The environmental activist

Here’s a snatch from an interesting conversation I had with William the other day…

William: I think that we must strengthen civil society to limit the power of government. Here the government is very powerful. Its power must be equal with its responsibility.

Me: How?

William: We should fund more NGOs for environmental protection or fighting poverty and social problems … The government has funded many NGOs, but we call them ‘Gongo’ [government organised non-governmental organisation]. Every citizen can fund genuine NGOs.

Me: Isn’t that difficult in China?

William: The government doesn’t want to let its citizens fund NGOs. Laws for [registering and maintaining] NGOs are not suitable. But citizens can register a company, and then do non-profit things … Government can do it best, if they’re willing. But they have much power, and not enough responsibility in comparison to their power.

Me: Are there other methods for citizens to correct this?

William: Protesting/uprising [youxing] is not suitable, it’s not rational action. We need more rational action … Public participation can surprise government.

Playing into a paradox

The way out of the two holes the world finds itself in – its frozen economy and overheated climate – are for the time being mutually exclusive when it comes to talks with China. We need China’s economy to keep booming to help us pay our own bills, and we need it to slow down please before our environment is decimated by those dirty factories which are fueling that same economic boom.

This isn’t to say there won’t be a way to accommodate the two further down the line: commentators like Thomas Friedman think the biggest companies of this century, digging us out of our financial hole, will be the green energy companies which are also working on the ecological one. But for the time being, not polluting is expensive – much too expensive for a government like China’s, which needs its economy to keep growing to legitimise its rule.

I keep thinking that the most immediate solution, without China having to endanger its economy to a point it will clearly not tolerate, is technology transfer – the West giving away clean technology secrets to countries like China (which either can’t or won’t foot the R&D bills themselves). That’s certainly what William would like to see: he gets very excited at the mention of technology transfer, but is concerned that China’s terrible record on IP protection will prevent American companies from playing ball.

In the midst of these economic and environmental crises, I see ten articles or commentaries on the former for every one I see on the latter. In a lot of them, there is reference to ‘future generations’, ‘for our children’ etc. etc. (or take a look at the banners in yesterday’s US ‘tea-parties’). Well, I’m one of those future generations. And you know what I’d like the older generation to get mad about? Not my employment and pay-check prospects, but my prospects of living in a world not too unrecognisable from the one I enjoy living in now.


Written by Anastasia Maximchuk.

William’s story in good old English is here and here.

I’ve just listened to the Global Humanitarian Forum‘s dialogue on climate justice. It’s a debate discussing how the effects of climate change hit hardest the developing countries which are least responsible – an injustice we must combat. The debate was webcast live to young bloggers around the world on an initiative of the One Young World project I’m part of myself (“a platform to engage and inspire the 25 year olds of today – the decision makers of tomorrow”).

It’s really worth a listen (click the ‘view our webcast’ button on that first link I give). Kofi Annan looms over the proceedings from a telescreen, issuing awkwardly time-delayed warnings while Desmond Tutu cracks jokes from the panel. Tutu also issued, on behalf of his generation, this over-due apology:

It’s your world. And we oldies have made a mess of it, by and large. We are begetting to you a world with a very real, very serious threat of extinction.

The key message of the debate was ‘the polluter must pay’. “Those who are least responsible”, as Tutu put it, “bear the greatest blunt” (like Africa or the Maldives, whose president is rumoured to be looking for a new island in case the current one is submerged by rising water levels), while “the ones who are culprits, for the most part, are able to protect themselves”. A shocking statistic: 90% of natural disasters accur in the global south, where 3% are insured; the other 10% happen in the developed world where 95% are covered.

This is more complicated when it comes to China, of course. China, with it’s vast savings, can pay. And it clearly sees the dangers of inaction: Steven Chu, Obama’s secretary of energy pick, talks in a fascinating interview on ChinaDialogue of how “China already is very afraid. They’re beginning to see the consequences of climate change in their water supplies. In northern China, the Yellow River is beginning to run dry; the Tibetan plateau is melting very quickly”

But action has its risks for China too: of stifling the economic growth and job creation which keeps its countryside happy not too unhappy (I’ll bet a baozi that a provincial government official will choose growth at the cost of the ever-more purple lake next door to the factory every time). So the question is how can we incentivize green energy in China: the kind of companies which in the long-term will drive its economy.

To me, technology transfer seems like the most obvious answer: Western countries like the US (who are historically responsible for climate change) to give developing, polluting countries like China the technologies they can’t afford to – or can but don’t want to – R & D themselves. A stumbling block here is, of all things, China’s terrible protection of intellectual property: this means that US companies are reluctant to disclose their hard-earned techonology secrets for fear of seeing them copied and on sale at Zhongguancun the next week (alright, a bit of an exaggeration).

And a final thought: seeing as Africa is the region hardest hit by, and least to blame for, climate change … will this impact on its relationship with China? China is both hand both behind it’s problems – as the world’s biggest polluter – and the hand feeding it – as an increasingly ubiquitous business partner and funder. If the polluter must pay, shouldn’t China (self-professed responsible member of the world community as it is) take a look at how it’s actions at home are crippling its cross-continental friend?

I’ll be discussing these themes with William. And while I’m here, check out this interesting blog on China and the environment (full disclosure: written by a friend of mine).

UPDATE: William has just emailed me a few quick reactions:

1. Who is the polluter? Companies or consumers? I think the consumer is the polluter, so what what we should do is reduce our consumption. Everyone on the earth should reduce his/her energy use etc. to a certain level (except the poor who have a low emission level). Companies only meet the needs of consumers. Like in this economic crisis, emissions will reduce when consumption reduces.

2. I agree with you in this respect: we should pay more attention to those countries who are least responsible for climate change. But how rich countries can supply their support is a big question.

3. The situation of intellectual property in China is really bad. This makes many foreign companies worry about their economic interests. But technology transfer is necessary, we need to innovate together.

4. It’s a reality that many provincial officials only want to develop the economy and brush over environmental protection. I think that’s why China needs more environmental NGOs.

This is a conversation I had with William a few months ago, when I was only  just getting to know him (and hadn’t started blogging about his life). I can’t remember what turned the flow of our talk in this direction, but William began telling me how lucky he considers himself – being able to work in Beijing for an environmental magazine which involves hard hours but none of the back-breaking rural labour his parents endure:

Only a few people live like me. Most people live in another side, in a factory in South East China [for example] … I don’t need to work hard like them, I read books … In 1.3 billion people, the number of people like me are very small.

I asked him if he misses the countryside he – like so many young guys and girls in China’s capital – is originally from:

William: My parents are peasants, and in my heart, I am a peasant. I have no hukou [registration document] in the city, my ID is in the countryside … I’m not a city person.

Alec: Many peasants come to the city to make more money, there is more opportunity.

William: Make money is not my aim. Having food to eat is enough.

Alec: Your aim is to make a difference?

William: Yes. There are lots of pains in China. I think I should say something [speak out] as a peasant, not a city person. I will be a peasant for my life … In China there are two people: a city person and a rural person.

Well, I think there are two kinds of young immigrants from the countryside in Beijing: those who are all too eager to cut themselves off from their roots, and those who water those roots and keep them in mind (after all, you can change your leaves but not your roots). William is one of the latter. It’s why I consider myself lucky to be his friend.

My next six posts will briefly introduce six characters this blog will follow in the coming months – young Chinese in a new China.

William is 23, born in Anhui – one of China’s poorest provinces. It was in 2004 that he came to Beijing to study Food Science at one of the plethora of little-known technical universities here. (You can’t walk a block with your eyes closed without finding a university in Beijing’s northwesterly Haidian district.) Three years later he dropped out. In his own words:

I don’t like education in school. It’s not free. You must learn political communism, the ideas of CCP, and must do what your teacher tells you. You can’t do what you want to do. … I want to live my life, not another life, so I do what I want to do. I want to listen to my heart*.

William now works for an environmental website, as the assistant of one of its editors – writing daily newsletters, accounting, organising name cards for events. He works eight hours a day, from 7:30am to 4:30pm … but most days stays on until 6 or later. This summer he will leave his job and hopes to finish his final year at his old college. His dream after then? To study natural sciences at Beida, and begin working for an NGO.

I’ve smudged William’s face in the picture here (a sketch of him surfing the net, by his girlfriend), as he’s asked to remain anonymous.


* When I quote my conversations with William, I will clean up his English to make it grammatical, but of course not change the meaning or his choice of words. Other quotes will be my translations from Mandarin.

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