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Wen Bo: Environmentalism growing in China

By Tiffany Wong
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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Wen Bo says he was inspired to enter the environmental movement in high school when he watched the televised tactics of the international pressure group, Greenpeace.

Wen Bo is seen here in 2005, investigating sea turtle trade in Yiwu, Zhejiang province, China.

After graduating from the China School of Journalism in Beijing and earning a Master's in International Relations from the KDI School of International Policy and Management in Seoul, South Korea, Wen embarked on an environmental crusade that involved web-based activism, grant sponsorship and awareness-raising programs.

Wen set up Greenpeace's office in Beijing in 2000, then moved farther into the international arena of environmental work, operating outside strict governmental regulations.

Today the 36-year-old Wen uses his media and environmental savvy to support local NGOs in China. Wen has drawn the international media spotlight, featured as TIME Magazine's 2006 "Eco-Hero" and in a story by the Asian Wall Street Journal in 2004. He's also harnessing the funding power of international environmental groups, such as the U.S.-based Global Greengrants Fund and Pacific Environment.

From his base in Beijing, Wen recently discussed by telephone his projects in China and elsewhere around the world.

CNN: You were heralded in the press a few years ago for being part of a new generation of activists in China. Do you see yet another generation appearing?

Wen: Yes, I've become an old generation (activist). And there are lots of younger people more engaged in environmental issues. They have started to graduate and some of them have already recently graduated and they have started (taking jobs with) environmental organizations.

We do see the emergence of a new generation of young people that I equip with skills such as the Internet, building Web sites and also language skills. These are people who are open-minded and also do not live in the shadow of the student demonstrations of Tiananmen Square in 1989. So, they start to open their eyes to environmental fields. We do say they have become an important force in shaping the environmental movement in China.

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CNN: How important are young people in the grassroots movement in China?

Wen: Young people are idealistic and they are energetic. They are new blood to the existing environmental movement because, in the past, most of the effort has been taken by (retired) people or people who are middle aged. So, they are different than the people who take environmental work as a hobby. They really start to take it as a cause and as a 'real job.'

CNN: What is the role of technology (Internet, e-mail, blogs, Web sites, and the media) in aiding the grassroots movement?

Wen: [Young people] use this new media to publicize, to network, to get connected with people who are not in the same region. So, they can share ideas, share information instantly over the Internet, through email, and blogs.

So, they are able to effectively (use) this technology and new means of communication to get information from the outside world. They not only get information from regular Chinese media, but they can instantly, easily get information from environmental groups, from other international bodies. All the information, obviously happening in other countries, can instantly be transferred to the Chinese young generation and they are able to use that.

Of course, they have to overcome language barriers. And I see fewer problems with this younger generation using English and other languages. I do see that they have been very much empowered and they have been very effective.

CNN: Which environmental groups and activists are doing cutting-edge work right now?

Wen: If you're looking at environmental problems, for example, there's one group based in Gansu province, called Green Camel Bell. They are on the frontline of the environmental fight because desertification is encroaching and they are located in a very heavy [industrial], polluted city of Lanzhou and also they are located on the site of the Yellow River.

Another example is GSEAN. This is a Chinese Web site which networks or consults young people.

CNN: Philanthropy and financial grants, then, are at the center of much of your work. Why?

Wen: It's because I do see there's one resource needed in China: funding. Of course, it's not the only resource you need, the group will also need training, will also need experience, and also need leadership. [We can also offer to] support the basic necessities: for example, the infrastructure, the computers, the office space -- lots of these people, no matter young or old, are dedicated. They want to contribute their time and effort to an environmental cause, but they cannot do so without the proper infrastructure.

CNN: How would you describe China's environmental grassroots movement?

Wen: I think ... we have come about over 10 years and, you know, during this period of time, there were lots of obstacles, for example, the government has never been, never really been supportive to grass-roots and non-governmental efforts.

But, many organizations are able to win the sympathy and support from many government officials; from the central government, from the local government, as well. The very... existence of these environmental organizations alone proves that they have managed to survive and accumulate the manpower and the resources for them to perform better, and they have also been able to recruit a large number of volunteers.

Many organizations, they are not membership-based but they are able to have a large number of volunteers. So, a lot of people check the Web site; write to these groups and some simply to report to these organizations of a local environment problem.

They no longer blindly just go to the environmental protection agency or go to the government in seek of answers. But, they now turn to the environmental organizations to find solutions, to find the opportunities for them to get involved. And also actively participate in some of the efforts.

It's a sign of that there is a channel; there is a way for ordinary citizens to participate in the efforts to change the environmental problems in China.

CNN: Should more environmental groups register officially with the Chinese government as these "official non-government organizations"?

Wen: Chinese [citizens] are interested in supporting these charitable efforts, but they lack the proper channels, so they don't know where to donate their funding, to donate their actual money to support a charitable cause. So often these types of resources are mostly channeled into government-organized NGOs.

I don't think real independent NGOs should have to register because there are so many barriers. Of course, if they can get that legal status that's the best, but they should not sacrifice their independence for the legitimacy within the Chinese system, because the system itself is not designed to support independent groups.

CNN: Which specific environmental issue are you most passionate about, or is most pressing for China or the world?

Wen: We know there are areas that have been neglected. There is this area, for example, marine pollution and marine issues. We know that it has been ignored by other organizations and also definitely ignored by the government. So we take that as our own cause in China.

So we identify the issues that are critical, but haven't been properly addressed. But it doesn't mean we aren't interested in many other issues. We are interested in climate change; we are interested in desertification. All of these problems are also very important issues, but we are obviously limited by our own resources. If we have a large number of staff or if we have enough funding, we definitely want to take on as many issues as possible.

CNN: You work with many internationally based environmental groups with some branches in China. Is there a reason you chose to work with such groups?

Wen: These organizations are well-established, they have the expertise. I work with these international environmental organizations, because I don't have to spend effort to raise the profile of these organizations. They are already a known group, so when you work with Chinese government officials or work with the general public, they know what these groups are doing. Otherwise you have to create an organization that has to let people know what you are doing and that takes time. It takes time for people to understand what your group actually is.

Although I am working with these types of international organizations, they are largely able to offer the freedom and offer enough room for me to develop our own program in China. They are able to allow me to develop the program that I personally feel is's like I am working with a Chinese local group.

CNN: What can the rest of the world learn from China's environmental solutions? What can other countries learn from China's grass-roots environmental movement?

Wen: I think China could have been a leader to shape the future of our planet. Unfortunately, the Chinese government didn't realize the potential for such a role. China has been following the American step (of) becoming the next "super country" which continues to consume the natural resources without considering the limits of our planet. I think the people wouldn't necessarily share the vision as the national government.

We do not want to be a superpower that's damaging the global environment. The people know that they want the kind of development that is both good for themselves, for the community, for the country as well as for the rest of the world. Sometimes, I think the public is much more visionary than our government.

And, I think the rest of the world can learn (from) the dedication of the Chinese groups working in very difficult situations. They do not have the resources that they should have in dealing (with) such dramatic environmental problems. We are facing so many problems in China, but the society itself is not really designed to support the civil society development in China.

So, I feel that by supporting the environmental movement in China, you are actually helping to support the efforts that are saving the whole planet.

CNN: What are your predictions for the future of China's environment or China's grassroots movement?

Wen: I think we will continue to have the political obstacles, but over the years, I would say there will be more dedicated, skillful and talented young people who start to engage in the environmental movement. I would say that there will be grassroots organizations in many provinces in China and they are able to get a lot of sympathy from the public and added support from the international community.

There will be more and more people, even from the government, who [will] start to support this effort, because when they start to look closer, when they learn more about these environmental organizations, they will know that they are very caring, and bright and visionary people that they should support.

So, I think that I am very optimistic about the future of the environmental movement in China.

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