China’s fledgling environmental movement recently lost one of its unsung leaders, Ye Weijia
Aged just 62, businessman and activist Ye Weijia passed away in Beijing on June 14 from sudden heart failure. He is survived by wife Li Lailai and son Ye Dingzi.
For the last decade, Weijia relentlessly promoted sustainable economic development in China through the small non-governmental organisation he led, Dao Institute of Environment and Development (Dao IED).
Under his leadership, the NGO established partnerships with international and Chinese organisations that educated hundreds of elementary school children in the tenets of environmental stewardship and trained up-and-coming Chinese environmental leaders.
The organisation also implemented a pro bono green business mentoring programme, tutoring over 100 green entrepreneurs whose businesses included industrial wastewater treatment technologies, organic farming and recycling of old printers.
A tall Beijinger with a deep voice and loud laugh whom friends called “Ye Lao" ("Old Ye"), Weijia was an indispensable asset in the movement to steer China’s economic growth towards a more sustainable path. Not only was he bi-cultural, having attended graduate school in the US during the 1980s, but Weijia also had a successful 30-year multinational business career.
He knew at first hand how industry can be a force for good, as well as bad, in terms of protecting the environment.
But Weijia's background was atypical of an environmentalist.
After earning a Masters degree in industrial engineering from the University of Pittsburgh in the US, Weijia worked as a senior executive in multinational metals and materials firms.
He returned to China in 1993 to use skills acquired abroad to help drive China’s quickening pace of economic growth, and played a major role in setting up new industrial plants across the country in an era where development, rather than the environment, was the primary concern.
But as China’s breakneck industrialisation took an increasingly heavy toll on the country’s natural resources, Weijia underwent a conversion.
“Many of these plants we built were in these pristine environments. In my heart, I felt so guilty about the damage we did to the environment. I needed to give something back,” Weijia once told a group of colleagues on why he became a green campaigner .
With this single purpose in mind, Weijia gave up the benefits he had enjoyed as a privileged former expatriate, turning instead to the spartan life of a grassroots Chinese environmental activist.
In addition to only taking public transport to meetings, Weijia took no salary from his organisation, living off savings made during his corporate career.
If he did some consulting for international firms seeking to tap his expertise to enter the China environmental market, he would donate the entire salary back to the organisation.
Weijia did so because he wanted to make sure his NGO had enough money to pay the idealistic young Chinese who came to work at Dao IED at a minimal salary to be part of the Chinese environmental movement.
“Haizi (child),” he affectionately called his young colleagues.
What made Weijia so special was that he always sought to empower others to lead. He made himself available to anyone who wanted to improve China’s environmental condition. He always gave encouragement to aspiring Chinese activists and used his guanxi (connections) to find opportunities for young environmentalists to develop their skills and execute their ideas.
When he mentored green entrepreneurs, Weijia earned their trust by diligently listening to their needs and exhaustively researching their respective industries – reading in-depth market studies and detailed technical papers at night and on the weekends. The entrepreneurs respectfully called him “Ye Laoshi – Teacher Ye”.
When environmentalists across the globe met with him to seek his insight on China’s environmental and industrial landscape, Weijia would explain – in plain-spoken English – China’s complexities and contradictions.
“Anything is possible in China, yet nothing is achievable,” he once said to the leader of international environmental organisation.
Weijia's tireless commitment came despite suffering from high blood pressure and apnea, a condition that interrupts sleep.
When he travelled to attend an environmental conference or meet a green entrepreneur, he would bring his positive air pressure machine.
To manage his condition, Weijia diligently took his medication, did the prescribed cardio exercises, and carefully watched his diet. He cut back on his affection for Cantonese roasted geese, and smoking tobacco from a pipe was restricted to an occasional guilty pleasure.
In 2010, he handed over the leadership of Dao IED to a new executive director.
Just last year, Weijia began teaching a course on environmental sustainability at a local Beijing university.
His death has left all whose lives he touched in shock and pain – particularly his wife Li Lailai, who herself is an accomplished Chinese environmental policy expert, and son Ye Dingzi, a biomedical researcher living in the US.
Perhaps we can take solace that his passing was the heavens recognising Weijia had done is his part in making a positive change for his country.
During his funeral at Beijing’s Babaoshan Cemetery, where China’s heroes are buried, over three hundred mourners came to show their respects and addressed him with a new name: “Ye Weijia - Lu Tianshi (Green Angel)”.
Ray Cheung began working with Weijia on Chinese green industry development from 2007 and had frequently sought Weijia’s counsel.
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