In China, Citizens Allowed To Speak Openly About Environmental Problems
China’s environmental movement is one of the few areas in which Chinese citizens can generally speak their mind, according to documentary filmmaker and journalist Gary Marcuse.
Marcuse, whose documentary Waking the Green Tiger explores the demonstrations that blocked a dam project in the Tiger Leaping Gorge, says there are between 50,000 and 100,000 environmental demonstrations every year in China. Many citizens protest the country’s high levels of smog and other environmental issues.
“They've also got tremendous amount of heavy metal pollution of their soils. They've got a problem with having displaced millions of people to build dams and having to deal with the poverty that's generated. So they have a whole complex area of problems that you might say are environmental problems,” Marcuse told KGOU’s World Views.
Marcuse says the central party wants social stability more than anything else, but environmental concerns and demonstrations are causing unrest. Therefore the government can rarely side with a chemical factory and shutdown a protest.
“While I was there, there was 70,000 people turned out to demonstrate against a factory that they were sure would pollute and the government didn't stifle the demonstrations. They moved the factory, or they canceled the factory,” Marcuse said.
China, a country with more than 1.3 billion people, needs an ecological sustainable system to solve environmental problems, Marcuse says. Otherwise, quality of life will not improve.
“The problems are accumulating. Quality of life is degenerating. The Chinese have been able to bring hundreds of millions of people up out of poverty, up to 200 million. But now that they're middle class, they’re facing a shortened a life time from pollution,” Marcuse said.
In his film Waking the Green Tiger, Marcuse explores a movement to protest a potential dam in the Tiger Leaping Gorge in southwestern China. The project would have created a reservoir in what Marcuse describes as “the Grand Canyon of China” and displaced 100,000 people. The hydroelectric dam would have generated electricity, primarily for China’s urban centers.
“At the time this dam was planned, there was a new Environmental Protection Act that gave people a right to participate in the environmental assessment. And this was just the key that opened the door because the farmers could now say, ‘I'm not anti-government. I am exercising my right to speak out about the environment because it says right there in the environmental law,’” Marcuse said.
Despite the many problems, Marcuse says there have been improvements to the environment in China. The government, for instance, is experimenting with raising the cost of water for companies that pollute. Coal-fired power plants are shutting down, and regulations are becoming more environment-friendly.
“I would say that's progress certainly in China because they can't afford to have all that smog and the planet can't afford it either. But they have an immediate problem to deal with,” Marcuse said.
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Suzette Grillot: Gary Marcuse, welcome to World Views.
Gary Marcuse: Thank you very much. Good to be here.
Grillot: Well it's a pleasure to meet you. And I look forward to talking about your work in China, in particular. But can we first start on your overall approach to environmental activism. You're a documentary filmmaker, journalist and you focus primarily on environmental issues. Just tell us kind of what brought you there. You're Canadian. Does that is that related at all?
Marcuse: I actually grew up in the United States. I think ever since I was a child I've always loved being outdoors. I've you know I've grew up in the northwest. And so we spent summers by the lake and out by the Oregon coast and that kind of the beauty of nature was instilled in me probably by my mother used to say let's go out for a walk along the stream and see if we can find some turtles and snails. You know that would be the day's journey. And so being. Being in the middle of it is something I always really really enjoyed and not something that every child grows up in this big city can say but that was my childhood. And so that kind of probably oriented me towards that.
I am now in my 60s so I lived through a 50 year period where our understanding of nature and of the environment and of the planet has been completely transformed completely unlike the world that I was introduced to when I was five or six years old. We've learned about eco spheres we've learned about environments we've learned about the international nature of pollution. You know we have a view that is more poetic and more tragic at the same time about the beautiful ecosystem that we live in. We understand it better but we're also realizing that we better understand it even more and do do something about it.
So I guess I'm possessed in part by the feeling that the environmental issue is actually the issue of our time. And if I can make a film that shows where the environmental movement started in the United States, for example, and Canada and show how our views have changed then I can help to educate the younger generation about the way in which we see the world differently now than we did then. But that's the world that they're growing up in. So you kind of you know like you can contribute to that, it feels like I'm doing something useful.
Grillot: How did you begin to examine the emergence of environmental movements in Canada and the United States as compared to other countries like Russia and China?
Marcuse: When I started making films for the Nature of Things at CBC where I began to look at the emergence of green movements, I decided first of all to look at how the green movement emerged in North America. I hadn't really thought that I would try and look at it in different parts of the world. But when I saw the drama and the interest and the intrigues that took place in North America and Canada and traced the beginning of the environmental movement all the way back to the “Ban the Bomb” movement, I mean it was really striking at the beginning of the environmental movement in the United States was really young women going out and demonstrating against atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons because they didn't want their children to have strontium in their bloodstreams and in their bones. And so I thought you know that's such an interesting way of looking at the beginning of that environmental movement. I wonder what's happening in other countries. You know how have environmental movement, could they emerge in a place like China and Russia where obviously we need them or we're all in trouble.
I went on from there to look at the emergence of green movement in Russia. I didn't know if there was one. I was hopeful. And for a brief time there was a kind of a flourishing of a green movement that was prompted by the clean up of a lot of the pollution in the Arctic left behind by the collapse of the Soviet Union. They left nuclear submarines lying on the beach you know with nuclear reactors still in them and the Norwegians got very upset about this because that's right next to their country. And that set off an environmental movement which has since been very severely suppressed. NGOs are in very bad shape in Russia right now. Putin is really considers them to be somehow threats.
Grillot: Well it's really fascinating. And I'm particularly interested in the environmental movement in general because as an academic my past academic life I've studied social movements but in a different issue area and it always seemed to me it struck me the environmental movement was always so challenging because it's so broad. It's what encompasses everything from forests to water to the atmosphere to you know all kinds of issues and that it's been politicized significantly in some countries particularly big polluting countries like the United States for example. Maybe say a little something about that, and maybe we can move into your work about China in particular because it sounds like in looking at some of your work there's a distinction between maybe what we see how we see the environmental movement in the United States versus how it's seen in China.
Marcuse: You know environmental movements emerge in different parts of the world when they can and they can also be suppressed and often at great cost to human lives and cost to the environment itself. A lot of the environment is concerned about ecosystems. And some people say it's insufficiently concerned with social systems with people. To my way of thinking that we actually in the period of the post-World War II era have had two really fundamental movements that have taken place. One is the environment movement and the other is the Human Rights Movement. And I think the the key understanding, when we look back at this history, is to realize that these two movements are now converging what we call the environmental justice movement. What I was finding is when I looked at how environmental movement started you had to look at both the environmental side and the social justice side, the human rights side, and the purely ecosystem side in order to understand where we're going.
After I finished the program about Russia I thought I should try something a little harder like a film made in China because I was very curious to see whether or not there could be a Chinese environmental movement. I think like a lot of people in North America had a sense that the Chinese government was pro-development and therefore if the if an environmental movement was anti-development it was going to be anti-socialist and therefore there would be an opposition between the government and the environmental movement. And I think we see that in a lot of countries. Currently in the United States there's clearly a kind of a contest going on. And so there's a kind of a distrust by the government for the environmental activists. You know you're reducing consumption, you're reducing development, you're going to reduce our ability to bring the poor up out of it by affecting the economy and so and so. There's this kind of inherent distrust that we've grown up accustomed to. So would that be the same case in China. And the answer was No it's not. And this was the really surprising thing. If there was that kind of opposition I wouldn't even have been able to get into the country to make a film.
We all know that China's pollution problem is dreadful. You know the smog on a bad day you can't even see the building across the street in Beijing. It's just dreadful. The citizenry is really up in arms but it's only that's only the top layer of the environmental problem. They've also got tremendous amount of heavy metal pollution of their soils. They've got a problem with having displaced millions of people to build dams and having to deal with the poverty that that's generated. So they have a whole complex area of problems that you might say are environmental problems.
But the Chinese central government, the party itself, realizes that there is now between 50 and 100 thousand demonstrations every year in China about environmental issues. It is in fact one of the areas where Chinese citizens can speak out speak their mind about something that's deeply deeply important to them. You know if your child is being exposed to heavy metals dumped in a lake by a factory that's just doing this for a profit, who's to blame and who's to change things. And the only place you can go to is to complain to the government and hope the government will step in. And so this is creating unrest. And if the central party wants anything it's social stability. And so they can't simply try to shut down the demonstrations in favor of a chemical factory. In Dalian north of Beijing while I was there there was 70000 people turned out to demonstrate against a factory that they were sure would pollute and the government didn't stifle the demonstrations. They moved the factory or they canceled the factory. Now that might just go somewhere where people are less organized but in that case it was stopped and it was just a demonstration of that's one level of concern they have is for stability.
But the other thing that I think touches people more deeply in China that I found when I would talk to people is that really the problems are accumulating. Quality of life is degenerating. The Chinese have been able to bring hundreds of millions of people up out of poverty to 200 million. But now that they're middle class they're facing a shortened a life time from pollution. So where's the satisfaction in that. And what kind of future does that speak to for a country of a billion, 1.3 billion people. So they realize that they need to have ecologically sustainable socialism, or communism, or just a system. Whatever, that country is now as such a mix. But in order to be able to continue they're going to have to resolve some of these problems. And for years there have been people inside the Chinese government who understand this.
Grillot: Could you just very quickly tell us about your film Waking the Green Tiger, because it's specific to the dam on the Yangtze River. Because this is obviously a huge issue for China and other countries and the region. Dams are a huge issue for various countries and various parts of the world. Could you tell us a little bit about that project and how that reflects perhaps this larger environmental issue and your relationship between government and citizens in China which is fascinating because they really don't have many other outlets to have this kind of relationship or be that outspoken on on issues in China.
Marcuse: I wound up focusing on the suggestion of many people on a conflict over a big dam in southwestern China almost near the down near the Vietnamese and Cambodian borders of southern China. But that's where the Yangtze River rises in the mountains before it flows out north through through the sea. And there were plans on the Yangtze and another river in Yunnan Province in China to build 24 more dams, and really big dams. And one of those dams that I was focusing on was that Tiger Leaping Gorge, a beautiful deep 3000 meters deep gorge kind of the Grand Canyon of China. And they were going to stick a dam in the middle of it, seven hundred feet tall, that would create a lake behind it, a reservoir, that would go 200 miles up and flood out another hundred thousand people and take away the breadbasket of this whole region in order to generate electricity to go to the cities and it was also a kind of a tourist destination but wasn't well known at the time. So I told the story, really, or I was able to record the story of the gradual evolution of a resistance movement by the farmers. And the farmers were just able. At the time this dam was planned, there was a new Environmental Protection Act that gave people a right to participate in the environmental assessment. And this was just the key that opened the door because the farmers could now say I'm not anti-government I am exercising my right to speak out about the environment because it says right there in the environmental law.
So I had two jobs one of them was to try and follow how this resistance movement grew and eventually succeeded over a period of four years in stopping this massive dam for the first time that anything like that had happened in China. But I also needed to follow the other little smoking gun, shall we say, to figure out who wrote this law. How did that come about that the Chinese government enabled people to protest and to participate and that traced back to some very enlightened people within the government who were trying to create the possibility for ordinary people to help supervise the environment because they knew in the modern era that the corporations and the companies that are all private now we're not going to police themselves very well. They hadn't in the past. The pollution problems are dreadful. But if they could activate citizen involvement they'd get he felt better decisions overall.
Grillot: So last question then Gary do you see that the environmental issue is we do see improvements because of this kind of action?
Marcuse: In China?
Grillot: In China.
Marcuse: Oh absolutely.
Grillot: Having citizen involvement and how would you then compare that then to the rest of the world? Do you feel like this is an issue that's being well addressed around the world and that our environment is getting better?
Marcuse: Well you know I think all environmentalists environmentalists will say. I mean anybody concerned about having you know clean air and good water. There's always somebody who wants to benefit by using a public resource whether it's in China or the United States or Canada. And if possible they'll you know externalize the costs you know and they’ll internalize the profits so they'll pollute. Polluting is just a way of externalizing the cost of business. The Chinese are experimenting with raising the cost of water for companies that are polluters. They’re trying to put an economic marker you know on it and use and price the resource. I mean so this is a kind of a modern business way of trying to control pollution. China is making progress certainly in the environmental legislation. It's certainly shifted the way that it looks at its responsibilities, in his duties and it and the value of protecting the environment is now become a kind of a national priority. So they're shutting down coal fired power plants at the same time in other places in the world we're talking about opening them up again. So I would say that's progress certainly in China because they can't afford to have all that smog and the planet can't afford it either. But they have an immediate problem to deal with. So I see a wide range of areas where environmental laws have really starting to come into force in China. And I think that's really encouraging when I go to universities and talk to young people. They say you know it's really nice to know that China is taking action because if they don't do anything, why should I? Because we know we're so much smaller we're so fewer. But if they're doing something and if the activists in China can succeed, surely we can do something on our situation as well where we have so many more rights to participate.
Grillot: That is a really interesting and amazing point. So thank you so much Gary appreciate you being here with us.
Marcuse: You're welcome. It's a lot of fun. I enjoyed this.
Grillot: Thank you.
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