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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One of China's most prominent environmentalists died recently. Liang Congjie founded the Chinese group Friends of Nature. Journalist Jonathan Watts of Britain's Guardian newspaper wrote about him in his new book "When a Billion Chinese Jump."

Mr. Jonathan Watts (Author, "When a Billion Chinese Jump"): Liang Congjie is the godfather of the Chinese environmental movement. He's a history professor from a very distinguished Chinese family, who was very active in liberal movements in 1980s. And then after what happened with the Tianamen Square protest and the crackdown that followed, he moved into the environment movement, as a space where you could engage.

He established Friends of Nature, the first real Chinese green NGO in 1994, and has kept it going until now, and spawned several other environmental groups in China. So now there's not just one NGO in China, there's more than 3,000.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by environmentalism being a space where you can be active in China?

Mr. WATTS: It's an area where you can organize, where you can register an NGO with the authorities, where can camp. And up to a point, where you can engage with the media to expose wrongdoings.

INSKEEP: Whereas if you were a democracy activist, that wouldnt go over so well.

Mr. WATTS: Absolutely not. If you're a democracy activist, if you're a labor activist, you would be looked upon with great suspicion and you would face a very considerable risk of being locked up.

INSKEEP: So if you look across China, which you have traveled so wildly, where is an area or a place, a species, anything that his work affected?

Mr. WATTS: There are a number of prominent cases where his work is being effective. Perhaps the acutest of them is the Tibetan antelope; that gorgeous little creature that lives in the world's highest plateau, the Tibetan Plateau. This animal was endangered - remains endangered. But about 10 years ago, its situation was very critical cause people were killing the animal because its fur is used for shahtoosh scarves.

And Liang Congjie, along with local activists, campaigned for more work to be done to save this little beast. And it has proved effective. The numbers have recovered somewhat.

And one other example is that he was involved in efforts to try to restrict dam building on the Nu River, which is one of the biggest rivers that flows the south of China and one of the last great relatively undammed rivers. It goes through a place of astonishing natural beauty. And there is a plan in place to build a cascade of hydroelectric damns.

Liang Congjie, along with other groups, persuaded the government to postpone that plan. It may still go ahead. The powers to develop China's economy are just so strong; it's hard to resist them. But he's held back the tide a bit.

INSKEEP: That is the one that gets to the heart of the problem here, isnt it? Because China is developing, the government feels they need to develop rapidly or they're going to have severe instability. They need electricity, you want hydroelectric damns, end of story.

Mr. WATTS: That's right. The pressures to move forward economically are always running up against what environmentalists want. Hydroelectric dams, polluting factories, excessive consumption, all of those things from an environmental perspective are very bad. But in the end, the government's priority is stability and they think the key for stability is economic growth.

INSKEEP: Well, have environmental activists, like Liang Congjie, succeeded in getting the government to weave environmentalism into the practicalities of what they do on a day-to-day basis?

Mr. WATTS: I think the NGOs have helped. I think, certainly within the top levels of Chinese government, there is a very great awareness of these problems. They're not sticking their head in the sand. You have a president who is a hydro engineer, Hu Jintao. You have a premiere who is a geologist.

So they know about water. They know about the Earth. And I think they're trying to do a lot in strengthening some of the environmental regulations within the country. But they are still being trumped by that juggernaut, which is the Chinese economy.

INSKEEP: How much impacts have those 3,000 environmental NGOs really had in China?

Mr. WATTS: I think theyve had an impact in starting to change attitudes. You're seeing people talk about the environment, talk about pollution more. I think theyve had an impact in terms of getting these issues in the media, in public debate. There are a lot more stories about the environment and environmental problems in the Chinese media today.

And I think in certain cases, they have been effective in exposing some of the worse polluters. But I would say that they're still up against it. It's very, very hard for Chinese NGOs to use the kinds of tools that Western NGOs used, and used very effectively particularly in the '60s, '70s and now the '80s when the Green Movement started.

INSKEEP: You can't chain yourself to a tree and get away with it in China.

Mr. WATTS: You cannot so easily chain yourself to a tree and get away with it. You cannot use law courts, cause most of the time the laws are just ignored. Or the local party secretary will whisper in the ear of the judge, because they're all in the party together, and the party takes precedence over just about everything else.

So it is that much more difficult for them to do what they do. And there are several cases of Chinese environmentalists who have either been beaten up or put in prison for what they do. So these are brave people trying to really make a difference.

Jonathan Watts is author of "When a Billion Chinese Jump."

Thanks for coming by.

Mr. WATTS: Pleasure, thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: And you can find an excerpt of that book at NPR.org.

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