Sinbad in Beijing: How to tame the many-headed hydra called Social Media

Sinbad: The legend endures, entertains...and inspires!

I have always been intrigued by the tales of Sinbad the legendary sailor. My interest is heightened by living in Serendib, destination of Sinbad’s sixth journey, which is modern-day Sri Lanka.

Being a professional story teller, I always try to connect the old world with the new. So in Beijing this week, I proposed: In the brave new world of social media, we need to be as daring and adventurous as Sinbad.

Like the legendary sailor of Baghdad, we have to take our chances and venture into unknown seas. Instead of maps or GPS or other tools, we must rely on our ingenuity, intuition and imagination.

And we have to be prepared for a potentially perilous journey where we may be lost, shipwrecked or even sunk. On the other hand, with careful planning, hard work and some luck, we may well sail into calmer seas and discover new lands and treasures – just like Sinbad did.

One thing is for sure: it’s not for the faint-hearted. There are no guarantees of success, and certainly no travel insurance…Are we ready to take the plunge?

This was the thrust of my opening remarks to a panel on social media that I moderated at the Asia Media Summit 2010 in Beijing, China, this week. The panel was part of the Asia-Pacific Media Seminar on Ozone Protection and Climate Benefit, one of several pre-Summit events held on 24 May 2010.

L to R: Pauline Couture, Nalaka Gunawardene (speaking), Chutharat Thanapaisarnkit and Minna Epps

My enthusiasm for social media was not dampened by the fact that some key social media platforms were not accessible from the Chinese capital because they are officially blocked. Ah, if we aren’t allowed to walk the talk, we story tellers can still talk the talk, right?

In my opening remarks, I added:

Those of us working on development, humanitarian or social issues always have plenty of public interest messages to communicate. We are also keen to amplify grassroots voices so that policy-makers and business leaders would get a reality check.

The social media present many opportunities for all this. They offer us the potential for not just outreach, but sustained engagement. The development community has long wished for more interactive and participatory communications tools. The social media do precisely this! There’s no longer any excuse for not jumping in…

I then added the caution: It’s a big pond, and keeps getting bigger and deeper by the day. Social media is a basket that includes a lot more than (the more visible and controversial) Facebook and YouTube. According to the Wikipedia (itself an example), social media is a collective term to describe online media that is based on two key attributes: conversations, and interactions between people.

One of the many strange creatures that Sinbad encountered on his journeys was the Hydra — a many-headed serpent (or dragon). Chop one off, and two would grow instantly — a bit like how new social media applications are popping up these days!

Modern-day Sinbads have plenty of new horizons and uncharted waters to explore. Yes, it can be cacophonous, confusing, dizzy and even a bit frivolous at times. Hey, so is the real world! We need discernment in both worlds.

Social media started with the geeks, but soon spilled over to involve the rest of us. How can we — the non-geeks — come to terms with this new realm? How do we find our niche that makes us more effective communicators and agents of social change? The key to engaging this bewildering world of social media is to…just do it. And see what works.

I also introduced my own rough guide to get started and keep going in using social media for communicating public interest content. As a salute to Sinbad’s seven voyages, I call it the 7-‘ups’.

MediaHelpingMedia has just published my 7-Ups Rough Guide to using social media.

Twitterless in Beijing: Talking aspirationally about social media…

Under Chairman Mao's watchful eyes...

“Reading computer manuals without the hardware is as frustrating as reading sex manuals without the software!”

This is one of the less known, but more entertaining, dicta by Arthur C Clarke – he called it ‘Clarke’s 64th Law’, and I personally know he used to bring it up when meeting with particularly crusty or glum intellectuals. (Not all were amused.)

Clarke’s words kept turning in my mind as I moderated and spoke at a session on social media at Asia Media Summit 2010 held in Beijing China from 24 to 26 May 2010. The country with the world’s largest media market is not exactly the world’s most open or free – and certainly when it comes to social media, it’s a very different landscape to what we are used to…

These days, International visitors arriving in China discover quickly that access to YouTube, Twitter and Facebook is completely blocked. Apparently the brief ‘thaw’ in restrictions, seen before and during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is now over — the current restrictions have been in place since the spring of 2009.

This doesn’t mean there is no social media in China. In fact, I heard from several Chinese friends and colleagues that there is a very large, dynamic and fast-evolving social media scene in China. For the most part, however, it’s not based on globally used and familiar platforms, and is happening in a digital universe of China’s own — under the watchful eye of the government.

Jump in...but some conditions apply!

For example, I found from this March 2010 blog post by Merritt Colaizzi that:
* 221 million people have blogs, largely in a diary-style.
* 176 million Chinese connect via social networking system (SNS) with their “real” friends and online networks.
* 117 million connect anonymously via bulletin board system (BBS). These interactive online message boards are the heart of social media in China. They’re where people go to find topic-based communities and where consumers talk about products and services.

There are lots of other blogs, mainstream media reports and research commentary on social media in China — just Google and see (now that’s another thing with limited – and uneven – access in China: Google itself is available, but search results come with lots of links that simply aren’t accessible). Much or all of this interaction happens in Chinese, of course. It’s a significant part of the web and social media landscapes, but if you’re in China on a short visit and want to stay connected to your own social media networks, that’s not at all helpful.

And, of course, it undermines one of the key attributes of a globally integrated information society: the interoperability of systems and platforms.

Luckily for me, perhaps, I can survive a few days without my social media fix: I have an appalling record of updating my Facebook account: days pass without me even going there. For the moment, at least, I’m also taking a break from regular blogging (well, sort of). But I’m more regular in my micro-blogging on Twitter, and visit YouTube at least once a day, sometimes more often. I could do neither during the few days in Beijing – and that was frustrating.

So imagine having to talk about social media as a new media phenomenon in such a setting. That’s only a tiny bit better than reading computer manuals without the hardware…But this is just what I did, with all the eagerness that I typically bring into everything I do. I planned and moderated a 90-minute session on Social Media: Navigating choppy seas in search of Treasures?

The session was part of the Asia-Pacific Media Seminar on Ozone Protection and Climate Benefit, so our context was how to use the social media to raise public awareness and understanding on the somewhat technical topics of ozone layer depletion and climate change (two related but distinctive atmospheric phenomena).

With access to key global social media platforms denied, we visitors and Chinese colleagues in the audience could speak mostly generically, theoretically and aspirationally. I didn’t want to place my hosts and seminar organisers in difficulty by harping on what was missing. Instead, we focused on what is possible and happening: how development communicators are increasingly social media networks and platforms to get their messages out, and to create online communities and campaigns in the public interest.

The thrust of my own opening remarks to the session was this: In the brave new world of social media, we all have to be as daring as Sinbad. Like the legendary sailor of Baghdad, we have to take our chances and venture into unknown seas. Instead of maps or GPS or other tools, we have to rely on our ingenuity, intuition and imagination.

More about the session itself in future blog posts.

For now, I want to share this TED Talk by American watcher of the Internet Clay Shirky on how cellphones, Twitter, Facebook can make history. Shirky shows how Facebook, Twitter and TXTs help citizens in repressive regimes to report on real news, bypassing censors (however briefly). The end of top-down control of news is changing the nature of politics.

PS: All this holds more than an academic interest for me, because there have been media reports in recent weeks that the Sri Lankan government is working with Chinese experts in formulating strategies for censoring internet access from Sri Lanka.

Impressions and images from Tiananmen, Gate of Heavenly Peace…

Tiananmen literally means Gate of Heavenly Peace...hmmm

I spent several hours at the Tian’anmen Square in Beijing, China, this week, while attending a media conference. I was returning to this landmark, now a key tourist attraction in modernised and assertive China, after nearly a decade. And much has changed…

Measuring 880 metres by 500 metres, and covering a total area of 440,000 square metres, the Tiananmen Square is the largest city square in the world. But mere superlatives don’t impress me. It’s what goes on behind the claims, labels and stereotypes that interest me.

I’ve been to the square on a couple of previous Beijing visits. The first was in October 1996, during my very first visit to China. I was also taken in a group tour on a later visit. If I remember right, my last sighting of the Square was in 2002 – just before I acquired my first digital camera. (That makes a difference, because Before Digital, my analog photographs on travel were sparingly taken…and my own memory is not a very reliable storage medium.)

Day or night, he keeps vigil over Tiananmen Square...and 1.3 billion people

This time, I was armed with my digital camera and ample digital memory — and, it seemed, so were most other visitors! There were the obviously foreign tourists (including the loud and uninformed Americans), but it seemed most people thronging to the square were Chinese…many from out of town. For some, a visit to this centre of power is a rare occasion to be cherished and recorded.

I was impressed by just how many people were clicking away, using either digital cameras or mobile phone cameras. I shouldn’t be surprised by this, for China is the country with the largest number of mobile phones in use: by March 2010, there were some 780 million mobile subscribers, accounting for 58.5 per cent of all people in China.

Keen to capture different scenes under varying kinds of daylight and night lights, I made three visits to the Square – including one at 5.30 in the morning to catch daybreak at the Gate of Heavenly Peace (literal meaning of Tiananmen). So here’s a sampling of my several dozen photos – this selection has a bias on people shooting each other, digitally speaking (a far cry from the kind of shooting that took place here 20 years ago).

Look serious, man - he's watching!

Now bring out your best smiles, all!

People milling about with Great Hall of the People in the background

Clicking away at Monument to the People's Heroes

One of the most striking moments I captured was of this elderly couple, very dignified and sprightly in their outlook, as they were taking a stroll on the square early morning and capturing memories on their mobile phone. They are old enough to have known another reality, but this was now and here…

This Square, and we, have seen and heard much in our time...

Did we get it alright?

I also noticed how the younger visitors were clearly at ease with digital technologies, just like their fellow Digital Natives elsewhere in the world. There is also a discernible easing up (not only among unknown people in public places, but also noticeable among older and younger Chinese friends I have): maybe it’s the exuberance of youth, but the NextGen Chinese don’t seem to be as somber and serious as their parents.

Or perhaps the younger people in China today just have more things to smile about?

Would Chairman Mao approve this pose, eh?

Heaven is in the eye of the beholder...

Digital Natives capturing memories for the Next Gen

It was a rushed visit of four nights and three days, so all my impressions are fleeting. They don’t begin to do justice to the nuanced complexity that is modern China. But they tell me one thing: even in a land with a proud history of over 5,000 years, ten years can still make a difference.

Bye for now: I take only photos, and leave only shadows behind...

Note: All photos were taken touristically for my own memory and personal archives, with no other intention.

Hans Rosling and Gapminder: Unraveling the Joy of Stats!

Hans Rosling: Information Wizard

If you thought Al Gore was a data-happy geek, you should see Hans Rosling in action.

The Swedish medical researcher has a way with numbers. He brings heavy and dreary statistics into life using a combination of animated graphics and equally animated presentations. With the drama and urgency of a sportscaster, he uses a new presentation tool called Gapminder to debunk various myths about world – economic development, disparities and how well (or poorly) we share our planet’s resources.

Hans Rosling is Professor of International Health at Karolinska Institutet (which awards the Nobel Prize in medicine), but it’s his other role – as Director of the Gapminder Foundation – that he plays ‘statistics guru’ to the whole world. If you’re perplexed by lots of numbers, he’s the man who can make sense of it all.

In some ways, Rosling and Gapminder present in live action – and on video – what the Atlas of the Real World attempted to do in 2D maps: show the world as it is, with little or no distortion or misconceptions. That effort, published in late 2008, uses software to depict the nations of the world, not by their physical size, but by their demographic importance on a range of subjects.

I’ve watched a number of Rosling talks on video online. He makes no attempt to conceal his Scandinavian accent, and his English grammar is not always perfect. But it doesn’t matter: the guy has such mastery over his ideas and statistics, and a great stage presence too. He’s profound and funny at the same time, without being condescending that most experts and especially professors are.

Here’s an example of Rosling at his best: recorded in February 2006 in Monterrey, California:

No more boring data: TEDTalks

Rosling’s quest to use numbers to shatter stereotypes of rich and poor countries has brought him global prominence. He was one of the world’s “100 most important global thinkers” of 2009, according to Foreign Policy Magazine.

Look, no magic here!

Rosling was honored at #96 on the list for “boggling our minds with paradigm-shattering data“. The list is topped by (1) Ben Bernanke, the chairman of US Federal Reserve for his actions to turn the US depression and (2) President Barack Obama for “for reimagining America’s role in the world.”

Foreign Policy noted: “Rosling is well known for his energetic lectures, in which he narrates mind-blowing statistics on development and public health — as they literally move across a screen. Imagine x-y axes filled with data points, each representing a country. As time passes, the dots move, realigning to show changes in child mortality, percentage of paved roads, unemployment rates, or pretty much any other metric you can imagine.”

Here are some more examples of Rosling magic:

200 years that changed the world (with Hans Rosling)

For the first time, Gapminder can now visualize change in life expectancy and income per person over the last two centuries. In this Gapminder video, Hans Rosling shows you how all the countries of the world have developed since 1809 – 200 years ago.

Hans Rosling on HIV: New facts and stunning data visuals

Hans Rosling unveils new data visuals that untangle the complex risk factors of one of the world’s deadliest (and most misunderstood) diseases: HIV. He argues that preventing transmissions — not drug treatments — is the key to ending the epidemic.

Hans Rosling: Asia’s rise — how and when

This is one of the funniest Rosling talks I’ve watched online so far. Speaking at TEDIndia in November 2009, Rosling recalled how he was a young guest student in India when he first realized that Asia had all the capacities to reclaim its place as the world’s dominant economic force. He graphs global economic growth since 1858 and predicts the exact date that India and China will outstrip the US.

Note:
Rosling and Gapminder developed the Trendalyzer software that converts international statistics into moving, interactive and enjoyable graphics. The aim is to promote a fact-based world view through increased use and understanding of freely accessible public statistics. His lectures using Gapminder graphics to visualise world development have won awards by being humorous yet deadly serious. The interactive animations are freely available from the Foundation’s website. In March 2007 Google acquired the Trendalyzer software with the intention to scale it up and make it freely available for public statistics. Google has since made available as Motion Chart, a Google Gadget.

Asian Tsunami+5: Revisiting survivor Heshani Hewavitharana of Sri Lanka…

Heshani in Feb 2005: Creative and reflective - Photo courtesy TVEAP

Heshani Madushika Hewavitharana, 13, was an eager student in school who also excelled in creative writing, in which she’d won certificates and awards. All of these, along with her school books and everything else her family owned, was lost in the Asian Tsunami of 26 December 2004. Their beach front house, in Suduwella in Sri Lanka’s southern district of Matara, was badly damaged. They escaped with their lives — and were among the luckier ones.

When we found Heshani and family a few weeks after the tragedy, they were taking refuge in a friend’s house. Her fisherman father could not immediately return to his work without his boat and gear, also washed away by the waves. The family was living on the mother’s meagre income from spinning coir ropes.

Despite their plight, Heshani and family agreed to participate in the Children of Tsunami media project, where local film crews in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand tracked how eight survivor families were rebuilding their lives and livelihoods after the Asian tsunami disaster.

We at TVE Asia Pacific documented on TV, video and web the personal recovery stories of eight affected families in these worst affected countries for one year after the disaster. Our many media products — distributed on broadcast, narrowcast and online platforms -– inspired wide ranging public discussion on disaster relief, recovery and rehabilitation. In that process, we were also able to demonstrate that a more engaged, respectful kind of journalism was possible when covering post-disaster situations.

Watch Heshani’s first monthly video update, February 2005:

Not all our participating families recovered from the tsunami’s mighty blow within one year, but we ran out of money and had to stop capturing their stories by the end of 2005, which I called Asia’s longest year. In a goodbye tribute to the courage and resilience of these families, I wrote in December 2005: “Our journey with the eight families ends with the first anniversary. We know their own journeys to recovery are far from finished. We can only wish them well.

Heshani in Nov 2009 - Courtesy Xinhua

Since then, I have often wondered how the eight children were faring. (In March 2007, it suddenly became seven when the Theeban, the boy in Sri Lanka’s east whose story we tracked, was brutally murdered.) However, I have resisted the temptation to revisit the children as I felt we had been intrusive enough already during that first difficult year after the tsunami. They must now be allowed to continue their lives in private.

Yet, I was intrigued by a recent report where two correspondents working for the Chinese news agency Xinhua, Chen Zhanjie and Liu Yongqiu, tracked down Heshani and family. They wrote a story on Xinhua’s website for the Universal Children’s Day in November which focused attention on the protection and welfare of children. Heshani is now 17, and her younger sister Dimalka, 12. Already having passed the GCE Ordinary Level exam, Heshani is now preparing for her Advanced Level exam slated for August 2010.

While Dimalka aspires to be a doctor, Heshani wants to become a banker. Their father believes the tragedy has added a new dimension to the girls’ lives: “They have leant their responsibilities from the tsunami. Now the two girls have no fears.”

Read the full story on Xinhua website: From tsunami to trauma to trek ahead

The Mekong: One river, six countries, two films — and many views

Mekong River flows through 6 countries, nurturing 65 million Asians


The Mekong is one of Asia’s major rivers, and the twelfth longest in the world. Sometimes called the ‘Danube of the East’, it nurtures a great deal of life in its waters – and in the wetlands, forests, towns and villages along its path.

The Mekong’s long journey begins in the Tibetan highlands. It flows through China’s Yunan province, and then across Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia…before entering the sea from southern Vietnam. It’s a journey of nearly 5,000 kilometres, or some 3,000 miles.

The Mekong River Basin is the land surrounding all the streams and rivers that flow into it. This covers a vast area roughly the size of France and Germany combined.

On its long journey across 6 countries, the Mekong provides a life-line to over 65 million people. They share Mekong waters for drinking, farming, fishing and industry. Along the way, the river also generates electricity for South East Asia’s emerging economies.

Naturally, these teeming millions who share the river feel differently about how best to manage the river waters in their best interests. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) tries to nurture cooperation among the Mekong river countries, but differences still remain.

Some of these surfaced during the Mekong Media Forum being held in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai from 9 to 12 December 2009. As IPS reporter Marwaan Macan-Markar reported, “A heated debate about the future of the Mekong River at a media conference in this northern Thai city exposed a fault line triggered by the regional giant China’s plans to build a cascade of dams on the upper stretches of South-east Asia’s largest waterway.”

At the centre of this debate was Pipope Panitchpakdi, my Thai film-maker friend who recently made the documentary Mekong: The Untamed. He is both an outstanding journalist and an outspoken media activist.

He told the Forum: “The most important issue for people who live along the banks (of the lower stretches) of the Mekong are the dams and how these affect them. They cannot see the river as a pretty sight.”

Mekong: The Untamed chronicles the journey of Suthichai Yoon, a leading Thai media personality, from the headwaters of the Mekong River in Tibet to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The question he seeks to answer through his travels is how the planned Chinese dams affect communities who live along the banks of the river.

“My Mekong journey goes to the heart of Asia’s complexities,” says the narrator as he makes his way from China’s southern province of Yunnan to the north-eastern Thai town of Chiang Khong. The scenes he passes range from the raging waters of the Mekong and hills swathed with mist to riverside communities being torn apart by a building frenzy. “I wonder if the Chinese realise what the people who are impacted by the dam feel?” Suthichai asks at one point.

According to Pipope, another documentary film about the Mekong made by Chinese filmmakers overlooks some serious issues: “There was nothing about a lot of villages disappearing, that there are floods and the doubts people have about the Chinese dams.”

This second film, also showcased at the Mekong Media Forum, is a 20-episode series titled Nourished by the Same River, and has been made by China Central Television (CCTV).

A Chinese journalist on the panel conceded that the planned development targeting the Mekong would provoke a range of responses. “It is natural that different people will have different perspectives on similar issues,” said Zhu Yan, a senior editor at the national broadcaster China Central Television. “In China there is a debate (around the question) of environment or dams.”

The Mekong is both a mighty river and a massive bundle of issues for any film or film series to tackle. And given the multitude of countries, interests and viewpoints involved, it’s unlikely that there will be consensus.

But it’s good that films are sparking off discussion and debate…just what we need for more informed choices to be made in the future.


Read full IPS story: Chinese Dams Expose Fault Lines, By Marwaan Macan-Markar

Sheri Liao: From ‘Time for Environment’ to TIME Hero of the Environment 2009

Sheri Liao photographed for TIME by Elisa Haberer

Sheri Liao photographed for TIME by Elisa Haberer

Copyright infringement – or piracy – in video, film and software is a highly contentious issue. I have good friends on both sides of the divide: film maker friends who insist on protecting all their rights to their creations, and open source advocates who want everything to be free and accessible in the public domain.

I can appreciate both points of view, but my own attitude to anyone copying any video films I have helped make or am distributing is: just sit back and enjoy it! After all, the kind of films I make and/or distribute through TVE Asia Pacific are all issue-based and in the public interest. If anyone pirates them, that can only peddle our content and messages to more people…

It’s a pragmatic response to a reality that I can do little to change anyway. Five of the world’s top 10 countries for video piracy are found in the Asia Pacific region, with China at No 2 and India at No 5. If you can’t beat ’em, cheer ’em — and even join ’em!

That’s just what I did in mid 1996, when we received first reports of a Chinese TV presenter making unauthorised use of environmental programming being broadcast on BBC World, the global TV channel. I was then the head of Asia Pacific programme for the non-profit foundation producing Earth Report series, which first aired on BBC and then offered to other TV channels and networks around the world.

Further investigations revealed that the person involved was a woman named Sheri (Xiaoyi) Liao, a former researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who had formed an environmental group called Global Village of Bejing, and was presenting a weekly TV show called ‘Time for Environment’. To bring environmental news and views from other parts of the world, she was using Chinese dubbed extracts of Earth Reports recorded straight off the BBC World satellite channel.

By happy coincidence, I was visiting Beijing – for the first time – for a few days in October 1996, to participate in an international conference of rocket scientists (not my usual orbit, but fortuitous in this instance!). I managed to contact Sheri Liao, and one evening I escaped from the conference to meet this woman who was fast becoming the environmental face of Chinese television.

L to R Dr Li Hao, Nalaka Gunawardene & Sheri Liao, Beijing Oct 1996

L to R Dr Li Hao, Nalaka Gunawardene & Sheri Liao, Beijing Oct 1996

Sheri Liao came to meet me with Dr Li Hao, a Chinese biologist who had recently returned from Germany and teamed up with Global Village in its quest to raise environmental awareness in China.

In a long chat over drinks and dinner, I found out Sheri had been a visiting scholar on International Environmental Politics at the University of North Carolina, but returned to her homeland to found the Global Village of Beijing earlier that year. She was keen to introduce responsible environmental conduct by Chinese citizens at every level. And early on, she realised the massive power of broadcast television to reach China’s one billion plus people. She approached her work with an obsession bordering on missionary zeal: in that process, she was even willing to ‘pirate’ foreign TV content – all for a good cause.

Soon after that encounter, I negotiated for Sheri Liao to make authorised use of Earth Report films in China. Instead of catching it off the airwaves, she soon started receiving proper master tapes and scripts, so a more professional versioning into Chinese could be done. My then British colleagues, who were initially peeved that a Chinese woman was pirating their programmes, soon became her ardent supporters.

That was also the beginning of many years of my engagement with environmental education and communication work in China. (Li Hao later left Global Village to establish her own non-profit, Beijing Earthview Environment Education and Research Centre).

All this is a long way of saying how delighted I am to see Sheri Liao being named as a Hero of the Environment by TIME Magazine earlier this month. She is one of several Asian leaders, researchers and activists included in this year’s roll call of men and women who are fighting on behalf of our beleaguered plant. Read full list here.

Sheri Liao: Greening the Airwaves of China...

Sheri Liao: Greening the Airwaves of China...

Chronicling her close association with China’s rising levels of environmental awareness and activism, TIME noted: “Liao was helped by the fact that the birth of GVB coincided with China’s economic takeoff in the mid-’90s. The group became active in Beijing neighborhoods, raising environmental awareness on the local level. But in recent years it has expanded its work across the country, and it is now involved in everything from promoting plastic-recycling to encouraging building managers to reduce electricity consumption.”

Our paths have crossed a few times since that first meeting in the Fall of 1996. We have been in workshops and conferences together, where I saw Sheri in action – always intense, with a sense of urgency and resolve.

She has been recognised before. In 2002, she was awarded one of the ‘Ten Outstanding Women in China’ by the magazine Chinese Women. She was also honored as the ‘Green Guide’ by China National Planting Tree Committee in 2003 and became one of the ‘Ten National Outstanding Women’ in 2004. In 2005, she won the ‘Annual Economic Figure Social Commonwealth Award’ by China Central Television (CCTV). In 2006, she was honored Green Chinese Annual Figure.

Sheri also continues to be an unofficial bridge between China and the rest of the world. She works with UN agencies, foreign universities and charities like the Clinton Global Initiative – which honoured her with one of its Global Citizen Awards 2008.

China’s road to environmental salvation is a long and hard one. As TIME noted, “Environmental groups continue to run afoul of the Chinese government, which is wary of any power not concentrated in the hands of the Communist Party. But Liao is well connected — she served as an environmental adviser on the Beijing Organizing Committee for the 2008 Olympic Games — and in China’s tricky political landscape, those who walk a prudent line often travel furthest.”