Dubbed 'China's Greta Thunberg', Howey Ou is fighting for climate action in a country where few others will

For Howey Ou, described by some as the “Chinese Greta Thunberg”, raising awareness about climate change is a lonely challenge. But, as the 17-year-old tells SBS News, she's not ready to stop fighting.

Howey Ou

Howey Ou Source: Instagram

A teenager is interrogated for hours by police in China. Her metadata is searched. Later, she’s kicked out of school. Her parents are worried for her safety, so she leaves home.

But Howey Ou isn’t a spy or a criminal. She’s a climate change activist - and despite these challenges, she isn’t afraid to keep on protesting and raising awareness about a problem she feels most of her compatriots are apathetic about.

Howey, now 17, says attitudes in her country on climate change are “not up to date”, and there’s seldom any discussion on the news or at an official level.

“The country isn’t really treating this as a crisis,” she told SBS News.

When she was arrested in May 2019, Howey was on day seven of a protest outside a government building in her native Guilin, trying to warn people about climate change.

Police took her to a station before moving her to a different location. When she got here, she saw her parents were already being questioned.

Howey Ou outside the Guilin People’s Government building in May 2019.
Source: Twitter

Police interrogated Howey for three hours and searched her metadata. They asked her who she met, who she talked to during the protest, and whether she’d spoken to any foreigners.

She said the police later had dinner with her parents to “try and have good relations” with them.

In the fallout following her arrest, Howey’s parents confiscated her electronic devices and grounded her out of concern for her safety.

“I left home after that,” she said.

Greta’s influence

Howey is from the southern Chinese city of Guilin, which is known for its lush green hills, blue lakes and boasts some of world's most beautiful karst landscapes.

That may have influenced why she's always had a love for the environment and nature.

But it wasn’t until two years ago when she saw the climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth that the threat of climate change became front and centre in her mind.

She was also inspired by a young Swedish girl who, at the time, was taking on the world with her message to reduce global emissions.

If Greta Thunberg could do it, so can I, Howey thought.

So, she went to see if there was a Chinese chapter of School Strike For Climate, the youth activist movement inspired by Ms Thunberg.

Howey Ou was rejected from her school for her activism
Source: Twitter

To her shock, there wasn’t. So, like Ms Thunberg did during her first climate strikes, Howey decided to go it alone.

That's how she finds herself standing on busy streets every Friday holding up signs warning passers-by about the urgency of climate change action.

Usually she'll stand there for about three hours but some days it's six. 

And while sometimes she'll have a friend with her, she's often alone.

Only a handful of people ever stop to ask her what she's doing, even though, she said, hundreds or even thousands of people will walk by ignoring her.

"Some glare and stop to see what happens, sometimes [they'll] ask [what I'm doing], but mostly I explain to them this is for social goods and environment (sic), so they understand," she said.

On rare occasions people ask for photos or encourage her from afar. Then there are those who think she's being unpatriotic.

"Some will think this is against [the] country, with some inconvenience and hate," she added.

Howey and Ms Thunberg haven't met in person, but the Swede has described her Chinese counterpart as a “true hero”.

'China needs more climate activists'

In May this year, Howey applied for school but was rejected.

“The principal … told me that if I continue (climate activism) then they will not accept me,” she said.

She is still hoping to go to university and take online courses. But her parents worry.

“They still think I should go back to school and study and to do this (activism) when I’m older,” Howey said.

“But I don’t agree with that."

“China doesn’t need one more climate scientist … it needs more and more climate activists to [stress] this issue to the government.

“The [climate] emergency is getting more and more serious.”

There have been recent warnings China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, is facing an increased risk of flooding amid rising temperatures.

The most recent floods in July across central and southern China killed at least 210 people.

“By the end of the current century, China is projected to be affected the most by flooding, with 40 million people affected and 110 billion Euros of damage per year,” a research paper by the Lancet revealed.

For now, Howey wants to raise awareness through non-violent, civil disobedience – in a country where such actions could get her into trouble with authorities.

“It is the only way to work in this kind of situation,” she said.

“Throughout history we know that this is [an] efficient way to make social change. We are aware of the possible risk and we will take the risk tenuously.

“If we don’t do this, we will face social collapse and mass starvation.”

'The system is still running as usual'

Howey has more than ten thousand followers on social media, but has struggled to find wider support within China.

Grassroots social movements can be heavily suppressed by the government, and the climate change movement there is lacking in participants.

Last year, Howey travelled solo around the country on a shoestring budget, meeting with environmental organisations and activists. But she said many had little understanding of the climate crisis. 

And last October, she faced criticism from millions online when a German media interview with her went viral on Chinese social media.

Many accused her of attention-seeking and "armchair activism", while others made unflattering comparisons to Ms Thunberg, who is herself a frequent object of ridicule on the Chinese internet.

When she’s asked if she’s worried for her safety, Howey replies: “I’m afraid that the world is in a very dangerous situation. The change is still nowhere in sight and all the people and the system is still running as usual. There is nothing happening in the world. And I’m worried about that.

“We need to use the science to let people know what is going on… inspire them and to protect them by our own sacrificing (sic).

“When they see protesters don’t fear anything, to like, sacrifice themselves for a better world, or a livable world, they will feel really important [and] respect the protesters”.

Additional reporting by AFP.

Published 8 September 2020 at 5:42am
By Rashida Yosufzai