Shiyang Li’s story of change

November 29, 2023
From a young age, Shiyang Li adorned herself with a singular accessory — a key delicately hung around her neck. This key was more than a simple tool to unlock the door of her family's modest Beijing apartment; as she grew up, it became a symbol of her unfolding journey towards a profound connection with people and nature in China and beyond.  Explore the journey with Shiyang Li, Director of the Rare China Center for Behavior.    

Full transcript

I grew up in Beijing.

I was a city girl and only child, a product
of China’s one-child policy.

My parents worked full time, so
I was at home alone a lot, reading books and

listening to the radio for hours.

I wore a key around my neck to
let myself into my house every day, and my

schoolmates used to call me the girl with
a key necklace.

Looking back, I realize now that the key
was really a portal into the other world.

In the eyes of others, I was always a perfect
student, earned straight A’s.

When I graduated from a top university
in Beijing, I got several offers from big

companies, but I felt lost, not knowing my
purpose or direction in life.

Like that little girl, I still held a key,
but this time, I wasn’t sure which door to open.

I started learning about NGOs,
which were relatively new to China at that time.

It was fascinating to me that you can make
a living by helping people to live a better life.

Without hesitation, I chose to work in an
NGO, training village committees to run democratic

elections in rural China.

In three years traveling to villages
all over China, I learned a lot about big

rural-urban divide, its diversity, and the
social changes spreading across the country.

I also discovered something about myself that
I feel truly proud and rewarded by helping others.

I eventually left Beijing for New
York to continue my studies at Columbia University.

I was amazed to say that for many people,
China was just Beijing or Shanghai.

They didn’t see the diverse China
I knew and loved.

It was then that I knew I wanted to help
Chinese people to live a better life and help

the world understand the real China, the people,
and their stories.

When I found Rare, it was perfect timing.

In 2007, I returned from New York to Kunming,
a small city in Southwest China.

For the next 15 years, worked directly
with people and nature.

I built a team of 16 people, and together,
we ran 25 Pride campaigns across China,

tackling critical environmental challenges
like poaching, destructive fishing, deforestation, and food waste.

We also improved habitats of 16
nationally protected species and inspired

over 300,000 Chinese people to change their
behavior for the sake of conservation.

Changing people’s mind and behavior is so hard.

I have witnessed farmers struggling to survive
in remote mountains but willing

to preserve their landscape.

Where a woman living in a nature reserve who
was attacked by wild tigers, but still wants to protect them.

I learned that it takes powerful passion from
the community, committed conservation leaders

to drive the change, and the right
tools to motivate people.

This work has continued to inspire me for
the past 15 years.

Nowadays, we have a newer and bigger problem
to solve, climate change in China.

People everywhere, in cities and rural areas,
already suffer from it.

When I talk to people, they all say the same
thing, “I wanted to take action.

I’m just not sure how.”

The good news is we have the solution to inspire
people to take action like we have done in

our past work in China, to act
on climate change.

My dream is to drive change, one behavior at a time.

Sometimes I feel like I still wear a key around my neck.

Now I feel like I’m using it to open Chinese
people’s eyes to the possibility that they

have the power to stop China’s big challenges.