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The Warriors of Qiugang – A New Documentary on the Struggle to Save China’s Environment

A great deal has been written about the struggles to resolve China’s overwhelming environmental problems, but I have seen no better or more visceral portrayal of these issues than The Warriors of Qiugang, a short documentary film by Academy Award-winners Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon that is being broadcast in full at the Yale e360 website beginning today.  The film, shot over four years mostly in a village near the Huai River in eastern Anhui Province, captures a series of indelible scenes of the efforts of one village to stop pollution from local chemical factories that blackened rivers, killed fish, and sickened the local populace.  The film portrays the deep complexities and challenges of obtaining justice and halting environmental degradation in rural China, but ultimately ends on a note of hope when the villagers succeed in having the main local polluter moved away to a nearby industrial park.  The victory does not make up for the polluted farmland and illness caused, but it is a victory nonetheless.  Moreover, it provides a glimpse at one of the paths that China has begun to take to turn its environmental crisis around:  with local villagers willing to stand forward, the collaboration of local and Beijing-based environmental activists, journalists shining a light on local malfeasance, and a central Ministry of Environmental Protection beginning to utilize a range of new enforcement tools to put pressure on local polluters.

Over the last six years, we have worked with environmental lawyers, environmental groups, journalists, and government officials in China on ways to strengthen enforcement of environmental law, and the elements of the Qiugang story are familiar ones.  A few observations:

  • The law both failed and saved Qiugang Village. Chinese environmental laws and regulations have proliferated over the past three decades, but have been criticized as ineffective.  The film reinforces this view by portraying a legal system that fails local residents repeatedly over the course of years.  Zhang Gongli – the leader of the villagers and a farmer with only a middle school education – brings several unsuccessful lawsuits despite seemingly clear violations of the law.  Early lawsuits by others were met with retaliation and beatings from company thugs.  Petitions sent to the local government are lost and met with no response.  The failure of official channels to respond to the villagers’ complaints drives the villagers to take to the streets in protest and forces them to elevate their grievances to Beijing.  Yet, despite these failures in the legal system, the ability of the villagers to ground their grievances in the law proved to be a powerful weapon.  There is a memorable scene in the film in which a villager holding a tattered official copy of a 2004 speech on the environment by China’s President Hu Jintao points to a passage from the speech about the legal liability of officials who “connive to ruin and pollute the environment,” and says “President Hu Jintao’s own words!  We’ve got Hu Jintao on our side.  What are we afraid of?”[1] The villagers repeatedly cite to specific legal violations by the local factories.  The law bolsters the legitimacy of the villagers’ grievances, even as they are forced to take extra-legal measures to have their grievances heard.  The ability of the villagers to gain leverage by negotiating their grievances in the “shadow of the law” is an important development, and hopefully marks one positive step among many in the effort to create a stronger rule of law in China.
  • China’s fledgling green movement made a difference. China’s non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are sometimes thought of as weak and ineffectual.  But, among the heroes of the film are the members of the local Anhui environmental group Green Anhui.  Their work to investigate the pollution from local factories, educate villagers, and connect them with networks of environmental groups and media was a crucial catalyst to resolution of the problems in Qiugang.  When 40 local elementary school students wrote essays to the local environmental protection bureau asking for help to stop the pollution from the local chemical plants, Green Anhui brought the essays to local newspapers.  The news of these essays spread through the Internet, creating enough pressure that the local government ordered the polluting plants idled for a time.  This is a good example of how even a small local grassroots environmental group can play a constructive role in solving environmental problems in China.

There is a great deal more in this film to appreciate and learn from.  In a mere 39 minutes, the film presents the many layers of the current battle for the future of China’s environment and the health of its people.  In the end, it is an optimistic story about how courage and sheer will can win out against overwhelming odds.  However, imagine a thousand more Qiugang Villages around China and note the environmental problems – like the legacy of accumulated soil pollution – still unresolved, and you get a picture of how much work remains to be done before China can truly fix its environmental problems.

The Warriors of Qiugang is on the shortlist to receive a nomination for an Academy Award in the field of Documentary Short Subject.

The full video of film can be found here.

[1] A speech is, of course, not technically “law,” but remarks from China’s most senior leaders can have an important impact on the understanding of the law.

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