Howey Ou, 17, China’s first climate activist, lives in Guilin. I admire her for the great courage she displays. Howey started climate strikes by herself to explain the climate crisis that no one spoke in China.
During this process, she was warned by her family and they closed her inside the house. She has been repeatedly questioned by the police. Now, she says, universities will not take her until she stops striking because they see her dangerous. Despite the conditions in her country, she continues to be a climate activist.
Atlas: You are China’s first climate striker. How did you become an activist, what triggered your protests and how are you continuing your activism?
Howey: When I was little, I loved to play with my friends in nature or just simply sat and enjoyed the sunlight on the lawn in university I lived. I am so lucky to born in a uni with trees and lawns, in a international tourism city Guilin well-known as its meandering mountains and water. But I was only educated to turn off taps to save water and turn off the lights when I left the room, I almost never heard about anyone talked about the climate or have lessons about it in school.
No one talked about climate and nowhere to learn about it. So, it’s not strange when 2015 Nov, our President Xi went to COP21 to sign the Paris agreement, I even doubt that if it is really worthy for him to fly there and sign. At that time, there is some discussion in the society about Paris Agreement so me, as a 7th grade student, I heard about it as well. That time, my biology and geography is my best grade subjects of all and rank the top. But students only taught to study and focus on grades, but I still keep the habit to read magazines about geography and that keep enhancing my knowledge about nature (while many Chinese geographic magazine seldom talked about climate crisis compared to National Geographic).
‘I wondered if Chinese people can act with me’
However, only until 2018 Dec, my first semester in high school, I watch the An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore, and it is the very first time, I realize the climate crisis is to the biggest threat to human civilization and entire ecosystem. At the same time, I read about Greta’s story in lots of Chinese medias, I felt like “Oh wow, a girl has same age as me can do so much for the world common goods and get respected by people around the world. I felt she is a little bit aggressive to me, but also received my highest respect.
Later a few months, I heard about her from time to time in medias, and I received the Climate Reality Project’s newsletter in 15th March the First Global School Strike Day, 120 plus countries joined. That’s the first time I thought maybe I can be part of the amazing world youth movement. This thought shocked myself as well, and I want to get more info and check if there is Chinese people can act with me.
‘I realized I have to act alone’
Later I checked Wikipedia about “School Strike For Climate”, it has a quite long list including all countries joined, I scrolled it down, spending like a century-long time, but didn’t find mainland China. I can’t believe and scrolled over it for a second time. It’s true. How can China as the biggest carbon emitter with largest population in the world don’t join such a inspiring and amazing movement? It take a few hours to accept the results and it means probably that I have to act alone on 24th May 2019. I am really hesitated and excited for the self-decision.
I haven’t seen any civil society actions before even never heard about it in newspapers. No one can give me advice. I imagined the scene of me protesting for hundreds of times before the date. I tried to connect with international climate activists but I can’t because the internet restrictions, so I can only use English study app Tandem to ask people. My friend and family told me I might got shoot if I protest there and might be arrested in some terrible narrow small jail.
What do your sings say and what do they mean?
In 24th May 2019 I wrote “Climate Crisis Is The Biggest Threat to Human Civilization” “Guilin, China. The First Time Mainland China joined” “We Need You” “1 person to 1.2million, in 9 months”. When I strike in a row from 26th to 31th May 2019, I wrote another one “School Strike for Climate in canva. I made another after the former confiscated by national security bureau’s police also writing “SS4C”, unfortunately, this confiscated by my parents.
When I drifting about in China to find support, visiting NGOs and Climate and Research Centers, innovative business as well as permaculture centers—just everywhere and every activists related to the climate and sustainability, eating leftovers and sleeping in everywhere. I can find like 24 hours bookstores, 24 hour shops like Family Mart, benches in universities, halls in the hotels, second floor corridor of youth hotel… I protest along the way in Hefei’s Department, Nanjing’s Government, Shanghai’s Government, I made a new one which is the fifth and it’s the one I am using now, it’s draw by three of my friends and me, one of the friend organised FFF as the first one in Toronto University later (I am so excited and proud of that! :))
‘My parents locked me at home’
Do you have any support from your family, friends or any NGO’s?
First, my parents just remind me not to protest and do radical things in China. Especially when they were interrogated by the police separately (me as well), they warned me not to protest and “lock me at home” strictly avoiding me to receive interviews, etc. My family support my climate documentary screening but not protest. My friends used to join the #PlantForSurvival for some time once or twice. NGOs like China Youth Climate Action Network refused me to attend their meeting because they think I am dangerous, has been interrogated by the Public Security Bureau which’s duty is to monitor spies.
You were invited to UN Climate Summit NY, but you never went there. Why?
Because I saw a British pilots union would strike in 27th Sep 2019 which is our Global Climate Action Week as well. So I felt shamed to fly to New York while there is no enough time to sail there. So I decided to plant trees everyday from Global Climate Action Week to China’s 70th National Holiday, lasting for 17 days.
According to Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, to plant 1 trillion trees worldwide before 2030 is the most effective way to tackle the cc (climate crisis). Everyone should plant 150 in average. So my demand is to urge Chinese Government to put “planting 18-20 trees per year” in the National People’s Compulsory Tree Planting Codes.
We know that China is the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitter, what is the level of concern of the Chinese people in relation with the climate crisis? What do you think about Generation Z in China?
Chinese people don’t talk about environment and not many times to think environmental issues and almost have never mentioned the climate change in lifetime. At least in small city like Guilin, it’s like this. And in coastal areas like Shanghai, people’s awareness begin to raise, some primary school students get climate education because there is environmental NGOs cooperate with the schools. I think Gen Z in China is a generation starting to wake up and align with international world.
In what ways do you think you may change the system in China with your actions? And what does it take for a person to do to change the system?
Nonviolent Climate Activism by nonviolent protest and lobbying, nonviolent civil disobedience and nonviolent interfering. This is the tactics, above the tactics is strategy. We need to cooperate massively with other civil societies in China and show our legitimacy to save the common future and spread the clear science. Especially cooperate with local and vulnerable farmers and peasants who suffering from cc already. The very basic character of a change maker is to be brave, persistent and sacrificial beast for a livable future.
‘Everyone and every decision in your life counts’
How do you envision the world in the future?
It’s still up to us, all the humans in this planet, to choose our own future. Whether to use collective intelligence and tremendous solidarity and courage to face the biggest threat to save our loved ones, daring to break the wrong system and build a livable world. Or to look away and left this issue to others, hoping someone will stand out and save us —cc is just a symptom of human’s society’s disorder that triggered the natural environment’s like atmosphere’s disorder, it is a massive complex system with the most complex factors, it’s a math model. We all know the Butterfly Effect, in a complex system, the initial factor’s slightest change can cause drastically differences in result. Now it is the situation. Everything we do now will taking to account in this big model and results as completely different. Everyone counts, every decision in your life counts, whether you join us or not counts. We can change the current toxic system because love and the eagerness to a peaceful world is the core.
‘Covid-19 made humanitarian crises visible’
Can you relate between the climate crisis and Covid? Do you think there is a connection?
The Covid-19 pandemic that we have all been affected by around the world is not disconnected from the climate crisis. The pandemic is a painful strike to the poorest and the most vulnerable. It has made visible other ongoing humanitarian crises. We have often ignored changes in nature until now. We have ignored the crises of the past, the present and those that will come in the future. This pandemic has woken us up to the conflicts, injustices and problems of the whole planet. Just as the Covid-19 pandemic has consequences for the whole planet, so does the climate crisis. It is has reminded us of our connection to each other and to nature.
Every government has a different preception of climate activists, how does your government percieve your actions and how does it effect your activism?
I was interrogated by the national security bureau which monitors spies for 4 hours, taken from the Guilin People’s Govt when I was sitting in silently. They come to me silently as well, ask me what I am doing while they have known all my infos even by a single photo. It gave me a sense of fear, while seeing police cars and police, also make the friends who joined FFF China quitting and can’t live a normal life emotionally and psychologically. But it’s really important for activists to show solidarity and “we are together” and communicate more often while facing suppression, we need to keep the nonviolent principles: courage, staunch and unyielding, nonviolent and never render obedience.