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October 11, 2009

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Star advocate puts 'green' on agenda

IT was when she was sitting in a New York restaurant with the former Governor George Pataki that Peggy Liu pointed to a small group of downtown skyscrapers in the distance and tried to explain something about China: "Just take that little bump and multiply it across the entire landscape - that's Shanghai," she said.

Like many other Americans, it was hard for the governor to imagine the pace of change and construction taking place so far away. But Chinese-American Liu understands it and she has a character and drive that thrives on it.

It was part of the reason she became a serial Internet entrepreneur in Silicon Valley during the 1990s boom years, at the forefront of fast-changing technology.

It's also why she is back at the forefront of the newest technological frontier - the environment and battle against energy consumption - and in China, the fastest-changing society on earth.

Liu founded the environmental non-government organization Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy (JUCCCE) in 2007.

In just two years her personal profile has grown through awards such as being proclaimed Time magazine's 2008 Environmental Hero and the World Economic Forum Young Global Leader 2009.

Partly it is because, unlike other NGOs, JUCCCE works at an extremely high level. Their conferences and meetings connect Chinese and international government leaders, city mayors, CEOs and experts.

"Energy is about systems, and systems are only as strong as their weakest part," Liu explained.

"It's not just about planting a few thousand trees, or changing the windows in a building. If you want to revolutionize the way China uses energy you have to deal with the entire system, and that means connecting all the players in real dialogue."

China's environmental problems are daunting. As the world's factory for the past few decades, running mostly on coal, it's now the world's largest emitter of CO2 and suffers from a host of related problems such as pollution, acid rain, and desertification.

It's also vilified for resisting limits on its emissions as a developing country.

But, said Liu, the Western press rarely sees the other side of the equation, particularly how well a centralized system lends itself to big changes in entire systems.

Since 2006, the environment has been a priority in Chinese policies, with the 11th Five-Year Plan set to reduce carbon emissions by 300-400 million tons between 2006 and 2010.

And recently President Hu Jintao announced that China plans to get 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources in a decade.

"We have done so much in a short time because everybody really wants to go green."

Yet the most well-known fact amongst Americans is still that "one new coal fired power plant is being built every week" in China, according to Liu.

"China has a very unique challenge in going green at an unbelievably large scale and fast pace. But China also has a very unique advantage in that our central leaders can push changes through very quickly and decisively. For example, in the United States there are over 3,200 utilities, but in China we only have two. If we can enable the small handful of people at the top in charge of change, China has a better chance of leap-frogging everyone else to a greener future."

An MIT graduate and former McKinsey consultant, Liu is fond of business terms such as "energy drivers" and "aligning interests." At the core they are ways to zero in on areas of greatest impact and influence the influential.

Having a formidable list of influential people in her network is a crucial part of her success - particularly in the relationship-driven Chinese environment.

JUCCCE for example was started from her MIT connections.

Initially Liu had moved to Shanghai to open a venture capital firm with her husband. As an active MIT alumnus, she organized the institute's conference to focus on the future of Chinese energy in April 2007.

Involving speakers from the US department of energy and other government bureaus on both sides, they stimulated Liu to start an NGO to continue work started at the conference. The participants became the basic foundation for JUCCCE.

Most NGOs resort to advocacy - telling people what they need to do and how - but Liu's long experience with high-fliers has enabled her to adopt a more sophisticated strategy.

She describes her organization as a convener that connects the Chinese government to the experts, companies and international governments they need. She simply connects the people who are already motivated to meet, just as a humble pot luck hostess introduces the right guests to each other.

"We have done so much in a short time because everybody really wants to go green. Nobody wants a dirty country, nobody wants an unhealthy child," she said.

"But an individual, a company, or even a country, may not know how to have impact. JUCCCE gives them a platform and a voice to make an impact together."

Listening and encouraging others to become excited about an idea is the key to leadership - a lesson learned from a formidable teacher in the woman's early years.

Liu was born to a family of successful entrepreneurs. Originally from Hunan Province, her father arrived in America with almost nothing and in 40 years rose to become the CEO of a global software company employing over 1,000 people. Her mother, originally from Anhui Province, now owns a chain of luxury restaurants in Shanghai where many of her family live.

"When I was young my father told me, 'the best way to get people to do something is to convince them through dialogue that it's their idea, then they'll put their full resources behind it'," she remembers.

"All of our programs start with a series of small round-table discussions, of around 20 experts. We guide the discussion but in the end it's their ideas they're excited about. We can then easily bring in other people also interested in this idea, and now all of a sudden we have a movement."

As a child, Liu was also a voracious reader of science fiction and became interested in technology as the most powerful way to improve the earth and human lives.

Growing up around technology and entrepreneurs, she was comfortable with change and instability. She defines entrepreneurship as, "creating something from nothing."

Leaving MIT with a degree in robotics, she jumped into the Internet entrepreneurship boom of the 1990s, starting companies such as Channel A, an early e-commerce Website right up to the Internet bubble burst.

"In the next 20 years, 350 million people will be moving into China's cities, the largest migration the world has ever seen."

Meanwhile she was involved in a range of charitable projects from organizing her high school yearbook, to running an organic gardening club.

"I've had lots of experience starting companies and organizations, finding financing and differentiating good ideas from bad. Even though JUCCCE is a non-profit, all our programs benefit from being treated as self-funding and economically sustainable businesses."

But not everyone is as comfortable with instability as Liu. China is a place of entrepreneurship and change, and for Liu's counterparts back in the States it's a daunting prospect to understand.

"I compare China to Silicon Valley during the Internet boom. There were new technologies, new money, new people trying to get into new companies with new business models. Everything was new and everything was moving fast. In China, you have all of that, plus the ground beneath and the buildings around you are changing as well.

"China is undergoing dramatic changes. In the next 20 years, 350 million people will be moving into China's cities - the largest migration the world has ever seen. On top of that we are also trying to revolutionize our energy use. It's a new China every six months. How can the West relate?" she asked.

Liu sees China as one big corporation that needs "change management" which means getting top level experts to help it go in the right direction. It also needs image management, as US misperceptions of China can cause crucial stumbling blocks.

"China needs to more actively manage our perception in the West or we will create unnecessary barriers to diplomacy and trade. But China doesn't really do PR for the Western world. Western media is really about entertainment - even (US President) Obama is appearing on talk shows. We need to make China more accessible by personalizing our Chinese environmental heroes, pushing them out into Western popular media, and showing them as real people who care about a healthier future."

Despite vast changes in China on the environmental front, she was the only Chinese nominated as a Time Environmental Hero in the US published edition. She cites the perception gap as the largest barrier to effective negotiations in the upcoming UN climate change conference in Copenhagen this December.

As a Chinese American, Liu is in a good position to bridge the gap and act as a spokesperson for China's progress. Americans are likely to trust her and, having visited China regularly as a child, she has always felt both Chinese and Western and lucky that she did not have to choose.

But she says she is not the only hero. She is quick to point out collaborators such as Chinese star Li Bingbing and developer Shui On Land who actively do something about the environment. "JUCCCE gives voice to many heroes," she adds.

It's another deft touch in her self-effacing leadership style. Now as a mother of two, the initial desire to better the world through technology has also taken clearer focus.

"As a parent you think differently, you think more long-term. You think about health, what we are eating, and whether the world will be livable for our children. Everyone wants to leave the world a better place and this has become my life mission. My four-year old son recently said, 'thank you mommy for cleaning the air.' What better reward is there than that?"


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