A former farmer, soldier, government official and now university professor, 71-year-old Wu Dengming has lived many lives, but he has always had a passion for protecting the environment.
Dubbed China’s ‘green hero’ by the local press, Wu has been actively campaigning since the 1980s.
“In 1985 I helped my students organize themselves. We set up a group called ‘volunteer team of spiritual civilization,’ but because of the political situation at the time we couldn’t call ourselves a non
governmental organization,” he says.
At the time, Wu and his unofficial group focused their efforts on illegal logging in Sichuan forests and the environmental degradation of the Yangtze River.
“In the 1980s and 90s we organized activities to protect the ecology of the Yangtze River, especially the wild forests on the upper reaches of the Yangtze,” he explains, looking up at a geographical map of the river displayed on one wall of his office.
Littered with calligraphy and geographical maps, Wu’s office at the University of Chongqing also doubles as the headquarters for his environmental NGO. While it is now officially registered, Dengming says it wasn’t always so easy being an environmental activist.
“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.”
The Chinese government strictly regulates civil associations, but Wu’s Chongqing Green Volunteer League is one of the few NGOs the government has officially recognized.
“Now the Chongqing government goes so far as to say that Wu Dengming and his organization are a name card for the government,” explains Xia Jun, an environmental lawyer from Beijing, who has worked with Wu on several cases.
Last October, for example, a court in Yunnan province accepted a public interest litigation case on industrial pollution that the Chongqing Green Volunteer League lodged in partnership with another NGO. It’s the first time a Chinese court has accepted one of their lawsuits.
Wu’s group is claiming that a chemical company has contaminated soil and water with chromium waste that is killing livestock and causing high levels of cancer among residents.
“Filing this case means the public will be able to participate in legal proceedings and that we can use the law to monitor the government and businesses,” he explained. “We can use the law to protect people’s rights and ensure justice in society.”
However, an initial hearing planned for the 12th of December was postponed because of procedural errors. Environmental lawyer Xia Jun says environmental protection in China is still very poor.
“The courts in China do not dare to interfere with companies because the local government is afraid to lose their investments. The problem is also that there is no supervision… both on the environment and on the affected people,” he says.
But China’s green hero remains steadfastly optimistic.
“It does not matter how many difficulties we face. We have to keep promoting this case,” he says. “It does not matter what the appeal’s outcome is. This is a step forward and from this step we cannot go back.”