The uncompleted dam has been largely removed, allowing the river to continue flowing freely through the valley.

The uncompleted dam has been largely removed, allowing the river to continue flowing freely through the valley.

Foto: Gilles Sabrie / DER SPIEGEL

A Biology Student Versus Beijing The Triumph of Environmental Activism in China

A planned dam in China's Red River Valley would have destroyed the habitat of an endangered bird. But a 31-year-old biology student stood up to the authorities and managed to block the project. How did he do it?
By Georg Fahrion in Yunnan

In the Yunnan Province valley he saved from destruction, Gu Bojian climbs out of the car. He gazes at the Red River flowing by and listens to the bells of the cattle trudging across the waterway downriver. Primary forest covers the mountainsides, and, like every year in the dry season, the trees have shed their leaves. A paradise of nature.

Aus: DER SPIEGEL 36/2021

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 36/2021 (September 4th, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.

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The remains of the dam’s foundation beneath the bubbling stream are only visible on second glance. The same goes for the concrete entrance to an abandoned tunnel gaping in the valley wall. Grass and bushes have grown over the area that once held a container village for construction workers. "Nature is returning,” says Gu. "If we hadn’t done what we did, everything would now be different.”

Indeed, if Gu and his fellow campaigners hadn’t prevented the dam from being built, the valley in southwestern China would now be at the bottom of a reservoir. He dedicated seven years of his life to this fight, but he believes it was worth it. After all, this isn’t just another river landscape, but likely the last refuge in China for a special bird, the green peafowl.

Gu was born in 1990 in the poor, inland region of Ningxia, whose inhabitants have a reputation for being tenacious. He has an easy laugh and often has a surprised look on his face. He has a degree in biology and is currently completing his doctorate at the elite Fudan University in Shanghai. This past spring, he agreed to revisit the stations of his battle.

Gu’s success is even more notable because he waged it against the Chinese state. The government had already approved the dam, with the electricity from its hydroelectric plant set to boost Yunnan’s economic development. The dam was to be built by a state-owned company, financed with 3.7 billion yuan of public funds, almost a half-billion euros. One third of this money had already been spent. But in January 2021, a court suspended the project, likely for good.

The Chinese state isn’t known for quickly caving to activists. Nevertheless, Gu Bojian managed to accomplish something remarkable: The system gave in. How is it possible for a person to do such a thing in an authoritarian state that increasingly restricts civil society? Is it possible that the Communist Party’s priorities, which have traditionally prioritized growth and prosperity above all else, including the environment, have changed?

Dressed in outdoor fleece, Gu slumps into the backseat of the minibus that will take us to the Red River valley. He recites the Latin names of the trees on the side of the road as we pass by. He says things like: "I love the sound of the gibbons.” He does not, though, like Shanghai, where he lives: "Too loud, too many people, too many high buildings.”

Where It All Started

The road winds through the river valley in the gathering dusk when Gu suddenly yells excitedly: "Here, here!” The driver stops in front of a two-story building. A simple inn. This is where it all started.

His professor sent him to the valley in 2013. For his master’s thesis, Gu was to catalog the vegetation in one hectare (2.5 acres) of the virgin forest and he arranged to stay in the inn for three weeks. His time there also gave him the opportunity to pursue his hobby on the side: birdwatching. He had developed a habit of asking locals whether they had seen unusual specimens, and on a day in November of 2013, Mr. Su, the innkeeper, handed him a long green feather he had picked up nearby.

"I was so excited,” says Gu, who quickly recognized what was in his hand. "We had assumed that the green peafowl was practically extinct in China. Nobody had seen one in the wild for years.”

This photo of a green peafowl was taken by wildlife filmmaker Xi Zhinong.

This photo of a green peafowl was taken by wildlife filmmaker Xi Zhinong.

Foto: Xi Zhinong

For the Chinese, the green peafowl is an auspicious animal, the embodiment of the mythical phoenix. Its tail feathers were used to fan the emperor in the Forbidden City and only the highest-ranking imperial officials were allowed to wear a peafowl feather in their headgear. Students today still learn the at least 1,800-year-old poem, "The Peacock Flies Southeast” – a kind of Chinese "Romeo and Juliet” – by heart. The green peafowl was so ubiquitous in classical Chinese culture that it was referred to by the simplest of names: kong que, big bird.

This myth, however, could not protect the green peafowl from the dark sides of the economic upswing, from urban sprawl, deforestation, pesticides, poaching. Unlike its Indian relative with a blue neck, which can also be found in German zoos, the peacock with the iridescent green neck feathers is on the endangered species Red List. BirdLife International, the British animal-protection organization, estimates that fewer than 20,000 wild specimens of the green peafowl still live in Southeast Asia, including about 500 in China. This makes the bird rarer there than the giant panda.

A Looming Dam

And so now, in late 2013, a student had discovered its possibly last intact habitat in China by coincidence: sparse tropical dry forest and embankments where the bird can scratch and sunbathe. Moreover, the upper reaches of the Red River flow through a valley through which there is no road or even a path.

But Gu’s euphoria about his discovery came to a sudden end. Only days after he received the feather, he heard locals talking about having to give up their homes and fields and move from the valley to the hilltops. They said that a 175-meter (600-foot) dam was being planned only a few kilometers downriver. Thirty-two square kilometers (12 square miles) of land were to be flooded.

Biologist Gu Bojian on the Red River, with the remains of the planned dam behind him.

Biologist Gu Bojian on the Red River, with the remains of the planned dam behind him.


Gilles Sabrie / DER SPIEGEL

Gu was horrified – and decided to do what he could to block the construction of the dam. But how? He wouldn’t be able to get the planning authority, the state-owned company and the government to change course through confrontation. A different strategy seemed more promising: Instead of rebelling, he would try to convince the authorities that the protection of the green peafowl was in the common interest. It is a very Chinese approach, one that rests more on cooperation than conflict. It avoids circumventing the hierarchy, which carries the danger of everyone involved ultimately losing face. China’s powerful want to be wooed, not attacked.

In the following years, Gu repeatedly traveled to the Red River on his own to interview locals, collect feathers, follow tracks and study the habitat. He spoke with anyone who wanted to listen about the green peafowl and created a network among researchers and conservationists. Soon Yunnan’s environmentalist scene knew his name, and even the authorities sought his advice. But they didn’t make any move to stop the construction of the dam. The project continued as planned.

Media Attention

"My thesis supervisor, a very famous botanist, figured it was hopeless,” Gu says. "When it comes to species conservation in China, we’ve seen so much sadness.” But he says he never considered giving up. "We have a saying: You know a tiger lives on the mountain, but you climb it nevertheless.” Nevertheless, his desperation grew. And so, in March of 2017, Gu wrote a long text on WeChat about his frustrations – publicly.

One of his readers was Xi Zhinong, one of the country’s most famous wildlife filmmakers, a kind of Chinese David Attenborough. In 2001, the BBC chose him as Wildlife Photographer of the Year, and his documentary about a rare species of monkey was nominated for an Emmy. Xi has repeatedly fought with the authorities on species conservation.

Xi shared Gu’s post and ensured that an interview with Gu appeared on the Weibo account of his production company, Wild China Film. Two million users read it. Suddenly, people from around the country grew interested in the green peafowl and numerous media outlets published reports, including the state news agency, Xinhua.

State security learned about our planned interview with Xi in advance and warned him not to speak too openly with a foreign reporter. But Xi isn’t terribly intimidated by such warnings. He welcomed us to his company’s space, located in a cultural center housed in a repurposed factory in his hometown of Dali. The small city is a refuge for people fleeing the big cities, hippies and dropouts seeking proximity to the nature in Yunnan.

Xi first observed the green peafowl in the wild in 2000. "I saw an adult animal glide from a hill into the valley,” he recalls. "The camera that I had back then wasn’t good enough, so I just watched. It was graceful.” When Xi returned to the same location years later, he found that the habitat had been destroyed. There are no peafowls living there anymore.

Wildlife filmmaker Xi Zhinong in his studio in Dali, with some of his photos on the wall behind him.

Wildlife filmmaker Xi Zhinong in his studio in Dali, with some of his photos on the wall behind him.

Foto: Gilles Sabrie / DER SPIEGEL

Several civil society groups also got involved in the issue, including Friends of Nature (FON) in Beijing, the oldest and most experienced environmental organization in the country. The group sometimes adopts a strategy that is also used in the West: When it seems worthwhile, they take their opponents to court.

Ever since 2015, China’s reformed environmental protection law has allowed groups like FON to file an "environmental public interest litigation” against those who pose a threat to nature. The Chinese government hopes it will lead to more effective environmental protections and a greater acceptance for measures among the public, says Lei Xie, who researches the subject at Shandong University in Jinan. On July 12, 2017, the organization filed a lawsuit against the company building the dam in Yunnan.

A Novel Legal Strategy

"It was about prevention,” says Liu Jinmei, a lawyer with Friends of Nature. She is sitting in a windowless meeting room in Beijing, dressed completely in black, with a serious, concentrated look on her face. It seems likely that she isn’t always a pleasant opponent in the courtroom. She says that for her organization, it wasn’t about forcing the payment of compensation after the construction of the dam, but about stopping the destruction of the peacock habitat in the first place. "In China’s legal system, it is brand new,” she says. "Nobody has ever used a legal strategy like this.”

The law stipulates that Xinping Development, as the main construction company, had to commission an expert survey about possible environmental damage before the start of construction. To prepare the report, though, they hired a company to which they had close business ties. Unsurprisingly, the company gave them a green light for the project.

The focus of FON’s legal strategy was to attack this report. Even before it went to trial, the organization turned to the Chinese Ministry of the Environment. The ministry then demanded that the companies involved amend their environmental impact report. Until that data was provided, construction was suspended – a first victory.

The hearings then began in 2018 in a court in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. Before the proceedings, activists had documented the unique nature of the habitat on the Red River. Xi Zhinong, the wildlife filmmaker, was able to photograph the green peafowl there – providing photo documentation for the first time.

In March 2020, the court upheld the halt to construction. A higher court affirmed the ruling in early 2021. Although the judges left a loophole that gives the government the option of approving the dam under stricter conditions, the fact that construction has been frozen for several years makes it unlikely. "It’s not perfect,” Liu says, "but it’s still absolutely a success.”

The victory of the environmentalists working with Gu shows that environmental and species protections are also becoming more important in China. In early 2021, the government expanded its list of specially protected animals for the first time since it was published in 1989. Approximately 1,000 species are now included on the list, more than twice as many as on the previous catalog.

Early one morning, Gu Bojian (l.) and an acquaintance went birdwatching in the hills above the Red River.

Early one morning, Gu Bojian (l.) and an acquaintance went birdwatching in the hills above the Red River.

Foto: Gilles Sabrie / DER SPIEGEL

Next spring, China will also host an important UN summit dedicated to the preservation of biodiversity. "It is a golden opportunity for China to show the world our rich diversity of species,” says Xi, the documentarian. The planned location for the summit is Kunming, near the home of the green peafowl.

It is a distinct possibility that China’s leadership was worried about the potential embarrassment of destroying the habitat of an endangered species in the same province as a UN summit. Beijing, it seems, was certainly aware of the situation: Among the journalists covering the story, a reporter from the Xinhua news agency had been following the green peafowl issue from 2017. The journalist reported extensively in the area and wrote a report for "internal reference,” according to several sources in Yunnan.

Chinese state media like Xinhua don’t just report news to the public, they also serve as the eyes and ears of the political leadership, like a kind of domestic intelligence service. Beijing then makes decisions based on such internal reports. It’s not out of the question that the Xinhua report about the green peafowl made its way to the highest circles of power in Beijing.

Was it the intervention of a powerful person that saved the peafowl? Or was it the development of the Chinese rule of law? Whatever it might have been, the future of the green peafowl in China will ultimately be decided not in Beijing, but in the Red River region itself.

Local Dangers

In Yunnan this spring, Gu spends the night in the same inn he did years earlier. The next morning at 6, the innkeeper drives him into the hills. He stops at a curve in the road high above the valley where they hope to hear the mating calls of a peafowl. All kinds of birds chirp and coo, but by the time the sun rises over the hills one hour later, no peafowl has made itself heard.

Down in the village, the bird barely makes an appearance. "I’m 21 and I’ve lived here my whole life and I have never seen or heard a peafowl,” says Luo Cheng, a truck driver whose family farms land on the banks of the river. They would have lost this land if the dam had been built. Nevertheless, Luo doesn’t seem to be happy about how things have gone.

"We were ready to move,” he says. "We have never heard of anyone growing poorer after being resettled.” Luo says the construction company had promised compensation, new land and new homes. "The dam would have been good. We would have simply moved up the slope. And the peafowl? They wouldn’t have drowned!”

Given such attitudes, Gu Bojian believes his opponents aren’t necessarily to be found in Beijing. The leadership has passed stricter environmental protection rules in recent years and established ambitious climate goals. According to Xi Jinping, the head of the government and of the Communist Party, "clear water and green mountains are as valuable as mountains of silver and gold.” In the best case, the leadership sees conservationists as a useful corrective, as detectives sniffing out undesirable developments. For this reason, they enjoy greater leeway than civil rights activists, for example.

Things get more difficult where tangible business interests are concerned. "I am hated in many places in Yunnan,” says Gu. He says that village committee members and local governments "think I’ve disrupted their development.” Even for the farmers, he says after his encounter with Luo Cheng, "money is always the determining factor as to whether they say yes or no.”

Once it became clear that the dam would not be built, farmers began investing in there tomato farm in the Red River valley.

Once it became clear that the dam would not be built, farmers began investing in there tomato farm in the Red River valley.

Foto: Gilles Sabrie / DER SPIEGEL

Nevertheless, economic development on the Red River has progressed without the dam. For a decade, progress was essentially frozen: Anyone who made investments after an appointed date would no longer have received compensation once the area was flooded. As a result, nobody built anything for a long time. Now that it’s clear the dam isn’t coming, people in the valley are taking on new debts and catching up.

Luo Cheng’s family has built a new annex to their home, which now also has a carport with a security camera. They also rented out part of their land on the riverside, where tomatoes are now being grown under plastic tarps. There are also several banana and citrus plantations in the area. Even without the dam, the habitat of the green peafowl is far from secure. On the other side of the river, the slope looks red – the naked soil of a freshly cleared mountainside.

With reporting by: Wu Dandan
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