Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

China’s Environmental Movement: A Journalist’s Perspective

Tourists take in the view of the Forbidden City from atop Coal Hill in Jingshan Park, north of the former imperial palace on a smoggy day in Beijing on December 10, 2009. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Tourists take in the view of the Forbidden City from atop Coal Hill in Jingshan Park, north of the former imperial palace on a smoggy day in Beijing on December 10, 2009. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

NS: What have been some of the landmark events and key successes for environmental journalists in China?

LJ: China's worsening environmental crisis is actually creating a growing environmental movement of citizens, NGOs and journalists who are able to write articles, initiate grassroots groups and educate the public about it.

Chinese NGO and the media-sponsored campaign against the Nu River Dams project is the first milestone in China's environmental movement. It was the first big success for China's civil society to postpone a huge environmental unfriendly project.

Media and NGOs' campaign against the Tiger Leaping Gorge Dams Project is another landmark.

When Premier Wen Jiabao ordered further investigation in the Tiger Leaping Gorge Dams in Yunnan Province, the campaign spread its information through newspapers and the internet instead of demonstrations and march protests. Pan Yue, Vice President of China's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) is another individual who has tried to promote democracy in environmental issues. In 2005 I reported about the controversy caused by waterproofing of the local lakebed in Yuanmingyuan Park(Old Summer Palace) in Beijing. On reading the piece, Pan immediately suspended the project following widespread media exposure and decided to hold a public hearing-the first of its kind in China's environmental realm. Unlike previous official hearings, which had been controlled by the host government to prevent inconsistencies in voice, the Yuanmingyuan public hearing allowed for representation from different stakeholders and engaged the public in government decisions.

I have also reported about the project on GM rice which was being promoted by some scientists who were seeking personal benefits from this project. The investigative piece on this led to suspension of this project.

NS: Is there a thin line between journalism and activism in China today?

LJ: In China some pioneer NGOs are headed by former journalists. They know the truth and wanted to do something about it. Their influence in the media makes it easier to get their stories out to the people. Most of the NGOs are headed by scientists who don't have background in journalism and have their own agenda.

Covering environmental issues over the years, I have seen myself conflicted over my role as a journalist or an activist. It's very difficult.  I was a journalist, but now I spend more and more time on the environmental protection activities. When I sit to write an article I am a journalist. When I go to the river, the dam, I have to do something about it. Not just write, but talk to people, organize meetings. May be there is a line, but it's very thin.

NS: What are your future projects?

LJ:  I just published a book about Tibet (The Tibetan Beads- Legend of Tibetans) in 2009. I will continue to write books and stories on environment, culture and the reality of Tibet, and will write a book on China's environmental movement. Meanwhile, I am going to join the campaign for China's environment protection.

Liu Jianqiang is a research associate at the Peking University Center for Nature and Society and Visiting Scholar at UC Berkeley. He also serves as columnist and associate editor for He is the author of The Tibetan Beads-The Legend of Tibetans, and an upcoming book about rafting on the Jinsha River near the Tiger Leaping Gorge, to be published in 2010.