The environmental activist

Adieu to Six

UPDATE: [January 2011] After much umming and erring about whether to resurrect this blog from London, I’ve decided that I am too far away from China to be writing about it. But I will be blogging again when I’m back in the Orient, before too long a wait …

First things first: a couple of links. Here you can read my column in this month’s issue of Prospect magazine, on the influx of foreign students who – like me – go to Beijing to learn Mandarin. While here you can see my photo essay on ‘young China’ – the theme of this blog – for the China Beat. I took those pictures over the two years I lived and travelled in China.

“Past tense!” I hear you cry. “-ed?” Yes, I’m writing from London, where I will be based for two years before returning East. I thought I wouldn’t leave Beijing for love nor money, but one of those reasons is indeed why I’m back in Britain (you can guess which).


Next, here is where we leave the six young Chinese who I’ve been following on this blog – stories from the generation that will change China.

Ben is going strong in his online clothes shop. His bedroom business has expanded from just him and a leaky roof to a staff of three and booming sales. He still can’t pronounce the word ‘entrepreneur’.

Leonidas is back on “my island”, as he calls it, off the coast of Shanghai. “No TV, no internet, no noise, no traffic jam,” he writes me. A perfect summer break before his final year at Peking University.

Marie has finally ended her torturous job hunt, choosing a teaching position in Beijing. But she still dreams of working in Hong Kong, travelling to Japan, studying in America – depending on the day.

Matilda has just finished her novel, Summer Fruit in Autumn. She posted in online, and got some encouraging comments from Chinese netizens. She still doesn’t know what to do with her life, though.

Tony will be joining me in England next academic year. He has an offer from Cambridge and a provisional offer from Oxford, to read an MPhil in International Relations. I hope to see him before long.

William dropped out of university for the second time last spring. His lifeless subject and doctrine-heavy classes simply weren’t for him. He’s now decided to give his all to environmental activism.


Finally, a few quick stats and thanks. I launched this blog on the final day of the Beijing Olympics, August 24th 2008. Since then, I’ve had over 15,000 unique visitors. And 40,000 page views. My most read posts include a video interview with Chris Patten, commentary on the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen, a translation of a wronged student’s petition, and my essay in Chinese on China’s ‘New Youth’.

My thanks go first to all my friends, most of all to those I follow here, who have helped me understand the nuanced and changing story of young Chinese in a new China. In the English language Chinese ‘blogosphere’, an especial thanks to: Jeff, Kate and Maura at the China Beat; Jeremy and Joel at Danwei; Elliot at CNReviews; Charlie at China Geeks; Evan Osnos at The New Yorker. And everyone else!

Adieu to å…­ (liu – six). Cheers, Alec

In this week’s Economist, I have a short article on China’s budding greens – the new generation (my generation) of climate change activists who form student clubs and environmental NGOs. I’ve been hanging around these groups for the last two years, introduced by my friend William, who I write about on this blog.

There was no picture with that slot, but the beauty of self-publishing is that I can upload a few here. In this photo, which I took just inside Beida’s West gate, are three members of Beida’s CDM club on the left, with William towering on the right.

I also write about the Beijing-based unregistered NGO CYCAN. Here’s their logo.

And their motto, ditan weilai qingnian zeren – “Low carbon future; youth promise”.

‘Promise’ could more literally be translated as ‘duty’ or ‘responsibility’. And only the future will tell if they live up to it. There’s plenty more to be written about this movement of the world’s most populous demographic – still ‘green behind the ears’ – to fight the world’s most pressing threat.

As the jolly red man approaches, here are a couple of green thoughts … beginning with a message from Peking University students:


No, this does not mean “down with Christmas”.

Rather, this was December 17th, the day before the end of the climate change conference in Copenhagen. During the day, students gathered on the ‘triangle’ (an open space on campus where the Tiananmen movement was born twenty years ago) to support action promised by the Chinese government to reduce carbon emissions. Then in the evening,

thousands of PKU students turned off their lights for 12minutes and 17 seconds. The figures of “COP15”, “↓C” and “V” composed of light appeared on the dorm buildings, vividly delivering the students’ wishes to reduce carbon emission and cope with climate change.

The full story is on Beida’s website, here.

Next, a snap from a conference I attended on the 15th, on my new campus, Tsinghua University: “Green leap: a new strategy for sustainable development”. (I take the liberty of modifying their own English title:)

The gist, put most succintly by the American keynote speaker, prof. Stuart Hart of Cornell University (and horrifyingly simplified by me here) is putting the geeks who invent clean technology in the same room as more profit-minded businessmen, helping green tech to make some green dollars. China, with its high savings rate and market as gargantuan as its carbon emissions, will be key. (Not to mention China’s own contributions to green tech. On which note, this story by Evan Osnos in the New Yorker is simply a must read.)

To either side of me were Tsinghua students, clean shaved and buzz cut (I’ve yet to see any exception of note to this norm), concentrating on the Chinese translation coming through their thick headphones. They then took this headgear off to listen to Chinese panelists – from businessmen to a government representative – discuss and solidify the message. Their seriousness was as palpable as the smog outside the window.

I’ll write more specifics of Chinese student attitudes to Copenhagen after the holidays. For the moment, a merry Christmas to all, and a new year’s wish for a healthy world for China’s youth – and this youth – to grow up in.

William and the big bad dam

Much like the three gorges dam, this post is behind schedule. I took this picture a month ago, at the end of my boat trip down the Yangtze from Chongqing. Back in Beijing, I asked my environment-minded Chinese friend William for his two mao on the subject. In the spirit of tidying up before the new year, I’ll write up what he told me. And in the spirit of it being the morning of Christmas eve, I’ll write it up in brief.

“It’s impossible to be objective” were the first words out of William’s mouth. I remember this as: a) I’d learnt the word ‘objective’ that morning, and b) my attitudes to the three gorges dam were anything but. Like Peter Hessler in River Town (which I read while we boated past Fuling, the river town in question), I instinctively felt that turning a flowing river into a potentially stagnating reservoir was wrong, as was drowning century-old temples and relocating millions to do it. More so, shouldn’t the message be cooperation with nature and not conquest of nature? As I neared the dam itself, whenever I struck up a conversation with a fellow passenger I would ask if they supported the project, and would always get the same answer: “dangran”. “Of course.” Why shouldn’t I? My government does.

But I knew that dissenting opinions were out there too, and, frankly, I expected an environmentalist like William to share them. Rather, he choose to sit on the fence (or dam, if you insist). To make his point, he retold a story of a professor at Beida – and friend of William’s old teacher, who told him the story – who was invited by the government to participate on a panel of experts, created to appraise the dam before it was green-lighted. (Or more realistically, in William’s opinion, pressured by the government to scientifically justify the decision they had already made.)

Regardless of any pressure on him, as the story was told me, this professor considered the project from all angles and decided … to abstain. He simply couldn’t tally up the pros (energy, flood control, more energy…) and cons (disaster risk, cost, humanitarian concerns…) and choose a side. Who could objectively judge if damming the Yangtze was for the better or worse? What was the point, if a government as stubborn and unshackled as China’s was clearly going to go ahead anyway?

And between the lines, I got the impression William was also telling me: China’s naysayers – so yaysayed in the West – have to pick their fights.

Three summers

A suitable period of mourning for its being over having passed, I can now safely mention the summer holidays without letting slip too deep a sigh. Here’s what three friends got up to:

  • Marie, home in Yunnan after a tough term – she studied up to 10 hours a day at Beida – spent about the same amount of time, almost everyday day of her much deserved break … helping her little brother prepare for his college entrance exam (the high-pressured gaokao). Did she begrudge her brother for eating her holiday like this? Was this a duty imposed on her by her parents? No and no, she says. She offered to help herself, and for something like this would have happily sacrificed more (this exam will in many respects decide her brother’s future).
  • Matilda wasn’t idle either, and used her summer more creatively: she was working on the novel which she’s been writing for some time now. It’s set in the 1940s, right at the end of the war of Resistance against Japan, mostly on university campus in Kunming – where Beida relocated to during the war. It’s a love story between a professor and his pupil … more she wouldn’t say. Nor would she tell me if this pupil who falls in love with her dashing literature professor is in any way based on herself. She did blush though.
  • William was finishing his final few months of full-time work at an online environmental magazine, before going back to school. He dropped out of university two years ago to widen his horizons, but is now going to finish the final year of his degree (he’s then thinking of aiming high and applying to graduate school at Beida), while still working part time. The cold hard reality he came to appreciate in those horizon-widening years was that to get any attractive job in China you need the record of schooling more than the work experience itself.

Well, summer is over and lately I’ve been feeling the first bite of winter in the Beijing air. Isn’t this still autumn? Not for the first time, and not for the last, I wish humans hibernated.

Happy Mooncake day all … how fast these festivals come and go. The PRC’s 60th birthday was only two days ago and already the nation has moved onto the excessive gifting of odd-tasting pastry. There’s probably a relevant Chinese saying which I could quote here – but I won’t.

On national day, I took a morning bus  (on gloriously empty streets) to Peking University or ‘Beida’ to watch the televised celebrations with students. If you’re after the parade itself, have a look at this wonderful 4 minute time-lapse and slow-mo version by Dan Chung of the Guardian.

As a Brit I have a inborn loathing of jingoism, which was rife in the parade itself. Patriotism is OK, however, and it was this that the Beida students were displaying – more than I had ever seen them show, including in the aftermath of a successful Olympics (the ping pong was all in Beida’s gym).

Below I’ll split up what I witnessed into a few liberally captioned photos. First, I asked each of the six characters I follow on this blog what they were doing and how they felt on this big day (as we know, any number like ‘6’ or 60′ is auspicious in China, so this national day was particulary special).

Tony … was watching the parade with me. He’d been one of the school kids in the 1999 fifty year anniversary parade, and seemed a little cynical of the eerily similar pomp and circumstance this time around. As ever he took pleasure in pointing out the politically significant bits, like how outside the limelight Xi Jinping was in the whole affair – a potential sign of his guessed-at leadership of China from 2012 being postponed, possibly forever.

Leonidas … got into Beida’s auditorium for the showing there (more below). When I then met up with him for noodles, he was clutching a Chinese flag and said he was almost moved to tears by the parade. This from a guy who’s head, in my experience, generally tends to be off in the clouds of classical Chinese literature more than it is on the ground of contemporary China.

Marie … was watching the internet stream in her dorm with her flatmates – one of whom was still sleeping from all the homework she was up late last night doing, even in this week-long national holiday. Earlier, I’d read a corny line in a Chinese paper: “today is your birthday too”. I’d sent Marie a text jokingly asking if this was true. I felt bad at my whimsy when she seriously replied “yes, today is also like my birthday”.

Matilda … was at a friend’s wedding, who’d evidently chosen this day as a lucky one to start a marriage on (modern China: unified until death do us part?). She texted me: “China is five thousand years old, new China is sixty years old. Let’s together wish new China prosperity!”

William … reinforced the message: “today is new China’s birthday”. New China (xin zhongguo) is a term much bandied about, claimed by the May Fourth movement as well as Sun Yatsen or the CCP (potentially by the reform and opening up era too). Normally, I’m never quite sure ‘new China’ is whose. Today, for young Chinese, new China was all Hu’s.

[groan] And finally,

Ben … was sleeping in, but with the TV on in the background.

Now for the day itself:

This guy far-right had sold forty or so flags by 9am. Behind them, Beida students line up for the screening of the parade on the big cinema screen in campus. They’d got their free tickets three days ago by queuing for (hear-say alert!) nearly 2km. Leonidas told me all of the students at this screening  stood up to give Hu Jintao an ovation.

Tony and I most certainly did not queue for 2km, and so we watched the event in a neighbouring canteen – on a decidedly inferior screen with a fuzzy top-left panel which made Jiang Zemin look like a gremlin. There was a big laugh when Hu smiled upon seeing the troupe of female soldiers in high red skirts goose-step by. I got the impression here that most students were enjoying the fun of a big parade more than being overwhelmed with love of their country. And when the canteen started serving food – an hour before the parade was over – everyone was suddenly much more interested in lunch.

Zhongguo jiayou! Go China! If this were England, by the way, this picture could only mean one thing: these students had been watching a football or rugby game, not a military parade.

A contingent of Beida students took part in the parade, wafting symbolic pink wind fans (you can see them at 3:10 in the video I link to near the top of this post). Here they are, having been shipped back to their campus by giant buses, still pumped – despite having got out of bed at 2:30am to head down to Tiananmen square, and after a summer of compulsory training sessions two or three times a week.

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