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Ricky Wong for Asiaweek.

Nature's Friend

Liang Congjie
Public Service
He has drawn attention to ecological issues where it matters most — in the political center. But by staying independent, he has also showed the critical role that activists can play

History professor Liang Congjie has always loved a challenge — such as helping to compile a 74-volume encyclopedia on China that involved hundreds of editors and years of work. Now, when most of his contemporaries are contemplating or enjoying retirement, Liang has set his sights far higher. He has decided to devote the rest of his life to cleaning up China. "We knew from television about Greenpeace. But there wasn't anything like that in China," says the president of Friends of Nature, the mainland's first non-government organization on the environment. "My friends and I began wondering, why not here? We decided to try."

The FON pioneers make an unlikely band of eco-warriors. Peering through big, wire-rimmed glasses, Liang, 68, resembles a kindly grandfather. He favors a style of knitted shirts and casual slacks that would not look out of place on a golf course. The other founding members are his fellow teachers at the Academy for Chinese Culture, a private philosophy institution. To this collection of scholars, Liang has added students, housewives and taxi drivers. "The membership is everybody," he says proudly. "It's less like a Western environmental lobby and more like a club. We have a homey atmosphere. And I like it that way."

Yet few in China take this nature club lightly. At least not anymore. Since its inception in 1993, a string of high-profile activities has earned FON a reputation as China's most influential environmental lobby. Among its victories: protecting the habitat of a rare species of monkey from destructive logging and drawing world attention to the slaughter of the endangered Tibetan antelope. The group is also an outspoken critic of the Three Gorges Dam and of industrial pollution around the country.

Taking on enormous odds runs in Liang's family. His grandfather was a visionary who pushed in vain for Western-style reforms to save the tottering Qing empire. His father, who had been one of the country's leading architects, is best remembered by Beijing residents as the man who battled to save its ancient city walls — unsuccessfully.

Liang, however, has learned to pick his battles well. "My strategy is to first support the government since it has the regulations to help improve the environment," he explains. FON adopts flexible tactics and tries to keep on good terms with officials. But as an NGO, he says, "it's also our mission to act as watchdog."

Nonetheless, it has been a struggle. "You hear about how the Chinese live in harmony with nature, but that's all words without real meaning," Liang says. "Chinese people don't have much understanding about ecology." Part of the problem, he says, is ideological. "There has long been this notion that pollution was a problem afflicting Western industrial societies. Everyone thought, how can a socialist nation suffer this?" The other big obstacle: corruption, "the biggest enemy in our country."

In issuing the award for public service, the Magsaysay trustees noted Liang's courage as a trailblazer in China's nascent civil society. Not only has he drawn the attention of key officials to environmental issues, Liang has showed that by maintaining FON's independence, activists can play a "critical role" in addressing urgent public concerns in China .

With about 700 members, Friends relies on volunteers to promote its cause and help police existing regulations. The work is usually unpopular, often downright dangerous. Polluters and environmental thugs don't just conduct dirty businesses, they also fight dirty. Many activists have received death threats. And worse. Last year, for example, a member of the group's Wild Yak Brigade in Tibet was killed in a shootout with poachers. In one of FON's earliest coups, members secretly videotaped officials in western China offering to supply illegal timber from a wildlife habitat. That footage aired on national television, prompting swift action from premier Zhu Rongji. "But local officials were outraged," says Liang. "They made threats, and our people had to go into hiding."

Through it all, the Friends remain undaunted. "Sometimes you have to take unusual measures to win the battle," says Liang. Though he doesn't see the group as a bunch of eco-Rambos, he figures too much is at stake to worry about the risks: "We have to consider any tactic to get the message across."

Jockin Arputham: International Understanding
Atmakusumah Astraatmadja:
Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communications Arts
Jesse M. Robredo:
Government Service
Aruna Roy: Community Leadership

Liang's success is all the more startling given that his seven-year-old group functions with only three paid staff and an annual budget of about $23,000. Liang takes a token payment, surviving on his teaching salary from the academy. And for every high-profile victory, there have been scores of everyday advances. Educational activities for children are among FON's biggest campaigns. Funds from a German group have paid for a van, above, which tours Beijing schools, raising green consciousness among pupils with environmental games and videos. A tie-up with the Project Hope charity will bring entry to rural schools. Of course, much remains to be done. China is home to nine of the 10 most polluted cities in the world. "Our rivers are black and our lakes are running dry," Liang laments. "And our skies are dark."

Still he refuses to give up hope. "I can see a real difference since we started our work, especially in public attitudes towards environmental issues. People are more sympathetic, more thoughtful, more understanding," says Liang. "It sometimes may not seem like much, but it's a seed. And from the tiny acorn, big trees grow."

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