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Walking the Green Tiger directed by Gary Marcuse (review)
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In January 2013, China’s declining air quality drew international attention: in a 24-hour period, eighteen of the hourly readings were so high that they were off the scale of the United States Environmental Protection Index. The world’s most populous nation’s high levels of coal consumption, vehicle emissions, and growing appetite for energy-demanding consumer products make it seemingly impossible to see the words “green” and “China” in the same sentence. In Walking the Green Tiger, however, Canadian film producer Gary Marcuse documents the efforts of Chinese journalists, environmental activists, and farmers who worked together to prevent an enormous hydroelectric dam project on the Upper Yangtze River. The dam would have displaced 100,000 residents off their land as well as endanger wildlife. Marcuse focuses on the controversy over the dam in a documentary that explores China’s incipient, grassroots environmental movement.

Much of Walking the Green Tiger contrasts this concern with the environment with earlier efforts to put nature in the service of economic progress. The Chinese people embraced Mao Zedong’s philosophy that “man must conquer nature.” To “conquer nature,” explains Qu Geping, a former director of China’s Environmental Protection Agency, Mao “turned everybody into a solider,” just as he did when he led the communists to victory in 1949. Some of the more captivating moments in Walking the Green Tiger are rare, archival film clips of the “soldiers” following Mao’s policies for exploiting nature to foster economic development, often with disastrous results. For example, in an effort to increase agricultural production, he ordered the felling of forests and the plowing up of grasslands—programs that exposed and depleted the soil. In footage that is both bizarre and disturbing, swarms of people are banging pots, pans, boards—anything to make noise—as they chase swarms of birds. The idea was to exhaust the birds so that they would fall from the sky, eat poison and die after landing, and thus no longer consume the farmers’ grain. The problem, however, was that the birds also ate insects, keeping their numbers in check, and when the avian population declined, locusts devastated the grain. Geping comments that Mao had “good intentions,” but his policies were “crazy” because he ignored or suppressed the advice of experts who saw the short-sightedness of his attempt to “conquer nature.”

Geping is one of the many individuals profiled whose efforts led to the passage of the Environmental Impact Assessment Law in 2004, a measure that requires public input on proposed projects that can alter the environment. These activists and journalists often had their work censored, lost their jobs, and were sometimes threatened by police and government officials. Of crucial importance for the blockage of the proposed dam on the Yangtze River was journalist and film producer Shi Lihong. She produced a documentary that examined the effects of an earlier government sponsored dam on the Mekong River, a project that displaced and impoverished local farmers. Her film did more than publicize the plight of the landless farmers along the Mekong. After viewing her film, the Yangtze River inhabitants became committed to resisting the same fate that struck the Mekong River farmers.

One of the strengths of Walking the Green Tiger is its depiction of the transformation of the Yangtze farmers. Historically suspicious of outsiders and environmentalists, they became motivated to prevent the construction of the dam. Shi Lihong, after showing her documentary to the farmers, took them on a three-day-trip to the Mekong River, where they could see the effects of the dam on farmers. They soon became environmental and social activists, as they worked with journalists and other environmental advocates to raise awareness of the proposed dam’s threat to their land and to wildlife. This growing awareness was also occurring on the national level: From 1993 to 2008, 220,000 environmental articles appeared in the Chinese press, and 3,500 environmental organizations were founded.

Walking the Green Tiger connects this nascent environmental movement with a wider movement for democracy. Many of the journalists, academics, and activists interviewed in the documentary comment that policy-making in China was historically a top-down process, with government rendering decisions with...

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