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China: The People’s Hiking Revolution

As prosperity spreads across China, so does a passion for the outdoors. But can millions of new trekkers save Asia's vast wilderness from the march of development? Welcome to the world's next hiking frontier. PLUS, check out China's Top Treks.

Instead, we pitch our tents in a farmer’s field. As with many Chinese parks, the boundaries of Chishui Alsophila Reserve were drawn between centuries-old villages, making terraced fields of rice and wheat part of the landscape. Farmhouses with white walls and gray tile roofs sit between towering oaks and carefully tended patches of cabbage and leek. It could be Nepal–without the teahouses and trekking hordes.

That sort of beauty is common to many Chinese villages. But earlier, when I suggested to a farmer that he was lucky to live in such an enchanting place, he shook his head.

"We hope the government builds a road soon," he said. "Then we can open a hotel."

His wish, while not entirely unexpected, serves as an abrupt reminder that China’s environmental problems could soon become much, much more severe. While only 2 percent of Americans work on farms, 60 percent of China’s 1.3 billion people live in rural areas–and most of them dream of moving to cities. If China’s ratio approaches the U.S. figure, the environmental impacts will resonate around the world. China already is the world’s top consumer of steel, coal, meat, and grain, and it’s widely considered the world’s largest market for endangered wildlife and illegally logged timber. The conservation group Wild Aid estimates that most of 100 million wild sharks, skates, and rays killed each year end up in Chinese soups. In its most recent annual report, the group states that "all the biological studies, the international treaties, the valiant efforts of the enforcement agencies, the billions of dollars spent on wildlife conservation will be for nothing if we cannot turn off [Chinese] demand."

The potential environmental costs of China’s development have spurred green groups to aim conservation campaigns at average citizens. Wild Aid has run television ads showing basketball star Yao Ming swearing off shark fin soup. Environmental disasters are also changing views, as happened in the U.S. in the 1960s. When Cleveland’s polluted Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, the environmental movement gained some of the momentum that led to passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. China will need more than one Cuyahoga River disaster to reach its tipping point. But that will likely happen. In 2005, an explosion at a chemical factory in northern China spilled 100 tons of carcinogenic benzene into the Songhua River, China’s fourth-longest waterway. In 2007, Lake Tai, China’s third-largest freshwater lake, became so polluted that the government shut off tap water to millions of people.

A groundswell of public anger about the disasters has pushed Beijing to pass more stringent environmental laws. In September 2007, officials declared that 15 percent of China’s energy should come from renewable sources by 2020. Last June, the government enacted a nationwide ban on certain kinds of plastic bags. Real progress, to be sure, but at the local level, where statutes are enforced, officials allow profitable industries to pollute at will.

Most Chinese don’t see a way of bridging the chasm between national laws and local enforcement without the bottom-up controls of a free press, aggressive advocacy groups, and an independent legal system, things the Communist Party has so far not allowed. Before my trip, I asked Zhong Yu, a Beijing-based Greenpeace staffer, if China has an emerging version of David Brower, the fire-and-brimstone Sierra Club president who helped push environmental awareness into the American mainstream. She shook her head. "Our NGOs face too many restrictions. The government doesn’t want us to create ties with other groups, so there isn’t any national coordination."

"The government isn’t willing to let someone become as influential as Brower," said Zhong’s friend, Tsering Norbu, a Tibetan who had worked for The Nature Conservancy. "They want to keep control."

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