began a Yellow River trip, the country’s second biggest river. Now we are only two full-time staff, but we have more than 100,000 volunteers join us.

What’s the current state of the Nu River and the rivers in China in general?

I don’t know how I can describe the China river issue; it may be too big. Some of the rivers are polluted, very terrible issues. But my thinking is that the big environmental issues in China are the river issues. Not only pollution but also the hydropower. The rivers, they need life, and if you stop the rivers, colorful plants and fish disappear. The rivers are not only for the humans but also for the other life, biodiversity. It’s also difficult to help them because if they’re polluted, it may just be on the one factory, or two factories, beside the river, so you can stop them, you can ask them to change. But [with] the hydropower, it’s a company policy; it’s a national company policy, as you can also see, it’s the country’s policy. So in Yangtze River, we have the Three Gorges Dams. A lot of scientists criticized these dams as terrible, but the country’s government thought that we needed energy. … So if you want to change, it’s very difficult. But for us, because [of ] Green Earth Volunteers, most volunteers come from the Chinese media, national media, so we can write articles, make programs, influence policy. I think in China we have the law, but sometimes the law doesn’t work. So if the media cares about nature, cares about environmental policy, change is easier.

Have you ever received pushback on account of your environmental advocacy?

I think that because I work in the media, … you can write a small story to tell more people about why this story can happen. This I think I can do; I can also ask the journalists that join us. So every year, we have a river trip. We have no money; the government doesn’t want these activities. We’re also afraid that if a foreigner gives us the money to do this, the Chinese government might not like it. The journalists, when they join us, first so that they can find very small stories, understand the very poor people life. … This year is the 10th year. More than 100 journalists are joining us. Some journalists, after being with us, care about nature. … In the future, in their heart, they will still remember we need to care about nature.

On a personal level, what made you first care about environmental issues?

If you’re a journalist, you’re not only personal, because you can influence many people. And now it’s also you can have the website, you can have Twitter, any place you can get pictures. Every picture is a story. Where did you get this picture? You can use the pictures to influence many people. …

I’m already thinking about Oberlin College; when I came here on the first day, I got some pictures for Twitter for Chinese friends. One lady, a professor, 10 years ago she also studied in the United States. She saw my pictures and she said, “The United States can use so much energy. If the whole world used energy like the United States, the one Earth is not enough.” Why is it so beautiful here? We can ask: How can we make our hometown like here? But like here we need a lot of money and energy. She said, “We like the nature, but if this life needs a lot of resources, how can we use so many resources and [preserve] nature?” I think this [is] a really different opinion.

In your work, how much do you focus on the health impacts of environmental pollution?

For us, we mostly pay attention to river health, not only human health. If there’s no river health, how can you have human health? This is where our focus is.

Do you think the environmental movement in China is a political movement too, in some sense?

In China, a lot of foreigners criticize us on human rights. We have no democracy, but I think that [in] China democracy may be from the environmental activities because, as I showed you, we keep the river free. This is the influence on policy. Before, this must be central government-decided, but now we can change. I don’t want to talk about this as a political issue. I think of this as an environmental issue. But environmental issues still have a policy [aspect]. So how can we influence policy? This I think we can do; we already do it. Look at Nu River. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao already three times said, “Oh, we need to care about this issue.” In Inner Mongolia, with the pollution, the sitting president Xi Jinping said, “Oh, we must stop this pollution.” So what is this? Is it political? Environmental? These are high officials who care about this.