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Walking the Green Tiger (2011).

Walking the Green Tiger (2011)

Directed by Gary Marcuse

Distributed by Face-to-Face Media, Ltd.

78 minutes

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 little public participation. They view the 2004 Environmental Impact Assessment Law as unprecedented and are cautiously optimistic that it will lead to more sweeping changes that will empower citizens and make government more accountable.

Despite the significance of the 2004 law, Walking the Green Tiger does not provide an analysis of why government reversed course and asked for public participation. Did government believe people have a right to participate in public policy, or was government allowing citizens to "blow off steam" without seriously addressing their concerns? Perhaps government wanted to tap into the insights of locals who have intimate knowledge of the land, water, and natural resources in their regions. It is possible that government motivations were secretive, thus making a fuller analysis impossible. However, more attention to the changed political context in 2004 could have provided some clues to the monumental change in policy.

In addition to providing a more in-depth discussion of the political atmosphere of 2004, Walking the Green Tiger could benefit from an extended treatment of historical context. Although the film traces China's environmental crisis to Mao's attempts to conquer nature in the name of industrial and economic progress, the linkage of these attempts with nationalism was especially important for China in the 1960s. By the end of the nineteenth century, western powers and Japan exercised increasing control over China, prompting the Chinese to question how a once vibrant culture now occupied a secondary status among world powers. Relations with the West became frosty after the communists came to power in 1949. By the early 1960s, China's relationship with its communist ally, the Soviet Union, became more strained. Thus, China's attempts to "catch-up" economically with the dominant world powers had a special urgency. Harnessing nature for industrial progress was not only a sign of progress and economic development, but also a matter of national pride.

A more extensive analysis of the historical and political context could also partly explain the paradox of the environmental policies of China, a nation that "may soon be simultaneously the greenest and blackest place on earth," according to environmental journalist Christina Larson. On the one hand, "green" China has made substantial investments in alternative energy, especially wind and solar power. On the other hand, "black" China emits high levels of carbon, enforces environmental regulations loosely, and burns an increasing amount of coal. This ostensible paradox can be partly explained by economic development, as "green" technology should be an engine of future economic growth. Thus, China has not completely repudiated its Mao-era efforts to transform nature in the name of economic progress, a limitation acknowledged in Walking the Green Tiger by Ma Jun. The Chinese environmental journalist comments that China takes "one step forward and a half-of-step backward. We take this as normal."

Walking the Green Tiger helps viewers make sense of these backward and forward steps. The documentary has much to recommend: The archival footage provides a rare glimpse of China's attempts to transform nature; the chronicling of the transformation of farmers into activists is compelling viewing; and the profiles and interviews with key activists offer insights into China's growing environmental movement.

Lawrence Mastroni

University of Oklahoma

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Author:Mastroni, Lawrence
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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