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The Road Ahead: The First Green Long March

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Movie cover for "The Road Ahead." There is a young woman holding a small wheel. DIRECTED BY RYAN WONG



Reviewed by Anita Peters

The Road Ahead: The First Green Long March depicts the birth of a grassroots environmental youth movement by civic-minded young people in China. What does it mean to be civic-minded in twenty-first century China? How do citizens create social change from the bottom up in a state controlled society? What are the risks? These are just some of the questions I would discuss with my students before presenting the film.

For two weeks, 500 student activists recruited at twenty-two universities follow ten different routes within each of the ten ecological zones in China. China’s State Forestry Administration and an American non-governmental organization (NGO), Future Generations, jointly organized the project. The students’ mission was to survey and research local conditions, interview citizens, and promote environmental awareness. The Road Ahead records those experiences of fifty-nine university students from Beijing’s Forestry University, told by the students themselves, genuinely, and without self-censorship. These students are much like young college students anywhere: full of hope, enthusiasm, optimism, and suggestions, and this element alone makes it a useful film for the classroom. It is easy to identify with them as they express empathy, surprise, frustration, anger, and spontaneity. On a trip to the disappearing grasslands in Mongolia for example, a student leader describes how their plan to interview local inhabitants was inhibited by the presence of their host, a local official, and indeed this is apparent as you watch the interactions of student, farmer, and host. The students portrayed here see themselves as vanguards of social and even political change, a view rooted in the student movements of twentieth century Chinese history. At one point in the film, you may even think you are watching the unleashing of a new “Green Guard” movement, but the slogans and fists are more reminiscent of a pep rally than a revolution.

The in-country director of Future Generations, Frances Fremont-Smith, explains that in China today “the historic meaning of the Long March is one of perseverance, striving for something better, striving for what you believe in.” The reference to the Long March refers to the 1934–35 military retreat of the Chinese Communists to Yan’an in Shaanxi after the collapse of the first United Front. Those who survived persevered and formed the revolutionary core of the Party that was ultimately victorious. The ecological challenges facing China do seem daunting, both to local citizens and the students. In China’s Green Long March, the enemy becomes the enormity of the environmental challenge. The students, like the Communists before them, are persevering in the face of adversity, and their universities represent a Yan’an-like retreat where successful solutions may one day be hatched.

This film will engage both high school and university students and provides an excellent segue into a number of contemporary and historical topics as suggested in this review. The “Green Long March” is an annual event, and it may be the inspiration for a collaborative learning project with a university or secondary school in China. Geography teachers will appreciate the visual introduction to the huge variety of Chinese landscapes. Language teachers interested in contemporary materials can acquire the marchers’ diaries, press clippings, and reports from the first march in a book series by the China Environmental Science Press. Political scientists, historians, social scientists, and human rights activists will find the film provocative. The Road Ahead, allowing China’s youth to speak for themselves, provides an alternative view to the common media portrait of a polluting superpower.

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