Changing China

Giant on the move

Explorer running with the torch

June 30, 2008

Pupils raise their handmade model torches of 2008 Beijing Olympic Games to celebrate torch relay in China at a primary school in HuzhouWong How Man is one of China’s best known and most active explorers, whose accomplishments include an expedition that discovered a new source of the Yangtze, China’s longest river.   

More recently the Hong Kong native and his group, China Exploration & Research Society, have taken on a number of conservation projects in Tibetan areas of China — work that helped him land a spot as an Olympic torch runner last week.

Wong, one of Time magazine’s Asian heroes, carried the torch briefly on a section of the route in Qinghai province — home to many Tibetans — on June 23, opting for the lower-key destination to draw attention to his work rather than the more controversial leg in Tibet.

He wrote an e-mail about his experience to Reuters Taiwan bureau chief, Doug Young:

Q: Can you give some quick thoughts on the experience?   

A: Outside of Everest and Lhasa, this is highest relay site (Shangri-la is about same elevation as Qinghai Lake).  Again, not counting Everest, this is only site in a natural setting and synonymous with much of my work, dealing with nature, wildlife and culture.  

Q: What were some of the most enduring memories you took away from your participation?  

A: We had 162 torchbearers at this site, each running for 38 meters.  Took me exactly 38 steps and just under half a minute …. like to think that is the most important 38 meters I have run, but then my final approach to both the Yangtze and Mekong sources also count as important, if not more so. 

It was great to see that those 15 nominated by Coca-Cola came from all walks of life, including many many young people and students.  I at first thought most candidates would be gov’t officials monopolizing the few places, and that turned out to be not the case.  Met many wonderful people, from different parts of China …. but the best positions, at the starting point and finish line, were all kept for local Tibetans …. that is great arrangement.  There were also a couple of foreign runners.  

Q: Did you feel any political element in what you were doing, or did this seem like a purely non-political event? Do you think people will criticize you for taking part in such a controversial relay and, if so, what would you say to the critics?  

A: Too many police escorts and security measures, making an otherwise festive event into a high risk occurance. This I must blame on people who over-politicize the torch run.  I have conducted dozens of projects in Tibetan areas over almost 30 years if I care to count them. 

But I think if we were to take out all the noisemakers from those who have actually contributed definitively to betterment of Tibet and Tibetans, I am afraid we may be left with a decimal point of what all those involved in the Tibetan cause and movement.  This is the most political torch run I have seen in my adult life. 

China has improved a great deal since my first visit 34 years ago.  Though there are still much room for improvements, I have seen tremendous changes, especially over the last ten years.  But outsiders who knew little are not only impatient, but at times down right ignorant! 

I have a center run all by Tibetan staff, except one staff who belongs to another minority group.  We have great trust and respect for each other, so I feel a bit more entitled to speaking up, ready to be in the crossfire.  The few who made complaints or disturbances have compromised all other Tibetans, and put us backward in progress and peace for the entire Tibetan region.  

Q: Was there any media at the event? Do you think this will help draw attention to some of the causes that you’ve been working with these last few years?   

A: I did not usually talk to media … this is one of the few exceptions … I get more done by doing it quietly … noisemakers have little time remaining to act …

Q: Why is it important for you to “discover” the sources of these major rivers in China? Do you think China minds the fact that a non-Chinese is leading these important discovery expeditions in China?   Well-wishers wave flags as they welcome the Olympic torch relay in Yuncheng

A: I am Chinese, born and raised in Hong Kong, educated in the US, and hope to contribute to the advancement of China and betterment of all Chinese.  Almost all great rivers of Asia starts from the Tibetan plateau.  I believe we can all protect these sacred places together, as their drainage area affects hundreds of millions of people, maybe over a billion….  

Picture of schoolchildren with homemade torches in in Huzhou, Zhejiang province by China Daily, enthusiastic crowd in Yuncheng, Shanxi Province by Reuters stringer.


strong statements about who’s to blame, but very accurate.

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