Citizen journalists in China

Concerned citizens are using microblogs and other online tools to help protect the environment. Feng Yongfeng explains how the 2012 China Environmental Press Awards recognised their contributions.

The 2012 China Environmental Press Awards, co-organised by chinadialogue, The Guardian and Sina, for the first time have awarded a citizen journalist a prize for his reporting: Liu Futang, a 65-year old microblogger. Liu attracted attention a year ago, when he used his microblog account to expose the destruction of forests on the island province of Hainan.

For many years, Liu piloted a fire-spotter plane in China’s north-east. When later he moved to Hainan, in the south-west, he discovered that the island’s rainforests were “dying a glorious death”. “Glorious,” he said, because the destruction and damage to the environment were often presented as grand achievements.

Liu first became a critic of this deforestation during the 1990s: he courageously helped to expose large multinational companies that wrecked Hainan’s forests as they claimed to develop the economy and enrich the locals. But despite his efforts, the impact of deforestation on Hainan’s natural ecology was ruinous.

Later, Liu discovered that in the quest to turn Hainan into an “International Tourist Island” the local government and developers had forcibly relocated farmers and grabbed fields and bays. They had even destroyed coastal forests and mangroves: important parts of the coastal ecology, which can protect against tsunamis and typhoons.

In his retirement, Liu started a blog about environmental problems. On April 10 last year two reporters persuaded him to start a microblog (on the Sina Weibo platform) under the handle
@海南刘福堂 (“Hainan Liu Futang”).

Two months later, a Hainanese villager gave Liu a lead: the state-owned property developer China Resources was destroying swathes of nipa palms in Shimei Bay. It took Liu only a minute to get that information online. His friend, the Greenpeace employee Zhong Yuli, “retweeted” the message, asking reporters in Hainan to look into it. “The next day,” Liu recalled, “no reporters from Hainan turned up – but one from Beijing did.”

Liu took the reporter to the scene, microblogging the story as they went along. Then a China Central Television reporter arrived and Liu also accompanied him to Shimei Bay.

According to Liu, the local government and businesses had never shown any concern about the felling, but the presence of reporters made them nervous. So they concocted a story about “tree transplantation”, rather than tree felling. “I posted it all on Weibo,” said Liu. “They used the local media to lie and I exposed them on Weibo. It got more and more attention.”

In the following months, Liu gave nearly 100 interviews and made 10 trips to Shimei Bay with reporters. Now the local government is “a lot more restrained about destroying the environment,” he said.

China is seeing a surge of citizen journalism about environmental issues. Consequently, some environmental groups identified a need to train and guide citizen reporters. The budding journalists, often pursuing a dream job they missed out on earlier in life, often agree: if they are to report effectively, then they need some rigorous training.

Since 2009, the Chinese environmental NGO Friends of Nature has held 10 courses for citizen journalists, at which well-known environmental journalists discuss reporting techniques and their experiences. Rooms holding 60 people are often packed out. But the experiences of citizen journalists indicate that news-writing technique is not the most useful tool for citizen journalists; more important is persistence and determination. It’s what you do, not how you write about it.

Wu Zhu, who was highly commended for his citizen journalism at this years awards, was once a volunteer at Kekexili nature reserve in Qinghai province, north-west China. In 2011 he discovered that Snow Beer was
organising an unauthorised expedition to Kekexili, normally off-limits to everyone except scientists, and led a sustained campaign against the expedition.

Wu’s “reporting” was also very simple: he only had a blog and a Weibo account, which he used to publicise his blogposts. The reporting and the discussion was quick, succinct and direct. “You don’t want to get obsessed with the reporting,” Wu said. “You need to act. If you want to stop Snow Beer you need to talk to them and show them that what they’re doing isn’t legal. You need to go there and persuade them. You need to actually act if your reports are to carry weight.”

Wu travelled to Beijing to meet with the company and held a seminar with environmental groups. Then he and other volunteers travelled to Qinghai, at their own expense, and persuaded the expedition to stay out of Kekexili. He helped to boost Snow Beer’s “environmental intelligence” and the expedition took the road route to Lhasa instead. 

The other highly commended citizen journalist at the awards, Zhang Xiang, is a retired forestry worker. Since 2005, Zhang has volunteered for a number of environmental groups. He was commended by the judges for his work on river pollution. The Qing River, or Qinghe, north of Beijing, is the most polluted of all the city’s rivers: 300,000 tonnes of untreated sewage empty into it every day. Despite the obvious pollution, the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau and the Beijing Water Authority have been known to shift the blame onto each other, or to blame housing developments and the public for creating the sewage.

In September 2011 Zhang started taking pictures of the sewage outlets on the Qing River and posting them on his microblog. He reported the outlets to the environmental and water bureaus and wrote about their responses on his microblog. He did this almost every day and it became part of his daily life. The more impact his photos had, the more detailed the discussions became.

This effort brought public attention and spurred the authorities to act. Environmental groups were inspired by his approach. One group produced a list of China’s 10 most polluted rivers and compiled the
China Environmental Risk Map. Other citizens have followed his example, too: photographing pollution when they see it, posting it to their microblogs and reporting it to the authorities. 

These three citizen journalists embody the environmental responsibilities of the citizen and demonstrate that today it is becoming easier for anyone to protect the environment.

Feng Yongfeng is a Beijing-based journalist, the founder of NGO Green Beagle and a member of the awarding committee of the China Environmental Press Awards

Homepage image by Liu Futang Blog