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OCTOBER 23, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 16


Tang Zhaoming/Xinhua/AP.
These middle-school students are helping to water a cypress on the ouskirts of Beijing

China's Young Green Warriors
Despite official ambivalence, more and more students are fighting to undo environmental damage
By WEN BO

Most Chinese students would probably love to spend their vacations the way Li Li did this year: touring the U.S. But the 22-year-old history major from Peking University was not on a pleasure trip. Instead she spent four weeks traveling the country to meet with American environmental groups, learning how they organize, motivate, educate and protest.

Li became aware of China's environmental crisis as a teenager. She was spurred to action when a stream near her home outside Shanghai was ruined. Sewage from a nearby industrial plant effectively killed the river—along with her childhood memories of fishing with friends. Outraged, she set up a city-wide environmental action group from her high school. Students now arrange nature walks and educational programs promoting conservation and awareness. More recently Li became coordinator of China's Green Student Forum, a nationwide network of more than 60 groups. Such activism impressed Global Greengrants Fund and Ecologia, which sponsored her U.S. trip.

Li may be precocious, but she is not alone. The Green Student Forum was formed in 1996 by myself and Yan Jun, a student at Beijing's Forestry University. Across the country, dozens of other college kids have since begun to organize in their communities to reduce pollution and preserve endangered species and resources. Many of the groups are working with almost no funding, but they are moved to contribute their time to the cause. It's no secret that China has disregarded environmental concerns in the pursuit of economic development. Now it will take more than regulations to fix the sorry state of the environment: people need to become aware of their own responsibility for saving nature. If China's crippled ecosystems are ever to recover, this generation of activists will have to lead the way.

I, too, was a teenager when I joined the environmental movement. At first I was interested in the same issues as activists abroad—acid rain, the marine environment, toxic waste. In China, however, these are not just environmental issues but ones rooted in political corruption and economic backwardness. Protesting factory emissions can strike a nerve with the state. So I shifted my focus to conserving endangered species, where official efforts have been lacking. I hoped that by concentrating on this area, I could make a larger point about the need to salvage our ecosystems.

Fortunately, such subterfuge is becoming less and less necessary. Just after the 1989 student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, the authorities were wary of any university-based activist groups. But in recent years, students have been able to organize around environmental issues—as long as they are careful. Most of the groups limit their activities—lectures, petitions for recycling, fund-raising drives—to their campuses. When they go beyond the school grounds, the activities usually center on nature conservation, which is sanctioned by state policy. The culprits they target are mostly local officials, so the students can serve as helpful whistle-blowers, highlighting problems the central government may not know of.

Once, students wouldn't have dreamed of making a career out of environmentalism. But Li, for one, says she would rather be an activist than a historian. Ideally, her example will inspire more than jealousy among students who wish they, too, could study abroad. If her trip was a reward, then she deserved it. For people like Li are trying to make China a better and greener country to live in, not a place that everyone wants to leave.

Wen Bo, ex-reporter for China Environmental News, cofounded the Green Student Forum

Write to TIME at mail@web.timeasia.com

government ALSO IN YOUNG CHINA: GOVERNMENT
National Pride: Patriotism makes a comeback

Sport: The basketballer denied an outside shot

Invisible Fences: Authorities keep a rein on kids partly by not telling them what is and isn't allowed

Getting High: Ecstasy becomes the urban drug of choice

Country Girl: A villager moves to the big, bad city

Getting Green: Activists seeking to avert an environmental disaster are tapping the ranks of the very young

Home Sweet Home: Citizens now aspire to buy a flat

Looking Inward: Today's artists are beginning to explore individual rather than collective themes

Big Think: Intellectualism did not die with the 1980s

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