Outside the city of Dandong, in China’s far northeast, just across the border from North Korea, exists one of China’s largest wetlands. Two hundred and fifty thousand acres are home to dozens of species, most notably a group of migratory birds called godwits that journey from New Zealand to Alaska every year, stopping in the wetlands for a two-week break each spring before resuming their flight for Alaskan summertime.
A special area of fifty thousand acres where the birds migrate isn’t open to tourists, doesn’t advertise, and until recently wasn’t known to many nature conservancy groups operating in China—all traits of the man who protects it: billionaire Wang Wenliang.
Wang was a little-known Chinese entrepreneur, running a private construction company until this spring, when his $2 million donation to the Clinton Foundation created headlines in the U.S. Media reports noted his relationship with the Chinese government. Wang’s construction firm built the new Chinese embassy in Washington D.C. and, according to his official biography, Wang once worked within China’s government, serving as an economic advisor to the municipal government in his home province of Liaoning before leaving to start the construction company in 1998. He later came to control the port in his hometown of Dandong (although a company controlled by the local government still owns 20%). Wang is now worth $2 billion, according to the Hurun Report.
Recently, Wang has donated to Harvard, New York University, and the Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. The giving has raised questions. Who is this businessman? What are his motivations? Who is he trying to influence?
The same questions surround his conservation project in China.
The wetlands represent one of the few areas under protection by private business in China. Wang’s company spends $2 million a year to upkeep his portion (50,000 acres, equal to 80 square miles, out of a total of 250,000 acres, 400 square miles, most of which the local government oversees), according to Song Peiran, a vice president in Wang’s Dandong Port Group.
Five years ago, Wang spent $8 million buying out fish and shrimp farms working in the waters. A few remaining holdouts agreed not to shoot or trap the birds like they had in the past to avoid losing their fish to the birds. The area is home to hundreds of types of plants, 44 bird species, 88 types of fish, and 54 types of small mammals.
Philanthropy remains rare in China, and conservation projects are even rarer—the effort against shark fin soup led by former NBA star Yao Ming is one of a few examples. Ming Sung, who leads the Clean Air Task Force Asia Pacific region, had dinner with Wang ten days ago before visiting the wetlands, where he saw the godwits before they resumed their flight to Alaska. Sung’s NGO is partnering with Wang to reduce greenhouse gases at the port.
Sung says he and other guests were skeptical about Wang’s intentions. “I asked, `What’s in it for you?’” Sung says. “He said he wanted to do good for his future generations.” Sung remembers Wang assuring the small dinner crowd he wasn’t interested in opening the area to floods of tourists or commerce. “He said he just wanted to protect his hometown.”
It may be about making up for the past, too. Before Wang started the wetlands conservation project five years ago, he was involved in reforming a government-owned paper factory in the city of Dandong, which sourced its material from the wetlands area. The factory was eventually closed for environmental reasons.