Pioneering Friend of Nature Passes Away
Peking University, Oct. 29. 2010: Liang Congjie, an alumnus of Peking University who has been an environmental pioneer of China, passed away on Oct. 28 at the age of 78.
In 1950, Liang came to study at Tsinghua Department of History, which was soon merged into the department at Peking University in 1952 during a nation-wide reorganization of academic programs of colleges and universities. He graduated from PKU in 1958 with a master's degree in history.
Liang founded China’s first legally recognized environmental organization and turned out to be honored by international groups and the Chinese government alike.
Friends of Nature (FON), the group he established, announced his death on its website.
Prof. Liang was a historian and teacher at the private Academy for Chinese Culture when he and three co-workers decided in 1994 that China’s rapid development merited a citizens’ group that would work to solve environmental problems. “We knew from television about Greenpeace. But there wasn’t anything like that in China,” he told Asiaweek in a 2000 interview. “My friends and I began wondering, why not here? We decided to try.”
Unlike Greenpeace, which is known for its aggressive tactics and publicity-seeking exploits, Friends of Nature took a low-key approach, generally choosing to urge the national government to use existing laws to address environmental issues. The organization established China’s first bird-watching group and recently focused on environmental education in primary schools in western China.
The organization nonetheless gained national recognition for sponsoring daring and sometimes dangerous efforts to promote environmental protection.
In the 1990s, the group sponsored activists in western China who produced an undercover videotape of officials proposing to illegally cut down a stand of virgin forest. The video, later broadcast nationally on China’s CCTV network, helped prompt then Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji to order a ban on logging in virgin forest in 1999.
Friends of Nature also has sponsored efforts to halt the extermination of a rare Tibetan antelope. Although poachers attacked and killed the leader of antipoaching patrols in the region, the crusade has drawn worldwide attention and helped antelope herds to triple in size to 60,000 animals from 1998 to 2008.
“His relationship with the government was one of being constructively critical,” Ma Jun, a friend and fellow environmentalist, said in a telephone interview on Friday. “He was always pushing for a bigger space for civil society in environmental protection, but in the meantime he did try to work with the system to promote this course. It isn’t easy. It’s still a pretty hard course, but I think some progress has been made.”
Prof. Liang “actually incubated the first generation of environmentalists in China,” he added.
Liang Congjie was the third generation of activists in a family known throughout China for its reformist bent. His grandfather, the journalist and scholar Liang Qichao, was exiled to Japan for 14 years in 1898 after proposing to the Qing dynasty’s Emperor Guangxu that China become a constitutional monarchy. His father, Liang Sicheng, was a renowned architect who began an unsuccessful campaign to save Beijing’s ancient city walls, since replaced by a freeway, and to preserve the historic character of its old city. Ironically, his residence was saved from bulldozers and designated an “immovable cultural heritage” by China’s cultural heritage administration in January this year.
Friends of Nature said on its website that Prof. Liang’s family, “hoping to follow his austere nature,” planned to hold the simplest possible funeral ceremony.
Reported by: Michael Wines
Source: The New York Times