The new face of youth activism in China

Global warming is now emerging as a focus for green NGOs in China, and student groups are leading the way. A new network is helping to link young people together to take action on climate, says Huo Weiya.

Go to any meeting in China about the country’s environmental situation and you will notice an increasing number of young adults in attendance. At China’s recent Environmental NGO Sustainable Development Conference, almost 100 members of youth environmental groups took part, and they had their own dedicated forum. In fact, China’s youth have become an essential force in the country’s environmental movement. 

This year, with climate change the increasing focus of widespread debate, the country’s young people have started to act by founding China’s first young people’s network focused on global warming, China Youth Climate Action Network (CYCAN), which incorporates seven separate organisations. 

It started in August with a group of 10 young people concerned about China’s environment – mainly heads of student green groups and other youth organisations – who met at a farewell dinner for a foreign student. After a lively discussion about China’s climate-adaptation policies, the state of university green organisations, student climate-change activism overseas and technological issues, they decided that isolated action lacked impact – and a network would be beneficial. 

They started making plans immediately, and declared the date of the meal to be CYCAN’s birthday. The network made its public debut on October 28-29, when it organised training sessions on climate change for officials from campus green groups; 13 took part from Beijing and 21 from groups elsewhere in the country. 

Lack of funds meant that the first day of training was held in a building under renovation at Peking University. This is nothing new; funding has always been a problem for Chinese student green groups. The training covered basic global warming issues, the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol, as well as how China’s youth should act and cooperate on climate-change issues. 

To coincide with the UN-led climate talks in Bali, CYCAN is holding large-scale events to show the determination and action of China’s youth around the nation. The group’s long-term aim is to increase the involvement of China’s youth groups in climate-change issues, and to organise events. 

Youth activism can not be separated from the Chinese government’s own stance on climate change. Since China unveiled its national climate-change programme in June, it has begun to play an active role in solving a global problem. This plan stimulated Chinese young people, who believe they should use their determination, resources and experience to be a part of the solution. Without this background, CYCAN could not have come into being. 

But in a sense, CYCAN is just a network for action – not a structured organisation. Its aims and beliefs come from its member organisations. For instance, the Peking University CDM Club is one of CYCAN’s founding organisations. Its members are all students at Peking University who are familiar with climate-change issues and policies. Some of its former members now work implementing Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects in their places of work, and many of them played an active role in the October training sessions.   

Another member group, the China Green Student Forum, was established 11 years ago. In 2007, it partnered with China Mining University’s Roots & Shoots group to audit energy use on Chinsese campuses, with help from the energy-saving firm Topenergy. In the process, they acquired first-hand information on energy usage at China’s universities.

Before CYCAN, China’s student green groups were taking action on climate change, but they were limited to their campuses and had little impact outside their universities. The majority of their activities also lacked innovation. Consolidating resources from around the country means those concerned about global warming can hold bigger, better and more innovative events. 

Although climate change is attracting increasing attention around the world – and many countries are implementing policies to reduce its effects – discussion and activism related to global warming has only just started among Chinese NGOs. The attitudes of young people, therefore, are particularly important. 

In recent years, China’s youth environmental groups are increasing their focus on climate change and to starting to take action. It is too early to say if they can make their voices heard, we must wait and see. But environmental issues need widespread participation, particularly from young people, in the future.  

Huo Weiya is editorial assistant for chinadialogue in Beijing and the former editor-in-chief of China Green Student Forum