Between March and June of 2003, the Huadian Group and Yunnan provincial government established the Yunnan Huadian Nujiang Hydropower Development Corporation, which would be in charge of building “two reservoirs and thirteen dams along the middle and lower reaches of the Nujiang” .
As a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, the Nu River “flows through the Gaoligong Mountain Nature Conservation Zone...[which possesses] 6000 types of advanced plants and 25 percent of the wild animal [species] in China” (ibid). As such, and due to the potential displacement of more than 50,000 people (mainly ethnic minorities), the dam project ignited bitter public controversy. In light of a paradigmatic shift in central government policy that had taken place earlier that year – from achieving rapid economic growth at all costs towards the pursuit of “scientific development” (“Scientific Concept of Development,” 2014), alongside the momentous passage of the EIA Law in September 2003, SEPA was able to legally express its “serious reservations” towards the Nujiang plan .
Opposition between different factions of the Chinese government (SEPA versus the Ministry of Water Resources and the National Development and Reform Commission) provided a further political opening for environmentalists to voice their discontent towards the government's plan to develop the Nujiang. Wang Yongchen, founder of the environmental NGO Green Earth Volunteers (GEV), seized this opportunity to mobilize the media, environmental NGOs and other environmentalists through hosting workshops and conference meetings, writing petition letters, and attending international meetings. During an international gathering of anti-dam activists in November 2003, green civil society actors from China gathered “signatures from NGOs from more than sixty nations on a petition to save the Nu River, which was then presented to UNESCO” .
Wang’s efforts enabled local opposition towards the Nujiang dams to coalesce around “a disparate group of scientists, academics, NGO activists and journalists, both inside and outside state employment” . While the network began by conducting its affairs informally, “core activists formalized their cooperation as the China Rivers Network (Zhongguo Hewang) in 2004”. Seven organizations constituted the network’s founding members, including “Friends of Nature, Global Village Beijing, Green Earth Volunteers, Green Watershed, the Institute for Environment and Development, Brooks Education Institute, and Wild China Films...[which were linked by] a hub-and-spokes structure consisting of a small secretariat and organizational members” based out of FoN’s office in Beijing (ibid).
Despite the active participation of prominent ENGOs such as FoN, GVB, and GEV, CRN did not achieve much success during the early days of its formalization. Members of CRN faced almost immediate retaliation from government authorities, with Green Watershed’s founder Yu Xiaogang losing his affiliation with the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences while having his passport confiscated for a year . Other network members faced similar reprisals, with GVB being accused of assisting in the promotion of “foreign agendas...[since] it receives funding from the Heinrich Boll Foundation, which is affiliated with the German Green Party...” .
As a result, GVB withdrew from CRN in order not to further jeopardize the organization’s own interests.
In light of “operational challenges and funding difficulties”, members of CRN agreed to “end formal operations and return to an informal structure like the one that had emerged organically in 2003” by January 2006 .
The efficacy of this informal anti-dam network remains to be seen, for despite its initial success in pressuring then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to halt the Nu dam projects in April 2004, China’s 12th Five-Year Plan specifies “restarting hydroelectric dam plans on the Nu river...[with] the development of the Nu once again [appearing] like a done deal” .