Greta Thunberg, the 16 year old who led school strikes and spurred a new wave of climate debate, has finally broken through on Chinese social media.
Her four-minute speech at the September UN climate summit in New York, along with video of her glaring at President Trump, were widely shared in China. Internet users started to ask: “Who is she, and what does she want?”
The Fridays for the Future school strike movement she leads began in August 2018, with her solo protest outside the Swedish parliament. Now it involves 150 countries, and in one week last month an estimated 6 million people took to the streets to call for action on climate change. This March, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s fair to say this new climate movement is led by the young.
But despite this global trend, and the fact that China is one of the most climate-vulnerable countries, China’s youth seems to be remaining silent. Is this because they are not used to confrontational tactics? Are they unconcerned by climate change? If so, why?
What do young Chinese people think about the climate emergency?
No survey has asked this specific question, but it’s reasonable to say climate isn’t one of the issues university students care most about. In February this year, a survey by Youth.cn found their top concerns to be education (79.8%) and employment (77.1%), followed by housing, healthcare and entrepreneurship. The environment was sixth of the nine topics. Climate change wasn’t even specified.
“Other students I know are worried about their studies or finding work. They’re not worried about climate change,” said Min Qiyang, just returned to China from the UN youth climate summit in New York. “My classmates hardly ever discuss it.”
“There aren’t many young Chinese people who fully grasp and follow climate change topics,” said Ni Huan, founder of Green Light-Year. She meets lots of young people through the environmental classes and activities Green Light-Year organises. “I think this is to an extent due to the educational system, which doesn’t give children the information or skills necessary to understand climate change. And a lot of the news and science on climate change doesn’t get a full and accurate explanation in Chinese, which makes it more difficult for the public to gather information.”
But perhaps the main reason China’s young people seem cold on the climate is that “nobody thinks it’s that important”.
That may be surprising given their exposure to extreme weather evens such as the heatwaves, floods and droughts of summer 2018. But there wasn’t much of an increase in media reports during that period, and next to nothing linked the extreme weather to climate change. One reason is that China’s reporting on natural disasters focuses on relief efforts rather than an analysis of causes. Another is that Chinese reporters do not often link climate science and impacts with other matters of public concern. Individual experiences of extreme weather events are an important method for explaining the topic to the public – but a lack of such coverage means the urgency of the climate crisis goes unrecognised.
Generation Z’s challenge to the grown-ups
A recent survey by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 86% of US teenagers agreed “human activity is causing the climate to change”, while 64% agreed “there are things I can do personally to make a difference when it comes to reducing the effect of climate change.” Both these figures were higher than those for adult respondents. The difference is no surprise. But the consequences of the carbon emissions caused by adults today will be borne by the younger generation and their descendants – an example of intergenerational injustice. Greta Thunberg and those like her are protesting against this injustice.
Her generation – those born shortly before or after the millennium, known as Generation Z – is different to “the grown-ups”. They grew up with digital and network technologies and have enjoyed material riches and easy access to information – but remain anxious and stressed over various social issues. And these Western youngsters, not yet old enough to vote, hope to influence adults by taking to the streets.
In China, Generation Z doesn’t seem to have the same levels of anger and concern to express, and Greta Thunberg’s campaigning seems to belong to a very remote “Western culture”. Most people tend to say that the government is already doing very well on the climate; even though national governments, including China’s, are not turning in satisfactory performances. In 2018, carbon emissions worldwide rose 2.8%. In China the rise was 4.8%. The UN’s 2018 Emissions Gap Report demonstrated that commitments made in Nationally Determined Contributions are not enough to meet the global-warming limitation targets of the Paris Agreement.
“I can understand Greta’s demands, and we should be sympathetic,” Ni Huan said. “But it could never happen in China. We have a different political tradition. In the West, protest marches are common, but we are more likely to put our faith in the government.”
Chinese action on climate change has always been a government matter, imposed from the top. This has led to many climate governance successes, such as the elimination of older coal-fired power stations and the planting of trees. But there can be resistance and a lack of understanding when government-led initiatives impact on the individual. And many youngsters concerned about the climate ask what is the point of their action, with such a powerful government.
“Currently, it’s mostly the government responding to climate change, young people’s voices are rarely heard, and they aren’t taking on much responsibility,” says Min Qiyang. “We don’t have a tradition of public opposition in China, but we can still act individually, to learn more about climate change, make low-carbon choices and encourage others to make changes.”
Xu Yunfei, a senior middle school student who also attended the UN Youth Climate Summit in New York, said: “People like me, who aren’t adults, can start by sharing information on climate change on social media, helping others understand the issue.”
Zhao Jiaxin, also recently returned from New York, thinks Greta Thunberg’s protests and the more moderate approach of Chinese youth are both laudable. “In the end, we should applaud anyone who makes a real contribution to the public good, rather than being a free rider.”