As head of China operations for the California-based Pacific Environment group, Wen's job is to light sparks amid the darkness of public indifference. Grassroots environmental organizations are springing up, and Wen feeds them by allocating grants, typically $5,000-$15,000, provided by a Colorado charity called the Global Greengrants Fund. The sums may be small, but the impact is profound, says Nick Young, chief of the China Development Brief, which monitors mainland NGOs: "In his quiet way, Wen is one of the most important environmentalists in China. He's doing incredibly important long-term work to create a new generation of NGOs."
When he's not using funding as a carrot, Wen, 34, isn't afraid to reach for a verbal stick. He recently told the Los Angeles Times that the Chinese government's goal of achieving about 230 pollution-free days a year in Beijing in time for the 2008 Olympics was merely propaganda intended to lull the public into thinking the air is getting cleaner. Equally blunt, he says China's plans to build scores of nuclear reactors without local consultation are "irrational and undemocratic."
Such candor can be dangerous in China. In the past 18 months, journalists, religious figures, public advocacy lawyers and others, including an activist attempting to set up a Green political party, have been detained or jailed for speaking out. But Wen, a Dalian native who was inspired to take up the cause as a teenager after watching antiwhaling actions by Greenpeace on TV, argues that most local environmental groups are too timid to stir much public interest. "To get publicity in the Chinese media, you need the sort of provocative actions that Greenpeace used to do," he says. "Most groups don't want to do anything that would threaten their existence."
While he acknowledges that such an approach could draw the ire of local authorities, Wen notes that federal agencies such as the State Environmental Protection Administration are actually encouraging grassroots groups to expose environmental wrongdoing. "The problem isn't the limited space available for actions in China's civil society," he says. "[There is] room to take action if you are creative. You have to be bold." After all, he says, given the scale of the environmental problems China faces, "it's not as if we have much time left."