I never thought the day could come when I would write an encomium for a magazine's obituaries column. But that was before I had read The Economist for a year, eventually making the obit a weekly ritual by beginning my read on its last-page site. And Wu Dengming, China's Mr. Green, is a great life to begin with.
When I first spent six weeks in Shanghai in 1982— allegedly studying Mandarin, but really preparing my first scoop (I had just quit teaching, after 30 years) for the TV mag of San Francisco's highly regarded public TV station, KQED— Shanghai's Art Museum was making its first foreign visit to San Francisco.
Naturally, as an art critic I wanted to interview the director esthetically. He, in turn, wanted me to pick items that would be the most popular among San Franciscan visitors. He was a businessman before he was an aesthete.
Similarly, when my fellow students stomped off on our Beijing visit to walk the Great Wall, I sneaked away to interview the editors of the first international Chinese newspaper, the China Daily. Holy Moses. They didn't want to talk media. They wanted to know how many columns of baseball coverage they should reserve. I couldn't help wondering: was business the primary goal of Mao's followers?
Long Marcher as CEO
Strangely enough, on my midnight flight back to California, I sneaked into the first-class section to find a single executive-looking man eating off the fanciest table settings I'd seen in ages. When I snidely teased him by asking, "Is that how you ate on the Great March?," he informed that he'd been there.
"Why not eat better, after all that pain?" he asked rhetorically.
It turns out my Long Marcher had also seen action in the World War II aerial battles over Burma. And he was now the chief executive in charge of buying planes for China's airline. Another businessman!
Instead of air conditioning
Wu Dengming, who died July 19 at 73, was no such hustler. He began as a farmer and served as an officer in Mao's army but retired at 57 as a security person at Chongqing University.
Chongqing, at 10 million population, was then China's fastest-growing city. Wu and his family lived in an old beaten-up house full of environmental books, while his daughter pleaded for air-conditioning provided in the adjacent skyscrapers. Their pitiful little fan simply didn't cut it. But as a conservationist, Wu was more interested in insuring that everyone in his city could turn their coolers to 26 Celsius and no lower.
After he retired at 57, he devoted his waking hours to running around the city and the region, tracking down polluters of air, water or earth and reporting them to the authorities in Beijing. A row of shoes, many times mended, stood under his bed; most of them were still dirty from when he had sploshed around the muddy banks of the Jialing or the Yangzi, pointing out to the world's press where the outlet from a battery factory had stained the rocks yellow, or where the pipeline from a chromium plant had killed all the vegetation.
Filming illegal logging
His business card listed five titles, most notably "Founder, Chongqing Green Volunteer League, 1995 (Motto: 'Action, not words')." This group— one of the few non-governmental organizations permitted by Beijing— was set up originally as a campus group that planted trees, picked up litter and lectured others on their green responsibilities.
In 1998 Wu took a film crew to record illegal logging in the wild forests of Sichuan outside Chongqing. It was such a sensation that logging there was banned.
More than 15,000 students signed Wu's petition to stop the Nu river dams. In 2011, for the first time, a court accepted his suit against a factory that had dumped 5,000 tons of chromium waste in Yunnan province.
Attacked by hoodlums
China's greedy "socialist" entrepreneurs didn't dig Wu's interventions. In the Sichuan forest, the loggers smashed his film crew's gear. Factory owners sent hoodlums to rough him up. But Wu assured his worried wife that he had learned how to survive in Mao's People's Liberation Army. He even practiced t'ai chi every day to calm his nerves.
Lacking government support, Wu financed his work from his tiny pension, his savings and his grandson's lottery winnings. He listened in horror at the sufferings of ordinary working class people and counseled on their woes. "As a farmer who had moved to the city himself," The Economist notes, "he spoke the language of the peasants forced from their plots by landslides, the fishermen whose stocks were dead, the weeping, terrified villagers whose livers had been enlarged by strontium in the river water."
In 1998 he led a group to Hongya County in West Sichuan Province, famous for its wealth of natural forests and abundance of 100 year-old trees, only to find that the original scenery had been completely transformed by deforestation, leaving bare hills and stumps everywhere. Wu invited China's main TV programmer, to produce a documentary on this tragedy.
Their first attempt flopped when thugs destroyed their TV equipment. But the second time around, they succeeded, and subsequently both national and provincial authorizes banned such forestry.
At Wu's funeral, even five polluting enterprises that he had criticized sent representatives to pay their respects. Even his daughter, after nagging her idealist father for ages to pay more attention to his family's material needs, became a committed greenie. China, the world's most polluting state on earth, needs many more such heroic greenies. But even one committed individual— and even in a dictatorship— can make a big difference, as Wu amply demonstrated.