China Development Brief, no. 48 (Winter 2010)
This editorial on Liang Congjie, founder of Friends of Nature and one of the pioneers of the first generation of NGO activists in China is the first of the CDB editorials that we are providing on this website. These editorials represent the personal views and reflections of the CDB editors, who themselves are veteran observers of the NGO scene here in China. They are sometimes about NGOs themselves and sometimes about the larger social and political environment in which NGOs must operate.
On October 28th 2010, Mr Liang Congjie, the founding president of the environmental NGO – Friends of Nature (自然之友), died at the age of 78. He appeared ill in his last public appearance — the Friends of Nature 15th anniversary forum in March 2009.
In March 1994, due to the growing environmental crisis in China, Liang, already in his sixties, gave up his research work in history, and founded Friends of Nature with three peers. This event was the start of a new journey in his personal life, and it opened the door for public participation in environmental protection, which was still a sensitive issue at the time. Liang and Friends of Nature continued to promote environmental education and awareness, and gradually became an influential force in China’s environmental movement.”Environmental action is not a gentle idyll.” Apart from remaining committed to environmental education, he and his colleague initiated efforts to protect the natural forest in Western Sichuan and the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey. They also started an anti-poaching group to protect the Tibetan antelope. Using his position as a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) (全国政协), Mr. Liang pushed for the relocation of the massive Capital Steel plant in Beijing. His actions have left a clear footprint on China’s civil environmental protection history. In May 1999, the 67 year old Liang, stood at the “Suonandajie” Protection Station which is about 4,000 meters above sea level, and lit the torch that set fire to Tibetan antelope skins seized from poachers. In March 2001, at the Beijing municipal government’s “dialogue” about management of the Jingmi River, Liang and other environmentalists stood firm in their discussions with city leaders.
Whether through environmental education, public events, or making suggestions to the government about expanding the space for citizen participation, he tried again and again to awaken people’s awareness of environmental protection and rights, driving the formation of China’s public space.
During his lifetime, the most iconic picture of Liang is of him pushing his bicycle in the street, with his signature gentle smile on his face. When he rode his bicycle to CPPCC meetings, he was sometimes stopped by guards. Riding a bicycle was one of many “simple environmental actions” that Liang promoted. At home, he recycled water. When he went out to eat, he took his own chopsticks and spoon. The simple honest life he led reflects a belief in the power of persistence. As Liang said, environmental protection “does not require any grand actions, rather patience and persistence are what brings success.” Perhaps outsiders may not be able to see that behind his seemingly relaxed smile is a man weighed down by the burden of taking on the environmental crisis in China.
In addition to pioneering the promotion of environmental protection through a NGO, Liang was seen as a farsighted, modest, gentle, and esteemed public intellectual possessed with both strength and character. Leading by example and encouraging people to rethink their morals and lifestyle, Liang tried to change China’s impulsive society.On November 2, 2010, at Liang’s simple and solemn farewell ceremony, those in attendance reluctantly said goodbye. Friends of Nature held a solemn memorial service on December 5, with over 300 colleagues and friends attending. During his lifetime Liang had the power to stand alone, neither haughty nor humble. With his concern for ordinary citizens and a strong sense of responsibility to society, Liang’s impact goes beyond the field of environmental protection. He has become a symbol of civil society’s spirit.
Compared to traditional areas of charity such as poverty alleviation, the field of environmental protection is more suitable as a testing ground for citizen participation, democracy and good governance. A national policy consensus has developed around environmental protection in China that involves different stakeholders and striking a balance between equitable development and civil rights. Environmental NGO values upholding public participation constitute a critical challenge to and revision of the GDP growth doctrine. If we use the currently popular term “innovation” (chuangxin) to measure the value of environmental NGOs in China’s transition, their efforts to change the top-down traditional model of governance that we have grown so accustomed to can indeed be described as innovative.
With Liang’s passing away, he leaves behind a growing number of people who he has inspired to think about the fate of China and its people, and to take action.