Protest Over Nanjing's Trees

The campaign is seen as evidence of a growing environmental consciousness in China.

nanjingtrees305.jpg A candlelight vigil is held beneath the trees at the Memorial Hall for the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre, Dec. 13, 2007.

Authorities in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing, which is preparing to host the G20 international monetary conference next week, have moved to stifle protests at the removal of the city's trademark trees to make way for a new subway line.

The felling of the city's iconic "wutong" trees has sparked public anger amid a campaign by netizens on popular social media sites.

Last Saturday, around 500 young people staged a silent sit-in in central Nanjing, many of them wearing green ribbons in protest against the recent felling of trees on Taiping North Street.

"There were some scuffles at the time, but no one was detained because of the incident," said a Nanjing-based netizen who attended the protest.

She said protesters were dragged away from the area by the police.

"Any photos they had taken were deleted, and they were made to delete any tweets they had sent out, too."

"The whole protest was very peaceful," she said. "The people of Nanjing really showed their quality in trying to protect the trees and the city center."

"They were mostly young people, and they behaved in a very orderly manner."

The protesters were angry at the felling of some trees to make way for a new subway station, as well as plans to move around 200 trees from the area.

Celebrities join campaign

The movement to protect the trees was sparked earlier this month after workers began moving some 40 wutong trees near the site of the proposed subway station on the north section of Taiping Road.

Netizens used popular microblogging services like Sina Weibo and Twitter to pass around photographs of felled trees, attracting the interest of some media personalities in the process.

Sports personality Huang Jianxiang, movie star Vicky Zhao, and pop diva Faye Wong were among those who joined the high-profile tweet campaign, prompting the authorities to promise that the felling of trees would take place only as "a last resort."

They set up a Sina Weibo account called "Save Nanjing's Wutong Trees, Build a Green City," which garnered more than 14,000 followers in just two weeks, sending out 4,200 updates.

Nanjing resident Tang Deming said the oldest of the wutong trees lined the streets near the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, and were planted as early as 1925.

"After the Nationalist (KMT) unified China, they moved into Nanjing as their capital ... The special thing about this city isn't [the main business district of] Zhongshan Road, but it's that street lined with wutong trees that is special."

"The wutongs elsewhere in the city were planted much later," he said.

Tang said Nanjing's wutong trees had withstood many generations, in all weathers, with the earliest planted in 1925.

"Why do ordinary people like the wutong trees? The main thing is that they give a huge amount of shade," Tang said.

"The summers are so hot, as all Nanjing people know," Tang said. "They are desperate for shade in the heat of the summer, and the shade cast by the wutong is very broad and deep."

A growing awareness

The movement is being seen by many as evidence of growing environmental consciousness among Chinese people, following three decades of breakneck economic growth.

A series of high-profile campaigns sparked by environmental concerns, including those by parents with children poisoned by lead and the 2008 protests against the Xiamen PX plant, have brought such issues into the mainstream of public opinion.

Sichuan-based environementalist Yang Xin, who heads the nongovernment group Green River, said that people's environmental awareness is no longer limited to a concern for wild animals and habitats.

"At the same time, they are gradually beginning to care about protecting the environment where they live," Yang said.

"That includes things like the removal of trees, which is of special concern."

He said protests like those in Nanjing are becoming increasingly common in Chinese cities.

"Urban construction isn't just a matter for the government," Yang said. "It's a matter for the local environment, and it is also a matter for all the people in that city."

"It is gradually becoming something they want to have a say in," he said.

Activists say that China has an exemplary set of environmental protection laws, but that environmental officials often lack the power to impose them on powerful vested interests at the local level.

The G20 currency seminar, which will be attended by academics, economists, central bankers, and finance ministers on March 31, will develop ideas on reshaping the global monetary system.

The seminar is expected to be opened by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Nanjing will also host the 2014 Youth Olympic Games.

Reported by Grace Kei Lai-see for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Gao Shan for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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