BEIJING When, if ever, will China become a democracy? At first glance, the prospects are bleak. Every key dissident is abroad or in jail. China's rulers have dismissed Western-style democracy as a blind alley. Ordinary Chinese seem indifferent or even hostile. With the economy roaring and the country well on its way to power and riches, democracy is about the last thing on anyone's mind.
But before you dismiss Chinese democracy as an impossible dream, let me introduce a young man named Wen Bo. I met him last month in Beijing while reporting on China's growing environment movement. He wore a faded Greenpeace T-shirt with a fish skeleton on it, and talked to me about how people like him are standing up to government and industry over the destruction of China's natural environment.
With his cellphone ringing and his Yahoo e-mail account overflowing, he travels around China to network with other activists. In the weeks before I saw him, he had been in three provinces -- and South Korea -- to speak to students and educate local environment organizations about recycling.
A few years ago, Mr. Wen's brand of activism would have been impossible. When journalist Dai Qing challenged Beijing's plan to dam the Yangtze River for the massive Three Gorges hydroelectric project in the 1980s, the government banned her book and jailed her for 10 months. But as personal freedom in China expands, more people are fighting openly against polluters and their government sponsors, giving rise to a movement that could put China on the path to democracy. "More and more people control their own lives," he told me, "and they are realizing that they can say no to government."
Now 32, Mr. Wen has been a committed environmentalist since he was 16 and saw oil washing up on the beaches of his hometown of Dalian. At his high school, he organized a coastal cleanup and handed out leaflets on what pollution did to seals and birds. Later, he infuriated school officials by hanging a "stop air pollution" banner from the school chimney. At university, he was briefly jailed for putting up Earth Day posters. "They'd never heard of Earth Day."
In the past five years, he says, people have become much more environmentally aware (though his parents still wish he'd get a real job). Reacting to that awareness, and concerned about the rampant pollution that has come with economic progress, the government has eased up on his kind of environmental activism. As a result, China has begun to develop a "civil society" -- an informal network of small, independent groups -- that is gradually eroding the power of the ruling Communist Party.
Mr. Wen has helped to organize 250 environmental groups on Chinese university campuses. These are training grounds for political activism, and they are having an impact. After "green" non-governmental organizations circulated an Internet petition calling for a ban on hydroelectric development on the Nu River in southwestern China. Beijing stepped in to protect it.
Of course, there are still limits. Journalist He Qinglian fled to the United States after suggesting that the Communist Party was responsible for problems such as environmental degradation. And the government still keeps close tabs on the NGOs. Even so, they have proliferated, not just in environmental protection, but in consumer rights, social welfare and legal aid. As China expert Elizabeth Economy told the U.S. Congress last month, "through their activism, these NGOs have become a significant force for greater political openness, transparency and accountability in China's political system."
In Eastern Europe, she points out, environmentalists outraged by the Chernobyl nuclear accident and other cases of severe pollution became leaders in the reform movement that eventually brought down communism.
Will it happen in China? Mr. Wen is confident that Chinese NGOs "are continuing to build a civil society which is the foundation for eventual democracy." Meantime, he will be a warrior for nature.