Interview with Shuang Zhang

Shuang Zhang believes that everyone has a natural affinity for the natural world, but some people, especially city dwellers, need to be reminded of it. He does a lot of prompting.

Shuang Zhang
China Program Director

"Our work really stimulates people, wakes people up, gets people out of their own boring lives."

You’ve said that Beijing residents talk a lot these days about environmental issues. How has the conversation changed during your lifetime?

Shuang Zhang:

Until the early ’90s, you needed a coupon to get food. Talking about anything other than very basic living needs was a luxury. So nobody talked about the environment.

People were talking about democracy, though. You were a high school student in 1989, during the Tiananmen Square massacre. What was your experience?

Shuang Zhang:

I started going there because of curiosity. I didn’t understand why people were gathered. After a while, I was persuaded. Then when I grew up, I looked back and thought risking their lives and my life for change with no clear direction was kind of naive. I saw people die; that’s really too much.

And yet I’ve heard you say that you admired their idealism.

Shuang Zhang:

Idealism is something very valuable; that’s the source that creates noble spirit in a society. The students valued something much higher, much more meaningful than money.
That has been underappreciated. If you walk down the street in Beijing today, you feel that everybody wants to be a billionaire.

Speaking of billionaires, the Conservancy’s board of trustees in China includes several. I’ve heard you say that you suspect they signed on out of boredom. What do you mean?

Shuang Zhang:

Everybody needs some new meaning or highlight in their life. Our work really stimulates people, wakes people up, gets people out of their own boring lives. Most business people have done extremely well—for themselves, their family and their employees. With the Conservancy’s work, we are doing well for a few billion people, for future generations. That’s much more meaningful.

You worked with several wealthy supporters to replicate a tried-and-true American approach to land protection in Sichuan Province. What have you been up to?

Shuang Zhang:

We are creating the first nongovernmental land trust to buy land. That’s still the Conservancy’s most successful and powerful tool. In China, where all nature preserves are managed and protected by the government, it’s revolutionary.

You’re looking at protecting more than 27,000 acres. Why is this place important?

Shuang Zhang:

It’s an area that has world-class biodiversity. If we acquire the land, we are connecting three different nature reserves that are there already. So it becomes a corridor. This is panda habitat.

Replicating the American land trust model in China is one of your dreams. What else do you aspire to?

Shuang Zhang:

Before I retire, I want to remove one dam from one river. To send a signal to the public, to start some different thinking.

Your wife, Qiaoyu Guo, also works for the Conservancy, leading its Yangtze River project. I bet you two talk shop a lot.

Shuang Zhang:

We had two serious fights in our relationship; both were about work. We decided not to talk about work at home.

Qiaoyu is a hydrologist; does that have anything to do with the decision to name your one-and-a-half- year-old daughter Xiaoyu (“little fish”)?

Shuang Zhang:

I was worried about coming up with a complicated name for her. Chinese are very extreme about setting expectations on their kids, and the expectation starts with the name. I’m trying to be simple and manage my own expectations. The only hope I have is that she be happy and healthy.

You’ve become kind of obsessive about her health. You check reports on Beijing’s air-quality index every hour. What else?

Shuang Zhang:

I got a HEPA air filter for every room of my house. We manage my daughter’s schedule; if the air quality is bad, we don’t stay outside for too long.

You studied in the United States, and you made sure your daughter was born in the United States. Why?

Shuang Zhang:

I’m a very international citizen. I love American culture and the U.S. education system, and I think about the air and water quality. I hope she can be a dual citizen. I want to provide her with more opportunity.

You gave your wife some advice when she was learning to ride a bicycle: You cautioned that if she focused on barriers along the route, she would have a hard time avoiding them. Better to keep her eyes on the road. How does that relate to your view of work?

Shuang Zhang:

That’s a story I learned from others but that I also use to teach my staff. Our work is really challenging. Everything we do in China faces a barrier. We are not fast-food delivery guys with a GPS unit that tells you exactly where to go and how long it will take. We are early explorers trying to figure out the way so others can follow. Our job is to find the way.

Interview by Courtney Leatherman


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