China's young greens stage a quiet revolution

Liang Congjie has a nightmare vision. "If each Chinese family has two cars like American families, the number of cars needed by China would be about 600 million vehicles, more than all the cars in the world combined. That would be the greatest disaster for mankind."

To save the planet's peoples from choking to death, Dr Liang leads by example. Today, on World Environment Day, he will lecture China's burgeoning middle classes about the over-consumption of the West. To reach his speaking engagements, the former history professor will cycle Beijing's crowded, baking streets, as he has for many of his 69 years. But Dr Liang's foremost feat is manoeuvring within the limited space China's Communist Party allows non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including his group, Friends of Nature. Dr Liang and fellow activists target schools and journalists with their educational message.

"The government doesn't like NGOs," he says."First, the government always has the mentality of a parent, used to looking after absolutely everything. Also, the authorities are afraid of any independent organisation." The spiritual group Falun Gong can testify to the official paranoia that suppresses every "threat", but, within limits, NGOs are booming in China.

The growth of the greens suggests the steady rise of civil society. From 1994, when the first NGO, Friends of Nature, was approved, at least 39 environmental ones have become active in China, says Nick Young, a British development worker in Beijing. In his soon-to-be-published directory of Chinese NGOs, Mr Young estimates the total is far higher, as student groups multiply and courageous individuals tackle local causes.

Hot issues include battery recycling, saving rare monkeys and curbing the use of the disposable chopsticks that are swallowing China's forests. Independent advocates pushing these causes are better placed to raise awareness than the discredited authorities who failed to stop the rot. "For five decades, the government imposed all kinds of campaigns on people, urging them to do this or to be that," Mr Young says. "It is no longer credible. Just imagine which would be more effective; to let the government put up a wall slogan, 'Let's protect the environment', or let enthusiastic activists like Liang do the work?"

Two decades of breakneck economic growth have left countless environmental casualties. Desertification threatens a quarter of China's land mass, logging strips hillsides and rivers are toxic with industrial waste. China has seven of the world's top 10 polluted cities. If the West has polluted the world, its future may rest in Chinese hands as the PRC overtakes the US as the worst global warmer and source of acid rain. A survey has indicated that 65 per cent of Chinese regard pollution as the most important global issue, while 68 per cent would support tax increases to pay for better environmental protection and 65 per cent would pay 20 per cent more for environmentally friendly products.

Although government culpability is widely known (corrupt officials turn blind eyes to polluting factories) Dr Liang cannot risk the confrontational tactics of Western pressure groups. But grassroots groups are developing purpose, confidence, and a sense of global community.

If Friends of Nature and other factions follow the European experience and coalesce into a force similar to Greenpeace, Beijing could face its own nightmare of an alternative, independent and popular mass organisation.

Alert to potential danger, and rising public anger at environmental deterioration, the Chinese government is co-opting the green movement. After being snubbed for years by officialdom, Mr Liang has been invited to advise the capital's 2008 Olympic bid committee.

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