A pioneer in China's environmental protection, Qu Geping, and Canadian Maurice Strong, six times Undersecretary-General of the UN and former Secretary General of the UN Conference on Environment and Development, have been the best of friends for many years.
Both 75 and winners of numerous awards in their careers in environmental protection, the two started their friendship in 1972 when they met at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, an event seen as a milestone in the history of the world's environmental movement.
In the years that followed, they have met numerous times at various environmental gatherings, yet they have seldom had the chance to sit down casually together to look back over the developments they have witnessed together, in China as well as in the rest of the world.
The regret was removed last week. The two senior experts were invited by Jia Feng, deputy director of the Center for Environment Education and Communications of the State Environmental Protection Administration, to Peking University, where they sipped tea and chatted away for hours on issues which they have devoted half their lives to.
Milestone: Stockholm Conference
In their eyes, the Stockholm conference has played a significant role in the environmental cause internationally and in China, the world's largest developing country.
"Before the 1970s, Chinese people barely had any idea about modern environmental concepts," recalls Qu.
"We thought pollution and eco-damage were the fruits of the capitalist system, and had nothing to do with socialist China."
In fact, the country was not free of environmental problems at all.
In 1972, for example, many residents in Beijing became ill after eating fish raised in a newly-built reservoir. The tragedy shocked then Premier Zhou Enlai, who ordered Qu to conduct an immediate investigation.
The culprit turned out be a pesticide plant on a river that fed pollutant into the reservoir. The plant was shut down immediately.
The government found pollution problems were serious when more reports about water contamination came in from coastal cities and inland cities along the Yangtze River.
Premier Zhou decided that China had to attend the Stockholm Conference, because he knew that the country was not immune to environmental problems.
So, after the People's Republic of China resumed its legal seat in the United Nations, Qu, who then worked in the Ministry of Chemical Industry, led the first delegation to Stockholm, where he got to know Strong.
"We were not familiar with such international meetings at all at that time," says Qu. "Our thanks went out to Mr Strong for being so kind and helping us find our way."
The Chinese delegation insisted on making some amendments to the draft of the Declaration on the Human Environment. Strong at first argued against them, but finally agreed.
But looking back now, Qu admits that not all of China's proposals were correct.
For example, Qu says, China did not agree on birth control at that time, as the general thinking in the country at that time was "the more people, the more power."
The delegation was also reluctant to accept global environmental monitoring, because "we were afraid foreigners would steal strategic information," Qu recalls.
"It reflected on how far behind the country was in those years in terms of environmental awareness," Qu says, adding that the 1972 Stockholm conference heralded great changes in the situation in China.
After the conference, the government passed the new ideas about environmental protection on to the public through a variety of channels.
A working meeting was arranged, during which representatives from all over the country discussed the nation's environmental problems for the first time.
"It was an unbelievable breakthrough during those chaotic years of the so-called 'cultural evolution' when the entire nation was frantically singing the glories of socialism in the country, but afraid to touch upon any real problems," says Qu.
Since then, the country has been making great strides in its environmental protection work.
In the 1970s, Premier Zhou pushed the cause using his personal power, and in the 1980s, environmental protection became an essential State policy following the introduction of Deng Xiaoping's reform and opening-up policies, said Qu.
Changes started taking place in China in the following years, accelerated by the 1992 Rio de Janeiro UN Conference on Environment and Development, which introduced the idea of sustainable development to the world.
Departments of environment protection were established in all levels of government in China; public environmental education campaigns were launched; and a series of environmental laws and regulations came into being.
What Qu is most proud of is the Environmental Impact Assessment Law he drafted, which took effect last September.
The law requires that all major projects related to the ecological environment, including land development, power, transportation, tourism and other agricultural or industrial projects, must go through an environmental assessment process before being given a go-ahead.
"It is a milestone for the government and other institutions in pushing forward the course of sustainable development," says Qu.
Maurice Strong says that China's progress is encouraging: "China has achieved a great deal of progress that I have been privileged to see over many years."
His witnessing of China's environmental development started long before he met Qu, in 1953, when he paid his first visit to China. He remembers that he was very surprised by what he saw in the country, and this led to him deciding to do something to help developing countries.
There were no major changes in China until several years after the Stockholm Conference.
"When you took me around this country in 1973, there were not many people talking about the environment," Strong said to Qu. "Now your leaders are talking about environment and undertaking new legislation. Your five-year plan has committed a very substantial investment to environmental protection."
Strong praises Qu for having helped the Chinese people and the government to realize that there is a close interaction between environment and economy, and that a balance between the two is imperative.
He is also impressed by the newly-elect Chinese leadership with its "people-centered" policies.
"What I think is ingenious in the new approach is that China is using the methods of capitalism to achieve the objectives of socialism, which is people-centered," says Strong.
He says China's situation is unique in the world. Economic development on such a massive scale has never been experienced before by any other country in the world.
So China, with 25 percent of the world's population and 6 or 7 percent of the world's land, has to manage its environment well; otherwise, environmental problems could constrain the country's economic development, he says.
Qu has worked in the environmental field for 35 years, but says he is still not completely satisfied with China's progress.
"On the contrary, I'm often worried, sometimes heartbroken," he says.
As early as the 70s in the last century, the Chinese Government pushed slogans calling for the country not to follow the Western mistake of polluting first and then trying to treat the problem.
But, in retrospect, China was guilty of the same practice. "There is still a long long way to go in terms of putting sustainable development into practice," Qu says.
He warns that under the current economic development patterns in energy and resource consumption, the strain on the environment will be four or five times that of today in the country's efforts to achieve its goal of quadrupling the GDP by 2020.
There is hope now, however, because industries and the government are no longer rivals in environmental management, but engaged in a win-win relationship.
For example, a candy factory in Guizhou Province has adopted a recycling plan, turning various wastes in its production process into resources. The enterprise has thus significantly increased its profit margins, while substantially reducing pollution, says Qu.
Qu is calling for the idea of a green civilization that is different from industrial civilization. "Industrial development in the 20th century brought great achievements, but the harm it also did will be a long-term problem, sometimes disastrous.
"Beyond economic growth, we must also consider other factors. The ideas of green GDP and green civilization will represent the mainstream direction of development in the 21st century," Qu says.
(China Daily March 29, 2004)