August 12, 2008
Halfway up a mountain in Guangzhou, dripping in sweat, it was time to come up with a cheer. I huddled with a group of students and listened as our team leader taught us what would become our mantra:
Smile Beijing! Green Long March! Protecting the environment is everyone’s responsibility!
Keeping Beijing smiling has been a challenge with the controversy surrounding this year’s Olympics. The games, an epic coming-out party for the world’s largest nation, have been the focus of much debate with protesters meeting the torch relay at nearly every stop along its route.
Youth activists are usually successful at uniting for common causes despite political barriers. But this time around, Chinese and American youth are facing off over issues like Tibet and Darfur on the internet and in the streets. When the torch came to San Francisco, where I live, I watched as debates between students from China and the US devolved into shouting matches.
This July, I traveled to China to see how I could collaborate with Chinese youth on environmental protection. I was specifically interested in bringing together youth for a new international climate campaign I co-coordinate called 350. Once in China, I met up with the Green Long March, an environmental effort organized by the Beijing Forestry University and FutureGenerations/CHINA, an NGO and graduate school.
As with most every head count in China, the number of participants in the Green Long March (GLM) is astounding. This year, over 5,000 students participated in 10 different march routes across 26 different provinces, engaging tens of thousands of people along the way. In April, the GLM opening ceremonies in Beijing brought together over 11,000 youth for a day of tree planting. Cumulatively, the students marched 2,008 kilometers, an auspicious number corresponding with the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Though the number of participants is arresting, it’s the name of the march that first strikes people. “The Green Long March” is a direct reference to Mao’s infamous “Long March,” the Red Army’s grueling trek across China to escape destruction and win the Chinese Revolution. While former Communist Chairman Mao Zedong is a controversial figure, the Long March still holds a mythological status in the Chinese public consciousness as a demonstration of unbending willpower.