Monday, 26 August 2013

China's Mr. Green

I never thought the day could come when I would write an encomium for a magazine’s obituaries column! But that was before I had read “The Economist” for a year, eventually making the obit a weekly ritual by beginning my read on its last page site. And Wu Dengming, China’s Mr. Green, is a great life to start with.

When I first spent six weeks in Shanghai in 1982, allegedly studying Mandarin, but really preparing my first scoop (I had just quit teaching, after 30 years) for the TV mag of San Francisco’s KQED-TV, the best (then and yet!) public television in America: Shanghai’s Art Museum was making its first foreign visit there. Naturally, as an art critic I wanted to interview the director esthetically. He wanted me to pick items which would be the most popular among San Franciscan visitors! He was a business man before he was an aesthete!

Similarly, when my fellow students stomped off on our Beijing visit to walk the Great Wall, I snuck away to interview the editors of the first international Chinese newspaper, “The China Daily”. Holy Moses. They didn’t want to talk media.(I had been writing Op Eds and art criticism for both Philadelphia dailies and the “Christian Science Monitor”.) They wanted to know how many columns of baseball coverage they should reserve! Was BUSINESS the most important goal of Mao’s followers. 
Strangely enough, on my midnight flight back to California, I snuck into the first class section to find a single executive-looking man eating off the fanciest table settings I’d seen in ages. When I teased him by chiding his first class manners with a playfully snide, “Is that how you ate on the Great March?” He, it turns out, had been there! “Why not eat better, after all that pain?” It turns out he had also been in the aerial battles over Burma. And he was now the chief executive in charge of buying planes for China’s airline! Another businessman!
In any case, Wu Dengming (just dead at 73) was no such busybody. He had begun as a farmer, served as an officer in Mao’s army, but retired at 57 as a security person at Chongqing University. Chongqing at 10 million population was China’s fastest growing city. He and his family lived in an old beaten up house full of environmental books, where his daughter pleaded for air-conditioning like in the adjacent skyscrapers. Their pitiful little fan simply didn’t cut it. But as a conservationist he was more interested in insuring that everyone in his city could turn their coolers to 26 Celsius and no lower!

When he retired at 57, his family expected more consideration. But he ran around the city and the region tracking down polluters of air, water or earth and reporting them to Beijing auithorities. He was almost never at home!”A row of shoes,many times mended,stood under his bed; most of them were still dirty from when he had sploshed around of the muddy banks of the Jialing or the Yangzi, pointing out to the world’s press where theb outlet from a battery factory had stained the rocks yellow, or where the pipeline from a chromium plant had killed all the vegetation.” (The Economist, August 10-16, p.70.)

His business card listed five titles and six awards. The most important title was “Founder, Chongqing Green Volunteer League, 1995 (Motto: “Action, not words.”) This was set up originally as a campus group that planted trees, picked up litter and lectured others on the green responsibilities. In 1998 he had taken a film crew to record illegal logging in the wild forests of Sichuan outside the city. It was such a sensation, logging there was banned.  
Over 15,000 students signed his petition to stop the Nu river dams. He was one of the few NGO’s that Beijing allowed; in 2011 for the first time a court admitted his suit against a factory that had dumped 5,000 tons of chromium waste in Yunnan province.

Greedy “socialist” entrepreneurs didn’t dig his interventions. In the Sichuan forest, the loggers smashed his film crew’s gear. Factory owners sent hoodlums to rough him up. His wife worried, but he assured her he had learned how to survive in Mao’s People’s Liberation Army. He even practice t’ai chi every day to calm his nerves! NGO’s rarely got government support, so he financed his work from his tiny pension, his savings and his grandson’s lottery winnings! 

He listened in horror at the sufferings of ordinary working class people and counseled on their woes .”As a farmer who had moved to the city himself, he spoke the language of the peasants forced from their plots by landslides, the fishermen whose stocks were dead, the weeping, terrified villagers whose livers had been enlarged by strontium in the river water.(Ibid.) 
In 1998 he led a group to Hongya County in West Sichuan Province, famous for its wealth of natural forests and abundance of 100 year-old trees. “What they found, broke their hearts: the original scenery had been completely transformed by deforestation, leaving bare hills and stumps everywhere.” Wu invited CCTV, China’s main TV programmer, to produce a documentary on this tragedy. Their first attempt flopped—hoods destroyed their TV equipment! The second time around, they succeeded! Both national and provincial authorizes banned such forestry.

Probe International announced that even five polluting enterprises that Wu Dengming had criticized sent reps to mourn and pay their respects at his funeral. And best of all, his daughter, after nagging her idealist father for ages, became a committed greenie! China, the most polluting state on earth, needs more and more such heroic greenies.

Another version of this essay is published by Broad Street Review.

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