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China's green leap forward?

Activists must tread softly to avoid antagonizing Beijing, butthere’s much at stake in this rapidly developing country.

Yu Xiaogang was instrumental in suspending dam building along the Nu River in 2004. He stands by the Yangtze here.

Courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

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Every environmental movement has its ideas people, and Yu Xiaogang is among the emerging John Muirs of China.In a modest office, with the lights and heat turned off to conserve electricity, Dr. Yu is warming his hands over a cup of tea.

“Please excuse the books,” he says, as he clears a wide-ranging selection of titles, including “China’s Natural History,” “An Ecological Economy,” “Demanding Accountability,” “Choices for the Poor,” and “Feminist Knowledge,” from his desk and his visitor’s chair.

Yu is a former government scientist and today is director of an environmental nonprofit called Green Watershed that he founded in southwestern Yunnan Province.

He is also the architect of what is widely considered the emerging Chinese environmental movement’s greatest victory to date: Five years ago, he led a campaign of coordinated green groups to successfully persuade the government to suspend a series of planned dams along China’s last wild river, the Nu.

Today he is pensive. With the rising demand for energy in China, a new hydropower boom is under way. In just one province, Gansu, the number of large dams has gone from three, 20 years ago, to almost 600 today.

Beijing’s current economic stimulus plan, announced in March, calls for $176 billion for infrastructure projects and $54 billion for rural public works, both of which include such projects as new dams, highways, and housing.


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