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Heroes, the costs

Heroes are made by their times. Reform and opening up created great opportunities for people to launch afforestation projects all across China’s northern tier.

Across the whole northern tier where the Green Great Wall was built, heroes came forth and trees sprouted up.

In 1989, Deng Xiaoping, the master architect of China's reform and opening up, wrote the name Green Great Wall for the northern tier afforestation project.

Baiquan County, Heilongjiang, lies at the eastern edge of the Three-North Shelterbelt project, and it once was noted for its extreme poverty. More than 20 years ago, the soil was eroding at an alarming rate, and if it kept up at that pace, the country would not have any arable land left in 200 years.

Wang Shuqing, then head of the Baiquan County government, organized a massive afforestation project. He laid out a grid over 3,600 sq km of land and led 560,000 people to plant trees. One afternoon he was nowhere to be seen, but was eventually found sound asleep in a manger.

Wang Shuqing greatly advanced ecological agriculture in Baiquan County, and it was the first county to plant more than 30,000 hectares of cultivated forest on the plains. The president of the University of Michigan came all the way from the United States to see his project and gave him a big hug, saying, "This is an enormous project. You’re a great leader."

Wang Shuqing said, "The fresh breeze of reform and opening up is blowing green over Baiquan."
Shi Guangyin said, "If it weren’t for the contract system, I could have never done what I did."

The northern tier afforestation project has already greened 26.47 million hectares of wasteland, If the trees are all lined up, three meters apart, then they are enough to circle the equator 2,300 times.

The land has undergone great changes and there is greenery everywhere. The army of afforestation volunteers has built a modern Chinese Green Great Wall, and now instead of people retreating as the desert advances, the desert is retreating as people advance.

Shi Guangyin: A Scots pine
On that cold morning in early spring 30 years ago, when Shi Guangyin first went to Dingbian County, Shaanxi, he couldn't dream that he would be a pioneer of joint household sand control work.

In order to contract 230 hectares of sandy land, Shi Guangyin sold his mules and sheep. All his friends thought he must have been kicked in the head by a donkey. None of them had ever seen a tree in the desert.
Everyone called Shi Guangyin a fool. If he sees something correct, he will get it done.

When he planted the tree seedlings, they lived much to the amazement of everyone who doubted him. Shi Guangyin grandly posted a help wanted notice at the door of the local government, announcing he would hire anyone who wanted to go with him to plant trees.

His followers quickly expanded from "seven warriors" to 127 households, who signed up and feverishly began planting trees in all the wholes they dug in the desert with the bestial name, Wolf Den.
However, this effort quickly ended in failure.

Contracting to afforest 4,000 hectares of desert turned out to be a perilous undertaking.

The first year was a failure, but he tried again the next year, and in the third year, he finally made it.

To celebrate, the heroes drank all the Baogu liquor they could find within a 20 km radius.

After drinking some 1.5 liters of liquor, Shi Guangyin mounted a mule to go and sow grass seeds. Just after getting started, he fell asleep drunk on the mule’s back.

The mule carried him all the way back home, which was more than 15 km, lay down and gently put Shi Guangyin on the ground.
The mule lived to the age of 25, and when it died in 2004, Shi Guangyin buried it in wolf den, which by then was surrounded by a lush green forest.

The tears of a hero wipe away years of suffering.

Shi Zhanjun, Shi Guangyin's only son, was killed in a traffic accident in 2008 while transporting tree seedlings. That was on Arbor Day.

This was the greatest blow Shi Guangyin suffered in his life. This strong and vigorous man could walk only with the help of two people holding him by the arm.

In the gallery devoted to Shi Guangyin's afforestation accomplishments, we look at Shi Zhanjun’s funeral photo and can tell he was very talented.

"Do you miss him?" I asked softly.
"Very much."

The smile on the face of Shi Guangyin suddenly frozen, and his misery can be detected in the tone of his voice.

The tree seedlings Shi Zhanjun was carrying that day have grown tall and lush, and they stand in their place in the vast shelterbelt blocking the wind.

Shi Guangyin often sits next to his son’s grave smoking and talking to him. It is only then that one can see that he has gotten old.

For more than 20 years, Shi Guangyin has led a large aforestation team, and in that time he and his team have built a greenbelt of more than 100 km long on the southern edge of the Mu Us Desert.

Zhang Shengying: A Populous simonii
Zhang Shengying said, "If it weren’t for institutional reform, the shore of Haba Lake would still be a wasteland."

Zhang Shengying steadily carried out reform in the Haba Lake Forest in Ningxia. He crashed the "big rice bowl"--everybody eats in the same pot regardless of their performance and implemented the responsibility system, and by doing so enabled more than a thousand employees to have sufficient food.

A man whose interests were adversely affected by reform and opening up got drunk one day and attacked Zhang Shengying's wife with a knife, blinding her in one eye.

Several years later the assailant's jail term was over and released. With nowhere else to go he returned to Haba Lake Forest and was grateful to be accepted back. He went to Zhang Shengying’s home, and when he was admitted, fell to his knees in repentance.

Zhang Shengying extended both hands to him…

The heart of a hero is vaster than the desert.

The costs
The reborn, ancient and solitary trees mentioned earlier all had different fates, but if they could come together and sing a lament for the vicissitudes faced in their harsh environment, what kind of sorrows would they voice?

Zhang Runyuan, an elderly tree planter from Gulang, Gansu, has lost three of his five tree-planting companions, whose graves all face the forest they spent half of their lifetime planting. He plans to be buried with them so his grave can face his life's work as well.

The afforestation team of Ji County, Shanxi, lost one of its leaders. When Guo Tiancai, head of the Forestry Department of Ji County, died in his beloved mountain forest, the whole city turned out for his funeral and strew white flowers along the length of the funeral procession.
The greatest wish of Liu Bin, the first head of the Liaoning sand stabilization institute, before he died was to forever care for the demonstration forest, so he was buried in a quiet spot in its thousand-hectare expanse.

These tough men who afforested these wastelands left an indelible mark writ in green on these wastelands as testimony to their life's work.

The stories of turning the desert green such as that of Bai Chunlan and her companions are much more abundant than these tragic tales.
Tree planters have an iron will. When Qiu Jiancheng, who's already 75 years with hair as white as snow, sees a tree that died, he is so distressed that he stamps his foot hard enough to kick up dust and says, "Someday I’ll plant trees again."

Rahman Amut braves the wind to carry a bucket of water to his solitary tree and tells it, "As long as I have a breath left in me, I won’t let you die."

The second spring after her son died, Bai Chunlan, who was even more lonely than the trees she planted, stood up again, put her pole on her shoulder and walked toward the desert.

But heroes will sometimes reveal their weaknesses.

After our interview with Bai Chunlan was over, she let slip a telling remark, "I make trees flourish, but not people."

At that moment, there was nothing we could say in reply. Behind her stood an old elm tree that she and her husband had planted with its leaves rustling in the breeze.

Still, stories of hope, of turning the desert green such as that of Bai Chunlan and her companions are much more abundant than these tragic tales.

Continued: The benefits and the Splendor of Life
Hero Zhang Shengying

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