by Sheng Mingming 2004/08/20 12:10
YNET.com BEIJING TODAY
“We are advocates of controlled consumption, not suspension of development,” he says. “ Pursuing tculture of waste is a dead end for China. If everyone tries to have a life like that, our future is bleak.”
It’s easy to miss Liang Congjie in a crowd. There’s nothing immediately striking about the soft-spoken 72-year-old history professor with wire-framed glasses and silver-streaked hai But Liang’s activism speaks for itself: he is a leader in the fight to preserve China’s environment.
While his counterparts in the West were chaining themselves to trees and challenging whale boats in rubber dinghies, Liang has pursued a more cautious and pragmatic approach, trying to educate China’s public and working with the state-run media.
Looking like anyone’s grandfather well into his retirement years, Liang, a descendant of Lang Qichao (a prominent reformer of the late Qing Dynasty), never expected to be one of the foremost spokesmen and champions of environmentalism in Asia.
A Beijing native, Liang used to be a professor of history at the Academy for Chinese Culture and he also edited several encyclopedias on China. But while most of his contemporaries were contemplating retirement, Liang found himself increasingly concerned by China’s looming environmental problems, particularly in the midst of the construction boom of the 1990s. Driven by his love of nature, as well as a deep sense of social responsibility, Liang set is sights on cleaning up China.
Hearing about international groups like Greenpeace, Liang had wondered “Why not in China?”& amp;nbsp;So he and a group of friends began exploring ways for the public to get involved in environmenl protection. He found that creating a non-governmental organization (NGO) would be the most effective way to reach the largest number of fellow Chinese. In 1993, he founded Friends of Nature (FON), China’s first enviromental NGO.
Liang, who is also a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, used his personal status to gain governmental approval for the project. After a long, difficult year of meetings, his pla was finally approved and registered as the Academy for Green Culture, an affiliate of the Academy for Chinese Culture. It is now called Friends of Nature (FON), with Liang as president.
That was 10 years ago. Today, with several thousand members, FON serves as a model for many new environmental organizations in the country.
Progressive thought has been a trademark of Liang’s family for the past three generations. In he late 19th century Liang’s grandfather, Liang Qichao, served as a western-influenced reformer in the Qing Dynasty court and also a leader of the ill-fated 1898 eform movement aimed at introducing western political reforms to save the corrupt and ailing imperial system. Liang’s father Liang Sicheng, a renowned architect who served as a Beijing city planner after the establishment of New China in 1949, is remembered by Beijing residens for his efforts to save the capital’s ancient city walls, albeit unsuccessfully.
Liang’s gradual approach to change and his fight for nature Chinese-style distinguished him from the failed efforts of his forebears. Heis by no means an eco-warrior. And despite his mission to protect the environment, Liang is sensitive to the debate over human needs versus environmental demands.
“It’s really a dilemma,”& amp;nbsp;he says, “but to me it’s aer of time. If you destroy your resources now, your children will suffer. You will not be so poor, but your children will be even poorer. But I know it’s difficult, so I always make sure I avoid empty ‘Green’ words, sans that have no practical value. We have to work very hard to solve problems pragmatically.”
Convincing peasants in their township and village enterprises to give up new and prospering – but equally polluting – indtries isn’t easy. But Liang believes that through open dialogue rather than preaching, FON can change people’s habits.
Unlike his ancestors, Liang has learned to pick his battles well. He believes in being on good terms with the government because it has the regulatory power to improve the environment. On the other hand, FON also acts as an important watchdog of public environmental policies.
“ Radical activism is not practical in China. We have to find another way of doing it, a more Chinese way.” Deciding that there was more than one way to save the Earth, Liang chose to bece a critical voice of reason with an emphasis on education, dialogue and cooperation.
At present, Chinese environmental NGOs focus on three main areas: seeking to educate and guide the public, promoting public involvement and communicating with the government on environmental protection policy issues. They also monitor what is happening in the field of environmental protection and help enterprises develop a greater concern for environmental issues.
Liang believes that differences over government policies can be expressed in an atmosphere of principled compromise, if it is done properly. There are over 2,000 environmental NGOs in China and millions of participants who spend their time and money reclaiming wasteland, observing birds, planting trees and protecting endangered animals. They also work to establish green communities. Liang feels that FON can model this behavior for others to follow, and that this is a very important contribution in its own right.
Although Liang is a self-declared moderate, the very nature of his cause, which is usually unpopular, has earned him and other colleagues many enemies, even anonymous threats.
Still, Liang is optimistic that the tide will soon turn in favor of environmental causes. “I can see a real difference since we started our work, especially in public atitudes towards environmental issues. People are more sympathetic, more thoughtful, more understanding.”
Befriending Blair and Clinton
Through effective partnerships with senior journalists, FON has been able to expose illegal logging that nearly caused the extinction of a rare monkey species, illegal poaching of the endangered Tibetan antelope, and large-scale deforestation and pollution threatening the steppe in Inner Mongolia. The group is also an outspoken critic of industrial pollution around the country.
Liang drew attention to the fashionable Shatoosh scarves made from the hair of the endangered Tibetan antelope by writing to British Prime Minister Tony Blair in early 1999, calling on the British Government to raise public awareness to help protect this unique animal. In a letter dated October 7, 1999, the British Prime Minister replied: “ I fully share your reulsion over the illegal slaughter of the antelopes and your concern about the future of the species. I will certainly bring your request to the attention of the environmental authorities in the UK and the European Union?
In July 1999, Liang also met US President Bill Clinton in a round-table discussion with six other Chinese environmental campaigners. At the meeting, which was held in Guilin in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Liang injected a dose of humor as he presented the US president with a photo of the endangered golden monkey, saying that man and the golden monkey are the only two primates with red lips. Clinton quickly responded, “ So that’my cousin!” Everyone laughed and the meeting concluded on a successful note one hour later.
Sowing green seeds
Liang insists that the only way to create lasting environmental improvement is to raise awareness and educate people, particularly the youth, to “patiently sow green seeds in people’s minds. We don’t want to provide people just with some technical knowledge. Instead, we try to modify people’s values and behavior.”
FON seeks to raise awareness through education in the classrooms, colleges and via community events. Their primary target is the younger generation, tomorrow’s leaders and activists, as well as tomorrow’s consumers and polluters.
Over the past 10 years, about 50,000 teachers, students and children have taken part in programs organized by FON. Each year, it offers two or three training camps for hundreds of interested students and other volunteers who go out to remote rural schools to teach children about environmental issues. Contrary to the traditional classroom approach, their style is highly participatory. FON also has two “ mobile classrooms” or vans called “Wild Pony” and “Antelope”. They drive around the country providing training to students and teachers.
One of FON’s programs is “ThBetter Environment Scheme,”& amp;nbsp;which is sponsored by Shell, to encourage primary and middle school students to design and implement environment protection projects in their own communities.
Along similar lines, FON plans to establish training centers to help teachers design new environment-oriented courses, including a variety of field trips for students that highlight the contrast between places of natural beauty and those degraded by human abuse. To disseminate information more broadly, FON plans to design a series of public-service messages for television broadcasts and local and national newspapers.
FON’s quarterly newsletter has a circulation of 3,00, with funds from paying members covering production costs. Additional funds for the education programme come from a broad mix of domestic and international companies, foundations and organizations.
Delivering this message to a country just waking up to environmental issues is an enormous and exciting task.
“I want to convey my gratefulness to the people who have supported us. As China rushes to modernize, awakening an environmenta consciousness in the Chinese people is more important than ever,” says Liang.
Work to the bone
Liang is the consummate workaholic. He puts in 65 hours per week on average, most of it spent in his office, which features souvenirs from his projects across China and a banner autographed by former US President Bill Clinton. As founder and president of Friends of Nature, Liang’s work sometimes requires him to travel to host forums and conuct research on environmental protection and sustainable development in China.
Most of the financial support for the organization comes from its founding members, particularly Liang and his wife. Along with an advisory board of a dozen other scholars, they direct the operations on a volunteer basis. The non-profit, public welfare organization is funded entirely by membership fees and public support. Liang’s success is all the more statling given that his 10-year-old group functions with only four paid staff members.
“Liang is a charismatic role model,” says Zhang Jilian, manager of the FON headquarters in Beijing, proudly pointing out that all sta business cards are printed on recycled paper. “ He personifies and epitomizes the spirit of Friends of Nature. It wouldn’t be what it is today without his efforts.
Liang’s work leaves him little time for his wife and aughter. Yet, for Liang, as a Chinese father, it is the least he can do. “ We have to ask ourselves, what kind of legacy will we hand on to our children?