Greta Thunberg’s rallying cry for students to combat climate change has resonated around the world, except in China, where environmental activism has yet to take hold. Two young activists are working to change that—one tree and one mind at a time.
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.
Ou, who lives in Guilin, saw a bit of herself in the Swedish activist.
“She is 16, the same age as me,” Ou says, “and she had such a deep recognition of the climate crisis. 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 Ou, who first became involved in environmentalism out of concern for plastic pollution in the oceans, 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 climate change.
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.
“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 says.
But the experience “wasn’t as scary” as she imagined it would be, and Ou 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 encouraging others to adopt a more environmentally-conscious lifestyle.
But Ou 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 it’s not just because of the Chinese government’s tight control of all forms of public dissent, but also because of general apathy and lack of understanding on climate issues.
Part of that comes from a top-down approach to environmental issues that’s dependent on political will rather than public awareness.
The government, for example, has tackled air pollution through large-scale shutdowns of coal-fired power stations and pledging to cap the country’s carbon emissions by around 2030.
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While this has helped create a favorable impression of the government’s work to combat climate change, it has also led to a “lack of public criticism and reflection on China’s climate policy,” says Li Jing, a climate journalist and commentator.
“Most of the Chinese public lacks a sense of urgency regarding the climate crisis, partly because media reports about climate change and its impact are very limited, and discussions surrounding the future impact of climate change on China are very few,” she says.
Rising living standards have also contributed to increased consumption, which has generated more waste in the country.
But few young Chinese people are aware of the serious effects this has on the environment, says 14-year-old Nlocy Jiang, another grass-roots climate activist based in eastern China’s Anhui Province.
“They love expensive flights, ordering takeout, driving sports cars, and drinking out of plastic cups and bottles,” Jiang says. “It’s convenient, but it takes away from our future and our health.”
Jiang is aware of the risks of speaking out in China. So she’s been working in small ways, convincing those around her to adopt more environmentally-friendly lifestyles, to try veganism, to buy fewer things, and to give up air travel and single-use plastic.
“My friends and family don’t understand why I do this,” she says. “They always say, ‘Meat is so delicious, why aren’t you eating it? How can you survive without using plastic?’”
But there have been a few small successes: she persuaded her parents to buy an electric vehicle instead of a gas-powered car, and one of her classmates became a vegetarian after she explained to him the environmental impact of animal farming.
Wu Yixiu, communications lead at Beijing-based environmental NGO China Dialogue, says many young Chinese people simply have different priorities compared to their peers in the West.
“They are concentrating on their studies and finding employment.”
“In international public opinion polls, Generation Z in Europe and America pay a lot of attention to climate change, but Chinese students don’t,” she says. “They are concentrating on their studies and finding employment.”
For now, young activists on the fringes like Ou and Jiang will continue to face big challenges in promoting awareness and action on environmental issues in China.
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 unfavorable in mainland China,” Li says.
Although the common explanation for the lack of climate activism in China is strict government controls, that is only part of the story.
“Even more important is that the public lacks the desire to revolutionize the development of society,” Li says, “which is shared by Greta and her young friends.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.