BEIJING—On a Saturday morning in late August, about a dozen university students, professors, and middle-aged Beijing locals stand by a row of apartments in northwestern Beijing. Once an outskirt of the city known for its natural springs and reed-filled ponds, the area now looks just like another part of the sprawling capital: wide roads lined with set-back buildings, crowded with pedestrians. It’s home to some of China’s best schools, Peking and Tsinghua universities. One member of the group—an environmental society called the Green Earth Volunteers, led by one of China’s most well-known environmentalists, Wang Yongchen—asks a local if he knows how to get to the Wanquan River.
“That’s a river?” the man asks, and offers directions to what he says is a nearby ditch that sometimes puddles. After a few minutes, the Green Earth Volunteers arrive at a narrow canal holding a few centimeters of water. The bed of the Wanquan, which means “ten thousand springs,” is now paved over with concrete, the result of attempts to keep water from soaking into the ground when the canal was full. A pipe, once used to carry water into the small river, lies exposed to the sun, as do patches of dry ground. Ivy creeps along the sides of the canal, as if trying to reach what’s left of the water.