One is a student engineer who became obsessed after watching an incendiary film about air pollution. The other is a 16-year-old who went on China’s first climate strike.
Zhao Jiaxin (趙家鑫) and Howey Ou (歐荷薇) are part of a small, but growing minority of young Chinese determined to press their country towards more radical carbon-cutting actions. They are also China’s sole winners of carbon neutral “green tickets” the UN is providing to 100 young people around the world.
China is the world’s leading carbon emitter. It generates 60 percent of its electricity from coal-fired power and coal consumption and carbon emissions have risen for two years in a row after a plateau between 2014 and 2016. Emissions are expected to rise again in the figures for this year.
Yet within the country, the positive half of the picture is more likely to be heard: how devoted the nation is to Xi Jinping’s (習近平) goal of constructing an “ecological civilization,” how China is a climate change leader compared with the US and how much record-breaking renewable energy capacity it continues to install.
Howey does not think this is enough. She conducted a public climate strike in front of government offices in Guilin in southern China for several days in late May. Environmental activist Greta Thunberg called her a “true hero” before the authorities said Howey had to stop because she did not have a permit.
The 16-year-old, who spends her spare time planting trees around her hometown, was nominated to travel to this week’s UN climate summit in New York by the youth activist group Earth Uprising and nearly had to back out of attending because her chaperone was worried she would not stick to the Chinese government script.
“People in China don’t know the situation and think the Chinese government is doing a lot and is great. The point is that people here can’t petition to protest and do something about the climate. Even if people want to change [things], they think activism in China will fail and the cost is too [high],” Howey said.
In a country where the party line controls the climate debate to the extent that a general apathy infuses the broader public, Howey and Zhao are the sudden, fresh young faces of environmental activism.
There are some signs they are not alone. Young people and women living in cities are increasingly aware of global climate issues and China’s place at the center of them, according to a recent study in the journal The China Quarterly.
“In China, the good news is that compared to the population, younger Chinese tend to be more concerned about climate change,” said Liu Xinsheng, the lead author of the report from Texas A&M University.
“The bad news is that overall, average Chinese climate change concern is low relative to many countries around the world,” Liu said.
Zhao’s passion for climate issues was triggered by the documentary Under the Dome, which he watched four years ago while studying engineering at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
PROTESTS AGAINST PARTY
The film inspired him to set up a non-governmental organization to raise awareness of the climate crisis on campus and to create a platform disseminating information on the social media app WeChat.
“I found something I could do for society. In my last year [at university] I felt that if I did not communicate, did not advocate about what I thought was true, then powerful [other ideas] would dominate society,” Zhao said of his awakening after seeing the film.
Under the Dome, an examination of the policy failures and personal effects of air pollution in China, appeared online for several days in February and was viewed by as many as 300 million people before being banned.
It is unlikely there would be climate strikes in China like those being staged in the West. The country passed a law after the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 that imposed strict conditions on public gatherings and forced groups to register with the police if they want to stage a protest.
Organizations connected to the government such as the China Youth Climate Action Network (CYCAN), founded in 2007, are one of the official routes young people can take to raise climate awareness. The group holds events and educational training to help raise awareness of climate issues among China’s young people.
“I don’t think student protests are a helpful solution to the problem in China. Because of the unique cultural and political circumstances, Chinese people tend to resort to more moderate ways to voice their concerns,” CYCAN’s executive director Zheng Xiaowen said.
“We need to advocate actions against climate change in ways that best suit China. For us, the best way is to work with the government and help come up with plans to tackle those issues together,” Zheng said.
While small steps are being made, the lack of awareness of climate change in the country is alarming, Liu said, because China is the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitter and one of the countries that could be badly affected by extreme weather events and rising sea levels, with knock-on effects for the economy and health.
“China has top-down policymaking. It is hard to imagine without public awareness and concern for climate issues that the government policies will be successful,” Liu said.
The inertia bothers Howey, but she believes there is hope: “It is frustrating to me, but I’m still alive and have the passion for change.”
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