Young voices in China’s environmental wilderness – and why they struggle to be heard

Laurie Chen

When Greta Thunberg called on students around the world to boycott school over climate change earlier this year, 16-year-old Howey Ou in southwestern China was listening.

Howey, who lives in Guilin in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, saw something of herself in the Swedish teen activist and drew hope amid her despair over environmental problems such as marine plastic pollution.

“[Greta] is 16, the same age as me, and she had such a deep recognition of the climate crisis,” she said. “I then thought that I could also be like her starting from now, to use a huge amount of passion and courage to do what I believe is right.”

So Howey mounted a solo climate strike outside the local government building in her hometown in May, calling on the Chinese government to take more immediate action on the climate crisis. It lasted a week before she was stopped by police, who questioned her and her parents. She was given a stern warning, and her parents tried to limit her contact with other environmental activists.

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“At the very beginning, I was very worried because I had never experienced or seen first-hand any kind of protest movement happen around me,” she said.

But the experience “wasn’t as scary as I imagined it would be”, she said, and Howey became even more determined to carry on her activism in other ways, such as planting trees in her hometown using her own pocket money, and influencing others to adopt a more environmentally conscious lifestyle.

However, Howey is very much an exception to the rule in China, where few people agitate publicly for more government action on climate change.

Environmental advocates say this is not just due to the Chinese government’s tight control of all forms of public dissent, but also because of the public’s widespread apathy and lack of understanding over issues relating to climate change.

Howey Ou uses her pocket money to buy trees to plant in her hometown. Photo: Handout

In just a few decades, China has grown from an economic minnow into the world’s biggest emitter of carbon and largest consumer of energy.

In response, Beijing has started to make environmental issues part of its core strategic policy, pledging to cap the country’s carbon emissions by “around 2030” – a target that some analysts say might be met ahead of schedule.

Air pollution has been an issue of intense public concern, and authorities have made some progress on tackling the problem through large-scale shutdowns of coal-fired power stations, cutting levels in some major cities by over a third between 2013 and 2017.

It’s a top-down approach dependent on political will rather than public awareness.

Climate journalist and commentator Li Jing said the progress had helped to create a favourable impression of the government’s work to combat climate change.

But it had also led to a “lack of public criticism and reflection on China’s climate policy”.

“Most of the Chinese public lack a sense of urgency regarding the climate crisis, partly because media reports about climate change and its impact are very limited – discussions surrounding the future impact of climate change on China are very few,” she said.

China’s remarkable rise in economic growth and living standards over the past few decades has also brought with it an increase in consumption.

However, not many young Chinese people are aware of the serious effects this consumption has on the environment, according to 14-year-old Nlocy Jiang, another grass-roots climate activist based in Tongcheng, in eastern China’s Anhui province.

Like Howey, Nlocy was inspired to fight for climate change after learning about how marine plastic pollution seriously harms wildlife.

“Young Chinese people think that a tiny thing like sorting rubbish correctly can save the environment, and do not act to cut down their own carbon emissions at the source,” said Nlocy, who in September joined forces with Howey in an online campaign to plant trees.

“Instead, they love expensive flights, ordering takeaway, driving sports cars and having drinks from plastic cups and bottles such as bubble tea. Although this is comfortable, it steals from our future existence and health.”

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Nlocy is aware of the risks from authorities if her campaigns threaten to disturb social order too much.

Instead, she tries to convince those around her to adopt more environmentally friendly lifestyles, such as veganism, buying less and giving up air travel and single-use plastic.

“My friends and family don’t understand why I do this. They always ask me: ‘Meat is so delicious, why aren’t you eating it? How can you survive without using plastic?’” she said.

But there have been a few small successes: she successfully persuaded her parents to buy an electric vehicle instead of a traditional car, and her classmate became a vegetarian after she explained to him the environmental dangers of the animal farming industry.

Wu Yixiu, communications lead at Beijing-based environmental NGO China Dialogue, said many Chinese young people simply had different priorities to their peers in the West.

“In international public opinion polls, Generation Z in Europe and America pay a lot of attention to climate change, but Chinese students don’t. They are concentrating on their studies and finding employment,” she said.

“Secondly, people think that what students should do is study instead of going out onto the streets or striking. We don’t have this kind of tradition.”

For now, young activists on the extreme fringes such as Howey and Nlocy will continue to face big challenges in promoting awareness and action on environmental issues in China.

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But there may need to be bigger, more fundamental changes to Chinese society and its development model for their ideas to have a wider impact on the mainland, according to Li, the climate journalist.

“When capitalism is strongly manifested in society, this makes environmentalism and other post-materialist views very unfavourable in mainland China,” Li said.

“Although many say that the lack of a climate movement in China is due to strict government controls, this is only a small part of the story. Even more important is that the public lacks the desire to revolutionise the development of society, which is shared by Greta and her young friends.”

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