Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Warriors of Qiugang -- environmental activism at its best

Last Saturday afternoon, I went to the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in the 798 Art Space in Beijing to see “Warriors of Qiugang”, a short documentary about a farmer-turned-environmental activist (to see the full documentary, go to e360.yale.edu).  The film was directed by Ruby Yang who had won a Oscar for best short documentary for her earlier 2006 film, “Blood of Yingzhou District” about children in Anhui who had lost their parents to an AIDS epidemic in the province.  I had seen the earlier film and a friend of mine, an environmental lawyer in Beijing, had recommended “Warriors of Qiugang” so I was looking forward to the screening.  When I heard that Ruby Yang and Mr. Zhang Gongli, the farmer, were going to be in the audience and answering questions afterwards, that made the event even sweeter.

Despite the polluted, overcast, chilly conditions, I hopped on my bike and rode out to the 798 Art Space and got there about 10 minutes late.  The film had already started, and the auditorium was almost packed, but luckily I found a seat up front, opened up my Windows document on my phone and started to take notes.

The film is in some ways a familiar story for those of us steeped in environmental horror stories in China.  The story is about Qiugang village which is located on the banks of the Huai River in Anhui.  The village’s land and waterways are being laid to waste by several highly-polluting factories next door.  The villagers are fed up by the pollution and the health problems it is causing, and protest in 2003 but are beaten up.  Enter Mr. Zhang whose land is very close to one of the factories.  He sues the factory in 2004 and again in 2005 but loses each time, though in an interview he did with me afterwards, he said the factory did settle with him by paying him 500 yuan (about U.S.$65 a year at that time) for three years, but refused to stop its operations.  In 2007, Mr. Zhang and Qiugang are helped by Green Anhui, a local environmental NGO, which gets their story to the local media.  The villagers then decide to write a petition to the local authorities asking them to close the factories down.  The local authorities balk until Mr. Zhang, with the help of Green Anhui and other environmental NGOs in Beijing, bring the story to the national media which in turn attracts the attention of the Ministry of Environmental Protection.  Mr. Zhang's message is that the factories should be closed down because they are in violation of existing environmental laws and regulations.  Under pressure from the national authorities and Mr. Zhang who keeps up the campaign, local authorities eventually order the factories closed in 2009.  The factories are now in the process of being torn down.

The film brings out some important elements of activism in China.  It shows that ordinary farmers do care about the damage caused by environmental pollution and are willing to take risks to do something about it.  It depicts the role of NGOs in educating individual activists about the laws, and bringing their stories to the media and national authorities.  It shows how the media and national authorities can be occasional allies in the fight to enforce China’s laws in favor of social and environmental justice.  The combined efforts of these actors can sometimes lead to good results even in an authoritarian state.  We see a similar pattern in the environmental campaign against the Nujiang River dam project which ended up being suspended in 2005 (see Andrew Mertha's brilliant account in his book Water Warriors). 

After the film, I had a chance to go out to dinner with Ruby Yang and Mr. Zhang and offered to escort Mr. Zhang back to the train station so I could interview him.  He told me many of the people in his village and many of the local officials in his area had seen the film.  Now that he had achieved a level of fame, he didn’t seem to think the local authorities would cause him any trouble.  I hope he's right.

When I dropped him off at the train station, he took out his camera and showed me pictures of the factory being razed.  He said there would soon be trees and grass there, and that they've seen some small fish again in the river and waterways.  He sounded hopeful.

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