Rivers as Bridges delegation including DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp (center standing).
DNR Secretary builds Wisconsin–China relationships through youth and education
Rivers as Bridges trip fosters environmental cooperation and commerce.
Story by Xin Wang • Photos by Rick Otis
Back from her first trip to China, DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp carries lasting memories not only of a Beijing duck roast and visiting the Great Wall, but also of her interactions with the people there, especially youth.
In March 2013, accompanied by nine high school and college students from Wisconsin and Iowa and other professionals, Stepp headed a new kind of trade mission — one based on long–term relationship building with a heavy emphasis on youth and schools. The nine–day visit included stops in four major Chinese cities, including Beijing and Shanghai.
"I met hundreds of people there," recalls Stepp. "Government officials, experts, teachers and high school students. It was an extraordinary experience for me."
This mission was organized by Rivers as Bridges (RAB), an Appleton–based nonprofit that seeks to strengthen the people–to–people connection between China and the United States through projects in culture, conservation and commerce in Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. Travel was supported by the Environment and Public Health Network for Chinese Students and Scholars (ENCSS), one of RAB's China partners.
Sharing environmental issues
One goal of this mission was for participants to better understand natural resources in both countries and to share experiences that can help China tackle its environmental puzzles, particularly freshwater issues. When Stepp set foot in China, she says that she was struck by the harsh reality of water challenges facing China.
As China's population and urbanization expand, its thirst for water grows. Although it is the world's largest water consumer, China's freshwater resources are just a quarter of the world average per capita. Beijing, like other northern cities where the lack of rainfall makes water even scarcer, has to satisfy its exploding population by transferring water from the relatively water–rich south through a gigantic national project.
A cost of its growing economy also comes in the form of severe water pollution. It is estimated that more than 70 percent of China's rivers and lakes are contaminated and "20 percent were so polluted, their water quality was rated too toxic even to come into contact with," according to a Chinese national newspaper.
To gain more insight into the local water treatment and management, Stepp visited colleges, environmental agencies, technology parks and local governments and shared ideas with professionals there.
"There is a difference between having the ability to build something and using knowledge to run it," says Stepp. "I was impressed by how much the local officials and university folks know about the pollutants and nutrient loading of their water. They are able to build a wastewater treatment plant, but there are challenges to finance its operations and manage it like an operating system."
The urge for China to develop new technology, educate the public and safeguard the environment is mounting. Tsinghua University, one of the most renowned Chinese universities, is located in Beijing. It has taken the lead in clean water technology and innovation, and is where Xiaojun Lu, the president of ENCSS–China, works.
Incorporated in the 1990s, Tsinghua University Science and Technology Research Park is one of the first national university science parks in China that endeavors to serve high–tech research companies. It partners with the Tsinghua University School of Environment, conducting projects in water pollution control, wastewater treatment and other environmental areas.
In her visit to Tsinghua University, Stepp talked with some environmental professors about their programs.
"I felt they had such care for the environment and they want to change a lot of ways the government is addressing environmental issues," she says.
Stepp hopes Wisconsin's clean water technology and programs could provide some lessons for China.
Wisconsin has a concentration of companies addressing the full circle of water worldwide. Under the federal Clean Water Act, Wisconsin has seen a dramatic change in its water quality with advancing technology over the last 40 years.
"We had much expertise and experience here that we could share in a much more productive way with them," Stepp says.
She visited the Minhang District Water Management and Treatment Bureau in Shanghai. Minhang District government has long been a partner with the University of Wisconsin (UW–Madison) Law School's East Asian Legal Studies Center. Over the years, Minhang has sent interns to the Department of Natural Resources to learn about pollution control and policies.
Like many other westerners who land on this ancient oriental nation, Stepp's trip aroused curiosity and welcome from the local Chinese people.
"The people are warm, gracious and kind. I've never been treated like that anywhere before," Stepp recalls. "It's also interesting that there seemed to be very little interactions with westerners there and I was always stopped and asked to take a picture with people, hundreds of times."
Promoting people–to–people connection is key. Throughout the trip, Stepp and the American students had many talks with their Chinese peers and learned from each other.
"The high school students [in China] were the highlight of my trip," Stepp says. "The youth were very inspiring and their questions were so insightful, standing on a firm base of knowledge and understanding of what's going on in the world."
Stepp recalled a moment she shared with a Chinese boy after she gave a speech in Xiamen, a coastal city in southeastern China, which is across the sea from Taiwan.
"When I was done speaking, one student came to me and asked, ‘What can young people like us do to make changes?' I answered, ‘You are getting educated. You care about your people. Maybe one day I'll see you on the television and you will be the new leader in China and bring the new things.' He walked away for a minute and suddenly ran back to me. He grabbed my arm and asked, ‘Did you really mean that I can do that?' I said, ‘Absolutely you can do that.'
"I felt like the whole purpose of my trip could just be that one moment. You lit a light in someone's heart," Stepp says, clearly moved by the memory.
Rooted in a different culture, Stepp notes that it took some time for her to become accustomed to the Chinese way of socializing, such as recognizing the order of people to speak to and some hidden rules of making a remark among a group of people.
"The people–to–people relationship there is so important and it's very different from the United States," she says. "For example, in the United States you tend to express your ideas whenever you want to, while in China you tend to wait before you speak.
"Two or three days later I got the hang of their way," she adds. "It's really fascinating to be a part of their culture and see how I can fit in."
As part of the Rivers as Bridges program, Stepp's visit to China is linked to the 50th anniversary of the Shanghai Communiqué in 2022. The Communiqué was signed by the American and Chinese governments in 1972 to foster collaboration and prosperity between the two nations.
"The message from the trip is how we build more and more people–to–people relationships. If we do that, we will overcome the packaging of the governments. That is what I think the Shanghai Communiqué talks about," Stepp says.
Along with environmental goals, Stepp also carried invitations for long–term partnerships in culture, education and businesses. The Wisconsin delegation met with Chinese business and government to consider the chances of developing commercial ties. More concrete plans or agreements are yet to be drawn out.
"We are still early in these stages," Stepp says. "There are many things being worked out outside the Department of Natural Resources for cooperative efforts. We are working on several of those through the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. They have opened up some doors and signed some agreements and MOUs (Memorandum of Understanding).
"In conjunction with the economic theme, weeks later in April, Governor Scott Walker led another trade mission to China to explore business opportunities for improving China's water supply.
For the younger generation, the Department of Natural Resources is opening up internship opportunities for Chinese students and supports exchange programs between Chinese and U.S. students. During the summer of 2013, more than 100 Chinese students participated in a natural resources exploration trip in the Midwest.
"What we can bring to them are the hands–on projects that they lack in China," Stepp says. "It was important to see education combined with real life application sciences that get people out into the fields to do water quality studies. We could be very helpful in providing real world experience."
Stepp says her trip to China was life–altering.
"It even changed the way I view my job here," she says. "I wish more people could go there to see what China is like. It just totally changed the way you view China and U.S. relations from the newspapers."
Xin Wang is an editorial intern with Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine. She is a graduate student studying journalism at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She participated in the 2013 Rivers as Bridges trip.