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One Quiet Step at a Time
by Noah Bessoff

Six years after Liang Congjie founded Friends of Nature - China's first non-governmental environmental organization - the grandson of renowned Qing dynasty (1644-1911) reformer Liang Qichao continues to fight for nature the "Chinese way."

It's easy to miss Liang Congjie in a crowd. There's nothing immediately striking about the soft-spoken 67-year-old history professor with wire-framed glasses and silver-streaked hair. But Liang's activism speaks for itself. He is a leader in the fight to preserve China's highly endangered environment. While his counterparts in the West were chaining themselves to trees and challenging whaling boats in rubber dinghies, Liang - a Beijing native whose name translates into "heed warning" - began promoting environmental protection by educating China's public and working with the state-run media.

"Radical activism is not practical in China," Liang says. "The police will say you are disturbing public order. They have hundreds of reasons to stop you, even to arrest you. We have to find another way of doing it, a more Chinese way."

A Voice of Reason
Of course there were already other environmental organizations in China, such as the China Environmental Protection Foundation, created by the State Environmental Protection Agency. But these groups bear the stigma of direct government ties.

"It is problematic for official organizations in China to criticize the government," Liang says in flawless English, acquired from his U.S.-educated parents. "In traditional Chinese culture 'children' should never criticize their 'parents.' They're only allowed to help by doing some housework."

Deciding that there was more than one way to save the Earth, Liang chose to become a critical voice of reason with an emphasis on education, dialogue and cooperation. With that end in mind, he founded Friends of Nature (FON), China's first non-governmental environmental group.

Liang's Lineage
Progressive thought has been a trademark of Liang's family for the past three generations. In the late 19th century Liang's grandfather, Liang Qichao, was a Western-influenced reformer serving in the Qing dynasty court. He was a leader of the ill-fated 1898 Reform Movement aimed at introducing Western political reforms attempt to save the corrupt and ailing imperial system.

Liang's father, Liang Sicheng, was a renowned architect and served as a Beijing city planner after the Communist victory in 1949. The elder Liang envisioned the capital of the New China as a city within a city: Beijing's historic, walled inner city would be preserved, with new construction taking place outside and around the city walls, on top of which a promenade park would be built. Soviet advisers dismissed the plan as foolish, stating that Liang knew nothing about building a modern capital. He fell out of favor with Mao Zedong and died in disgrace during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Only after his death was he given credit for his eco-friendly design.

But Liang's gradual approach to change is just one way in which he is distinguishing himself from the failed efforts of his forebears.

Worked to the Bone
Liang is the consummate workaholic. He puts in an average of 65 hours per week, much of it spent in his office - which features souvenirs from his projects across China and a banner autographed by U.S. president Bill Clinton. As founder and president of Friends of Nature, his work sometimes requires him to travel to host forums and to conduct research on environmental protection and sustainable development in China.

"Liang is a charismatic role model," says Zhang Jilian, manager of FON headquarters in Beijing, who proudly points out that all staff business cards are printed on recycled paper. "He personifies and epitomizes the spirit of Friends of Nature. It wouldn't be what it is today without his efforts."

The newest demand on Liang's time is a joint venture between his group and Project Hope, an official organization committed to improving rural education. By working together, the two groups aim to bring basic environmental education to rural youth.

The Beginning
Liang and a group of friends began exploring avenues for public involvement in environmental protection in 1993. They decided that creating a non-governmental organization (NGO) would be the most effective way to reach the largest number of fellow Chinese. They applied for official government sanction and, after a long, difficult year of meetings, were finally approved and registered as the Academy for Green Culture, an affiliate of the Academy for Chinese Culture.

"In China the registration process often takes a long time, and that forces an organization to carefully evaluate what they want to do and how they want to do it," says Wang Qiuming, director of China's Agenda 21, an organization that was created to carry out the resolutions of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. "Most groups don't want to go through that effort," Wang adds.

After its founding, one of the group's first projects was organizing Earth Day (April 22) events annually across China. Two years later, the group won the first-ever Asian Environmental Award, issued jointly by Japan's Mainichi Daily and the Korean Daily.

Today, there are over 700 individual and 24 corporate FON members. The non-profit, public welfare organization is funded entirely by membership fees and public support, Liang says.

While there are now plenty of groups like it in China, FON is still the largest and one of the most experienced at raising public awareness of environmental problems through education, subjecting offenders to official censure and developing strong relationships with overseas environmental groups.

Reciprocal Relationship
One might conclude that Liang, in his self-appointed role as environmental watchdog in the PRC, must walk a fine line between official and independent spheres. But it is his experience that the central government sees FON as a necessary ally in the battle to raise environmental awareness and implement necessary reforms. As a result, the relationship is characterized by mutual cooperation.

A prime example of this cooperation occurred in 1995 when FON took action to prevent the destruction of the habitat of the endangered golden monkey by loggers in Yunnan province.

Liang saw the effort as more than just preventing deforestation and preserving an endangered species. He saw the destabilization of a delicate ecosystem. The monkeys depend on a special fungus as their main food source. Without the monkeys, the fungus will overgrow and hinder the development of plant life.

Soon after the group wrote to the central government pleading for protection of the forest and monkeys, the provincial government was ordered to stop the logging. An all-out cessation of logging, however, threatened to destroy the local economy, which was almost entirely dependent on the timber industry. As a result, the county struck a compensation deal with the central government for RMB11 million (US$1.4 million) per year.

However, local authorities turned a blind eye and logging continued. To expose the violation, FON convinced China Central Television (CCTV) to document the situation. In 1998, Premier Zhu Rongji, who reportedly saw the piece, ordered a series of measures - including removing several local leaders from power - which effectively ended the threat to the golden monkeys and their habitat.

Dilemmas and Risks
Despite his mission to protect the environment, Liang is sensitive to the debate over human needs versus environmental demands.

"It's really a dilemma," Liang says. "But to me it's a matter of time. If you destroy your resources now, your children will suffer. You will not be so poor but your children will be even poorer. But I know it's difficult, so I always make sure I avoid empty 'green' words - slogans that have no practical value. We have to work very hard to solve problems pragmatically."

Although Liang is a self-declared moderate, the very nature of his cause has earned him a multitude of enemies.

For instance, after the government declared a comprehensive logging ban following 1998's devastating floods, FON learned of a massive logging operation in Sichuan province. Once again a local FON team and a CCTV crew were mobilized to document the development. The crew surreptitiously entered the logging site with hidden cameras and exposed the operation, but locals with a vested interest in the logging remained intent on resistance. Member of Liang's documentary crew reported receiving anonymous death threats.

Environmental protection efforts in China have also been accused of interfering with the nation's economic development. Convincing peasants in their township and village enterprises to give up new and prospering, but polluting, industries isn't easy. But Liang believes that through open dialogue rather than preaching, FON can change people's habits.

"We are advocates of controlled consumption, not suspension of development," he says, adding: "Pursuing the culture of waste is a dead end for China. If everyone tries to have a life like that, our future is bleak."

Next Generation
Despite his work, Liang refuses to call what he does activism. He explains that a small group like his cannot possibly take on every single environmental issue in China. Rather, FON seeks to raise awareness through education: classroom teaching, college lectures and community events. Their primary target is the younger generation - tomorrow's leaders and activists, as well as tomorrow's consumers and polluters.

Liang's work leaves him little time for his wife, or his 26-year-old daughter who is studying environmental ethics at the University of Wisconsin. But for Liang, as a Chinese father, it is the least he can do. "We have to ask ourselves, what kind of legacy will we hand on to our children?" Liang reflects. "What are we without the natural world around us?"

Anyone interested in helping Friends of Nature may apply to become a member or volunteer. Foreigners are admitted as "associate members."

Friends of Nature (http://www.fon.org.cn) can be contacted at PO Box 621, Beijing, China 100010. Tel: 6405-6621. Email: office@fon.org.cn

Race to Save the Tibetan Antelope
Rising demand among the fashion-conscious elite in the West for shahtoosh, a fine cashmere-like material made from Tibetan antelope fur, is placing the creature among the ranks of the giant panda, the Yangtze River dolphin, and the Manchurian tiger as a highly endangered species in China.

Also known as the chiru, the Tibetan antelope lives in a remote area stretching across western provinces Xinjiang and Qinghai, as well as Tibet. On average, it takes the pelt of three chirus to make one shahtoosh shawl, which can sell for as much as US$1,000.

Beijing-based Friends of Nature, China's first non-governmental environment group, has taken a leading role in the fight to save the gazelle-like animal. The group has lobbied governments around the world calling for an international ban on the sale of shahtoosh products, and has worked hard to bring the issue to the attention of the Chinese government.

The most recent survey, taken in 1995, placed the Tibetan antelope population at 75,000. Considering the rate of chirus killed is estimated at 20,000 per year, the entire species could be wiped out within 20 years, according to Friends of Nature.

Shahtoosh, which comes from the Persian word for "king of wool," is manufactured in Kashmir, a state in northern India. It is one of the few places in the world where manufacturing the material has not been outlawed. The raw materials for processing shahtoosh are available only from the Himalayan plateau region of China, and local poachers are all too happy to supply manufacturers for the otherwise unimaginable amounts of RMB70,000, or US$8,500 per kilogram.

Many in the business of producing shahtoosh shawls maintain that the soft, warm down is carefully collected from the ground after the animal sheds it. But those who have seen the thousands of skinless chiru carcasses littering the plateau know better.

The vast and remote character of the chiru's habitat makes protection difficult. It can take weeks for the Qinghai-based anti-poaching team, a group of Khampas (traditional Tibetan warriors) known as the Wild Yak Brigade, to sweep the region just once. To help the team cover more ground, Friends of Nature donated two jeeps.

But the brigade's problems go beyond logistics. Two of its leaders have been killed on duty: one in a gun fight with poachers, and the other in his own home. Authorities proclaimed the latter a suicide, saying the victim shot himself following a fight with his wife. Yet those who knew the man, described as a strong-willed individual dedicated to the cause, remain skeptical.

Other groups helping to save the chiru include the Wildlife Protection Society of India, the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency, and the U.S.-based International Fund for Animal Welfare.


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