A Chinese poet’s encounter with environmental protection.

Augus He in Chiang Mai
FOTO: Augus He
Poet Augus He. Founder of the People Tree Charity Environmental Protection Foundation. Born in rural Guizhou, China in 1964. A judge of the Chinese Writer Power List, a judge of Cui Yongyuan's "New Director Program", a judge of "Literary Heroes", and a judge of the Mozi Green Peace Award. He is the author of the collections of poetry "Grey Magpie" and "Grass in Vain", and the recording of conversations "Salute to the Beautiful Chinese". He has directed films such as "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Lonly as fog". His collection of poems won the Ding Ling Literature Award, the Toyota Environmental Protection Award, and the Xu Zhimo Poetry Award.

Twenty years ago, I lived in one of the Yanshan mountains north of Changping, Beijing. Like Tao Yuanming, a poet of the Jin Dynasty, I have always loved the countryside and nature, and longed to live in the forest, and in 2006, I used all the money I had earned through decades of work to buy a house there and decided to live there for the rest of my life because of the thousands of century-old trees that grow here.

Especially on the Taoyu Road at the foot of Yanshan Mountain, there are two rows of tall and dense aspens, whose beauty brings surprise to everyone who has seen them and comfort to everyone who loves the countryside. I like to walk among them, and I also like to ride my bike through the aspens. My neighbors say there is a sense of happiness every time they drive through the shade of the trees. We have a deep affection for these trees. I have even written a few poems about the birds in the big trees. Unfortunately, such a beautiful view lasted only 3 short years.

It was the first day of December 2009 when I went out for a walk and found that the aspen trees at the bottom of the hill were being cut down. A large group of people were watching them fall, one by one, cut in sections and hauled away by the trucks. I counted the stumps and knew that 314 trees had disappeared into thin air! I felt as if a knife was piercing my heart.

I went up to inquire what exactly had happened. The loggers said they are the staff of the Forestry Department of the town government, they are only responsible for cutting trees, only the Changping District Bureau of Landscaping can answer my questions. I then called the Changping District Bureau of Landscaping and was told that they had received approval from the Beijing Bureau of Landscaping. I then called the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Landscaping and was told that the Beijing Changping Xingshou government had decided to widen the road for economic development, and that the government’s planning plan had been determined and approved by the Development and Reform Commission and the Highway Bureau, so no changes were allowed.

I was very confused and asked them, “As an environmental protection unit, what are you doing? The other side argued that they had also had made a lot of efforts to protect the trees. However, it was difficult to keep a balance between economic development and environmental protection, and they were only the implementation unit, so they could not do anything about it.

I was in deep doubt when I heard this, all of them are executors, and the real decision makers you can never meet and get sincere answers. As if Franz Kafka’s K met in “The Castle” – exactly the same scenario.
Finally, I was told that the 314 aspens were just the beginning, and that 20,000 more trees would be cut down along the way in the next few days! It was a savage massacre! A crazy massacre! I was completely stunned!

That evening, I was in a terrible mood and published the following words on my blog. 314 sturdy poplar trees, which lived quietly on Taoyu Road for at least 35 years, have completely disappeared today under the conspiracy of the Development and Reform Commission of Changping District of Beijing, the Highway Bureau, and the Bureau of Landscaping of Changping District; they killed them, and I want to hire a lawyer with a love for nature and these dead poplar trees and sue them for their barbaric acts!!!!

And according to people from the Greening Bureau, the cutting has just begun. The number of trees listed for felling in Yanshan was more than 20,000. This number makes my jaw drop. That means the government is willing to destroy a forest in order to widen a road! Is this the low carbon living that our government promised in Copenhagen?!

I want to tell the people of the Bureau of Landscaping that because of your inaction, nature is not protected; because of your weakness, city builders have become crazy; because of your perfunctory, beauty has been destroyed! I will sue you on behalf of each and every tree!

For the survival of 20,000 trees, for the sake of a beautiful nature, and for the sake of our worsening habitat, I will appeal together with some poets in Beijing, artists in Shang Yuan, and residents in the neighborhood of Taoyukou, to try to stop this crazy and stupid felling with our modest efforts!!! The day after the blog was published, the sensitive Beijing media “Xinjing News” did a full report.

That afternoon, I went into town to hire a lawyer, and I was very pleased that Liang Feng, the legal advisor of Friends of Nature Foundation, promised to work for me, for free. But what I didn’t expect was that the mayor of the town visited my house with a group of police officers, threatened my family and told me to go to the town hall to talk to them, immediately, that day. I was asked to explain my actions.

When Liang Feng learned this news, he volunteered to go with me to Changping Town Hall to meet with the mayor. He also asked me to invite a reporter from “Xinjing News” to go with him. According to him, it would be much safer to have journalists present. According to his experience, the Chinese government is generally very hostile to environmentalists, and you should not argue with them when talking, otherwise they may imprison you or beat you up.

We drove to the entrance of the town hall, got out of the car, and found that the town hall building was taller and more imposing than the U.S. Presidential Building. All three of us realized at this moment that we were tiny and humble. Then, we were taken by a security guard to the spacious office of the mayor. The mayor was tall. Sitting in the office of the boss chair. He was smoking. I could tell he had an angry look on his face.

After I politely introduced myself, I introduced the lawyer and the reporter to him, and he was slightly surprised. After exhaling a puff of thick smoke, he said, “We understand that you are a poet and a writer, and it is not easy for the state to raise a poet. You should know how to be grateful. If your life is difficult, you can consider starting a company with our government to promote government work and also get benefits. Do your best and contribute to the country together. Isn’t that right?!”
He leaned forward and his eyes forced me to look at him.
I shook my head helplessly.

He put out the cigarette he had in his hand in the ashtray, then said, “You may want to do your best for the country, but I hope you will not confront the government, and I can tell you that it is not only useless to confront the government, but also self-destructive.” I corrected him by saying, “A poet is not trained by the state, and it is a citizen’s due right to give advice to the government.”

Apparently, my reply made him very unhappy, and he suddenly waved his hand and slapped the table. He rebuked me loudly and said, “Writers are nothing? Can writers interfere with the work of the government? You are in rebellion! I can detain you! Understand? I was about to reply when the lawyer, Liang Feng, gestured for me not to speak.

Lawyer Liang Feng told the mayor that any citizen has the right to question the government’s decisions. Especially a decision that involves harming the environment. According to the law, is it necessary to cut down trees on such a large scale? As a first-level government department, if a decision is made about the environment and public interest, has the public’s opinion been heard? And before making this plan, was an environmental impact assessment conducted? Was there a hearing? Was there a public announcement to the community?

The mayor’s answer was that the decision to cut down the trees was approved by all higher authorities, and it was a legal act. This is China, not the West. China has Chinese rules, and we must not listen to Western rules. Environmental protection is a Western invention. If we do everything according to the West, we will fall into the trap of foreign hostile forces, and many Western countries have trained a large number of people or groups in China to engage in extreme environmental activities in order to influence government decisions and interfere with China’s economic development!

This is like a dialogue between a deaf man and a mute man, but we all know that he is not against Western buildings, limousines and electrical products, but only against Western democracy, freedom and civil rights. The conversation was clearly not going anywhere. I gestured for the lawyer and the reporter to leave. The mayor stood up and warned me that he hoped that from now I would not interfere with the work of the government. Don’t do anything illegal. We are very close and will find you at any time.

His eyes were full of hatred, as if an angry bull, ready to rush over and fight to the death. His eyes were full of hatred, as if he was ready to rush over and punch and kick. I realized that if it wasn’t for lawyer Liang Feng and a media reporter, I probably would not have walked out of the town hall building. The three of us departed to the government courtyard in fear and got into the car with frustrated expressions.

The reporter who was with us exclaimed: China is full of such extreme developmentalists and extreme GDPists, everywhere. Not long ago she was restricted by the government for covering industrial pollution in the suburbs of Beijing.

The lawyer told me with a serious face that if I insisted on pressing charges, he would immediately draft a complaint. However, he also said frankly that suing would not stop 20,000 trees from being cut down. Moreover, in the end, the government’s court would inevitably side with the government, and we did not have the slightest chance of winning the case.

That night, I came home. I sat alone at my desk and cried for the 20,000 trees I was unable to protect, one of the saddest days in my life. I was so sad that I couldn’t sleep for the whole night. I wondered what I could do if I could not save those 20,000 trees.

As the day dawned, I thought of a way and see if I could use my limited influence to gather a hundred poets, writers and artists to plant trees on Yanshan Mountain; to replant the 20,000 trees that had been cut down by the government. With the idea set, I posted an article on my blog. A social group called Yanshan Squirrel Society was established. Called for people to sign up to plant trees with me. One week later, 168 people had signed up to participate.

Next, I set the planting date, bought the seeds, contacted the water truck, prepared the planting tools, and led the group of poets, writers and artists to start planting trees. It lasted for five years. More than 20,000 pine trees were planted in Yanshan Mountain.

Artists and Poets Planting Trees in Yanshan.

Unexpectedly, we received the attention of the Toyota Group of companies in Japan and were awarded the Toyota Environmental Protection Award in 2004. I was invited by the Japanese Embassy to Japan for a two-week all-paid study tour. Before that, I only knew that Japan has the highest forest cover in the world, at about 67%, and they do not allow deforestation to make wooden chopsticks and paper.

And the Toyota Environmental Awards made me realize that Japan is a country that has a sincere responsibility for the human environment. During our two-week visit, Toyota arranged for us to visit the environmental protection facilities and work procedures in many cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, Toyota, Kyoto and Nagoya, and I was deeply impressed by their advanced environmental protection concepts and technologies. Especially, their waste separation and waste treatment, automobile exhaust treatment, and factory wastewater treatment are all world leading.

What impressed me most was that in Nagoya it was arranged to visit a city waste treatment station, where a garbage truck drove into the refuse station and the garbage was rapidly decomposed, burned and turned into electricity to be delivered to thousands of households. The residue from the incineration of the garbage was turned into an environmentally friendly brick, which was then used in the construction of houses. I was amazed at this great invention. Turning to our head of delegation, I asked why China did not import such equipment since there was no shortage of money.

The leader of the group, who is the editor-in-chief of a mainstream Chinese government media, whispered to me that China had already bought the equipment from Germany a few years ago, spending more than one billion RMB. However, because the family of a government leader was in control of China’s electricity industry, they were worried about the impact on their family’s electricity business. Hence, it was banned and scrapped. My jaw dropped.

This is a Chinese characteristic. It is desperate to the point of suffocation. It is worlds away from democratic government and vastly different from modern society. As long as it is beneficial to their power and wealth, they are not afraid of endangering the human existence. They will never seem to understand the simple truth that the earth is the common home of all mankind.

I could not change the system, but I could protect the environment. Over the next eleven years, I participated in the selection of the eleven Mozi Peace and Environmental Protection Awards, doing my small part to help protect the environment in China, and seen the difficulties that there is for environmentalists. It was during this time that I decided to make a film about environmental protection, and so hoped to impact millions of Chinese people.

Time flies, things have changed, and now I have moved from Beijing, China, to Chiang Mai, Thailand. My love for the environment has never changed.

The earth is our beautiful home, and I refuse to let it be destroyed. I decided to start a charity environmental foundation and continuing the environmental cause, a cause that is destined to be a road paved with thorns. I am willing to keep going, giving it my dedication all the time, for the rest of my life. As I wrote in a poem: The only thing I can do is to write a long letter – to the tree with a leaf.

Changemaker views are not necessarily the views of Miljønyheter.no.

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