China was responsible for over a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, according to a recent report by the Rhodium Group. Since China has a one-party political system, there is no debate over how much the government should take action on climate change like in other nations. Although China is not currently the hotspot for the global environmental movement, 18-year-old Ou Hongyi hasn’t been dissuaded by the lack of support she faces from her community.
Ou is from Guilin, a college town in southern China, where her parents work as lecturers on the university’s campus. Ou first became concerned about the impact that her life has on the environment three years ago. She had a dream in which she was dining at a restaurant and was forced to kill a fish while it stared at her fearfully. After that, she stopped eating meat and started researching the toll that human industry is taking on Earth. Ou tried to convince her school’s cafeteria to switch from plastic utensils to reusable ones, but the cafeteria director refused, citing hygiene concerns and the lower cost of plastic.
Ou soon discovered the #FridaysForFuture climate strike movement that helped environmental activists who call attention to their calls for action. There were no #FridaysForFuture strikes in China at the time, so Ou decided to hold the first. In late May 2019, Ou stood in front of government buildings in Guilin, holding a sign that asked for others to join her to advocate for climate action. Officials forced her to leave after a week because she didn’t have a permit — but not before her strike went viral on social media. She even caught the attention of Greta Thunberg, who retweeted a picture of her on strike on May 26, 2019 and called her a “true hero”.
Thunberg and Ou are about the same age and both forgo school for environmental advocacy. However, they have very different amounts of public support: Thunberg spoke to world leaders at a UN conference on Sep. 23, 2019, while Ou faces harassment from law enforcement wherever she protests. Ou stopped attending school in Dec. 2018 so that she could devote all her time to kickstarting the climate movement in China. She wanted to return so that she could advocate for change at school as well, but officials banned her from coming back.
The pandemic hasn’t stopped Ou Hongyi from calling attention to the need for action to mitigate the effects of climate change. In spring 2021, she and other global activists protested the continued use of a concrete mining quarry on the biodiverse and archeologically significant Mormont hill in Switzerland. On Mar. 30, the protestors, who had set up camp on the hill, were forcibly removed and soon sentenced to various amounts of prison time. Ou and a few fellow activists started a hunger strike on May 21 to protest the prison sentences and fees that the Swedish courts had levied. Ou’s activism won’t stop until climate change does.