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Liu Jianqiang: fighting for environmental justice in China
11th May, 2012
Tom Levitt speaks to one of China's most respected investigative journalists Liu Jianqiang on the rise of environmental activism in China
Tom Levitt: Why did you start reporting on environmental issues?
Liu Jianqiang: I used to do a lot of investigative reporting on corruption, but I found it frustrating because it’s very hard to make a difference, it didn’t change anything. I reported official corruption, maybe the official was fired, but it didn’t change anything because you’d just find another. But when I started to report on environmental issues it was another story because I thought, ‘I can change something’.
When I published an article about the Three Gorges Dam, many people read the article and realised the company had lied. The company was angry because they found what I discovered was so important to the public. They threatened me saying, ‘you can’t publish that article. If you publish it you will be an enemy of the state’. They couldn’t sue me because everything I uncovered was true but in China its very interesting, they tried to refer to me as an "enemy of the state", which means maybe there will be punishment. But I turned off my cell phone, and published the article because many people and the public were excited to know the truth. Each article was a very big victory, not only for me but for the public, for the Chinese.
TL: What are the main environmental issues in China today?
LJ: We have many of them. But near the top I would say dams because they destroy protected habitats for fish. The other big issues are water and air pollution. We are seeing an effect on people lives and health. Also land destroyed by mining and other huge projects.
TL: Is there environmental awareness and concern within China?
LJ: No, but we can’t just develop the country and the economy and let our land and food get destroyed. Who are destroying the Chinese environment; it’s not the individual, its local governments and big companies. They get a lot of money from the environment, the dams project, mining. They just want to destroy the environment and make money. The individual wants to project the environment. The power of the individual and the big business, the balance of power is against them.
TL: What’s the view of the central government on environmental issues?
LJ: The central government sometimes has a strong willingness to protect the environment. But other times it looks like they don’t care. They still allow local government and big companies to build the dams and kill off fish. It’s weird. It’s hard to see what they are thinking about. I think just because they can make money from the projects they will let them go, but if they don’t have any relationship with the project, maybe we will stop them. It depends, you never know where the line is.
TL: What are the main obstacles to protecting the environment in China?
LJ: In China it is very hard to get government information. That’s what I want to talk about more, how to change China’s situation and how to protect the environment. Its useless to just ask the government to do more, you do not have the power to negotiate or talk with them. What you do have is support from the public, most of the public. A handful of NGOs and environmentalists is not enough; we have to get all the people involved in the movement. But how? The next step is you have to get the information, if the public know the truth they will do something. But usually in China’s history the people don’t know the information, so for example 20 years ago Chinese people talked about the Three Gorges Dam project, but it was very hard to get the real information. So unless it is your hometown, you have no opinion and you will keep silent. But if you know the truth you can express your opinion. That’s why Chinese NGOs and journalists keep struggling, keep fighting for public information.
TL: Is there much wilderness left in China?
LJ: Not really. In one half of China, in the East it is very rare to find wild places. But if you go to the West and the Tibetan area, there is a lot there. But there are lot of mining and factory projects in West China, so the wild areas are disappearing.
TL: Do you think an increasingly urbanised population in China are disconnected from nature and the environment?
LJ: Yes that’s true. China’s process of urbanisation is too fast and faster every year. I was born in a rural area, when I was 15 I left to go to middle school, then college, and since then I have never been with nature. I have lived in a city. Millions of people are like me. But because we disconnect, many people are keen to reconnect. That’s why so many people go to Tibet and why they don’t like the dam project. Because we still hope we can have natural rivers.
TL: Why are the dams so controversial?
LJ: You have to understand that the places, the areas with the rivers are the most beautiful places in China, and the world. The dams are destroying them totally. I think this is related to your previous question, the disconnect people feel with nature. They are keen to reconnect and rebuild their relationship with nature. In the past 16 years, 16 million migrants have been created because of dam projects. They lose their lifestyle and their homes. It’s not only about nature.
TL: In the long term, can China protect the environment and develop at the same time?
LJ: I think China is looking to keep the balance between development and the environment. China has a very big population that consumes a lot of stuff. That’s why Chinese government hasn’t proposed a limit on carbon emissions. Chinese people are becoming rich, not very rich, but we are getting more and more money so we need more products. We consume very much. The Chinese government and most Chinese realise we can’t do that with the current developmental model, we have to change something. That is why China is developing a lot of low carbon technology. I think most of the people around the world don’t like China’s government, I’m sure. It doesn’t mean all that the Chinese government has done is wrong. I think they (Chinese government) realise they are under pressure to change the development model inside and outside China. We have too big a population, we will consume too much energy. Another pressure is from the world, the negotiations on climate change. I think they do care about the pressure from the world.
TL: Does China have a different world view from the Western capitalist, high consumption and high energy lifestyle, disconnected from nature?
LJ: It’s a very good question, and very hard to answer. We have differing views. We have a very Chinese idea of development and traditional culture, which says there is no way we can solve the problems of the environment if we follow the western way. But most of the Chinese leaders, officials and common Chinese people are attracted by the western way. Because we can see you have more money, cars and a nice house - why can’t we get that too? My answer is probably that most Chinese people love to follow the western style.
TL: In the UK we are often told that people were happiest in the 1950s and since then happiness levels have declined. How are the happiness levels in China?
LJ: That’s a very hard question to answer. During the 50s, the 60s and the 70s that was the hardest time for Chinese because of the Cultural Revolution, the millions of people were killed, and millions were starving. It’s a very bad memory; I don’t believe that people at that time could feel happy. But right now, we’ve got more money and we got more freedom, not enough, but we’ve got more than before. But we can still feel the difference between Chinese and the West. In the 50s and the 60s my father and his generation they suffered a lot, but they didn’t know what was happening in western countries. Now we know people in Hong Kong and Taiwan and that they are happy. We know people in England are perhaps more happy and have democracy, clean air and water so I am not sure if we’re happier.
TL: A lot of people think China will lead the world in the near future, how will it respond to tackling major environmental issues?
LJ: China is in a very serious environmental crisis, that’s true, but I also think its an opportunity for the Chinese to do good things, because we know we can’t continue the old way. I’m sure maybe in 10 or 20 years China will be at the very front of business, and green technology. But it’s only the technology, what will happen to our rivers, to our water to our land to our grassland? You can’t rely on the technology itself, you can’t rely on the economy itself. I don’t believe China will lead the world, maybe we will be in the leading position in some technologies, like the Soviet Union. It was a very advanced nuclear power, with space technology. Look what happened to the Sovet Union. It’s useless. If you want to lead a country, and lead the world, you need a very healthy system, a healthy society, not just technology. So you need to be democratic, and you have to let people be happy with their homeland. I’m not sure if I have answered your question, but my answer is that our environmental crisis will mean Chinese people will be keen to have advanced technology to bring development, but it doesn’t mean we can start leading other countries.
TL: When did environmental NGOs begin to appear in China?
LJ: The first one was 1993 or 1994. Most people said Friends of Nature was the first one but, another one was established a few months before to protect a rare bird species in North East China. Now there are maybe a 1,000 of them. Most are not that big, maybe 5 -10 people. But the scope of an NGO is very big, because the media keep reporting them. The media are always looking for stories, but where can they get information? It’s very hard to get information from the companies, from the government, so the NGOs are the best way to get information, and to get stories.
TL: Does the media come under pressure not to print those stories?
LJ: I lost my job not because I reported on the NGOs but because I did a lot of investigative journalism and The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) did a long story on me, featuring my picture. It was very sensitive for Chinese media people to be covered by overseas media. The local government were not happy. The WSJ used my stories and said Chinese government was having a crackdown on investigative journalism and so my boss was angry. He was afraid he would get punished by the government. So what he can do is fire me and say ‘he’s not a reporter here, he is nothing to do with me’.
TL: How have environmental NGOs become a success in a country like China?
LJ: I think it’s because Chinese people need NGOs. They are facing a polluted and destroyed environment, they are facing very dirty water, dirty air and the government and the powerful companies are not doing the best things for this. Chinese people want to change, but what can they do? They want somebody to help them, to tell the government ‘we don’t want that’ so the NGO can help them to tell the truth. They are weak but the NGO’s strategy is to work with media, to report issues, to let the public know what is happening. They are also using the internet and social media networks. Sometimes the media are banned from reporting environmental issues, but the internet is very active and helps let the public to know the information. The first step is information. They work with media, they get the information and they let the people know the information, and then the people can discuss the information.
Liu Jianqiang is the Beijing-based deputy editor of China Dialogue. Tom Levitt is the Ecologist's deputy editor
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