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.
As FutureGenerations/CHINA Executive Director Frances Fremont-Smith explains, “With the Long March you had a strong group of determined people who were concerned about the future of their country.” As Fremont-Smith describes it, the march was in the interest of building a better China. “Their aim was to reach people directly, village to village, and build a movement together,” she says. “Through terrific hardships they succeeded.”
While the Long March might not be the metaphor of choice for progressives in the United States, it remains a stirring metaphor in China. It’s important to note that we, too, employ our own nationalistic metaphors. During the current presidential race, Barack Obama and John McCain have invoked the Apollo Space Program and the Manhattan Project, respectively, as examples of the kind of American determination required for an alternative energy plan.
Despite a little sweat, our Long March up Baiyun Mountain wasn’t as physically taxing as Mao’s. My first morning marching, I joined the students at a local supermarket in Guangzhou where they passed out sustainable shopping bags, conducted consumer surveys about energy saving methods, and ran green-themed games for both children and adults.
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I was struck by how open and energetic the students were. In the US, a lot of young people are a bit wary of chatting up complete strangers, let alone lecturing them about lifestyle change. In China, people seem more used to interacting with each other on a daily basis. Students here weren’t at all shy, holding shoppers’ babies while they filled out surveys. I can’t remember the last time I held a stranger’s baby, let alone while canvassing.
While it’s a challenge to see how individual conversations can lead to the type of massive changes China and countries around the world need to make, the students were optimistic. “We are planting the seeds for a Green China,” said Ma Chi Zhi, a GLM student leader. “The Green Long March is inspiring Chinese youth to become the pioneers of environmental change.” As in the United States, youth here are seen as the vanguard of environmental reform in China.
“This year’s Green Long March supports the conservation successes of today and the environmental leaders of tomorrow,” explains Fremont-Smith. “It is developing a national youth corps of conservation leaders committed to advancing environmental protection in their hometowns and in the workplace.”
A Fair Look at China
A day after visiting the supermarket, I joined a group of about 20 students on a trip to a nearby “ecological village”–a series of narrow streets, a winding canal, and historic buildings that the government has set aside for preservation. The students, dressed in identical green polo shirts, interviewed local residents about their environmental successes.
The goal, as a student explained to me later, was to show people that they were already doing things to protect the environment. The strategy seemed to work. Once they got going, most people in the village came up with an entire list of positive acts, from using less water to wash their faces to setting aside plastic bottles for recycling. After months of reading about China’s environmental challenges in Western newspapers, it was refreshing for me to hear about this village’s efforts, however small, to fight pollution.
It was the desire to tell a positive story about China that seemed to motivate a lot of students I spoke with. Before I joined the GLM, I met Shane Zhao at a conference for Asian youth leaders in Hong Kong. Shane and an American friend recently co-founded China’s Green Beat, a video series about China’s environment (see video below). Shane said he was disappointed by the Western media’s coverage of China’s environmental successes. Sure, there were challenges, he pointed out, but it’s important to show people that some Chinese are trying to do something about it.
And while this could be taken as evidence of young Chinese “Internet Nationalism,” it struck me as an effort to highlight the changes that we all need to be making more of.
While China is certainly facing immense environmental challenges, Shane is right in pointing out certain successes. During my final day of the GLM, we visited Guangzhou Xingfeng, China’s largest landfill covering a length of over 50 football fields.
The most stunning thing about the landfill wasn’t the amount of waste, but how it was utilized; The owners were using it to generate electricity. When garbage decomposes, it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas that can be “captured” and burned to generate electricity. The landfill operators also recycled waste water, purifying it to the point where it was completely odorless and perfectly suited for many uses, including agriculture (though I doubt we’ll be seeing it on supermarket shelves anytime soon).
Looking for Answers
I had hoped before I went to China that I would return home with a clearer idea of where the country was headed. Instead, it feels to me like China speeds along at one hundred miles per hour in many different directions at once. On the one hand, 1,000 cars are added to Beijing’s streets every day. On the other hand, thousands of students sign up for the GLM every year. While I may not have come away with concrete answers, I did meet hundreds of new friends and like-minded activists.
Now, back home in San Francisco, I feel like “understanding” China, or coming away with a simple answer isn’t the most important goal of visiting. In fact, those simple metaphors and blanket conclusions tossed around by the mainstream media tend to obscure the simple and powerful efforts of students like us who are trying to make a difference. While we may need to look harder for sources of environmental inspiration in China, they do exist. Chinese activists will continue marching forward with the support of activists from around the world.
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When he’s not unbelievably jet-lagged, Jamie Henn is the co-coordinator of 350, a campaign to unite an international climate movement around a common call to action. You can also find him at changents.com and blogging on ItsGettingHotInHere and Pushback. He speaks no Chinese, but loves wonton soup.