A PLA veteran who fought in the 1962 India-China war, the late Wu Dengming left the army to become one of modern China’s first environmental activists

The last time I met Wu Dengming was on a grey autumn day last October. We spent an afternoon in conversation in his modest Beijing hotel room, which overlooked an old neighbourhood of courtyard houses that lay right in the shadow of the Forbidden City. Wu didn’t look anywhere near his 73 years of age. He spoke with a passion that appeared to burn as bright as ever, in defiance of his weakening health.

Wu had made the long journey to the capital from his native Chongqing in China’s west at the invitation of government officials, with whom his relations had often been awkward. The non-governmental organisation (NGO) he founded in 1997, the Chongqing Green Volunteers League, had garnered a reputation for muckraking. Wu’s green army revelled in taking on local factories that were polluting the rivers and fields of Chongqing and surrounding Sichuan province. “Lao Wu,” or “Old Wu” as he was known in China’s small but fast-growing community of green activists, took risks, often putting his personal safety on the line, as he encouraged farmers to stand up to polluters and went after the ravagers of Sichuan’s forests.

Undimmed optimism

Wu, when we met, appeared optimistic about the direction in which his country was heading. The increasingly worse air pollution that enveloped the Chinese capital — and left Wu with an uncomfortable cough that day — hadn’t dampened his confidence. In the weeks before we spoke, China had witnessed an unprecedented series of environmental protests in half a dozen cities, as citizens took to the streets to oppose local governments who were setting up chemical factories or waste incinerators in their communities, often without following due process. The protests against P/X chemical plants in Dalian and Kunming, a copper plant in Shifang in Sichuan, and a refinery in Ningbo had been unique in the way a cross-section of society — from college students and white collar workers to retirees and migrant workers — had been mobilised to demand transparency from their governments. Wu told me, “The biggest challenge we’ve faced, since we started this work three decades ago, has been getting people to understand environmental issues and to raise their awareness. That’s now beginning to change.”

My conversation with Wu that October day would be our last. Last month, Wu, who was unused to losing the battles he plunged into, succumbed to illness. He passed away on July 19, aged 73. His family members said he continued working until the very end — disregarding their pleas — displaying that sense of stubbornness with which he pursued his causes. Around a thousand people turned up to pay their respects to Wu in his humble 50-square-metre home, the Chongqing Evening News reported. Among them were five officials who had worked for factories that had been forced to close down and overhaul their operations on account of Wu’s activism.

“Less talk and more action” was the motto that Wu bestowed upon his NGO. It was, in some sense, the maxim that governed his life. Born in 1940 in a working-class family, Wu grew up amid the heady enthusiasm that marked the early years following the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. Enthusiasm soon gave way to the grim reality of economic hardship. Wu was 18 when Mao launched his ruthless anti-rightist campaign and the disastrous Great Leap Forward. Still in high school, Wu discarded his textbooks and plunged into the frenzy of steel-making that would later leave the countryside broken in desperate famine.

Amid the chaos of the campaign, Wu, aged 22, was sent to Tibet as the People’s Liberation Army prepared for war with India. Wu told me of the extreme confidence of the young PLA soldiers posted in Medog in Tibet, as he recalled his role in an early morning offensive — on October 22, 1962, if he remembered correctly — that faced little resistance as his company crossed the border into India. His abiding memory of 1962 was not of the battle, but of the friendships he struck with Indian prisoners of war. “The biggest impression they left on me was their faith,” he told me. They shared stories about the families they left behind. When the war was over and they returned to India, tears were shed. “War was war,” Wu said, “but friendship was friendship.”

On a different battlefield

The battlefield never was Wu’s calling. He left the PLA and took up a job in a Chongqing university. He would later begin his green activism at a time when China had no significant environment movement. As Deng Xiaoping took forward economic reforms and the country looked to get rich, growth was the abiding objective. Wu’s first mission was to protect the forests of Sichuan through which the Yangtze flowed. His green volunteers went to the villages, helping farmers and raising awareness of the pollution that began to permeate through fields and rivers.

The Green Volunteers League was Chongqing’s first NGO. Wu saw education as his biggest mission. “Our movement was about giving farmers the tools to realise their rights,” he said. In 2011, his NGO was involved in a pioneering lawsuit, against a chemical company in a Yunnan court. The case was one of the first ever filed by an NGO that was accepted by a Chinese court.

Old Wu did not see himself as a dissident. He occupied the often uncertain grey zone traversed today by a growing number of Chinese NGOs, journalists and activists, who believe that working for realistic change within the system — amid its many authoritarian limitations — may yield more rewards, however painfully slow the process, rather than attempting to overturn it.

Growing demands

Demands for greater accountability and transparency are growing in China, aided by a slowly growing civil society movement and the spread of social media. The Communist Party of China has realised the rising costs of an unsustainable growth model. The government has pledged to reduce carbon emissions per unit of GDP by at least 40 per cent by 2020, and is investing $300 billion in renewable energy in the current Five Year Plan. At the same time, on many levels, the system remains resistant to change. Even as green groups were hailing the Yunnan law suit last year, the government began mulling a new environmental law that will disallow NGOs from filing public interest suits. Provincial governments continue to control local courts in the absence of meaningful judicial reforms. The Party remains wary of civil society activism. While green groups that take on local officials are tolerated, activists who begin to push for wider change are quickly silenced.

In a poignant tribute to Wu, Wang Yongchen, a prominent environmentalist who founded Beijing’s Green Earth Volunteers, captured the challenges faced by the movement he helped propel. “Old Wu,” she wrote, “there are so many things you like to do, and so many things we want to do together. But Heaven is ruthless, the disease is merciless, and the reality is ruthless. You might be able to hear us, so rest assured that we will continue what you have not completed”.


More In: Comment | Opinion