A Grass-Roots Fight to Save a ‘Supertree’

Tall as a 15-story building, with a mighty trunk, crooked branches and kingly canopy of leaves, the London plane tree, Platanus x acerifolia, is prized by horticulturists and city planners as a “supertree,” immune to urban grime and smog.

Plane tree roadside trees
Michael Hitoshi | Photodisc | Getty Images
Plane tree roadside trees

But can it survive a development-hungry Chinese Communist Party? In Nanjing, a southeastern city of eight million people, the answer seems — for now — to be yes.

In a nation where homes and farmland are routinely chewed up for the sake of high rises and factories, a grass-roots campaign by Nanjing residents this spring to save hundreds of the trees, known here as the wutong, from a subway expansion might seem like a nonstarter. But the effort, organized mostly online, has led to a surprising compromise from local government officials.

It was not a shining example of democracy in action. But neither were ordinary citizens left fuming about power-drunk bureaucrats deaf to anyone below.

Maybe that is because some Nanjing officials consider the Communist Party’s credo of “supervision by the people” to be more than mere words. Or maybe it is because trees, in the scheme of development, provide an easy compromise.

Giants in the arboreal world, the wutongs were introduced in China by the French in the late 1800s or early 1900s to adorn their settlement in Shanghai, Nanjing officials say. In 1928 and 1929, Nanjing planted more than 20,000 saplings along Zhongshan Avenue, a road leading to the mausoleum of the anti-imperialist leader Sun Yat-sen, revered as the father of modern China.

Many more were reportedly planted after the Communists took power in 1949. The trees grew fast and provided shade during Nanjing’s scorching summers. And they became not just a symbol of Nanjing’s graceful beauty, but of its civic philosophy. China’s capital through multiple dynasties, Nanjing regards itself as a cultural haven. Its urban plan touts the city’s integration with mountains, rivers and trees.

Liu Hengzhen, a former military employee, planted wutongs in the 1950s. “They keep the whole city cool,” Mr. Liu, now 80, said as he played mah-jongg at a street cafe, its roof pierced by a massive wutong branch.

“The people of Nanjing grew up together with these trees,” said He Jinxue, the daily operations director for the city’s urban construction commission. “There is so much emotional attachment to them.”

That did not shield them from the onslaught of development. In 1993, more than 3,000 were felled virtually overnight to make way for the Shanghai-Nanjing Expressway. Nearly 200 more were removed to build Nanjing Subway Line Two in 2006.

Then, this year, came Subway Line Three, calling for more than 1,000 trees — mostly wutongs — to be beheaded, uprooted and plunked down elsewhere to make space for six above-ground stations in the city center.

Nanjing’s two existing subway lines, each carrying a million commuters a day, are not nearly enough, said Mr. He, the urban commission director. More than 10 new lines are planned, he said.

But once workers had reduced a first batch of 49 wutongs to trunks and a few feet of branches, the Chinese equivalents of Twitter rustled with more than 10,000 outraged messages. A schoolteacher organized students to tie green ribbons around some untouched trees.

Several celebrities weighed in, including Huang Jianxiang, a freelance television host and sports commentator whose Sina Weibo microblog is followed by more than five million people. So did a Taiwan legislator with the Kuomintang Party, which made Nanjing its headquarters until it was vanquished by the Communists in 1949.

Zhu Fulin, an enterprising reporter for the government-owned Nanjing Morning Post, traced the fate of 190 trees that had been moved elsewhere five years ago to construct Line Two. Despite the government’s pledge to protect and replant them, he found 80 of the wutongs languishing in a trash-strewn city field.

Saving the 'supertrees'

A tree expert said 20, at most, had survived. Weeks later, even those were being knocked down to make way for an expressway. Farmers drove off with truckloads of wood, saying it would make good tables.

Some critics were openly reluctant to press the government too hard. A local environmental group, Green Stone, posted tree photos on the Internet.

“We didn’t want to oppose what the government was doing,” Cui Yuanyuan, a staff member, said. “We just wanted to have a channel to communicate.” Other activists said the group was vulnerable because it was small and weak, and not registered as a nongovernment organization with the Chinese authorities.

Mr. Huang, the television celebrity, decided not to repost online calls for a street protest, fearful they would backfire. Yet hundreds gathered outside the city library on March 19 anyway, activists said, and the police dispersed the crowd within an hour. Censors ensured that the local news media ignored them.

But a chastened Nanjing government was already looking to compromise. Several days earlier, it had suspended the subway construction plan and announced the formation of a “green assessment committee” to review it.

The eight citizen members were outnumbered by nine experts — most from government bureaus or construction companies — and eight delegates to China’s handpicked legislative bodies.

A civics lesson it was not. The panel’s work took less than two days: one to tour subway station sites, and another to approve a predigested revision of the original plan. At the end of the second day, citizen members were summoned from the deliberations to receive envelopes of cash — compensation, it was said, for their transportation costs. And when it came time to vote, the group’s leader simply directed panel members to applaud if they had no objection.

“There was a two-second pause, and then clapping,” said one panelist, who asked not to be named because citizens were ordered not to talk to reporters. “There was no time for consideration. There was not a democratic decision.”

Nonetheless, she said, “I would still like to think of this as a step in the right direction.” Mr. Huang agreed. “In China, this process is not easy, so we have to take small baby steps.”

Under the new plan, Line Three will claim 318 trees, mostly wutongs, but it will spare more than two-thirds of trees that were to be moved. The city promised to give each uprooted tree a number and track its health wherever it is replanted. And henceforth, Mr. He said, every construction plan that affects ordinary citizens will first be reviewed by a green assessment commission.

Moreover, the government will get citizens involved before, not after, it digs up trees, he said. All in hopes of preserving a separate, arboreal peace.

Mia Li contributed research from Beijing, and Barclay Walsh from Washington.