Liang Congjie (梁从诫), friend of sanity

December 20, 2010 - 3:29pm -- Nick Young

Liang Congjie, historian and founder of China’s best-known environmental NGO, Friends of Nature, died in Beijing on October 28, 2010, aged 78.

Liang came from a distinguished line of what we would now call “public intellectuals.” His paternal grandfather was Liang Qichao, an official in the declining years of the Qing imperial court who was banished to Japan for his advocacy of constitutional monarchy, and who was later widely tipped as a foreign minister for China’s first republican government. He had studied Western history in earnest and was deeply engaged in the then “ti-yong” debate—about how China might modernize by learning from the West while still preserving Chinese “substance” or “essence”—which has continued to resonate down the years to the present day. Despite his clear commitment to reform, he once wrote that if China, like 18th century France, opted for a revolutionary road it might take 70 years or more to stabilize. That proved remarkably prescient: almost exactly 70 years elapsed between the first, republican revolution of 1911 and the relative stability of the post-Maoist “reform and opening” period.

Liang Sicheng, Liang Congjie’s father, studied architecture in America in the 1920s and went on to establish a school of architecture at Tsinghua University. After the 1949 “Liberation” his expertise was at first deployed by the Communist Party in a number of state projects, but his public opposition to the destruction of Beijing’s old city walls brought political disgrace.

During the first decade of Communist rule the young Liang Congjie studied history at Tsinghua and Beijing universities and then lectured for five years at Yunnan University in southwest China. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution saw him sent to work alongside peasants in the fields of Jiangxi province, where he also taught in a local cadre training school. In 1978 he was assigned as an editor to the Encyclopedia of China Publishing House, where he remained for ten years. Towards the end of this period he also co-edited a magazine, Chinese Intellectual, which was published in New York but distributed copies among reforming intellectuals in China.

In 1988 Liang was invited to join a new, quasi-independent institution, the Academy for Chinese Culture, which promoted international cultural exchanges. The Academy provided an institutional platform for establishing Friends of Nature in 1993.

Liang was not China’s first “modern” environmental activist, as some obsequies have dubbed him. The journalist, Dai Qing, had already earned fame abroad and ten months’ imprisonment at home for her criticism of the Three Gorges Dam project. Yet Liang’s special qualities were tact and prudence. He pursued “conscientisation” in ways that, rather than polarizing debate, spoke to the growing concerns of individuals and groups within the ruling establishment.

For it is not the case that the post-Mao Communist Party was uniformly hell-bent on growth regardless of the environmental consequences. True, the senior political leadership was dominated by engineers raised in a technocratic tradition of mastery over nature. True, local leaders typically paid no heed to environmental externalities in their race for riches and preferment. However, state technocrats—who were faced with the evidence of dying lakes and rivers, creeping deserts and falling water tables, and who Deng Xiaoping had ordered, in the ti-yong spirit, to study the “advanced management techniques” of developed countries—availed themselves of various windows on the wider world to follow global debates on the new grail of “sustainable development.” A Chinese delegation attended the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development and China was one of the first countries in the world to produce an Agenda 21 document. Also in 1992 a China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development was established as a forum for discussions between Chinese and international scientists and policymakers. Many bilateral and multilateral “cooperation” projects followed, giving China valuable exposure to pollution abatement technologies.

In short, there were ears within the establishment listening to the case that environmental profligacy would in time undermine economic growth, and deliberating remedial measures. This at first resulted mainly in lip-service: nominal commitment to sustainability was backed by only weak regulation and even weaker enforcement. Yet within the fledgling and still politically weak state environment protection system there was an emerging caucus of committed environmental advocates.

It is worth stressing how different this dawning of “green awareness” was from its rise in the West, where alarums raised by independent scientists in the 1960s were initially taken up by assorted activists who worked for decades to get their concerns taken seriously by government and corporate lobbies. This, combined with the West’s tendency to regard itself as a model for the rest of the world, still encourages foreign observers to see Chinese government and “civil society” as irrevocably opposed and in contest.

Liang’s great skill was in nudging along environmental common sense in both government and society without inviting counter-productive confrontation. When I first met him, in 1995, I asked about Friends of Nature’s membership and recruitment plans. He replied, enigmatically, that “If there are too many creatures in the forest you don’t know what sort of animals you might get.” At the time I took this as a reference to government spies, which in part it probably was. (His sometimes oracular delivery and his invariable erudition—in both Chinese and English—were always a great pleasure to hear, and the high point of many otherwise dull round-table meetings and conferences.) But Liang was at the same time implying that breathless radicalism could jeopardise his cause. In time I came to understand this, yet also to appreciate that political constraints on the growth of independent organizations did not make them powerless or insignificant.

In the West a substantial membership base, even if it is passive, gives NGOs the legitimacy they need to knock loudly on political and corporate doors. In China a large membership would be distinctly risqué, an implicit threat to Communist Party authority. This largely explains why the subsequent, rapid growth of environmental activism in China was characterized by a multiplication in the number of groups rather than by substantial growth of individual organizations. Liang explicitly encouraged this trend, always telling sympathizers across the country to start their own NGOs rather than join his. Many did, and within a decade the constellation of independent environmental NGOs certainly numbered in hundreds, if not thousands.

From the outset, Friends of Nature (FoN) styled itself an “environmental education” NGO with a mission, in Liang’s words, “to make people aware of the danger ahead, the ‘iceberg in front of the Titanic’ . . . [and to] . . . sow ‘green seeds’ in their minds patiently and persistently.” Simple activities—such as sending an “antelope car” round middle schools to highlight the plight of the Tibetan Antelope, which was threatened by poaching—attracted widespread and enthusiastic Chinese media coverage: partly because many FoN members were themselves reporters, but also because the novelty of the NGO concept sparked genuine interest.

The evolving NGO-media relationship stimulated investigative journalism. In Yunnan province, a county government was ordered to shelve plans for commercial logging in the diminishing habitat of the endangered snub-nosed monkey after exposés by print and broadcast media which Friends of Nature had alerted.

Liang himself was repeatedly and sympathetically interviewed and profiled in mainstream media, inspiring a generation of younger activists with both his eloquence and the modesty of his lifestyle. While most Chinese were happy to follow the new line that “getting rich is glorious”, he continued to cycle on an old bone-shaker between his simple apartment home and equally simple office.

Nevertheless, the general thrust of FoN’s work aligned comfortably with government priorities and instincts. Officials naturally prefer to attribute problems to the ignorance of the masses, and policies such as more realistic pricing of water and energy would meet less resistance from a more environmentally aware public . Such considerations, and FoN’s apparently anodyne agenda, might appear to suggest that Liang was being “co-opted” by the Communist Party.

Yet Friends of Nature soon moved tentatively but perceptibly towards policy advocacy: most consistently, in emphasizing the need for “public participation in environment protection,” but also on specific issues. For example, in 2001 they challenged Beijing city government plans to refurbish an ancient canal carrying water from Miyun reservoir to the capital. In 2005 they lined up with other NGOs to state their objections, in an official public enquiry—the first of its kind, copiously reported in national media—into the draining of a lake in the Yuanmingyuan gardens next to Beijing’s imperial Summer Palace.

Compared to the scale of water resource management nationwide these were trivial cases—and they were, besides, post hoc discussions of works that were already completed—but they had great symbolic importance. For Liang himself, they echoed the “cultural preservation”concerns which had so preoccupied his father. The capital city water projects also symbolized the technocratic interventionism of the state’s massive hydroelectric dam programme, which many NGOs were questioning increasingly openly. And the discussions that took place in these meetings and in the media symbolized a new level of public consultation and debate.

This is Liang’s major legacy—in particular, in opening the firmament for the constellation of other environmental NGOs that formed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Some of those groups were, and remain, more outspoken and “radical” than FoN. But many were not. (Research that colleagues and I carried out in 2006 showed that many of the most energetic environmental NGOs were entirely “patriotic” and saw their efforts as complementary, rather than in any way opposed, to government.) China’s environment today is no more “saved” than the “global” environment; but at least the broad and potentially fractious community of Chinese environmentalists is engaged in a more inclusive debate, with wider and more tolerant parameters.

Westerners frequently abandon the virtues of tolerance and respect when they think about China. Liang Congjie, whose life had given him ample insight into the vices of intolerance and disrespect, did not. According to the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (which honoured him with a public service award in 2000), during the fateful early summer of 1989 he was on a visit to California, where he told Chinese American students that “Democracy is not to put your will over others. You cannot get democracy out in the streets. No compromise, no democracy.” That, I think, is the kind of ti-yong position that his illustrious ancestor, Liang Qichao, would recognize and applaud.

Kampala, December 20, 2010.