I didn’t find what I expected in China. I found something entirely different — and learned it’s never a good idea to make assumptions of any kind about this country. Like assuming they’ll let me into the country at the airport. Assuming that taxi drivers will take me the most direct route to my destination. Or even assuming that there must be a climate movement in China that’s comparable to anything I’ve seen in Australia. Apart from being right when I assumed there would be lovely, friendly Chinese activists here who would show me around the various organization (luckily I was right about that) it’s all completely different!
My trip to China started with a surprise: me being deported from Beijing airport! I had assumed that, like in most countries now, Australians could get a visa on arrival. I’d even checked with the British airways woman who checked me in that I could get a visa in Beijing; she’d assured me I could and cheerily handed me my boarding pass as my bag disappeared down the conveyor belt. I didn’t feel so cheery when I was lining up at Beijing airport watching the customs officers flip through the passports of everyone in front of me to check their visas.
I was told by a stern Chinese customs officer that they were supposed to send me back to London, charge me for it, and also fine me. Luckily I convinced them to let me buy a ticket to Hong Kong instead; and after being escorted to the gate by some relatively friendly customs officers, I was on a flight to Hong Kong.
I had a day in Hong Kong – what an amazing city. Giant red robotic arms fill the harbour, lifting containers into enormous ships. In the street, bare-chested men lift goods from trucks into shops, mimicking the actions of the harbour. The traffic is surprisingly polite when compared to most Asian cities. The noisy air conditioning unit in my hotel room struggles to keep the hot, humid air at bay and the friendly, familiar smells of fish sauce, soy sauce and garlic manage to permeate through the walls to spite it. It’s a combination of the ramsackle and the reassuring: signs of Western expat life blending seamlessly with local culture. The high rises loom above it all, and above them, loom the mountains.
After a day in Hong Kong, while I eat dim sum with a friend from law school who now lives there, my visa is approved. Hours later, I’m back in line at Beijing airport, nervous as I approach the customs officer. It works and I’m through: my trip to mainland China has begun!
The first night I can’t sleep. The heat; the change of time zone; the thoughts swirling in my head based on my research about the Chinese government – I’m not sure what it is but something stops me. I toss and turn and the “sleep” playlist on my iphone (Dixie Chicks and Billy Bragg) churns through its repertoire, over and over. The next morning I try to wake myself with a cold shower and with great difficulty, find a taxi to take me to Beijing University. At the University gates I’m met both by armed soldiers, and Xiaojing, a student environmental leader.
We walk through the gorgeous, green campus to an environment centre where I’ll be running an all-day new media and online communications workshop for up and coming environmental Chinese leaders. Most of the attendees speak reasonable English, and it goes well, although I’m surprised that only one organization (Greenpeace) out of the 10 or 15 present uses a CRM/ email tool.
That afternoon I go to a meeting of the Green Student Forum; a network of students doing practical environmental projects, and awareness-raising, on their campuses. We meet in a park next to a subway. The meeting is in Mandarin but Julian Chen kindly translates. I listen to the group discuss many challenges that are common to student groups the world over: attracting and managing volunteers, facilitating meetings, sharing and delegating work equally within the group, and project management.
There are obviously a few different challenges here, in terms of the political context (read: authoritarian Communist regime) that environmentalists must operate within. But these are rarely mentioned explicitly in any of the meetings I go to, and in order to protect the people I met, it’s not a good idea for me to write about the discussions I was able to have on this topic.
After the meeting, as the sun sets, the group walks through the park together and we talk. They’re interested in climate activism, and student activism in Australia: how it works and how it’s different. I encourage them to come to Australia on a University exchange and intern with AYCC; I’d love to see Australian and Chinese student leaders working together.
The next day my day begins early with a meeting with the team who run the umbrella group of Chinese NGOS – it’s called CANGO. They also host the Australian equivalent of the Climate Action Network Australia (called C-CAN here). C-CAN encourages project-by-project collaboration between the various environment and climate groups and also runs capacity-building training sessions.
They tell me about some interesting projects on public transport (like a public transport pass that includes a carbon offset which was popular during events like the Beijing Olympics and Shanghai expo) and also talk about some of the funding challenges the NGO sector faces. It seems that most Chinese philanthropists give to “charities” – like alleviating poverty and providing primary healthcare – but aren’t so interested in environmental causes. Much of the funding for environmental projects in China comes from outside foundations, particularly those based in Europe.
My next meeting is with the British Council. I get a lot of context and clarity from this meeting – it helps me interpret what I’ve been seeing through Western eyes. I learn about the Government structure; the fact that every Government Ministry has an associated think tank of academics that devises and recommends policy. There’s a high respect for research, science, and technology in China, especially in the Government. My friend from Greenpeace China later echoes what Prudence from the British Council tells me: there’s no climate skepticism in China – either amongst the Government or the people. They accept science; they trust scientists. And there’s no independent fossil fuel lobby as such to push climate denialism: all the power companies are state-owned. Mostly I’m there to research the education work the British Council is doing. It’s broken down into three programs: for teachers, for students, and for journalists.
They’ve managed to get access to journalism schools, and are doing some great work helping the whole of Chinese media understand climate change. Since it’s not a “political” issue here, reporters can write about it relatively freely (unlike human rights issues). The schools program is also exciting- they work with around 2000 schools doing “green your school” work. They’re also working with the publisher who makes 70% of Chinese textbooks, and they do teacher training with support of the Journalists’ Association. Prue tells me that on some issues – usually one at a time, the Government allows criticism, as a kind of “pressure valve”. The Three Gorges Dam is one of them, but it’s still going ahead – with devastating consequences for the people and ecosystems who rely on the Mekong river. We talk about the environmental blogosphere – she says there’s not much of one, since the Government regularly shuts down blogs. The good news, though, is that there are champions for action on climate change within the Chinese government, such as Pan Yue, one of the Vice Ministers for the Ministry for Environmental Protection.
Next up is a meeting with the Institute of Environment and Development. I learn about their agricultural program, working with farmers in South Western China affected by climate change impacts. I promise to send Australian reports on climate adaptation in dry areas (anyone know of any good ones?). I learn about their high schools education project – they are, like the British Council, doing sustainability work directly with schools (around 200) and also doing teacher and pre-teacher training in association with Universities. They created a textbook on renewable energy that’s now being used in many schools, and they’re training and connecting students among schools doing eco-projects. The schools project is very ambitious and productive; the two full-time staff running it have a lot in their hands. I also meet with an Aussie, Huw Slater, interning with them. According to Facebook we have 30 mutual friends and the same music taste, so it’s surprising we haven’t met before. He’s taking a break from his Masters’ degree to help IED with their agricultural projects, and he gives me some great information about climate policy in China.
My final meeting is more of a social occasion– a catch up with an amazing Aussie expat, Catherine Fitzpatrick from Greenpeace China. I know her from her time at Greenpeace in Sydney, but she feels she’s making more of an impact working in China (and I’m pretty sure she’s right, given the relative size and impact of the two countries!). We eat dumplings overlooking a lake in a park, and talk about what’s happening in the Chinese environmental community – not so much a “movement” as we’d call it in the West, but many individual projects without the ability to challenge power. There are creative, interesting and different ways of influencing policy here, especially involving collaborating with academics and Government – but there are always limits and boundaries.
I sleep well that night; it’s been non-stop meetings all day and I’m becoming happily addicted to Mr Shi’s dumpling place across the road from where I’m staying. The following morning I have a long meeting with Sze Ping and his team, who are doing, so almost everyone agrees, the most exciting and innovative work in China’s environment movement. They’re starting a “triangle” of three projects: a training organization for young environmental leaders; a company selling sustainable products; and an NGO. We talk about their work, my work, and collaboration. I met Sze Ping in Sydney a few months back. He used to be Campaigns director at Greenpeace China, and it’s clear that he’s an extremely intelligent, thoughtful, talented and insightful campaigner. We agree on lots of things and I know we’ll stay in touch.
Later that afternoon I go to back to the IED office to pick up the notebook I left; then catch a taxi to somewhere I’ll talk about in my next blog post.