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Farewell to Liang Congjie, founder of China’s first environmental NGO

This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified)

This blog is co-authored with Barbara Finamore.

This past week Liang Congjie, one of the founders of Friends of Nature (FON) and the godfather of China’s environmental movement, passed away. The establishment in 1994 of FON, China’s first legally registered environmental group, paved the way for the creation of more than 3,000 registered, and many more unregistered, environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in China today.

On Tuesday morning, there was a simple farewell ceremony for Mr. Liang at Shijitan Hospital on the west side of Beijing. By FON’s informal count, more than a thousand people arrived to pay their respects. Many more sent messages in remembrance from all around China. The messages on white strips of paper, many hand-written with brush and ink, hung in long rows along the walkway to the memorial. It seemed as if Beijing’s entire environmental community had come.

This community of people who have devoted their lives to protecting China’s environment is Mr. Liang’s lasting legacy. Fifteen years ago this community did not exist, except in a loose, unorganized way. Today, thousands of environmental groups work on an incredible array of environmental problems that reflect the serious nature of the environmental crisis in China, as well as the greater space to work on environmental issues that Mr. Liang helped to forge.

Friends of Nature is still in the vanguard, one of the few environmental groups with true national name recognition. In addition to their traditional environmental education work, FON has moved toward more sophisticated policy and community activism, including helping communities to deal with environmental justice issues surrounding waste incinerators, advocating for greater transparency of listed companies in China, and setting up a rapid response team to review environmental impact assessments of major polluting projects. These days they publish an annual “Greenbook” on China’s environment, the definitive account of the top issues in China’s environment each year. Moreover, FON has come to play a critical role in reaching out and serving as a resource to communities around the country, often where FON volunteer groups have formed. They do all this with the humility that was Mr. Liang’s hallmark. FON staff still prints its business cards on the back of used printing paper, and they have kept their offices simple and their limited resources focused on the work.

But in addition to FON, there are now a surprising number of environmental groups around China (many of which we have had the privilege to work with) that have developed effective approaches and continue to battle against unbelievable odds to improve China’s environment. These include Ma Jun’s Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, Jin Jiaman’s Global Environmental Institute, Wang Yongchen’s Green Earth Volunteers, and countless others. Among these are important community-based or local-level groups that are doing terrific work, such as Yun Jianli’s Green Hanjiang, Huo Daishan’s Huai River Defenders, Wu Dengming’s Green Volunteer League of Chongqing, and nimble, more fledgling groups like Green Anhui in Anhui Province and Green Camelbell in Gansu Province. These groups work on difficult domestic issues, and, as we saw in the recent Tianjin climate meetings, have begun to assert themselves on the international stage.

Nonetheless, China’s environmental NGOs still face difficult odds some fifteen years after Mr. Liang launched FON. Antiquated government rules still limit fundraising, membership, and the range of activities. Onerous and unclear registration requirements limit groups’ independence. Environmental groups have always had the most room to operate in China among NGOs, but it says something that FON still has only 20 staff as it nears the end of its teenage years.

But the vibrant environmental community that was on full display at the farewell ceremony this week is, I believe, here to stay. And the movement that Mr. Liang helped to spark will only get stronger.

NRDC’s China Program Director, Barbara Finamore, recalls having dinner with Mr. Liang back in 1993, when he described his vision for creating China’s first independent environmental organization – a seemingly impossible task at the time. Mr. Liang knew it would be an uphill battle, and that the most he could hope for at first was approval to conduct some limited environmental education activities. But he thought it was important to use whatever political capital he had to start somewhere.

We all thank Mr. Liang for acting on his vision then, and starting a movement that lives on today.


Friends of Nature’s website (where many essays, comments, photos, and other tributes to Mr. Liang are posted)

Liang Congjie: The Godfather of China’s Green Movement (The Atlantic)

Liang Congjie, Chinese Environmental Pioneer, Dies at 78 (New York Times)

The passing of Liang Congjie, China’s environmental and civil society pioneer (NGOs in China blog)

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