For most of her young life, nine-year-old Gao Ximan dreamed of becoming a policewoman. But after attending an eight-week online workshop about climate change this summer, she decided being a conservationist was a more important ambition.
“Siberian tigers and snow leopards are so cute, but they are dying out,” said Gao, a fourth-grade student at one of the top public schools in Beijing. She stopped using the air conditioner in her bedroom and insisted her family use public transport instead of their car for weekend outings.
Gao’s interest in the environment is something the Chinese government is trying to cultivate in young students as it pursues wide-ranging reforms to eliminate its net emissions of carbon dioxide by 2060. But the nation’s state-led approach to climate change is less tolerant of public debate over how it’s going to get there. In other words, the authorities want children like Gao to support its green campaigns, but would prefer their activism stop at lowering their own carbon footprints.
In school, Gao learned the basic facts: human activities have damaged the environment and greenhouse gas emissions are harmful because they trap heat and accelerate global warming. The lessons revolved around President Xi Jinping’s campaign to make China an “eco-civilization,” a concept that’s led to a range of policies including mandated recycling sorting, building green cities, and banning single-use plastic straws. But the conversation stops there. There’s no discussion of China’s net-zero goal, or the outsized influence the world’s biggest polluter has on the planet’s climate trajectory.
“China’s climate education emphasizes that responsibility lies with the individual and they can make a difference by living a low-carbon life, but they are not the ones that should influence policy making,” said Yao Zhe, who specializes in climate communications and has worked with various green organizations in China.
Explore dynamic updates of the earth’s key data points
Yet individual action isn’t what will keep the Earth from warming less than 1.5 degrees Celsius, the level scientists say is needed to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Getting there will require governments and companies to undertake large-scale changes. In China’s case, it will have to completely reorient its coal-dominated economy at the cost of trillions of dollars. There are huge questions about how best to do this, and how to mitigate further pollution, yet none of those are covered in the classroom.
“We basically just read prepared notes, often about air pollution and what China has done to make the air better,” said Wang, a third-grade teacher at an elementary school in the northeastern city of Tianjin, who asked to be identified only by her last name. The environmental lessons, which are incorporated into the curriculum for China’s nine years of compulsory education, don’t include any debate or research assignments, even for the older students.
Wang said her school encouraged teachers to take lots of photos to show engagement. “It’s kind of a decoration to show that we care about the environment,” she said. “There are no exams to test kids about what climate change is and why it matters; it’s too complicated to explain.” The education ministry did not respond to a fax seeking comment on its policies.
On the face of it, support for climate action is strong. An annual survey conducted by the European Investment Bank in late 2019 showed 73% of Chinese citizens consider climate change a major threat, compared with 47% in Europe and 39% in the U.S. But to many Chinese there’s a difference between cleaning up the environment at home and implementing policies that could hurt their economic interests—for example, by drastically shrinking the coal industry—even as they help lower China’s emissions. That’s especially true when those measures are perceived to be taken at the behest of other countries.
In school, teachers explain that China has a “right to develop,” reinforcing a stance the country’s political leaders have used to push back against international demands for them to cut emissions more quickly. The argument goes that developing countries shouldn’t have to bear the burden of reducing emissions when so much of the greenhouse gases trapped in the atmosphere were generated by countries such as the U.S. that industrialized first.
Now that China’s economic might has grown, students are told, the country has become a “responsible major power,” though textbooks are scant about what that responsibility actually entails when it comes to slowing global warming. The phrase is another slogan introduced by Xi, who has sought to position himself as a global leader on the issue. Part of that includes framing China’s authoritarian governance as an effective model—especially compared with sometimes chaotic liberal democracies—for tackling global problems like climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.
Alternate narratives are hard to find. Room for civil society has shrunk further under Xi, who has become increasingly intolerant toward dissent of any kind. A state-media journalist who asked not to be identified said reporters have been discouraged, if not banned, from writing about topics like the threat of rising sea levels to coastal cities such as Shanghai. Investigative pieces on environmental damage are limited to malfeasance by local government officials who are later punished, and even those have become less frequent.
Non-governmental organizations that would typically push officials to take stronger climate action are in China mostly focused on raising awareness and building support for government campaigns. A 2017 law requires all foreign NGOs to partner with a local group, leading to increased self-censorship. Activists and academics who have privately criticized China’s climate policies are reluctant to express those views publicly for fear of being targeted.
And sometimes, talking about climate change can just be awkward. It’s difficult to drive home the immediate risks of global warming—such as more frequent and extreme weather—because Chinese culture considers it taboo to discuss impending disasters when there are no easy solutions. “It feels like a dead end,” said Yao, the climate communications expert. “It’s not welcome when we warn about future risks, and sometimes it is even banned by the authorities because it spreads a negative message.”
For China’s youth, the scripted lessons and strict censorship mean there’s broad acceptance of the dangers of climate change, but little impetus to push for more aggressive policies.
The global school strike movement inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has faced strong backlash on social media, spurred on by false reports and conspiracy theories in state media that frame her as a puppet of Western powers seeking to halt China’s economic rise. Beijing News, a local newspaper run by the government, published a profile of Thunberg in 2019 that described the rallies as “performative” and “radical.” Is it possible, the author asked, that her calls for countries to cut emissions more quickly are merely a tactic by the West to “deprive” emerging economies like China of the same progress they enjoyed?
It’s a theory that resonates strongly with a growing chorus of young nationalist voices online. As China has become more isolated on the international stage, Xi’s administration has responded by stoking hostility and suspicion toward Western nations. That’s resulted in growing resistance to “Western” ideas such as fighting climate change, according to Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor at the school of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“China’s propaganda in recent years keeps telling people to be wary of the infiltration of so-called foreign thoughts and influences,” he said. “The government is afraid of street activism, and tries to convince people that China needs development instead of protests or expressions of different opinions.”
The rare student who tried to emulate Thunberg was derided by her peers. Two years ago, Howey Ou took to the streets to advocate for climate action in her hometown of Guilin. “China has had environmental policies and non-governmental organizations for decades, but they don’t work,” said Ou. “Companies are still polluting our environment in the name of GDP growth. Students should learn that protesting for climate change works, it has created a lot of space for public debate.” Instead of inspiring others to join her, she was given a warning by local authorities and barred from school.
For most young people, activism is more likely to take the form of volunteering with government-linked groups. “I just don’t think street protesting works the best with Chinese culture and society,” said 25-year-old Hu Jingwei, a communications officer at China Youth Climate Action Network, which works with university student groups to raise awareness about the environment. “Young people are not used to expressing their opinions and chanting the slogans in the public.”
Young environmentalists like Hu see their mission as facilitating government policy, rather than challenging it. Their hope is that getting kids to understand the risks of unchecked global warming will bear fruit when they are in positions to take action, however piecemeal.
That’s what 35-year-old Li Yedan was betting on when she started 3 Herissons (French for “three hedgehogs”), the nonprofit that conducted the climate workshop which inspired nine-year-old Gao. She said several elementary schools have expressed interest in boosting climate education resources in their classrooms after Xi announced the 2060 pledge.
“The hope is in the next generation,” she said. “I can’t stop all factories from polluting, but maybe one or two who learn from our projects would take over their parents’ businesses one day and make a difference.” —By John Liu and Karoline Kan