In March 1994, a soft-spoken historian registered China's first legally recognized nongovernmental organizations ever, the environmental group Friends of Nature. Earlier that year, a subtle change in Chinese law authorized citizens to form their own NGOs, albeit with government permission and oversight, opening the door to a new era of citizen participation in China.
Today there are more than 3,000 registered environmental groups in China. And that soft-spoken historian, Liang Congjie, is acknowledged as the godfather of modern Chinese environmentalism. Liang died Thursday in a Beijing hospital from complications from a lung infection. He was 78.
Liang was a reluctant crusader. The grandson of a famous Qing dynasty reformer exiled for 14 years after proposing the imperial throne make way for a constitutional monarchy, and the son of prominent architect who angered Mao and was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, Liang knew from his earliest days the heartache and personal sacrifice that could accompany taking a stand in China. His father had campaigned vigorously to preserve the historic city walls of old Beijing - and lost. As a university professor in the turbulent 1980s, Liang kept company with such reform-minded thinkers as Dai Qing, an outspoken journalist who led a campaign for more open and aggressive reporting on geologic problems associated with the proposed Three Gorges Dam; such friends convinced Liang to step into the fray.
While Dai was later jailed (ten months in a maximum security prison in 1989), Liang managed to figure out how to network, organize, and have an impact in China without become a martyr and without going to prison. He was no doubt aided, even sheltered, by his lofty lineage and his connections with China's elite. While the crackdown of 1989 shuttered much public debate in China, environmentalism remained as one of the few causes around which it was relatively safe to organize; some of Liang's early followers were students and scholars involved in the democracy movement of the late 1980s.
Liang inspired a generation of young environmental leaders in China. Many of his disciples went on to found other leading groups in China, such as Yang Xin of Green River Network in Chengdu and Tian Dasheng of Green Volunteer League in Chongqing. Liang also demonstrated to officialdom that they need not view the mere existence of citizen groups as an outright threat. Even as Liang's fame grew throughout China, and internationally, he kept a relatively low profile, not authoring provocative tracts, and still riding his bicycle to his cramped office in downtown Beijing. In accepting a public service award in 2000, Liang spoke with characteristic humility: "China faces severe environmental problems and we have done too little. This honor today is not so much a reward for our achievements, as it is a reminder to us to do more." He added: "In such an era, we can choose a different life."
Over time, Liang extended his work from environmental education to more ambitious goals. In the 1990s, his Friends of Nature supported citizen groups campaigning to save the endangered Tibetan antelope from poachers in western China. In the mid 2000s, Friends of Nature played a role in coordinating a path-breaking national campaign to stop the construction of two large planned dams on China's last wild river, the Nujiang, and on a scenic section of the Yangtze called Tiger Leaping Gorge, both relatively untouched and rich in biodiversity. The activists were successful. In early 2004, Premier Wen Jiabao personally intervened to place the Nujiang dam plans on hold. Today Liang's group is working with other green groups in Beijing to promote environmental information transparency in China - and to reach out to Western consumers with information about the environmental footprint of products made in China.
In spite of these successes, Friends of Nature operates with substantial restrictions - on fundraising, on organizing new branches, on free speech. But it continues to attract bright and idealistic young workers. On a cold February morning in 2007, I visited Friends of Nature's Beijing office, a cramped courtyard house painted red, with bicycles parked outside. Elaborate murals of green vines with tendrils and blue and gold flowers adorned the inside walls, beside computer stations where young staffers and volunteers were busy typing away. Though I did not meet Liang, who was then traveling, I could see his impact in the enthusiasm and optimism of the young environmentalists working with him. Many of them were in college or just out. They gave me a pair of shiny, metal reusable chopsticks, wrapped in a green cloth with the Friends of Nature logo, and told me how many forest acres were cleared annually to supply China with disposable wooden chopsticks. Their determined, pioneering spirit - quite different from the common depictions we often see of a supposedly downtrodden or overly materialistic Chinese citizenry - reminded me of the idealism seen on American college campuses. Their spirited work wouldn't have been possible 20 years ago in China - and almost surely wouldn't be today, had it not been for Liang's leadership.
As Wen Bo, a 30-something activist in Beijing who has made environmentalism his career, puts it: "He inspired and mentored generations of young students to pursue a career in environmental field and take jobs at green groups .... Through his political and social influence and personal status, he was able to defend the right of existence of a truly Chinese environmental NGO."
In America, it's easy to take blue skies and the right to campaign for granted; in China, Liang Congjie stood up bravely for both.