STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
He established Friends of Nature, the first real Chinese green NGO in 1994, and has kept it going until now, and spawned several other environmental groups in China. So now there's not just one NGO in China, there's more than 3,000.
INSKEEP: What do you mean by environmentalism being a space where you can be active in China?
WATTS: It's an area where you can organize, where you can register an NGO with the authorities, where can camp. And up to a point, where you can engage with the media to expose wrongdoings.
INSKEEP: Whereas if you were a democracy activist, that wouldn't go over so well.
WATTS: Absolutely not. If you're a democracy activist, if you're a labor activist, you would be looked upon with great suspicion and you would face a very considerable risk of being locked up.
INSKEEP: So if you look across China, which you have traveled so wildly, where is an area or a place, a species, anything that his work affected?
WATTS: Liang Congjie, along with other groups, persuaded the government to postpone that plan. It may still go ahead. The powers to develop China's economy are just so strong; it's hard to resist them. But he's held back the tide a bit.
INSKEEP: That is the one that gets to the heart of the problem here, isn't it? Because China is developing, the government feels they need to develop rapidly or they're going to have severe instability. They need electricity, you want hydroelectric damns, end of story.
WATTS: That's right. The pressures to move forward economically are always running up against what environmentalists want. Hydroelectric dams, polluting factories, excessive consumption, all of those things from an environmental perspective are very bad. But in the end, the government's priority is stability and they think the key for stability is economic growth.
INSKEEP: Well, have environmental activists, like Liang Congjie, succeeded in getting the government to weave environmentalism into the practicalities of what they do on a day-to-day basis?
WATTS: So they know about water. They know about the Earth. And I think they're trying to do a lot in strengthening some of the environmental regulations within the country. But they are still being trumped by that juggernaut, which is the Chinese economy.
INSKEEP: How much impacts have those 3,000 environmental NGOs really had in China?
WATTS: And I think in certain cases, they have been effective in exposing some of the worse polluters. But I would say that they're still up against it. It's very, very hard for Chinese NGOs to use the kinds of tools that Western NGOs used, and used very effectively particularly in the '60s, '70s and now the '80s when the Green Movement started.
INSKEEP: You can't chain yourself to a tree and get away with it in China.
WATTS: Thanks for coming by.
WATTS: Pleasure, thanks for having me.
INSKEEP: And you can find an excerpt of that book at NPR.org.
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