My name is Tom Wang. Tom is my English name. I gave it to myself when I was learning English from my British teacher. She couldn't pronounce my Chinese name, Xiaojun. Xiaojun means "a soldier born at dawn". Most people in China can tell from my Chinese name that I was born in the early 1970s, because that was a time when being a soldier to protect our country was the most glorious job for any Chinese boy. Quite obviously, my parents wished that their boy would grow up and become a soldier and make them proud.
So when I told my mother, in 2005, that I had quit my job as a journalist to work for Greenpeace, her first reaction was "what is Greenpeace?" and then "why?" Before that, I had always been her pride, although I didn't join the military and become a soldier. Instead, I became a college teacher and then later a journalist. Both jobs made sense to her and made her proud of me. When I was a college teacher, she would brag to her friends that I, her son, was the youngest and most talented teacher at the college and my students and colleagues respected me. When I became a journalist, she would still brag to her friends that I, her son, was interviewing important economists and politicians.
Greenpeace? Non-governmental organizations? What are they? My mother is not the only one who has been asking me those questions. In 2005, not many people in China knew about NGOs and fewer knew about Greenpeace. If they knew about NGOs, they thought NGOs were all volunteers who had office jobs but spent their weekends helping to clean up streets or plant trees.
If they knew anything about Greenpeace at all, the only image people could think of was a little boat in the southern Pacific Ocean trying to stop a Japanese whaling ship. They thought Greenpeace was a western organization full of crazy and radical people with long hair who were throwing themselves in front of bulldozers. People frowned upon those "losers" because they were the "troublemakers" and they were making the life of those "respectable government or business men" hard for no reason.
In today's China, where most resources, from soil to water, from coal to forest, from media to people, are controlled by the government, the phrase "non-governmental" means more or less the same as "anti-governmental". This mentality naturally makes most of the public and government officials want to stay away from Greenpeace. As Greenpeace East Asia's Communications Director, I face censorship every day. It ranges from newspapers being forbidden to report on a Greenpeace project, or some websites not naming Greenpeace at all when obviously the picture in the same story shows my colleagues holding a banner in front of a coal-burning power plant.
Every morning when I ride my bike to the Greenpeace office in Beijing, I think of ways to make people in China understand my job better. We are here to protect China's environment so that while improving our life quality, Chinese people can leave our future generations fertile soil to grow food, clean air to breathe, safe water to drink and clean rivers to swim in.
The world is awed with the magic of the fast economic growth that China has achieved in the past three decades. The unseen cost, however, is rapid environmental degradation. Pollution not only is causing serious health problems, it is becoming a heavy weight slowing down the country's economic growth, and leading to wide social unrest. The word "environment" is inevitably in everyone's dictionary, tied closely with "money".
"Economic growth" is the top word in everyone's dictionary in China. With about ten per cent of its population still living under the poverty line, on less than a dollar each day, China's top priority is to improve people's life quality. While such efforts are respected and appreciated,China must also reverse the mentality of "developing and polluting first, and cleaning up later". Either socially or economically, the country cannot afford to go on like this.
It is our job to make this voice heard and recognized by both the public and the policy makers. In order to do that, we talk about the economic costs from environmental damage, so that our messages will resonate more effectively with the main economic planners and think-tanks. Instead of saying 'coal mining and burning is polluting China's air, soil and water", we say "the external costs caused by coal mining and combustion account for about seven per cent of China's gross domestic product a year."
Greenpeace's work in China is also vital to the global environment because with each step China takes to grow its economy, it is pumping huge amount of greenhouse gases that are threatening the glaciers in the Arctic, the snow mountains in central Europe, and the weather system in Africa. As the world's largest coal producer and consumer, China is also the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, which are pushing the climate to change faster.
However, when I tell my friends in Beijing and Shanghai that part of my job is to move China away from burning so much coal, they think that I, along with Greenpeace, am trying to slow down China's progress. They will ask, "Without coal, how can China power all the textile and electronics factories that have been investing so much in China?"
Then I tell them the story of my home province, Shanxi, in central China, which is considered by many historians to be the cradle of China's civilization. In the past, it was a treasure trove for archeologists from all over the world. Today, most of the visitors to this culturally rich province are investors with cash. They are here for one thing: coal. Shanxi province has one third of China's coal reserve.
When I was young, my sister used to take me to the river close to our house to do the family's laundry. My grandfather would take me to climb a mountain behind the house, on a summer day, to visit his friends there. My favourite visit was to this guy who had a peach tree in front of his house. I would sit in the tree stuffing my face with juicy peaches while my grandfather and his friend talked over tea.
In the mid-1980s, the government started to build wide roads that went in front of our houses. Trucks came for the coal underneath the mountains surrounding our quiet town. My parents and their friends were excited, at first, with the new jobs. Some of my relatives became coal miners, and some of the adults went to work for power plants and cement factories. Everyone was jealous of the big money they were making. My young friends and I were excited, too, at first, to see big machines and trucks and the new people and exotic toys that came along. That didn't last long. The trucks carried coal to other parts of China, leaving behind dark coal dust and smelly and sticky smog. The coal mines emptied our mountains; the houses and temples on top of the mountains began collapsing. The power plants used so much water. Only five years later, the river went dry. The cement factories spread a grey shroud of dust over the town all year round.
When Beijing was welcoming visitors from across the world to the Olympic Games in 2008, I went back to my hometown to witness and document the change resulting from the previous 30 years of coal mining and coal burning. I visited my grandfather's old friend. He was one of a dozen old people who still lived in the village. Everyone else had moved, because all the houses in the village had cracked and might collapse any day. He took me to his house and the peach tree and said: "this tree grows peaches no longer. Every spring, the dust from the power plant in the valley covers the blooms of the tree. No more fruit."
When I told him that I worked for Greenpeace, an environmental organization, he smiled and told me: "That is a good job that promises good karma. What will the future kids live on, if things continue like this? We must leave something for them."
I hear his voice every morning when I walk into our office. I share this story with high school students in Beijing, and when I see their eyes shining with tears, it fills me with hope that they will be smarter than their parents and more responsible in caring for the planet. They will tell their parents to save some electricity or to use more public transport. They will grow up and become engineers working for a wind power plant. They will go abroad and tell investors from the USA and Europe to invest in clean industries. They will name their children "Hope" and "Wind" and other beautiful dreams that will come true as long as we work together.
Hundreds of thousands of people in China choose to receive our news-letters and even more talk directly to Greenpeace and help to spread our stories to a wider audience on the internet. My parents are among them. They read my blogs and send me suggestions on how to talk to the people of China. Greenpeace East Asia helps high school students who want to become journalists so that they can share their observations of and concerns for the environment, as well as their plans to build a cleaner future.
The vision Greenpeace has for the planet, as I see it, is very similar to what one of China's most famous philosophers, Lao Tzu, mapped out in his Tao Te Ching, about 2.5 thousand years ago. When I quoted him, in 2005, to explain to my mother what Greenpeace is doing, she understood me immediately. She agreed. It is quite simple: "We must co-exist with nature in harmony; for nature ... must not be exploited or abused, it should be befriended, not conquered."
Tom Wang is the Communications Director of Greenpeace East Asia. This blog originally appeard on the Greenpeace East Asia website. Check it out for more about Greenpeace in China.