Isabel Hilton: You’re now a filmmaker, you live in China — tell me about your background.
John D. Liu: I went to China first in 1979. I was 27. I’m half Chinese and my father had been telling me since [then United States president Richard] Nixon’s visit in 1972 that I had to go to China to help China develop. I was born in Nashville, Tennessee, and was living in Bloomington, Indiana, in the US. I didn’t want to go to China. It was an interesting time: I was young and America was an interesting place.
I had been to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, but China didn’t seem very interesting. It had a communist government and when I looked across the border from Hong Kong when I was 13, I saw a man pointing a machine gun at me. China to me at that time meant [the philosopher] Lao Tzu and Taoism and Tang literature. Contemporary China didn’t resonate. Then, in the late 1970s, my father said, “You must go because your grandmother is going to die.” What could I say?
So I went to China and I realised he was right: it was much more interesting for me to film in China than in the US. So I did a semester of language training and I went to work for [the American television network] CBS as a producer-cameraman. I worked for them for 10 years.
IH: How did you get from there to the environment?
JL: I was so exhausted after the collapse of the Soviet Union that journalism had lost its appeal and I wanted to make films instead news reports, so I went to work for Italian state TV, where I made one-hour documentaries, then for German TV for three years. By then it was the mid-1990s and the environment had been deteriorating. China was changing from a fearful place, just out of the Cultural Revolution, to a market economy. There was a flowering of creativity and greater social freedom. Although 1989 punctuated it somewhat, even that was book-ended by decades of peace and prosperity.
During this amazing period of reform, opening and economic progress, there was so much pollution. Finally it struck me: I live in Beijing, my children were born here, and we were all suffering. It was clear to me that I had both the right and the responsibility to do something.
Most of the Chinese seemed detached, as though it wasn’t their responsibility. I think they thought the government was responsible and they had been conditioned to believe that they didn’t have either the right or the responsibility [to act]. Some people thought, “I’m just one person; there’s nothing I can do.” Others thought, “It’s nothing to do with me; it’s [the role of] somebody else.”
And in a way, that was my attitude. I used to think somebody ought to do something about the environment but what I meant was, “Somebody else ought to do something about the environment.” I was too important and busy. But after a while I realised that this was the same attitude that was part of the problem. So we began the Environmental Education Media Project, to take existing films on the environment to China and to translate them into Chinese.
We started working with the Television Trust for the Environment, and we brought over [Britain’s] Channel 4 and BBC’s excellent documentaries, on pest management and water wars. Finally we took hundreds of films. Then we wanted to make films and needed research, but there was no research facility.
So we said to SEPA [China’s State Environmental Protection Administration] that we wanted to build a reference and research facility. They have a huge US $70 million building built by Japanese foreign assistance, called the Japan-China Friendship Environmental Protection Centre, on the Fourth Ring Road in Beijing. They opened up the cupboard where cleaning ladies were storing their mops. We said this wouldn’t do. Finally they took us up to the seventh floor and opened a door marked “Library” – it turned out to be a huge room, 750 square meters — that had been empty for three years.
So we began to build a library. Now it’s the largest concentration of environmental information in China — the China Environment and Sustainable Development Reference and Research Centre. It’s on the web. [American environmentalist] Amory Lovins has spoken there – so many people have been through there now.
Then we started making films, researching water, wetlands, grasslands, migration and so on. Then we found HIV was a huge problem in China and there wasn’t much information about it. So we helped the Chinese Centre for Disease Control to create the China HIV/Aids Information Network (CHAIN).
IH: What’s the level of environmental understanding and awareness in China now, compared to when you began?
JL: It’s certainly a lot higher. When we started, people said in a poll that it was not their business. It was a very low level of awareness and understanding, a lack of engagement. If you do that poll [now], they will tell you that a clean environment is the most important thing in their lives.
IH: Do they do anything about it?
JL: I wouldn’t say everyone acts. There has been a lot of focus on economic development – as an individual as well as a societal goal. They are coming off a long period of deprivation – this is the first flush of consumption.
IH: If they are just getting used to the pleasures of consumption, they must think that you are spoiling the party, talking about the environment.
JL: There is a movement of aware people. This is the nature of consciousness – you can’t determine when people will understand things. They will understand things when they have to and hopefully they won’t just ignore it. There is a growing concern by those who can see and extrapolate from what’s taking place. If you listen to the Chinese government, they have excellent environmental policy statements.
Of course, the reality is that China’s very polluted. There’s a gap between rhetoric and reality. It takes a long time to catch up. Awareness is the first step. Action and behavioural change is required. The west has had a lot of consumption for a long time. China’s consumption is still miniscule by those standards. Their aspirations of consumption came from the west and you can’t export this model of consumption then expect them not to consume.
We were not spoiling the party but adding a voice of reason to this, suggesting that maybe thought should be given to renewable energies, recycling, pollution. Even that the basis of Chinese philosophy is one of harmony and respect for nature. Maybe these things could be useful if they were thought about rather than relegated.
IH: You say the government has good policies but China is still very polluted. This is puzzling to people who look at China and see a one-party state and wonder why it can’t enact its own policies.
JL: There are 1.3 billion people in China and I suspect that means there are 1.3 billion opinions. This has been a period of reform and additional personal freedoms, and I think there is also a social evolution. Ordering people to do things is unlikely to have the right effect. They had periods like that – and they are remembered as tragedies where every family had someone who was persecuted. The trend is towards greater liberation and personal responsibility.
IH: And if the information isn’t there? Yes, the government knows, but what about the interface with the people?
JL: Personally, I also hate slogans. I think they are terrible. If you broadcast slogans, weak-minded people repeat them but they don’t bother to go past them to learn. It’s a problem. Some people think slogans are a great communications tool, but I think it’s a problem.
Acronyms and jargon also exclude people and young people might be afraid to ask, so they miss the whole point, which is: There’s a disconnect between what the government knows and what the people know. If they can’t transmit the information clearly – or they think it’s a matter of slogans – it won’t work. What you want to transmit is understanding, which is the nature of the Environmental Education Media Project.
We are all learning about the relationship of human beings to the earth – it’s a collaborative learning project. The goal is understanding for everyone, then to use the tools of communication to bring those to collective consciousness. The respect for air and water in China has been lost, partly through pressure of population, partly through urbanisation. So it’s about consciousness.
IH: On a scale of 10, where would you put China’s environmental problems?
JL: I would say that pollution is the pressure of human beings on the planet and there is nowhere else where the pressure is greater than in China because there are 1.3 billion people. China has taken this extremely seriously, and in terms of rhetoric it’s moving to a much better place. In terms of reality, we’ll have to see.
IH: How long does it take for reality to catch up with rhetoric?
JL: The Chinese are moving in a direction which is correct. They are theorising about eco-village urban areas and industrial parks, and they can actually experiment at that level. As a tiny environmental NGO [nongovernmental organisation], we were talking about these things and wanted a conference. But on of the planning commission people said, “Let’s build a few.” The scale of that thinking was staggering.
IH: Are you more optimistic or pessimistic than when you began?
JL: Gosh, I think you have to ask that question every day. There’s so much information and some of it is extremely sobering. There are physics models that suggest that climate change could make the surface of the earth uninhabitable. This is not a comforting thought. And knowing that this is from human impact doesn’t make me feel good. So if the measure of whether we are successful is how good the environment is, the hardest thing is that you must look without flinching at this information.
IH: Why are so many people diverting their attention from this?
JL: Because it’s not something that you really want to know. Knowledge is responsibility. If you are ignorant, you don’t do anything. Remaining ignorant is a kind of strategy — not viable, because the species could end. But knowledge is a tough way to go, too, because then you really are responsible. If you know and you fail to act, then you are culpable. Choices made from knowledge are different from those made from ignorance. We are helping people gain knowledge. They may not thank us for it, but they may at some point realise that it was necessary.
Still images are taken from John D. Liu’s film China’s Sorrow, Earth’s Hope
Part one: John D. Liu talks about the ecological rehabilitation of the Loess Plateau.