Saying, "The machines are rumbling, and smoke is rising
from the factories," Mao Zedong signaled the onset of China's industrialization. The
staggering economic growth that followed was accompanied by political turmoil and the
urgent strivings of a billion people for a better life. As a result, says Liang Congjie,
"few people had time to realize that the sky, rivers, and lakes had become severely
polluted; the forests were disappearing; the grasslands were facing desertification; and
biodiversity was being drastically reduced." Mao's dream produced "an
environmental disaster," Liang says. Yet even today, too few people in China are
aware of this disaster; even fewer are doing anything about it. As founder and president
of China's first nongovernmental organization dedicated to the environment, Liang is
Born in 1932 to a family of great intellectual distinction, Liang came of age in the
early years of Communist triumph in China. He embarked upon a career in teaching and
scholarship and toiled in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. Alerted to
China's looming environmental catastrophe in the 1980s, he began to study the problem and
to discuss it with young Chinese familiar with the burgeoning environmental movement
abroad. In 1994, he gained official permission to set up a voluntary society dedicated to
environmental education: Friends of Nature (FON). Sixty people attended its first meeting.
In joining FON, each member pledged to make a personal effort on behalf of China's
environment. Liang channeled these efforts into seminars, teacher-training courses, slide
shows, and lectures as well as bird-watching and tree-planting outings and wilderness
camps for youths. He urged China's mass media to highlight ecological issues and led
reporters to compelling stories and authoritative information. He produced new educational
materials and opened a public resource center. Meanwhile, FON criticized Chinese customs
such as keeping wild songbirds as pets and opposed the takeover of China's cities by
automobiles. (Even today, Liang prefers to ride a bicycle.)
More controversially, Liang orchestrated a national campaign to halt logging in the
rainforests of southwestern Yunnan, the unique habitat of the endangered snub-nosed
monkey. And he bravely exposed and helped to curtail huge poaching operations against the
protected Tibetan antelope, the source of shatoosh, a silk-fine wool used in the world's
most expensive shawls. Similar FON campaigns have exposed illegal logging operations in
Sichuan and Inner Mongolia and other violations of China's extensive but inconsistently
enforced environmental regulations.
In the highly centralized political society of China, Liang has drawn attention to
ecological issues where it matters most-in the center. And by choosing his causes
carefully and working closely with certain national and local officials, he has avoided
the pitfall of alienating government, still China's most powerful force for change. But by
scrupulously maintaining FON's independence, Liang has also demonstrated the critical role
that nongovernmental organizations can play in addressing China's urgent public concerns.
Moreover, he has produced a replicable model for his country's new generation of voluntary
Friends of Nature now has some seven hundred dues-paying members, plus thousands of
affiliated students organized in local clubs. It is linked to like-minded organizations
abroad. Still, its resources are limited. Sixty-seven-year-old Liang remains the guiding
hand. Cautious by nature, he is also deeply principled and can be fearlessly outspoken.
Although his famous lineage gives him a certain useful celebrity, Liang has consistently
focused attention on the issues themselves and on the efforts of others, not on himself.
China's civil society is young and continues to evolve within a complex matrix of
conflict and change. But there are reasons for optimism. In his interviews with the press,
Liang says, the last question reporters often ask is, "How can I join?"
In electing Liang Congjie to receive the 2000 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service,
the board of trustees recognizes his courageous pioneering leadership in China's
environmental movement and nascent civil society.