Books: Liang Congjie’s collected works

The collected works of campaigner Liang Congjie highlights the common plight of environmentalists of his era.

Liang Congjie’s Collected Works on the Environment
Edited and published by Friends of Nature, July 2012

Once, on a train journey to the south of China I sat opposite three youngsters debating the relative merits of train and air travel – a trade-off, they argued, between time and money. Would I appear odd, I thought, if I pointed out that the train was also the low-carbon choice?

I later regretted not saying anything. But it reminded me that whilephrases like “low-carbon”, “ecology” and “environmental protection”may be common political buzzwords, acting on those principles is still not a part of mainstream Chinese culture.

This collection of works by Liang Congjie brought that train journey to mind. In one article, he wrote of speaking to the bosses of Global Fortune 500 companies at a luxury Shanghai hotel. He accused his audience of bringing western ways of consumption to China, asking “How much resources, how much energy, will China need if it becomes a consumer society, if 1.2 billion, or even 1.3 billion people consume at Western standards? How can that be sustainable? And if China is not sustainable, what does that mean for the world? When more far-sighted people in the west are examining the harm done by consumerism, what will bringing that culture to China do?”

The executives in the audience were doing just that, and it is easy to imagine they were not fans of Liang. Environmentalists are used to such reactions. But when it was necessary to rain on someone’s parade, Liang did so, both encouraging and emboldening his fellow environmentalists.

Liang may be one of the most influential people in the history of China’s environmental movement. His constant travels and appeals made him well-known. His family was already distinguished – his grandfather was Liang Qichao, the late Qing scholar and reformist, and his father, Liang Sicheng, is known as the father of modern Chinese architecture. His position as a member of the People’s Political Consultative Congress enabled him to write directly to government leaders – something that the majority of grassroots or overseas environmental groups cannot do.

When Liang passed away two years ago, the offices of Friends of Nature, which he founded, were packed with mourners. Liang was a spiritual role model for many of China’s environmentalists.

This new publication from Friends of Nature brings together 91 pieces of his writing – mostly letters, but also the text of speeches, prefaces he wrote for books and published articles. His writings show us that Liang practiced what he preached.

Liang Congjie highlights the plight of environmentalists of his era. In the 1990s, the Chinese left politics behind as they became more affluent – a trend the environmentalists ignored. In the first decade of the new century, as economic-fuelled national pride increased, the environmentalists talked of frugality and criticised material indulgence. They criticised the Western-style consumption foreign firms brought to China, while China’s government and public welcomed those firms with open arms.

How to grow an economy while protecting the environment? Liang understood the dilemma. In a 2003 article on the environmental issues of electronic waste dumps, he spoke of a conversation with a county head in the 1990s. The cadre told him of a polluting factory which couldn’t afford to buy water treatment equipment, and would be inundated as the Three Gorges reservoir filled. But if the factory closed, 20% of the county’s households would lose their income.

With these facts at hand, Liang was unable to find a suitable position for environmental groups to take.

But new rules on the disclosure of environmental information, introduced in 2008, provided those groups with a new tool. The Beijing-based Institute for Environmental & Public Affairs (IPE) and other groups subsequently took a novel approach to confronting corporate pollution – compiling information on polluting factories and targeting the well-known firms those factories supplied, demanding they clean up their supply chains.

Pollution was exposed in the media, and consumers were urgedto make environmentally-friendly choices. The focus was on foreign firms working in China, as these companies often had higher standards for markets at home than for their consumers abroad.

The companies will not, after all, be disappearing in the near future, and will continue to manufacture their products. Treating them as the demons of consumerism will do nothing but allow environmentalists a sense of moral superiority.

It may yet be too early to say that China is moving away from a GDP-first mindset. But, if public action trails changes in values, there may be more hope. The expansion of the middle class has encouragedgreater pursuit of spiritual values, and the myths of GDP growth are hard to sustain. Also, environmental damage and resource consumption are harming social stability.

Liang and his fellows were the first ones aware of this, and as a result were isolated. They lived in the time of Mao’s wish to see nothing but factory chimneys from the top of Tiananmen. Nobody could have expected that “environmental protection” would become a common term.

But now more people are being forced to think about their environment, and more people have the ability to do something about it. We may have to wait a while longer before consumers factor the environment alongside price when making their decisions. Otherwise, I would not have been so tongue-tied about the low-carbon virtues of the train.

Meng Si is a Beijing-based freelance writer, and former associate editor at chinadialogue’s Beijing office.