CDB Editorial: Liang Congjie

China Development Brief, no. 48 (Winter 2010)

中文 English

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.

 中国发展简报 2010冬季刊第48卷2010年10月28日,民间环保组织——自然之友创会会长梁从诫先生溘然长逝,享年78岁。他最后一次抱病出现在公众视线里,是2009年3月自然之友成立十五周年座谈会。  1994年3月,由于深感中国的环境危机日益严峻,已是耳顺之年的梁从诫放弃了坐而论道的历史学研究,起而行之与三位同道创办了自然之友。此举开创了他个人人生破冰之旅的新起点,同时在当时敏感逼仄的社会空间之下,开启了公众自下而上参与环保的大门。他和自然之友坚持不懈力的环境教育和意识启蒙,后来逐步生发为全面影响中国社会的环境运动。“环保行动不是轻柔的田园诗。”除了长期坚持的各种形式的常规环境教育,他和环保同仁还发起和推动了保护川西洪雅天然林行动、保护云南德钦滇金丝猴行动、可可西里反盗猎拯救藏羚羊行动,他还以全国政协委员的身份,提案推动首钢搬迁,在中国的民间环保历史上留下了清晰的脚印。1999年5月,67岁的梁先生亲赴海拔近4000米、空气稀薄的“索南达杰”保护站,亲手点燃火把,把从盗猎分子手中缴获的藏羚羊皮付之一炬。2001年3月围绕北京京密引水渠河道治理问题与市政府的“对话会”上, 梁先生和其他环保领袖与某位市领导针锋相对,据理力争。

无论是和风细雨的环境教育,还是以公共事件,或以体制内建言政府的形式表现的公民动员和政策参与,在一次次洗礼中触动了公民环保和环境权利意识的觉醒,推动着中国社会公共空间的形成。

梁先生生前最为经典的一张照片,是他在街头推着一辆自行车,面带梁氏“招牌”的平和微笑。他骑车出席全国政协会议,有过被门卫拦下的经历,和他有关的其他环保“小事”,也多得数不过来:在家里循环利用生活用水,外出自带筷子和饭勺……在他身体力行、简单朴实的生活背后,是一种以信念为支撑的坚持。正如梁先生所说,环保“不求波澜壮阔,但的确需要水滴石穿的耐心”。或许,业外人士无法了解的是,照片中的他其实笑得并不轻松,他的微笑背后承载着对中国环境危机的重负和担忧。

作为睿智、谦和而又风骨尚存的公共知识分子,除了开创性地以民间形式推动环保,梁先生还试图在当下这个浮躁的社会中,以身体力行的方式对国人进行道德与精神重塑。

2010年11月2日梁先生的告别仪式简朴而庄重,前来道别的人群依依不舍。12月5日,自然之友又举行了隆重的追思会,三百多位来宾既有环保同仁,也有来自其他领域的朋友。梁先生生前面对强权秉持独立、不亢不卑,内心装满平民化的草根情怀和为社会勇于担当的责任感,梁先生的影响早已跨越了环保领域,而成为公民社会的一种共同的精神象征。

相比传统的慈善领域以扶贫济困为基本出发点,环保领域更适合作为公民参与和民主善治的试验场。如今,环保已成为基本国策和全民共识,环保涉及不同的利益相关者,关乎发展与公平发展和公民权利的平衡。环保NGO价值理念的批判性对GDP至上的发展主义构成一种挑战和修正,使公众参与的话语,实际上能够较多地体现在环保领域。如果用当下非常主流的语记——“创新”来衡量环保NGO在国家转型中的价值意义,它们所推动的公众参与,它们所试图着力于的中国善治进程,正是对我们习以为常的自上而下的传统治理模式的创新。

梁先生驾鹤西去,他的身影背后,是越来越多的关注和思考中国命运并开始行动的人们。

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Translated by Sophie Chadd

Reviewed by Aaron Aber

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