Sun, Sep 22, 2019 - Page 7 News List

China’s young climate heroes fight for change

By Michael Standaert  /  The Guardian, SHENZEN

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.


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.

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