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Opinion

China is not going to produce its own Greta Thunberg

Politics and priorities constrain climate change activism among Chinese youth

| China

On a Friday afternoon in September, I watched a climate strike in London as a part of the global protest by school students calling for action on climate change. The participants, mostly teenagers, held pictures of Greta Thunberg, the event's inspiration, as well as placards with slogans such as "Change the politics, not the climate" and "Make the earth cool again."

Since Thunberg staged her first protest outside the Swedish parliament in August 2018, youth all over the world have taken off from class to organize school strikes for the climate. On the largest strike on September 20, roughly four million in more than 150 countries took to the streets.

But while young protesters are widely seen in global media as the hope for the future, youth in China, the biggest greenhouse gas emitter, are still absent and their voices unheard -- thanks to political constraints, personal priorities and suspicion of Thunberg and those she has inspired.

A 25-year-old Chinese friend who watched the protest with me in London said she suspected the motivations and outcomes of such strikes: "Shouldn't they learn enough in the classroom before they come out chanting those sensational slogans? The climate crisis cannot be solved... by chanting slogans."

My friend's attitude is widely shared in China, including among young people. Compared with their parents' generation, Chinese youth care much more about the environment, but not in the same way as in the U.K. or U.S.: climate change is not on young people's list of priorities, nor would they spend their school time on the street.

Do Chinese youth care about the environment? A survey by influential Chinese newspaper Youth Daily shows that the top two issues that Chinese youth cared most about were education and employment, followed by housing, medical care and environmental protection. In the Chinese context, environmental protection normally refers to more tangible issues like air and water pollution, rather than climate change.

Chinese media do cover climate change, but it is often about conference news, academic reports that look alien to the public or translated news about stories happening far away. Those stories do not seem directly related to Chinese people's lives.

Of course, climate change is relevant to China: studies show that Chinese coastal regions like Shanghai, Tianjin and Shenzhen would be flooded by a rising sea level by 2050 and that nearly 100 million people would be threatened if necessary measures were not taken in time. But such information is seldom covered in Chinese language media, partly for the sake of avoiding public panic.

In such a media environment, people, even young people who have better access to information and are generally more environmentally responsible, feel much less urgent about climate change.

On the Chinese internet, people are suspicious of street activism like school strikes. When Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic to New York for the U.N. Climate Action Summit, her story and the whole school strike movement finally got some attention in Chinese media.

However, the coverage is quite negative. She is often called "naive" and "a drama queen," and the protest is labeled as "political theater" for addressing a first-world problem.

State media outlet Beijing News wrote that Chinese people worry "whether the carbon emission management system led by the West would be used as a tool to deprive emerging countries of their right to development."

In China, a more welcome attitude is prove things by action and act your age. Before college, most Chinese kids' goal is going to a top university, and they have no time for climate change discussion, let alone action.

Once you have finished your entrance exam, there are many more "tests" waiting for you: find a good job, establish a family, settle down in a big city, buy an apartment. These goals all look important and urgent -- China changes so fast that it seems to be now or never to reach such practical goals. You know how fast house prices are rising but you cannot easily see how much the sea level is increasing or how much more carbon is being emitted.

Even when the youth decide to do something, it would never be a street protest in China. Any street protest, no matter for what reason, is almost impossible, and organizing it would invite a police crackdown and more trouble.

Ten years ago, small-scale street activity was in a gray zone, if managed carefully -- a friend at environmental campaigning organization Greenpeace told me they used to organize flash mobs on Beijing's central commercial street calling for environmental action. Today that situation is no longer available under the crackdown on general civil society.

China wants to convince the world that it is a responsible nation in the global climate crisis, but it is also determined any actions should and could only be taken by the Chinese Communist Party.

As a result, there is a lot of Chinese news about the 25th Conference of the Parties (COP25), the U.N.'s climate change conference in Madrid this week, and China's national position on environmental issues -- but you should not expect to see an influential Chinese Greta Thunberg in the near future.

Karoline Kan is the author of "Under Red Skies: Three Generations of Life, Loss, and Hope in China." She is based in Beijing.

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