Passings: Wu Dengming, Chinese Environmental Leader

“Green, green, green, was all he thought about….” Wu Dengming, the Founder of the Chongqing Green Volunteer League and one of the most effective Chinese environmental leaders, changed hearts and minds by listening to the stories of devastation, teaching those who suffered how to cope, sharing those stories of success and failure, loss and recovery. He led by being present and persistent, galvanizing small steps forward, despite resistance from his family, his government and industry.

“In 1997, at 57, he had retired from his security job at the university; but rather than slowing down he had revved up, racing round the city and the region to track down polluters of air, water or earth and report them to the authorities in Beijing. He was hardly ever 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 on the muddy banks of the Jialing or the Yangzi, pointing out to the world’s press where the outlet from a battery factory had stained the rocks yellow, or where the pipeline from a chromium plant had killed all the vegetation….

“He had set his NGO, the Chongqing Green Volunteer League, up in 1995, originally as a campus group that planted trees, picked up litter and lectured people on their environmental duty. It had grown fast, and had notched up big successes. In 1998 he had taken a TV crew to film illegal logging in the wild forests of Sichuan outside the city; the film was a sensation, and logging was banned. Some 15,000 students signed his petition to stop the Nu river dams. His was one of the few NGOs to be recognised officially by Beijing, and 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. No wonder he had a spring in his step, a smile on his face, and burst so readily, if hoarsely, into the old songs.wu dengming

“It was all so dangerous, though, said his wife. …In the Sichuan forest, when he first went, the loggers had smashed the crew’s equipment. Factory owners frequently sent hoodlums to beat him up. Well, risk-taking was necessary, Mr Wu said. He was tough enough, having done his bit for Mao in the People’s Liberation Army; he also practised t’ai chi every day, to calm himself; and when security guards started towards his car he would just roar away, laughing.” (From the obituary in the Economist)

I love this picture of a man leading change from a place of such joy and dedication. In 2008, when green became a goal for China because of the harsh light the Beijing Olympics shone on the devastating pollution problem, Wu was one of the people who carried the Olympic torch in the opening ceremony. This honor, along with his work to clean up the city, made him an international figure in the global environmental movement.

In an interview in the Seattle Times, Wu said, “You see all these campaigns in Beijing – campaigns to protect the environment. But people still abuse air conditioning, still wear fancy clothes, still build mansions. Meanwhile, those without money suffer. The environment suffers. The city has so many cultural resources – these shouldn’t go to waste. Beijingers’ attitudes and lifestyles must change.

The only way to change attitudes and lifestyles is through education – in school, at home, in the workplace, in the government.

After the Olympics, this movement will continue. China can’t go back. Now people know what needs to happen. Organizations like ours are starting to play a bigger role in society.

A 2012 profile in Asia Sentinel called him “China’s sentinel,” and reported that he was not so popular when he started his activist leadership. His persistence convinced his family and the Chinese government to take action and support the NGO.

“I annoyed a lot of government officials and businessmen. They hired gangsters to beat me up,” he says of the early days of his work. “After hearing this news, many of my environmental activist friends were too frightened and they left me – one after another. I was feeling very helpless.”

Wu’s 42-year-old daughter Wu Hong says she has clear memories of those days. “At the beginning the whole family was against his activities because he spent all the money we had on environmental campaigns and there was danger. I was worried that I would lose a father and my mother was worried she could lose a husband,” she says.

Despite his family’s reluctance, Wu was determined to expose the truth and informed the media about the illegal logging in the Sichuan forest. “A report came out on national television that shocked people all over China,” he says, “And public pressure forced the country’s leaders to ban the logging of wild forests in Sichuan province.”

Following the reports, the Chinese government started to publicize and implement the forest protection laws and today even his daughter supports the cause. “Our motto is ‘little talk and much action,’ but before we were only exposing the problems,” says Wu Hong, who today works alongside her father.

“We lacked a good way to communicate with the government, but now when we discover a problem we give solutions and we cooperate to solve it. We call ourselves partners of the government now, like a bridge.”

“Little talk and much action.” Wu is an excellent example of transformational leadership, because his story demonstrates the power of persistence and vision to change public priorities. His journey, from a small voice exposing environmental damage to a bridge solving problems, is an inspiration.

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