Liang Congjie

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In a country where rivers run black, endangered animals are turned into dinner and air pollution wraps cities in a haze the color of dirty socks, it can be hard to imagine anyone in China being an ally of the environment. But historian Liang Congjie, who died Oct. 28 at 78, made history himself in 1994 as the founder of Friends of Nature, China's first officially recognized environmental NGO.

Inspired by foreign groups like Greenpeace, Liang launched successful campaigns to save rare species like the snub-nosed monkey and a Tibetan antelope hunted for its fur. But even as he lobbied against ecologically disastrous dams or loosely regulated factories, Liang pursued a gentler form of advocacy, better suited to a country where any dissent can be interpreted as a threat to the government.

The scion of an intellectual family persecuted for generations for its activism, Liang knew well the perils of outspokenness. "In China, you need to have big dreams but work in small ways," he once told me, adding with a smile, "Lots of small things can add up to a big dream." Indeed, the ecological crusader's example helped spawn a network of thousands of officially registered environmental NGOs in China today. Although environmentalists who have challenged the authorities continue to be jailed on occasion for their activism, Liang's protégés are leading some of China's successful cleanup efforts. The country's environment may still be miserable, but more and more Chinese are doing something about it.