Though the waters of the majestic Qiantang River now flow clearer than they have in decades, every time Hao Xin gazes upon them, he cannot help but remember when some of the river’s tributaries were fetid, stagnant and full of toxic industrial waste. He has never forgotten the devastation he saw and the raw emotions he felt when he first toured the Qiantang and its many tributaries as a teenager nearly 20 years ago. He had organized a 36-day, 2,000-kilometer bicycle ride across Zhejiang province in the summer after his freshman year at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, the province’s capital city. He had not set out to become an environmental advocate, but this calling found him.
He encountered many places where pollution had reached staggering levels. “There was a lot of trash, and wastewater being discharged from factories directly into the river,” Hao recalls. Some rivers had “piles of garbage visibly floating in black, foul-smelling water.” In other places, chemicals dyed the water in a variety of unnatural hues.
It was a stark awakening. “I was shocked. It was nauseating; I wanted to do something about it. I was 18 years old and wanted to save the earth.”
He has not quite accomplished that, but in the two decades since, he has helped save much. With one of his university professors, Junhua Ruan, he founded Green Zhejiang in Hangzhou, the first and largest environmental NGO in Zhejiang (and the parent organization of Qiantang River Waterkeeper), and he has become a powerful, internationally recognized advocate for water. But his path has not been easy.
THE ENVIRONMENTAL COSTS OF AN ECONOMIC BOOM
The Qiantang is the “mother river” of China’s eastern coastal Zhejiang province, providing drinking water to more than 20 million people. In the last four decades, Zhejiang has helped drive China’s impressive economic growth. Since 1978, the province’s GDP has risen more than 100-fold to $7.6 billion. But, as in much of China, rapid economic development has taken a severe toll.
The province is home to several thriving industrial areas, including Fuyang, one of China’s leading paper-manufacturing centers, with over 200 mills; Pujiang, renowned for crystal processing; and Zhuji City, the world’s largest producer of socks, which is located in the heart of the Qiantang River Basin. At its peak, “Socks City,” as it was nicknamed, produced 17 billion pairs annually, more than 35 percent of global production.
Zhejiang’s economic success helped lift millions out of poverty and brought prosperity to the nation, but its waterways were among China’s most polluted, with the factories lining its rivers routinely dumping a deluge of untreated wastewater and solid waste into them. In 2014, illegal dumping turned one river blood red. Across China, roughly one-third of all surface water is unfit for human use.
CLEAN WATER RUNS DEEP
The state of Zhejiang’s waterways came as a particular shock to the young Hao because he had grown up on the northern shore of picturesque Dongqian Lake, the province’s largest body of freshwater.
“My childhood was basically lake life,” he recalls. “I swam in the lake almost every day in the summer and we used to catch shrimp. I had a strong connection to water starting from when I was very young.”
But even after returning from that bike trip and helping to found Green Zhejiang, he considered environmental advocacy to be not a profession, but a volunteer activity, a labor of love.
“My opinion was, ‘I will always work for Green Zhejiang and I will always work for the environment, but I don’t want to make money from it, so I would never think about doing it full-time.’” His view was largely shaped by the lack of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in China at the time. “In 2003, no one had even heard of NGOs,” he says.
But in 2008, his horizons vastly expanded. After university, he was selected as a fellow in the Ford Foundation’s International Fellowship Program and attended Clark University in Massachusetts, earning dual Master’s degrees in environmental science & policy and geographic information science. While at Clark, he took several classes that opened his eyes to how NGOs could be powerful and effective agents of change. He also had the chance to meet staff from the Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, and other environmental groups and came to see the importance of having full-time staff.
“I also learned some important ideas, like stakeholders and lobbying,” Hao says. “When you are a grassroots organization and fairly weak, you’re better off not choosing to fight directly. You should try to find other people who share your interests and goals, who feel they, also, have a stake in what you’re trying to accomplish, so they will fight with you. And then you must learn how to approach people in positions of power, people who make government policy, and how to make your case to them. These concepts really empowered me. That’s when I started to think, if we really wanted to play an important role and to have a voice [in China], we would have to become professional and have full-time staff.”
In 2009, he was invited by China’s Middle Han River Waterkeeper Yun Jianli to attend Waterkeeper Alliance’s annual conference, which was being held in New York City that year. There, he got to talk to women and men from different parts of the world who were Waterkeepers and who were working on many of the same problems he was. He also met President Bill Clinton, who was a speaker at the conference.
“He said how impressed he was with what the Waterkeeper movement was accomplishing,” Hao recalls. “And he even shook my hand and said, ‘Good job!’ Can you imagine, a person like me? In China I had never met anyone of such a high rank.”
His experience at the conference convinced him to join Waterkeeper Alliance and to establish Qiantang River Waterkeeper.
After graduating from Clark he returned to China with new skills, an expanded vision, and an even more ambitious plan. Not only would he try to work locally, but also internationally – and Waterkeeper Alliance would be central to Hao’s vision.
Joining the Alliance allowed him to maintain ties to organizations in the United States and to work internationally. “That was very different from the other environmental NGOs in China,” he says.
At home, Hao has played an increasingly crucial role in expanding the awareness of local residents about the roles they can play in combatting pollution and climate change. Over the past 10 years, Hangzhou’s average temperatures have risen more than a quarter of a degree Celsius, and typhoons and severe rainstorms sweep across the city with much greater frequency, threatening its six million people.
Hao was able to convince the local television station to present a forum on climate-change issues in Hangzhou. The show featured meteorologists, environmentalists and officials from the state environmental protection bureau, as well as representatives from the community and local businesses in an open discussion about addressing air pollution in the city. “Internationally, I’m carrying the message of what we’re doing in Zhejiang to conferences and forums throughout the world,” he says. “In response to climate change, tomorrow is today.”
Most recently, he helped create and organize the first-ever H20 Global River Cities Summit in Hangzhou this past November. Building on the G20 summit, which Hangzhou hosted in 2016, the conference brought together representatives from 20 cities in the world located on rivers to share knowledge and promote collaboration
“Water doesn’t separate us, water connects us,” Hao said. “I wanted to have more people concerned about water and to use water to connect all of us – different politicians and people from different cultures and backgrounds – so we can work together.”
Among the several other major initiatives that Hao has led, the two that he is, perhaps, most proud of are implementing the first real-time pollution-reporting app along the entirety of the Qiantang River, and successfully lobbying the provincial government to prioritize environmental issues and establish the Five Waters Treatment Project, a $50-billion plan to treat contaminated water, prevent flooding, conserve water, and provide clean drinking water. In 2018, his work helped Zhejiang province earn the UN’s highest environmental honor, the Champions of Earth Award.
Hao also became the executive director of the China River Watch Alliance, which is composed of 36 water-advocacy groups that he helped bring together. His work is particularly notable in that he has managed to build broad coalitions to curb environmental abuses during a sensitive time in the nation’s history. Amidst growing social unrest and increasing protests over environmental pollution, China’s ruling Communist Party has sought to keep strict order, curbing attempts to organize online, and jailing activists.
In this fraught political environment, Hao has found ways to forge close relationships with government officials and to have a positive influence on government policy. “I came to understand that if you work with government officials rather than directly challenge them,” he says, “you have a much better chance of success.”
He likens his approach to environmental work to stopping a car in heavy rain: You cannot brake hard or else you’ll skid, so you must slowly apply pressure to the brakes. “We must learn this skill when we touch on a problem,” he explains. “We must back off until we are stronger. We don’t want to fail the first time we are challenged.”
Hao has coupled this strategic approach with a nuanced understanding of how the Chinese government works.
“The government is not one organization,” he says. “It is composed of many bureaus, and bureaus are composed of many departments, and departments are composed of many people who all have different opinions. By seeing government as made of many people, we can find allies and supporters, and utilize the differences in opinion.”
If that fails, Hao recognizes that time is on his side: “If a current official doesn’t understand our point of view, then there’s always the next one. As an NGO we can keep at this work for 15-to-20 years, while government officials come and go much faster.”
Reflecting back on his nearly two decades of environmental advocacy, Hao considers his greatest accomplishment to be building a relationship between the government and NGOs. More than any single program or legal victory, Hao says, “the biggest win was gaining the trust of our government, and for the government to see NGOs not as enemies, but as partners. Eighteen years ago, in many people’s opinion, NGOs were seen as acting against the government. And that was a problem for many NGOs as well, where NGOs wanted to act like the enemy of government.”
As he looks to the future, Hao hopes to engage even more people and to expand their understanding of the world around them. “Twenty years ago, when I organized the bike ride, it was simply because I loved cycling,” Hao says. “But since then, I have realized that I am not just living for myself. I work with a group of people with a unified vision, to make deep change possible for the world. I feel self-actualized through this work. And consciously, or unconsciously, I have become a leader for these people. When you become a leader, you take on the responsibility of helping more and more people. You are not persuading them, but softly leading them, helping them change naturally in the way they wish to change already.”
Eugene K. Chow writes on foreign policy and military affairs. His work has been published in Foreign Policy, The Week, and The Diplomat.