By Kevin Danaher

The ethnic Tibetan farmer carves up yak meat for a barbeque our group of visiting Americans is about to share with local villagers in Shangri-La, China. Suddenly, we hear a strange chirping sound, like an exotic bird trapped in a tin can. The farmer puts down his knife and pulls out a cell phone that is better quality than any I have ever owned.

China is full of contradictions. The booming economy has lifted several hundred million people out of poverty, yet inequality has worsened. Rapid economic growth has made China a serious global competitor with the United States, yet that economic success has also produced severe environmental problems. There is now a significant middle class, but the government is not ready to give this educated class the kinds of political freedoms that educated people usually expect.

On a recent two-week Reality Tour, our Global Exchange delegation met with intellectuals, workers, students, farmers, small businesspeople, and a growing class of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that holds great promise for the future of Chinese democracy. These NGOs are part of a grassroots movement for change that is increasingly militant in pressing for social justice and environmental sustainability. An August 2005 special report on China in Business Week reported that, “A grassroots movement of activists and lawyers is helping increasingly assertive workers get their due.” Robin Munro, Research Director of the China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong human rights organization, says, “It’s a de facto labor movement happening in China.”

Everywhere we went in China people were very eager to engage us and learn more about the United States (the Chinese symbols for America transliterate as “beautiful country”). We were surprised by how many people in China can speak some English and want to learn more; English is now taught at all levels of school, and college entrance exams include testing in English. While I stood on the banks of the churning Yangtze River at Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan province, a middle-aged Chinese woman asked me, “Are you from America?” I told her about our Reality Tour group, and this touched off 20 minutes of congenial dialogue about how the average citizens of our two countries need to unify in order to keep our governments from generating hostility toward each other.

Most of the news we get in the US is about China’s economic muscle, and it is undeniable that China’s economic development has been phenomenal. While the United States runs massive trade and budget deficits and is sinking deeper into debt, China has accumulated a cash reserve or more than $700 billion. The combination of a well-educated but low-paid workforce and a large internal market attracts more than $55 billion per year in new foreign investment.

China’s domestic economy is reaping the benefits of the country’s international competitiveness. There are now some 350 million cell phone users in China — more than the entire population of the United States. China’s passenger car market sold three million cars this year, which ranks them third in the world. China is also graduating four times as many engineers as the United States, and the country’s emphasis on English-language training at all levels of schooling will better equip them to compete for foreign investment.

But China’s phenomenal economic growth is racking up a severe environmental and social price tag: pollution costs the country more than $54 billion per year; six of the world’s ten most polluted cities are in China; acid rain falls on one-third of the country; 80% of the country’s sewage flows untreated into its waterways; and contaminated water kills more than 300,000 children per year.

In response, there is a growing consciousness of environmentalism, and an increasingly sophisticated NGO focus on healing the environment. Our tour partner in China, Wild China, is staffed by a talented mix of Americans and Chinese who have considerable expertise on environmental issues. They organize eco-tours to all corners of the country.

Climbing through the hill country of Yunnan province in southern China, we visited the beautiful village of Haixi, where the Nature Conservancy has teamed up with local villagers to create model ecological systems. The human, animal and plant waste of the village goes into a biodigester that produces methane gas. The gas is then piped into the school kitchen where students cook their own meals using vegetables grown in their own greenhouse just outside the school.

Our group also met with Wen Bo, a Beijing-based representative of Pacific Environment, an NGO based in San Francisco that has helped organize a network of scientists, academics, NGOs, students, and media professionals in China (Save China’s Seas Network). They are linking up academics and activists to address issues such as the trade in endangered marine species, and unsustainable fishing methods that are depleting China’s waters.

China’s incipient people’s power movement is impressive, but it is confronted by major obstacles: a repressive government, massive natural resource constraints, and a population that is just now becoming aware of the environmental costs of their newfound economic prosperity.

In our meetings with Chinese NGOs it was clear that this growing movement for workers rights, civil rights, and environmental protection could blossom into a powerful democratizing force. Yet the political opening for NGOs is recent, and they are just learning the ropes. These NGOs would benefit from more people-to-people exchanges with U.S.-based activists and grassroots groups. And the Americans visiting China would get a much more realistic appraisal of the Chinese people than they will ever get from the U.S. media.