Qingdao’s new heroine

An entertainment reporter in the Chinese coastal city has leapt to national fame after probing officials over a murky tree-planting programme. Chen Qian’er met her.

Chinese civil society has a new golden girl. Pan Qi, 27, has made a name for herself in her home city of Qingdao – and beyond – by raising questions about a government tree-planting exercise.

Pan wasn’t the first resident of Qingdao, eastern China, to speak out about the scheme. On March 1, the city government launched a multibillion yuan “greening action” to turn this seaside city into a forested one. It planted 1.8 million trees in the first month alone. The public moaned about this being a “face project” and a waste of money, and some bloggers accused the mayor of being a “tree-planting maniac”.

“Rather than talking about the mayor, we should decide what to do next,” Pan responded online. “We shouldn’t just shout slogans and make personal attacks.” Her calm and rational tone led people to believe she was an “earnest young woman in her thirties”. In fact, Pan is still in her twenties and not all that solemn: she works as an entertainment reporter and sometimes attends eight film premieres in a week.

Pan first became upset about the trees after seeing a photo of Qingdao’s Huiquan Square online: the grass had been dug up, leaving just bare earth behind. The big lawn had been there “as far back as I can remember” she said. Pan used to fly kites in the square with her grandfather, and her brother’s wedding photos were taken here. This Qingdao native was so upset she stayed up until 2am fuming on her microblog. Then she decided to stop talking and start doing.

Pan had never taken much interest in social or political affairs, except for the biggest national events. After the devastating Wenchuan earthquake of 2008, for example, she encouraged friends to donate to disaster-relief charity the One Foundation. And after last year’s high-speed rail crash near Wenzhou, she engaged in the discussion about the rescue effort on her microblog. “At the most I was just saying what I thought – I couldn’t do anything more,” she said.

But after the shock of seeing Huiquan Square stripped bare, she decided to get involved. Pan and two friends drove around to see what was happening. Her companions were even angrier than she was: one, living in a seaside villa, had found his ocean view blocked by a row of trees. The other was fuming that the sea views of her favourite square had been ruined by a new forest.

“You’d be angry, wouldn’t you, if they just changed your home without telling you?” said Pan. The more she saw, the angrier she became. She confronted workers planting the trees, but they ignored her.

Pan changed tack, realising that “if you talk calmly and as equals, you are more likely to get answers.” She tried chatting naturally with the workers. One told her he was “happy to be earning 120 yuan a day”. None of them knew how much the trees themselves had cost, just that “the big trees are expensive and we’ve got to plant them carefully.” As to the wisdom of the plan, the workers said: “We don’t know how long they’ll survive. We’re just doing what the landscaping bureau told us to do.”

After a while, Pan’s anger eased and she started to think about what she might be able to do. “I’m not against planting trees, but how did they decide how to plant them? Does it make sense to plant them by the sea? Will they survive? How about replanting the grass they dug up?” She counted off the questions on her fingers. “I only came up with these questions once I had gone out to see what was happening – I wouldn’t have thought of them sitting at home.”

But before making her voice heard, Pan thought she should first “make sure that I’ve got the right to do anything about it”. She went online and read the constitution and Shandong’s rules on administrative policymaking. She found that citizens have the right to “criticise and make suggestions” to any state body or employee.

“We can do it, the law says so!” she concluded.

She got together with friends and family to ask what questions they had about the programme, and then called the mayor’s hotline. This was the only way she could think of to get her opinions across. The phone was answered – and the buck-passing began.

“I don’t really know anything about the city’s greening project,” said the woman on the other end of the phone. But she was friendly and suggested that Pan phone the city’s construction committee, giving her another number. Pan tried that number but couldn’t get through. She phoned the mayor’s hotline again and was given the same number. When she pointed out that it didn’t work, she was passed on to the landscaping bureau, which is subordinate to the construction committee.

The landscaping bureau also passed her back and forth. The first person to answer the phone referred her to the “construction department”. The “construction department” passed her to the “main office”. Pan wrote down all the numbers she was given, with arrows to show how she had been bounced around. 

Eventually, Pan stopped noting the numbers – she was back where she had started, at the “construction department”. But she didn’t get angry, and every time she was asked who she was she calmly explained she was “an ordinary citizen”.

“It was like talking to the workers planting trees again,” she said. “If you’re confrontational, you only get arguments, not answers.”

But the people she spoke to weren’t ready to give up any answers. “What are you up to?” she was asked, or “Why do you want to know?” The staff were wary, she said, but Pan simply explained herself over and over again: “I would like to know when you decided to plant the trees, how you decided what to do and how the public can find out what’s going on.”

The main office said it was the construction department’s job. The construction department said she would have to ask the central office first. And no matter how she put her questions, answers were not forthcoming. “I can’t tell you, I don’t know about it,” went one response. “We can’t just tell the public these things, it’s not convenient to answer certain questions,” went another. But Pan made a point of saying “OK, thank you” before hanging up.

“I don’t care if the government respects me or not – I’ve already decided to treat them as equals,” she said, laughing. Pan admits she was disappointed by the official response, but believes that what she did is important nonetheless. “This is the first time I’ve really acted as a citizen – the first time I’ve been clear about my rights and exercised them,” she said.

Pan faithfully recorded her experiences and wrote about them online, prompting a wave of supportive comments. Almost everyone praised her down-to-earth citizen’s spirit and said China needed more people like her.

And it’s getting them. On April 13, Wang He, an even younger citizen than Pan, took over the telephoning, starting at the city’s forestry bureau and ending up, nine phone numbers later, trying the mobile phone of the engineering department’s manager. He also travelled around the city, taking photos and observing the tree-planting in action. “If you want a certain type of world, you’ve got to be that type of person…let’s make our city even more beautiful,” Wang wrote on his microblog.

Pan has no intention of becoming a full-time campaigner. She just looks forward to the day when anyone can take a bit of time to “make their opinions heard rationally, over the phone or through some other regular channel.”

Editor’s update:
Since this article was first published, Qingdao media have reported another development. On April 19, the city’s deputy mayor, Wang Jianxiang, discussed the city greening project with citizens online. He rejected claims the project was costing 4 billion yuan, saying that the city itself had budgeted 500 million yuan for the project and the seven city districts another 1.1 billion yuan. The cost of every tree could be checked by the public, he said. Wang added that, in future, public opinions on major projects like this would be sought and the programmes better publicised, so that they would be more in line with public wishes.

Chen Qian’er is a reporter at
China Youth Daily, where this article was originally published.

Photo By Chen Qian’er