On a personal note, Liang Congjie is one of the few first-generation NGO founders that I never had a chance to interview due to his illness. I hope to gain a better understanding of this fascinating man and his impact through the eyes of those who were close to him.
November 1, 2010
On October 28, 2010, Liang Congjie died in a Beijing hospital after a long illness. His death marks the passing of one of the leading lights of the first generation of civil society activists in China. Amid all the post-Nobel Peace Prize buzz about Liu Xiaobo who received the award for advancing “fundamental human rights in China,” Liang’s life and legacy should be remembered and celebrated for contributing to the same cause. His work as one of the founders of Friends of Nature has been less dramatic than Mr. Liu’s but equally important in advancing many of the human rights laid out in the Charter 08 document that Liu coauthored.
Since its founding in 1994, Friends of Nature has been the standard-bearer for a rapidly growing community of environmental NGOs and activists that is widely-regarded as the most independent, assertive and successful civil society sector in China. As the head of Friends of Nature, Liang emerged as one of China’s leading public intellectuals and advocates on behalf of environmental protection and civil society.
Mr. Liang’s distinguished pedigree is already known to many. He was the grandson of Liang Qichao, the famous Qing-dynasty reformer, and son of Liang Sicheng, a famous architect known for his work in trying to preserve Beijing’s city walls, and Lin Huiyin, a poet and writer who contracted tuberculosis during the war and died in 1955 when Liang was 23.
Liang followed in the footsteps of his parents, training to be an academic, but for the next few decades, did nothing particularly remarkable. During the 1950s, he studied history in college and entered graduate studies at Beijing University but his studies were interrupted by the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. In 1958, he was assigned to Yunnan University to work as a lecturer. During the Cultural Revolution, he was sent down to the countryside in Jiangxi for nine years. In 1978, he was allowed to return to Beijing where he was offered a position as editor of a general knowledge magazine, Encyclopedic Knowledge.
Liang’s big break came in 1988 when some prestigious intellectuals set up the private Academy of Chinese Culture, and invited Liang to join them. Liang accepted, quitting his position at Encyclopedic Knowledge. It was a risky move but as he said later, “I gained my freedom.” Shortly thereafter, he was invited to be a member of the Population, Resources and Environment committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). It was a position he would later leverage with considerable success in various environmental campaigns.
When the Tiananmen protests began in 1989, he was overseas in the U.S. to speak to overseas Chinese student communities in California. He returned a few days before June 4 and observed the crackdown from the sidelines as colleagues and friends were either arrested or criticized.
Liang became aware of China’s environmental problems when he was editor of Encyclopedic Knowledge. In the early 1990s, he began talking with his friends about what could be done to address the environmental problem in China. Liang and three of his friends who became cofounders – Yang Dongping, Liang Xiaoyan and Wang Lixiong – talked about establishing an NGO. They knew that NGOs outside of China were playing an important part in informing and mobilizing the public to address environmental ills. They came to the conclusion that China could use a few good NGOs even though they only had a vague idea of what NGOs were. At the time, the only environmental NGO Liang could recall was Greenpeace because he had seen their protests on the television.
By 1993, when Liang was already in his 60s, he and the other co-founders came up with a charter for their NGO and went about finding a government sponsor so they could register with the Civil Affairs bureau. They went to the State Administration for Environmental Protection (SEPA) to ask them to serve as their sponsor, but were rebuffed. Unable to find a sponsor, Liang and the other co-founders gave up trying to register Friends of Nature as a NGO, and in 1994 affiliated with Liang’s employer, the Academy of Chinese Culture which is itself registered as a NGO. Friends of Nature retains this affiliate status to this very day.
Under Liang’s leadership, Friends of Nature’s achievements came first in environmental education. They worked with the public schools in delivering environmental education, carried out tree planting trips, organized bird watching groups, and established a mobile environmental education classroom. They also built up a membership base that now includes around 10,000 members nationwide. A number of the new generation of environmental activists counted themselves as members, or worked and trained there, before going on to establish their own NGOs.
Then in the mid-1990s, Friends of Nature embarked on a series of widely-publicized campaigns to save the snub-nosed monkey and Tibetan antelope, and to oppose illegal logging in southwestern China. Liang played a crucial role in these campaigns, using his position and connections as a member of the CPPCC, to bring these issues to the attention of the media and government leaders. These campaigns are credited with transforming the environmental movement in China, demonstrating to NGOs and activists that civil society could play a role in shaping policy. They also signaled a broadening of Friends of Nature’s mission to include influencing public policy through a multi-pronged strategy that involves working with government allies, the media and the public to pressure government authorities to enforce environmental laws. In the mid-2000s, Friends of Nature joined forces with several other environmental NGOs to form the China Rivers Network which used similar advocacy techniques to raise concerns about plans to build dams along the Nu River in Yunnan. In 2004, Premier Wen Jiabao ordered the dam project to be suspended until further review. Friends of Nature continues to be a part of the China Rivers network, and other environmental advocacy networks operating in China.
Liang has received many accolades for his work as a leader of Friends of Nature. In 2000, he was recognized by SEPA, the agency that refused to sponsor him, as an “environmental ambassador”, appointed an environmental consultant to the Beijing Olympic Committee, and given the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service. In 2004, he was named one of China’s 50 most influential public intellectuals by the Southern Weekend magazine. He should also be recognized for another achievement rare in the Chinese NGO world – shepherding his organization through a leadership transition. Many first generation NGO leaders tend to view their NGOs as their personal projects and devote little time to grooming a successor to take over. Liang was different and began to look for someone to replace him as executive director of Friends of Nature in the mid-2000s, thereby setting an important precedent for other NGOs.
Liang, and by extension Friends of Nature, have been called moderate forces within the environmental movement. If moderate means working with allies in the government and media to highlight environmental abuses, and being circumspect about when and what methods to use to criticize and pressure the government, then the term fits. At the same time, Liang has always been a vigorous defender of the need for an independent civil society in resolving China’s environmental problems. He believed grassroots NGOs played a critical role in informing the public, encouraging public participation, and supervising the work of the government and businesses.
More than 16 years later, China’s civil society has grown immeasurably since 1994 when Friends of Nature was one of a handful of NGOs. Now, there are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of NGOs like Friends of Nature and they are becoming more assertive, networked and professional. Liang can rest easy knowing that he played no small role in their advancement.