HIGHLIGHTS

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “his courageous pioneering leadership in China’s environmental movement and nascent civil society.”

 CITATION

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 changing this.

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 organizations.

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.

 RESPONSE

Your Excellency, President Joseph Ejercito Estrada, First Lady, Dr. Luisa Ejercito Estrada, members of the Magsaysay family, distinguished guests, trustees, fellow awardees, ladies and gentlemen.

I feel greatly honored for being elected as one of the winners of the 2000 Ramon Magsaysay Award.

I am a historian by training and have been working in education, academic and publishing circles for most of my early years. I am often asked why I particularly chose, at my retirement, environmental protection as a career to dedicate the rest of my life. The answer is simple: this is something really important to the future of my country, my people and my family, yet still neglected by most ordinary Chinese.

Environmental degradation happened long ago in many countries, but it is particularly serious, even fatal, now in China. In her thousands of years’ history, China’s population has never been so large, consequently the resources on a per capita level never been so little; the scope of her economy has never been so big, and the capability in changing nature with technological knowledge has never been so powerful. Furthermore, for hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese, the excitement and impulse to seek material comforts and pleasure, or to become an “instant millionaire” have never been so strong. It is very difficult to imagine how our natural resources and environment can be sustainable and healthily maintained under all such pressures.

This was why a group of intellectuals with their profound sense of social responsibility, got together in 1993 to discuss what they could do to make a change. And that was the beginning of Friends of Nature, of which I am the leader.

Do we have a ready solution or recipe? No.

But we tried to make people aware of the danger ahead, the “iceberg in front of the Tatanic” and make them think of the steps we can take together to save our common future. This is why Friends of Nature sets public environmental education as its main mission. We know that this is a mass movement of enlightenment and there will be a long way ahead of us. Our mission is to sow “green seeds” into people’s minds patiently and persistently, like the farmers sowing in their field. Because this is what we believe, only when people’s heart’s are becoming “greener”, will there be a green future for China.

Seven years have passed since the four initiators of Friends of Nature had their first meeting. Now we have nearly one thousand individual members and more than 3000 corporate members all over the country. Maybe this is small Western standards, but Friends of Nature is growing steadily and becoming one of the most influential NGOs in China

Friends of Nature has brought to this country a truly independent voice, at least in the environment field. The Chinese government also found in us an ally. They awarded me several times, in my capacity as the President of Friends of Nature, and on the eve of the International Environment Day of year 2000 they formally gave me the title of “Environment Envoy”, which means a social inspector. Yet Friends of Nature and I never cease to alert watchers and critical observers on all environmental issues in China.

It is obvious that Friends of Nature and myself cannot gain any of the achievements without the warm and firm support from all our friends in China as well as in other countries and now, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation. And this is equally true of my wife, and all my devoted and hardworking fellow members. This is why, on behalf of all our members, I invite Mrs. Zhang Jilian, Director of FON’s office, to come and share with me this extraordinary moment your distinguished foundation is now giving me to.

This award is surely a great encouragement to me as well as to Friends of Nature. It is also a reminder to me that the road ahead of us is still long and even more difficult. I will always bear in mind that a good environment and sustainable development will not only be crucial to the future of my motherland, but will also benefit our neighboring countries, as well as all peoples in the world.

Thank you.

 BIOGRAPHY

Liang Congjie was born with a heavy burden. He bore an illustrious family name, both his paternal grandfather and his father having made history in China as catalysts for change in their respective eras. It was an inheritance Liang Congjie could not but honor, and a legacy he could not but carry on.

He was born on 4 August 1932 in Beijing. His paternal grandfather, Liang Qichao, was a Confucian scholar and an ardent reformer from Guangdong Province who belonged to a small group of intellectuals of nationwide fame in the late 19th century. Educated in the Confucian classics from the age of four or five, he became a juren (the equivalent of a masters-degree holder in traditional China) at the age of 16. The title was given after a student passed the imperial examinations based on Confucian texts. Liang Qichao also tried to become a jinshi, a scholar of the very highest rank, but he failed.

Examinations under the imperial system were so rigorous and intimidating that they drove some examinees to illness, others to nervous breakdowns. But passing the tests was the only way bright young Chinese boys in those days could hope to improve their lot. Only those who achieved juren and jinshi status were appointed to official positions in the civil service. This examination system produced the forty thousand officials who headed the Chinese civil service as well as the million or so lesser degree holders who composed the scholar gentry. This system proved to be so effective that it was adopted by neighboring kingdoms in Korea and Vietnam.

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)