Inside the budding Chinese environmental movement
There’s a palpable awkwardness at College Days Coffee in Beijing’s Central Business District, where a Valentine’s Day mixer is about to begin. The chit-chat (in English, Chinese, and broken versions of both) is stiff and nervous. Mostly we sip our drinks and wait. A few minutes later, the party’s host, a middle-aged Quebecer in a salmon pink shirt, a gold dragon-patterned tie, and an Indiana Jones–style fedora, slices through the tension. “Let’s improve the gene pool,” quips Philip McMaster, MBA , environmentalist, Mother Nature’s matchmaker.
The crowd eases. “I love the environment!” a young woman announces during the round of introductions. There are over thirty attendees in all, two-thirds Chinese, with a sprinkling of Americans, Germans, and others, gathered on a chilly Saturday afternoon at this matchmaking event for the environmentally conscious. Most are young — students, lawyers, embassy workers, journalists. Many have been personally invited by the host: two students McMaster encountered while rollerblading outside the Bird’s Nest stadium; one young woman who’d helped him track down the keys he’d left in a cab. (“Unreal,” he says. “I mean, Beijing is a big town. There are a lot of taxis.”)
“The idea,” McMaster tells the crowd, before we move on to games and a prize draw that includes sustainable underwear, “is let’s get people who are thinking about the planet, thinking about people, thinking about a better world, and let’s get them together and see what happens.
“Are there any questions? Is there any particular mate you want?”
An affable and passionate man with a broad smile, a bald head, and big, animated hands, McMaster came to Beijing last year to work with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a government advisory body. He focuses on what he calls “mindware” — people’s behaviour relative to their society, environment, and economy — and devotes a significant amount of time to engaging in grassroots activities with young Chinese. He runs a social club called Peace Plus One, and he’s trying to make its symbol — three fingers raised, palm forward — as ubiquitous in China as the peace sign. (The three fingers stand for society, environment, and economy.) McMaster hosts regular get-togethers aimed at spreading the Three Fingers gospel to young Chinese, including Sustainable English classes that introduce terminology like fair trade, and Three Finger Blender Parties, where guests invent new cocktails and record the recipes.
China may be the perfect canvas for McMaster’s work. In the wake of the Olympics, the West’s fretting over the country’s environmental problems has become something of a cliché, but it’s not without cause. China faces some daunting challenges, including desertification, chronic water shortages, and soaring greenhouse gas emissions. In 2007, it surpassed the United States as the world’s biggest producer of carbon dioxide. But despite, or perhaps because of, that harsh reality, it is also home to a burgeoning and vocal environmental movement fuelled by passionate individuals (both Chinese and foreign), embraced by the state media, and largely unobstructed by the government. There are some 2,000 environmental NGOs registered in China, and their results are tangible. Ordinary citizens across the country have organized through the web and cellphone messaging to rally effectively against heavily polluting industrial projects. The NGO Global Village–Beijing has run a successful public relations campaign for over a decade, and Future Generations’ Green Long March, the largest youth conservation movement in China, drew roughly 5,000 students from fifty universities in 2008, its second year.
Back at College Days Coffee, Chen Lie Chen, a twenty-seven-year-old software engineer working for a French company, confesses to an ulterior motive for attending the Valentine’s party: finding a badminton partner. But he’s starting to get the whole environmental thing. “In my hometown [in Fujian province], last time I went back — my hometown is by the sea — I noticed lots of waste at the port, and the colour of the sea looks grey. So I’m starting to feel bad to see these things.” He pauses before adding, “I think people should be more concerned about their environment.”
Vicky Zhang, a twenty-six-year-old native of Hebei province, is also getting into the spirit. As we play a game in which a balloon is passed knee to knee down a line of potential green mates, Zhang tells me she’s worried about the number of cars on the road and factories in the countryside. But she remains optimistic: “The most important thing is to improve the peoples’ ability to care about the environment in their hearts. If everybody do like this, I think the environment will be improved.”
That’s the attitude McMaster is after. He says the movement needs people like Chen and Zhang, who are not necessarily eco-obsessed but are eco-aware, to make a difference. “We need to fix our behaviour,” he says. “If we get some solutions happening here, that’s a sixth of the world’s population.” After all, when you’re working to improve the gene pool you might as well start with a big one.