What makes her China’s first climate striker?

Author: Zhiqiu Liu

Translator: Xiaowen Zhang

Editor: Wenting Yang

First published on Animal Dialogue Wechat Platform 2020/09/28

Coined as China’s first climate Striker by The Guardian in summer 2020, Ou Hongyi has also been living with tags that are not normally associated with a 17 years old Chinese girl, such as, climate activist, environmental conservationist, and vegan. Animal Dialogue initiated a talk with Ou Hongyi to further understand what makes her such a unique existence – an adolescent girl who has been affected and reshaped by global development.

“How did the general public in China react to your protest for #FridayforFuture?” To kick off the interview with Hongyi, I chose to be very direct, targeting the fact that her activism, to some extent, is very likely to entail misunderstandings from society.

“Honestly, my protests did not make corresponding changes, but they indeed led to more or less potential impacts. I am happy to bring inspirations, empowerment and engagement to the table where people have to face and discuss climate issues.” She refers to the similar strike that took place at a Canadian university that was inspired by her previous protest in Nanjing, as well as her friends who always show a great deal of encouragement to her activities.

“I did a survey and according to the result, 50% of the informants are very supportive of my non-violent action. For the people I met in real life, they are also expressing their trusts and confidence in me.”

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Main concerns from the general public to Hongyi’s protests have embodied in narrow outlooks on the definition of climate actions, as Hongyi points out: “From their views, what I am doing is less efficient compared to planting trees and receiving education.” Meanwhile, another voice appeared to question her real motivations: “They thought I am commercially funded and forced to do so.”

2020 June, Ou Hongyi and her friends made questionnaires and exhibition boards to advocate focusing on climate change at her middle school. ©欧泓奕

Systematic change is the goal

Hongyi defines her climate actions as ‘individual sacrifice to drive social movement’, which will not lead to dramatic impacts that are strong enough to mitigate climate change. “I did plant trees, but meanwhile, it is extremely painful to hear the sounds of old trees falling from the other side. I feel very powerless. I realize that nothing will change if we dare not to take any actions in the face of industrialization that destroys our forests.” She shares her story to me as an example that supports her calling on a systematic change that is capable of addressing climate risks.

Hongyi says: “Last year, I only ate local and self-produced vegetables and used the local firwoods. I did not take any private cars or buy any new clothes as well as skincare products. My yearly carbon footprints can reach 4.98 tons that is almost equal to the average amount worldly, but still far away from the standard that can help to achieve the Paris agreement.” She also mentions one of her friends, who was extremely strict in limiting his carbon emission but only achieved 11% reduction over one year. Learning from these, Hongyi emphases the importance of approaching the systematic change, “My friend realized that the house that he is living and the infrastructures that he uses are built on huge consumption of fossil. Even everyone tries to live in the most environmentally friendly way, we are still very likely to face climate disasters in the future. We should pursue a change that is derived from the governmental level, embodied in political drives and would lead to a top-to-down transform in the whole system.”

The “Plant For Survival” activity led by Ou Hongyi ©欧泓奕

Regarding taking actions, Hongyi claims: “We have been waiting for this change for 40 years since 1979. If we do not take actions now, all the achievements so far in all walks of sustainability will turn into failures. Those associated issues, such as regional peace, equality and fair development in the medical enterprise, will start to crush and become unmanageable, which surely comes along with unpredictable climate risks.”

Collective actions also matter

For Hongyi, one of the important steps for her to drive this change is to encourage more collective actions. Plogging is what she enjoys now. “We run 5 kilometres every day and pick up litters along our ways. We have fixed routes so that the locals can join us whenever and wherever they feel like to.”

Ou Hongyi and her friends are running while picking up litters along the way. They have run through village roads, beeches and promenades. ©欧泓奕

“I started my street protests from this April and we also tried to invite people for a movie night since June. We show what climate risks are and how this could lead to biodiversity loss through different films. People can discuss with us after the movie or online. Right now, we are planning to start campaigns through social media channels.” The topic varies from pros and cons of globalization, the relationship between climate and finance, to the climate crisis. “We hope to gradually establish a new culture for youth engagement and support sustainable development”, says Hongyi.  

Speaking of help that she has been receiving from the very first beginning, she refers to her neighbor, a lady in her thirties who always emotionally supports her and actively participates movie nights and street protests with her; also, a photographer who is a vegan and still in close contact with her. “I often consult to the climate activists from all over the world. They are all experienced in non-violent actions. I appreciate my connections and good companies that share a common interest and real passions. I am in great need of good advice that can guide me to move forward in the right track.”

“This is my mission.”

When asked how she reacted to the judgment online on her real motivation, she talked about her more-than-two-month wandering trip in different places. She visited many environmental organizations and research centers and sustainability-related events, where she strived to meet people and share her own experience, and most importantly, to spread the voice and evince her courage to the youth who dare not make some changes.   

“I did not have any financial supports, not even from my parents. I spent most of my days in fear and helplessness, but with a strong sense of mission that drives me to make change happen.” She recalled her experience of sleeping in different places, such as 24-hour stores and restaurants. She even slept on benches and lounges in hotels, eating steamed buns for two and a half months.  

Every Friday, Ou Hongyi will go into the street and use creative ways to tell people the emergency of climate changes and environmental issues. ©欧泓奕

She concludes what supports her all the time in this wandering trip is her feeling of mission. When asked how she perceives her climate actions so far, she explains this feeling even further, “We should embrace hope for this world, and we have the mission to make a change that is seemly impossible to happen. Many people already give up even without trying something simple in their daily life. As a climate activist, we send messages from scientists to the public and promotes strategies and methods to encourage them in taking the first step.”   

“Nature gives me power.”

“How did you overcome your fear especially when you found out there still exists a lot of misunderstandings?” I try to understand deeper how this 17-year-old girl can face so many uncertainties and barriers that surely presents challenges in her way of becoming the first climate striker in China.

“Last October, I could not handle those critical voices online. Invisible fear kept growing in me and I started to lose body control and even trembled for several hours with no reason. I tried to ask help from my parents and friends, but their encouragement did not work that time.” She turned to meditation after a couple of months, and went to urban green parks nearby every day. Placing herself in natural surroundings, Hongyi was able to reconnect with her childhood memory with nature and touched her resonance with all the beings.

“Nature makes me believe that this world is still very bright and beautiful. I realized how closely I am in touch with my motherland and this planet. My love for nature is embedded in my soul, which is probably why I feel so painful when I see my animal friends suffer in their polluted and damaged environment.” She developed a stronger connection to nature and feel empowered after her nature meditation.

Nature meditation also makes her understand where her feeling of mission comes from. “Climate activists usually need motivations. Some protest for their home because a newly built factory has polluted the environment. I feel that what makes me a climate activist is my worries about the inhabitants that are affected by climate change. My connection to nature offers me a great deal of courage and a better understanding of my values on this earth since I was born.” She tried to interact with children from her local community and she could strongly feel their purity and justice, “This is what life is always about. No matter what difficulties I will encounter in the future, nature gives me the power to continue. I think this is very positive.”

Ou Hongyi is the sponsor of “Satuday Coffee”, a weekly climate movie projection activity. ©欧泓奕

Closing marks

“How do you see your activism compared to Greta’s?”

I designated this last question because I would like to hear more about her perceived future of young climate leaders. She says, “There is no doubt that she brings the awakening of the young generation and show us possibilities of making changes. We need to deeply understand the worldwide situation and ready to fight back against the current problematic system. It is great to know that climate-related activities are also promoted online, attracting lots of media focus because of us. But are we doing enough to help minorities and vulnerable groups who are actually suffering from climate crisis?”

Hongyi thought it was worth even more attention on spreading the voice for the lower-class community and establishing an essential network that they could benefit from. “Their stories need to be acknowledged by more people. Young climate leaders should work more on this perspective. I only see a few examples in Philippine where climate activists give foods to the fisher-folks to help them go through a difficult time.”

“Climate movement is not only about controlling the global temperature and creating a better environment that human can live in harmony with nature. It is also about the essential movement to address social conflicts that have existed for a long time, such as civil rights, women’s suffrage to pursuing a more inclusive and livable human society.”

After this talk with Hongyi, I also felt her sense of mission. This is the responsibility that has been assigned to our generation. I remembered how excited I was after I heard the global commitments from the Copenhagen Climate Conference many years ago. I also remembered “HOPENHAGEN” and the little girl who wrote this on her table. As Hongyi advocates all the time, we should not give up any opportunities to make changes, because this is our world, a place still full of hope.

The poster says “There is no vaccine for climate crisis”. ©欧泓奕

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