Mar. 23, 2023

Wang Yongchen: Improving People’s Lives Through River Protection

  Wang Yongchen: Improving People’s Lives Through River Protection

SourceTime Weekly 2011-03-03  Yan Youliang: Intern Hao Yingcan: Reviser


“When I go there, I always ask one thing:‘Raise your hand if the rivers in the place where you grew up are the same now as they were then.’ Usually no hands go up, even if one or two people are from mountain areas. If I say, ‘Raise your hand if the rivers ran clear when you were a child, but are now dry, dirty or no longer exist,’then hands go up left, right and centre.”
Wang Yongchen founded, and volunteers for, the Chinese NGO ‘Green Earth Volunteers’. She has 20 years’ experience in the field of environmental protection, and has her own unique take on the definition of happiness.

“I believe happiness comes from those around me, my friends, including my interviewees – I’m happy when everyone else is happy. In places where each and every riverbank is lined with cancer-hit villages, using these rivers to protect our fundamental survival needs and health is important to the residents’ happiness.

According to Wang Yongchen, happiness can be divided into distinct levels. After founding the voluntary organisation ‘Green Earth Volunteers’, she quickly defined its objective of venturing into the great outdoors, getting to know it and making friends there. In 1998, on returning from field research at the source of the Yangtze, she started to focus on China’s rivers. In 2000, she set up a workshop for environmental journalists in the hope of encouraging more of her colleagues to take an interest in nature and the environment. Since 2003, following research into Mugecuo lake, at the foot of Mount Gongga in western China, as well as the Yangtze’s Dujiang dam and its controversial Nujiang dam project, all of Green Homeland’s activity has been linked to rivers: the river decade project, the Yellow River decade project, eco river tours, etc. “I think water is vital to our lives – without healthy waterways, how can we have a healthy society?” Wang asks. “The problems facing China’s rivers are too big, so the vast majority of our NGOs energy is now focused on helping them to flow naturally.” She believes that persuading more people to take notice of the rivers around them and appreciate the great outdoors is the first step to happiness.

A well-known quote of Wang’s is doing the rounds online: “Without a healthy river network, there is no chance of a healthy society.”

She says:“Every Saturday in Beijing, we try to organise a eco river tour activity, in the hope of encouraging Beijingers to join us in investigating their local rivers. On the last weekend of February, when it snowed heavily in Beijing, almost 30 of us paid a visit to the Wanquan river, which runs past Peking University and Tsinghua University. Nowadays, this river has run dry.”
That weekend, after visiting the Wanquan river, Wang Yongchen put the issue to a group of volunteers participating in eco river tour. She explains that she wanted to raise awareness of the river problem and get people thinking about it. She also hoped that when the visitors returned home and saw the rivers that had changed since their childhood, they would wonder what they could do about it. “I think everyone should look after the rivers in their hometown, and do whatever they can to change the way they have become.” As for the relationship between mankind and Mother Nature, and the question of improving our happiness, Wang sees public involvement as the key to environmental protection – that is, everyone in society pulling together and taking part in conservation activities. “I think this is happiness on a higher level,” she explains.

Wang Yongchen believes that going into the great outdoors, learning about unspoilt nature sincerely and not just for show, and discussing the unspoilt great outdoors are all necessarily involved in being a good human being. She illustrates this point with an anecdote drawn from her personal experience: “Once, in Angkor Wat in Cambodia, we arranged with the driver of a motor trike to go and photograph the sunset. We arranged to return at eight o’clock, but we got carried away taking pictures, and left an hour late. On the way back, we worried that the driver might have already left, but when we met him he beaming. Not once did he mention extra money or anything like that; instead he told us, ‘I realised you might come back late: it’s so beautiful, of course you wanted to take a lot of photos.’ The mutual trust you see in poor countries like this has almost become too much to ask in our all too competitive, greedy society.”

Wang Yongchen envisages a world where each of us still lives in an unspoilt natural environment, where looking after such an environment is second nature to us all, where people get along sincerely and not just for show – so in the same way that they care for the environment – and where people are honest and trusted by others. This, she believes, would lead to another level of happiness.
Despite her having spent over 20 years doing field research, there is one thing that is increasingly mystifying to Wang Yongchen: “I visited the source of the Yellow River, and although it is a poor area, it has beautiful sunsets, riverbanks and wetlands, as well as infinite species of wildlife. And the people are so sincere – the locals always try to pull you into their homes to drink tea and eat zamba (Tibetan barley bread). I often wonder why, in today’s society, so many poor areas are so beautiful while many rich parts are so ugly; why, the further downstream the Yellow River you go, people live increasingly prosperous lives, whereas the environment gets worse and worse and the people’s hearts increasingly changed.

“So I constantly wonder whether, while conserving nature’s beauty, we can’t also conserve a little of the sincerity of the people who live there, as well as their mutual dependency and trust.” To Wang Yongchen, this is the highest degree of happiness imaginable: each one of us learning from nature, and people treating each other with complete sincerity.

Of course, Wang believes that government also bears an important responsibility in the quest for a happy society. “Government’s role is to publicise news and let the public take action. Take the issue of compensating migrants from river areas: if an area gets developed, and everyone’s assets are in this area, these people should all be consulted – all groups with links to these assets have the right of free speech. This is a fundamental task of a government aiming to improve people’s happiness and all-round quality of life,” she explains.

Yet the crux of all of this is whether the government is truly able to realise its efforts to improve people’s lives and create a happy society. Wang says, “If the government merely emphasises happiness as a public relations exercise, rather than target it directly, I think it’s really a tragedy.”

Translator: Andrew Christie
Proofreader: Angela Merriam

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