Freedom fighters on the front lines

Yu Xiaogang picked a fight with Chinese developers and is winning. Give the man a prize.

By Andrew Leonard
April 25, 2006 9:10PM (UTC)
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For a few brief seconds during the opening video montage kicking off Monday night's Goldman Environmental Prize award ceremony at a packed San Francisco Opera House, I could not stop squirming. It's not that I can't stand pictures of unbearably cute animals. It just seemed too easy to take potshots at, like, shooting buffalo from a moving train. Conservative ideologues have had great success in recent years at rhetorically framing environmentalists as out-of-touch liberals who care more about pandas and kangaroo pups than people. The oohs and ahs of the Bay Area's elite environmental community as they watched the video prologue seemed like an overly gracious offering of more ammunition to an implacable enemy.

But I'd had the exact same reaction last year at the prize ceremony. And then I did an abrupt about-face after hearing the stories and listening to the speeches of the winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize. The same thing happened this year. One cannot confront the example set by Silas Siakor, whose exposé of illegal logging in Liberia helped bring down the military dictator Charles Taylor, or listen to the words of Annie Kajir, a lawyer in Papua New Guinea who has set herself against rapacious multinational resource-extraction corporations and corrupt government officials, without seeing environmentalism in an entirely different light. Far from being out of touch with the real world, these men and women are on the front lines, putting their lives at risk to challenge the worst manifestations of global capitalism. And in virtually every case, they are struggling for a world that is not just safe and healthy for polar bears, but for people.


On Friday I had a chance to sit down for 45 minutes with one of the award winners, Chinese environmental scientist Yu Xiaogang. Just the fact that Yu was allowed to leave China was somewhat remarkable. A leader in the fight to keep one of China last wild rivers, the Nu, from being dammed for a series of huge hydroelectric plants, Yu has been blocked numerous times from leaving his country by local officials angry at his interference with their go-go development plans. A soft-spoken man in his mid-50s, Yu is a member of the vanguard of civil society in a country where the stark tradeoff between economic growth and environmental degradation has reached a degree of intensity unpredecented in world history.

Yu is an idealist, a Communist Party member who was born to parents who joined Mao Zedong's revolution, and who, as a teenager, joined the Burmese Communist Party in 1968 to fight against Burma's military rulers. His non-governmental organization, Green Watershed, has received worldwide attention. It's not easy, anywhere, to set yourself against the forces of runaway economic development. But perhaps nowhere is the task more intimidating than in China.

Yu believes in the rule of law, in transparency, and in the power of collective action by ordinary people to change the world. He has fought to give teeth to laws that, on the books, require environmental impact assessments, but which are widely ignored. While he supports the basic thrust of the economic reforms unleashed by Deng Xiaoping in the early '80s, and gives lip service to Deng's dogma that one must achieve economic reform before political liberalization, he is straightforward when I ask him if China can continue to have 10 percent annual economic growth without destroying the natural environment.


"No," he says. China's headlong rush forward has demonstrated a "primitive and wasteful development model." And he suggests that China's top leaders understand this, that Premier Hu Jintao's frequent references to "sustainable development" are sincere. The problem, he says, does not lie with the central government, but at the local level. Local governments are hellbent on enrichening themselves through unrestrained development, and they often operate in direct disregard of central government dictates.

I ask him if he thinks he can really win the battle to stop the taming of the Nu River, with its consequent damage to terrain of unfathomable beauty and the displacement of millions of peasants.

"It depends on how you define winning," he says, with a slight smile. An original plan for 14 huge dams has been scaled down to four, but there's no telling how much havoc even that plan will cause.


But as he noted during his acceptance speech, when he likened himself to one small pebble rolling down a mountainside, inevitably gathering other pebbles alongside himself and swelling into an unstoppable landslide, it is the activities of individuals and NGOs who hold the true future of not just China, but the entire globe, in their hands. Contrary to the assertions of free-market ideologues, environmental activists like Yu and the other Goldman Prize winners are not utopians looking to freeze the world in some kind of natural state of unblemished grace. They are merely seeking to resist unchecked development with sustainable solutions, and in the course of doing so making painfully clear the interconnections between democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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