Chinese Environmentalist Liang Congjie On NGO Life

A February 2000 report from U.S. Embassy Beijing

Summary: Chinese environmentalist Liang Congjie recently discussed the founding and activities of the Friends of Nature environmental NGO. Liang recounted how after the National Environmental Protection Administration did not allow him to register "Friends of Nature". He was able to register it after convincing the Ministry of Culture of the importance of "green culture". NGO registration and activities are limited by the Law on Organizations (1998) and the attentiveness of the Ministry of State Security. Liang said his organization aims not to oppose but to help the central government enforce the law by telling it about local government disobedience to central directives. One example is the campaign to save the Tibetan Antelope. Poachers slaughter many of the officially protected animals for its fine neck hair (shatoosh) for the fashion industry. Liang said that corruption is a problem in some local government environmental protection agencies. In the appendices are Liang's letter to UK PM Blair on the Tibetan Antelope and recent iconoclastic meditations by PRC academics on the environment, fairness and history. End summary.

Friends of Nature Has 700 Members, Focuses on Education

Liang Congjie, founder of the Friends of Nature and grandson of the great Qing reformer Liang Qichao, in late February discussed the founding and activities of the Friends of Nature. The Friends of Nature now has 700 regular members but about 2000 in all if members of affiliated student organizations are also counted. The Friends of Nature conduct educational activities, tree planting and work with the media to make Chinese people more aware of environmental problems. Liang called the media a very important force for environmental protection in China. The role of Friends of Nature is to raise public awareness and to point out to the central government where local government actions violate official policy and so to help strengthen the effectiveness of the environmental policy of the central government. Mobilizing people to confront the government is not an option in China.

China does not have many true NGOS. Many Chinese NGOs, Liang said, are actually government organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOS). [Comment: Just because there aren't many true NGOs in China, Liang and the Friends of Nature often meet foreign visitors and interviewed by foreign journalists. End comment] There are several student environmental groups on Beijing campuses including "Promise to the Mountain" at Beijing Forestry University that are affiliated with Friends of Nature.

China Doesn't Have Enough NGOs Says SEPA Official

A Chinese State Envronmental Protection Administration (SEPA) official recently told a gathering of Chinese NGOs "The problem the environmental movement has in China is that there aren't enough NGOs". However, the main reason why there aren't more NGOs and the existing ones aren't larger is because of tight restrictions. The "Law on Organizations" [Zhuzhi Fa] promulgated in 1998 requires that all organizations be registered with the government. Registering an NGO continues to be difficult. While Beijing has several NGOs, there are fewer in the provinces. When ESTOFF visited the Shanxi Environmental Protection Bureau in late 1998 and asked about environmental NGOs, he was told, "We don't have any in this province.

Registering an NGO is Hard to Do

Liang said that registering the Friends of Nature was difficult. All NGOs must be registered although some now sidestep the rules by registering as private companies (reftel). Liang said that though as a member of the People's Consultative Congress he is a privileged person, he waited for a year without getting any response from the National Environmental Protection Administration (which became the State Environmental Protection Administration in 1998). Liang failed to register with NEPA but was able to persuade an association of university professors -- the Chinese Culture Academy (Zhongguo Wenhua Shuyuan) -- to create a branch of that Academy. The branch is called the Green Culture Sub-Academy (the official Chinese name of Friends of Nature). Liang then persuaded the Ministry of Culture that China needs "Green Culture" and the Ministry of Civil Affairs to register the Green Culture subacademy as an NGO in March 1994.

Chinese Environmentalists Tread on Thin Ice

Recently another Chinese environmentalist responded to a Hong Kong friend's suggestion that Chinese environmentalists must be careful lest the government see them as a threat. The Hong Kong person's view is based on his perception that the Chinese government's concern about the Falun Gong is not because of its philosophy or its political orientation but because of the Falun Gong's cohesiveness and its ability to mobilize its members. The Chinese environmentalist agreed, saying, "Yes, you are right. Although we aren't doing anything that we should be ashamed of, Mainland China has always had a negative attitude towards organizations that mobilize the public. Given this situation in our country we need to find a niche in which we can survive. Thank you for your warning. We act as if we are treading on thin ice. Now we cooperate with the State Environmental Protection we are protected and the Ministry of State Security worries much less about us."

Protecting the Endangered Tibetan Antelope: How a PRC NGO Intervenes

Liang discussed the campaign against the slaughter of the endangered Tibetan Antelope to make the fashionable Shatoosh scarves. During the visit of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair to Beijing in Spring 1999, Liang asked for the British government to pay greater attention to stopping the trade of the Shatoosh in Britain. The Friends of Nature and some other Chinese and foreign environmental groups (such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare) support the work of the Zhiduo Prefecture Qinghai armed anti-poaching squad (Wild Yak Brigade) that protects animals in the Kekexili highlands. Most of the members of the Wild Yak Brigade are ethnic Tibetans in their 20s. The region overlaps Qinghai, Xinjiang and Tibet so differences in local government administration considerably complicate enforcement efforts.

Many articles and broadcasts in the Chinese media have described the slaughter of the Tibetan Antelope to meet the high demand for shatoosh in the fashion markets of Europe and the United States. Tibetan Antelope neck hair (shaotoosh) are smuggled into India and woven in Kashmir. The Friends of Nature are raising money to support the construction of a permanent base camp in Kekexili for the anti-poaching squad.

Tibetan Antlope Protection Squad Leaders Died

The first leader of that Qinghai anti-poaching squad Sonam Dorje was killed. In 1998, the regional government of that part of Qinghai tried to close the county anti-poaching force and switch responsibility for it to the regional government. The second leader of the anti-poaching force, the ethnic Tibetan Zhaba Duojie, died of a gunshot wound in November 1998. Liang said that he along with 17 Chinese journalists who had reported on the Tibetan Antelope slaughter from Qinghai Province wrote a letter to Politburo member Wen Jiabao asking that the county-run anti-poaching force continue its work. Wen ordered that the county ant-poaching force continue notwithstanding the desire of the regional government to take it over.

Tibetan Antelope Campaign Featured in "Time For Kids"

Liang said he had received many articles from schoolchildren in the United States who had read about the efforts of Friends of Nature to protect the Tibetan Antelope in the Winter 2000 special issue of "Time for Children".

Educating Beijing's Children About Air Pollution

Liang said that raising public environmental awareness through the media and education are the two most appropriate long term environmental strategies for protecting the Chinese environment. Liang said that the PRC media has been a great ally in raising the consciousness of Chinese people about the environment. [Note: PRC opinion polls regularly show that the environment comes after unemployment and official corruption as one of the main concerns of Chinese people. End note] Liang showed several plastic bottles filled with snow melt from the January snows. The bottles with snow collected near or downwind from the Capital Steel corporation had many small soot particles in them while those collected at other places were fairly clean. Liang said that these bottles are a great teaching aide when he gives lectures to schoolchildren.

Capital Steel, A Major Polluter of Beijing Skies

Liang said that some say that Capital Steel will be moved if Beijing wins the right to hold the Olympic Games in 2008. "That is the only reason I want Beijing to win", commented Liang. [Comment: There are rumors and scattered press reports that Capital Steel might move. The company set up a branch in Shandong several years ago. Rumors that Capital Steel would be move were flatly denied by Beijing government in a report carried by Beijing Radio in mid February. End note]

Liang estimated that Capital Steel produces about 20 percent of Beijing's air pollution. This is a lower proportion than in the past because auto exhaust fumes are a much bigger part of the pollution picture now. Air pollution from Capital Steel is particularly bad in the winter when prevailing westerly winds smoke from the steel plant, located in western Beijing, over the center of the city.

Pollution Damages Health, But Specific Cases Are Hard to Prove

Liang showed pictures taken inside the steel plant showing billowing smoke. One photograph was of a household that lost three family members to lung cancer over the past decade. Neighbors had lost another 15 family members to lung cancer in recent years. Yet it is hard to prove, said Liang, that pollution from Capital Steel is responsible for this. [Note: About 70 percent of Chinese men and 15 percent of Chinese women smoke. Lung cancer and heart disease attributable to tobacco is one of the top causes of death in China.] Liang commented that some laborers from Capital Steel and some people who sell food in the market are members of Friends of Nature. Liang said that he admires these people very much and says that only when the general public becomes like these people will China be able to protect its environment.

Friends of Nature Website

The Friends of Nature website (in Chinese) is at

The reference library part of this website contains a list of publications helpful useful for understanding the environment in China. Several reports on Chinese environmental NGOs are on the U.S. Embassy Beijing webpage at

Appendix One: From Liang Congjie's Letter to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair on the Tibetan Antelope

The Tibetan Antelope is found almost exclusively in Western China, living at heights of over 4500 meters. In 1979, it was included on the list of species for which trade is strictly forbidden under CITIES, but despite this international ban, shahtoosh (the fur taken from the neck of the Tibetan Antelope) became very fashionable in the mid-1980s. Shahtoosh can now be bought in markets in a number of European and other countries, all of which are signatories to CITIES. In London, a shahtoosh shawl could fetch up to 3500 pounds. And prices such as these in European markets have of course escalated prices of the fur imported illegally from China for processing in India.

Traders have spread the myth that the fur is shed naturally with the changing seasons, and collected by local herdsmen. But this is simply not true. The reality is that all the fur is taken from the bodies of Tibetan Antelopes poached in China, with each animal yielding a mere 125 - 150 grams. Over the last few years, the Chinese authorities have caught nearly 100 groups of poachers and confiscated thousands of Tibetan Antelope hides. One policeman was killed in the process. In 1997, the Tibet Forestry Bureau intercepted over 1000 kilograms of shahtoosh destined for export. Given the vast area of land involved, this can only represent a small proportion of the total.

Because of the poaching, the numbers of Tibetan Antelope are falling dramatically. It is estimated that there are now no more than 75,000 - 100,000 left alive -- just one-tenth of the number a century ago. Estimates of the amount of shahtoosh processed in India suggest that more than 20,000 antelopes are killed each year for their fur. If poaching continues on this scale, there is a risk that the Tibetan Antelope will be extinct within 20 years.

Appendix Two: Why Did the Chinese Environment Get So Badly Messed Up?

Professor Yuan Weishi of the Zhongshan University Philosophy Department gave a talk at a forum in Guangzhou sponsored by "Era of Opening" [Kaifang Shidai] magazine. Extended versions of these talks were published in Kaifang Shidai. The February 25, 2000 issue of the multi-million copy mass circulation national weekly newspaper, Southern Weekend ( carried the essay. The Communist Party Committee of Guangzhou Municipality publishes the newspaper. Following Yuan's essay are two others on fairness and history from talks delivered at the same forum.

Why Did the Chinese Environment Get So Badly Messed Up?

The most important reason for the deterioration of China's environment is that there is no strong guarantee of the freedom to express one's views. When National People's Congress representative Ma Yinchu brought up the problem of population [Note: in 1958, when Chairman Mao's position was "with more people we'll get more work done" [renduo duobanshi]. End note] he became regarded as a terrible criminal. During all the ensuing turmoil, a few hundred million more Chinese were born. How to provide for them? Make more farmland. And so the lakes, rivers, mountains, and grasslands of China were devastated.

The next reason was the creation of a command economy. The economy was directed by administrative methods. This brought on the Great Leap Forward and so forth in wave after wave. Rarely in human history have been seen examples of such extravagant destruction of the environment and of resources. Down to this day, there are many places in China where power is above the law, where leaders do what they like and the environmental departments don't dare to speak out. Moreover, the handling of affairs is not transparent and so it is impossible for the people and the media to supervise them.

The next reason was the establishment of a communal property system in which no one had real responsibility. Resources and capital are publicly owned. If I don't use them, someone else will. Everywhere resources are confiscated for private purposes. How can the environment matter in such a context?

Fourth was the belief that environmental problems only occur under capitalism and have nothing to do with China. Just look at the Chinese publications of the 1960s and 1970s and you will see China's leaders laughing at other people's problems. Such mass idiocy is the natural result of closing off contact with the outside world and not developing culture and education.

The Problem of Fairness in Chinese Society

Professor Xu Fayu of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Philosophy Institute

When intellectuals consider the problem of fairness in China today, the problem has already become one of "fairness under market conditions". Most people believe that one must choose between fairness and the market.

I reject this view. I don't believe that the cause of unfairness is simply the market economy. My own experience informs me that when the buds of personal economic enterprise were being killed in the 1960s and 1970s, there was no fairness although on the surface everyone was equally poor. I of course admit that the problem of fairness does exist in the market economy and that it is a serious problem. But I don't think the fairness problem that developed societies face is the same as the fairness problem that China faces today.

As responsible scholars, we need to take the question further. We need to just ask what is a market economy. What is fair and just?

In order to answer these questions, I switched to political philosophy two or three years ago. I discovered that the question of fairness is a very hot topic in the western academic world. The theories of John Rawls, Robert Nozik and Ronald Dworkin have attracted considerable attention. Their work has inspired so much research and debate because they have made original contributions to the problem of fairness (or the problem of the relationship between fairness and equality).

I admire the intensity and skill with which foreign scholars attack problems in their own societies. Their discussions are captivating. However, I still have the clear realization that the discussions that foreign scholars are having cannot be easily extended to the problems that China faces. China's problems are rather cruder and an academic explanation of them might even make them seem more complicated than they are and so mislead others and myself. To make an analogy, the problems that Western scholars discuss are like the discussions between a laborer and a contractor -- a debate between labor and capital on what would be a fair return for each. The problem of China, however, is like when robbers steal things, are the police around? Or even worse, what if the police themselves are robbing and stealing? (Newspaper editor's note: this refers to corrupt officials and corruption in the judicial system.) What should we do? Naturally these analogies have their limits and are not entirely apt. The problem of social fairness in China and in the West does have common aspects, especially when viewed from the academic perspective.

The Beginning of a New Historical Era

By Professor Zhu Xuele of the Shanghai University History Department

In my opinion, our historical era began in 1793. It will not end just because 2000 is a nice round lucky number. The year 1793 is important not only because of the Jacobin dictatorship that arose in France that year and so gave birth to the world left wing political culture that eventually took root in China. Another small matter occurred that year: the MacCartney UK trade delegation mission to China. For not kneeling before the Emperor, an argument arose and so that mission went home. From that point, China lost the chance to join international society as an equal. The Opium War that we know so well happened fifty years later. Before that war, China would not treat the West as an equal. After that war, the West would not treat China as an equal. Even worse, those two historical events of 1793 became intertwined rather like a poisonous snake. When left wing political culture engulfed Chinese society, its function with respect to the outside world was to erase the memory of the imperial tribute system and to refuse to reflect upon it. Another result was to smash blindly ahead towards any objective it had in view. It attributed any internal Chinese poison to the influence of foreigners so as to ruin relations with the outside world.

After 13 years of negotiations, China and the United States finally reached an agreement on China's entry to the World Trade Organization. This seems to be a sign that we will enter a new historical era.