Vera Tollmann

Landscape with bride and groom in front of a wind turbine

A discussion with the climate expert Yu Jie on China’s attitude toward climate change. erschienen in: Spector cut+paste, No. 4, March 2008

In January 2008 I flew to China for five weeks. I wanted to find out whether the climate discourse had attained the same level of importance in China as in the West. At the end of January, central and western China experienced the most violent snowstorms in fifty years. The main theme in the English language state newspaper China Daily was not economic growth or preparations for the Olympic Games, but the daily struggle against the snow. As this occurred just before the Chinese New Year and Spring Festival celebrations, the effects of the extreme weather were dramatised to a national catastrophe. During this period (like Christmas in Germany), hundreds of millions of Chinese people travel home to see their families. Many migrant workers were stranded for days on end – on their only holidays – in the main railway stations because overhead cables and roads were frozen solid. The Chinese President Hu Jintao, a politician who normally avoids the media, made a special trip to the crowded railway stations to show his support. In Beijing, as is normal at this time of year, it had not rained or snowed for several weeks.

The sun shone every day, it was very cold and dry and I cycled wearing my moon boots. I wanted to talk to someone in Beijing to find out what people thought about environmental protection and climate change. Initially I was advised to talk to a German woman who works for CANGO, a Chinese NGO financed by the conservative German Konrad Adenauer Foundation. I met her in an empty office; her Chinese colleagues had already left for the New Year holidays. She suggested that I talk to Yu Jie. When the New Year holidays were over, I met Yu Jie in the Heinrich Böll Foundation office, in a traditional courtyard house built with pale wood ‘made in Germany’. We sat at the conference table, a fire was burning in the background in the wood stove and every now and then one of her colleagues came in to fetch a glass of water from the water dispenser.

Yu Jie works in the field of Chinese climate policy and alternative forms of energy. She contributed to China’s first ever report on wind energy Wind Force 12 – China, which was published jointly by the China Renewable Energy Industries Association (CREIA), Greenpeace and the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA). She worked for Greenpeace before taking up her post as climate policy advisor at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Beijing.

Vera Tollmann: Yu Jie, do you and your colleagues view the snowstorms of the last few weeks as a sign of climate change?

Yu Jie: Yes, certainly, there has been some scientific response to the recent events, talk of drought and the threat of desertification. Before the recent snowstorms, people were very careful about linking such events to a larger picture and I think that any forecasts must still consider different elements. The geographical situation, for example, plays a major role in regional weather forecasts. Even so, the bizarre weather of the last few weeks has led scientists to re-assess their previous work and to improve their methods for the future, especially as the media are now also linking the snowstorms to climate change.

Does this mean that the media are using these recent events as an opportunity to report in more detail on climate change and its consequences?

The Chinese media had already been reporting on weather changes in the USA and in Europe. However, I think it was not until the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report that weather became an important issue. Now, the media can expect public awareness of these issues. And this why is below-zero temperatures in Athens are in the news.

Would you say that the snowstorms have established a narrative in the media that could be used as a basis for discussion of more complex information on the causes of climate change?

I think that the link between current climate change and consumer behaviour has still not been made clear enough in China. You have to take into consideration that our economic system is still in a developing phase. First, people want to improve their standard of living and only then will they consider environmental protection. You can see for yourself how many cars there are on the roads. It is estimated that there are around 200 more cars every day and I personally know many people who are thinking about buying a car in the near future. If these people are worried about buying a car, it is not because of air pollution but because of the high running costs. Current predictions foresee around 3.8 million cars on the roads of Beijing by 2010. In 2003 there were only two million. In Shanghai people are using a different tactic to try and solve this problem: the city allocates permits to limit the number of cars. A permit used to cost 5,000 euros; this gave the permit-holder the life-long right to use their car in the city centre. Recently however, the new mayor reduced the fee to 1,000 euros. In Beijing however, no such limitations exist. It is not in the government’s interests: the income earned from increasing automobile traffic is being used to improve infrastructure in the run-up to the Olympic Games.

All over China, the car and bicycle lanes are almost the same width. But over the years, the number of cyclists has gone down.

What do people think about cycling today in China? I noticed that you are not meant to park your bicycle directly in front of certain office and restaurant buildings.

Yes, I have had the same experience. For example, when I cycled to the Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square [Square of Heavenly Peace] and asked the guards where I could park my bicycle, they could not tell me. It is the same in Ritan Park; there is nowhere to park your bicycle there either. There are always bicycle stands on the roadsides, but on prestigious squares like the Hall of the People or in front of restaurants and 5-star hotels it is more difficult.

More than 15 million people live in Beijing and only one-third of these use public transport. China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) publishes a daily analysis of CO² and SO² emissions on their website ( If any direct consequences of the low air quality are mentioned, then this is usually in connection with breathing difficulties. Recently, an English-language Beijing magazine advised cyclists to stay at a distance of at least 150 metres from the major ring roads.

In your opinion, in which areas of daily life should people be most concerned about the environment when making certain decisions?

Is your question referring to the air quality in Beijing? I think that many people are aware that they are suffering from the smog. But the problem seems insurmountable. So people hesitate to take action themselves. If they have a car, they certainly do not think that they could be responsible for the smog in the city. There are millions of cars in Beijing; there are many people who think: what difference can I make? On the other hand, more and more people are using the bus and underground networks. However, because of the high level of traffic, the public transport companies cannot guarantee that they will get people to work on time. If you have the choice of being stuck in a traffic jam in a bus or in your own car, then your own car is definitely the more comfortable alter native. And that happens all the time in the central business district, you can spend two or three hours a day stuck in traffic.

Could you tell me something about China’s tradition of environmental awareness?

A certain kind of environmental awareness has been part of our traditional culture for over a thousand years. However, if you are referring specifically to modern environmental awareness – that started in the early 1980s. The State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), which is to be changed into a ministry in March, was established at that time. People’s awareness of environmental issues increased in the 1990s; this period was characterised by high industrialisation.
However, this subject is still of little importance to the general public, for people who are not directly affected by environmental issues.

The work of NGOs has been tolerated since the 1990s; today they are important partners for the SEPA. One of the more famous Chinese NGOs is the Global Village of Beijing, founded in 1993, but there are hundreds of others. Some international environmental organisations like the WWF and Greenpeace for example, now have offices in China. National and international environmental NGOs in China are mainly concerned with nature conservation and environmental education. They rarely criticise official environmental policy.

 After the Olympic Games – if it is indeed possible to improve air quality during the Games – will there be more pressure to improve air quality? Or will the Games remain the exception?

I think that the plan to improve the environmental image of Beijing is similar to the campaigns of the Mao era. In November 2006, when the Sino-Africa Forum took place, some tests were carried out, and at the beginning of last year the government carried out further tests. Only about half of the private vehicles could be used: cars with an uneven registration number could be driven on one day, and the following day, only cars with an even number. But this did not improve the situation to any great extent. Or else, the improvements occurred with a delay. If there is no wind, the exhaust fumes hang over the city for a long time. Nevertheless, I have heard that some people are now in favour of the government limiting cars like this more often.

Does the government appreciate the work of environmental protection groups?

With regard to the NGO Global Village of Beijing for example, I believe there is a certain appreciation. They organised the 20 percent campaign to make energy use more efficient. The government probably assumes that an NGO is more capable of attracting the attention of and educating the public. So they benefit from NGOs. However, challenging the government on fundamental issues is certainly not approved of. Criticism is not possible. But the government is opening up more and more to society, and that includes NGOs. Citizens can now make suggestions. Not all of these are actually taken into consideration, but nevertheless, they have opened a window and are saying “suggestions are welcome”.

The traditional one-storey courtyard houses in Beijing are called hutongs. Traditionally they have no electricity or sewage pipes, and there are only public toilets. In recent years, many hutongs have been demolished to make way for large blocks of flats and business buildings. Others have been modernised using state funding or turned into luxurious privately owned fl ats like the one Rupert Murdoch owns in the Chinese metropolis. The Beijing office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation is also in a hutong.

Is the air quality especially bad in winter because many houses are heated with coal and wood?

YJ: Yes, especially in the traditional hutongs, coal briquettes are very often used for heating. The stoves are like mini-factories. Their smoke is more poisonous than that produced by the central heating systems in larger blocks of flats. We had a very severe winter five years ago. If I had already been living here then, the bad air quality would definitely have shortened my life by five years. [laughs] After that winter, the prime minister and the city council decided to begin the transition from coal to gas. That has improved the situation a great deal. However, this transition is being suspended as the gas supply cannot be guaranteed. However, the government is trying to access more gas.

In February 2008 construction work on the transregional pipeline began; this will transport gas from Turkmenistan via the autonomous region of Xinjiang Uygur to Shanghai and the southern province of Guangdong. The fi rst large gas pipeline running from west to east, which begins in the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang and ends in Shanghai, was put into operation at the end of 2004.

I read that the Chinese government has passed a law banning thin plastic bags from 1st June. This is an environmental policy that will have an immediate influence on the everyday life of many people. The English-language newspaper China Daily reported that the largest manufacturer of plastic bags has already closed down his factory. In some places, like the tourist village of Dali in Yunnan, supermarkets are already trying out the sale of reusable carrier bags in supermarkets. What kind of effect will the new law have, do you think?

In the large cities like Beijing and Shanghai, the supermarkets will have no problems switching over quickly. However, in smaller towns things will be more complicated. People shopping at the market will say that they do not want to put fi sh and meat into their bags without packaging. So it is hard to say how successful the law will be there. In the cities, people are more aware of the problems caused by plastic bags. People are starting to use their nylon bags from the 1980s again. One of my relatives recently showed me a bag that she had been given by her bank. I think that some companies, who do not necessarily need to act, will treat the new law as an opportunity for public relations activities.

The Chinese Institute for Public and Environmental issues (an NGO) has produced a map showing the extent of air pollution in China. The accompanying report on 4000 companies lists 40 multinational companies as the biggest polluters. The foreign companies include Toyota, Ford and Michelin. Not long after the study was published, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) also published a list of the biggest environmental polluters.

Does the general public also hold the economy responsible for air quality?
Are there initiatives demanding from companies to develop production methods that are less environmentally damaging? When I think of the air pollution and the occa sional bad smell, then I cannot imagine that this isn’t the case.

I don’t think that companies are responding specifically to this issue. Most of them depict air pollution as a global problem. I heard that there are four power stations on the outskirts of Beijing. This will change during the Olympic Games: either a SO² filter will be installed or the city will purchase additional electricity from other networks. Inner Mongolia, the Shanxi Province, all the regions near Beijing have good coal resources; they produce electricity and transport it to Beijing.
However there are also attempts to reform energy use. For example, during the New Year holidays, I watched television with my relatives. They trade in shares, and were watching a business channel, discussing which fields would be the best to buy shares. Amongst others, they mentioned renewable energies, saying this field had a future and would soon receive political support. There are many people in China who trade in shares. This is one way of dealing with the issue of climate change. For example, people buy shares from solar manufactures who export to Germany and other places.

That reminds me of an advertisement for the American company General Electrics. In the background is an island with wind turbines and in the foreground an island with four palm trees. The palm trees and the wind turbines look almost identical.

Come into my office, I would like to show you a photograph.

We walk through the gravel courtyard to her desk. She takes a photograph, stuck on with sellotape, from the wall. We see a bride and groom – both wearing white – posing in front of a wind turbine and imitating its shape.

It is very fashionable for couples in Xinjiang to be photographed in front of wind turbines because these are viewed as modern. I think their pose looks very good! [laughs]

The autonomous region of Xinjiang Uyghur is in the west of China. It is a large, sparsely populated region that constitutes around one-sixth of Chinese territory.

So this is to say that why people do not complain about the wind turbines spoiling the countryside?

Remember, Germany is much smaller and much more densely populated than China; the wind turbines do not really disturb anyone here. In the photograph you can see that the countryside behind the wind turbines is very fl at and barren. The wind turbines look very impressive there.

Yu Jie appeared to not want to conform to Western stereotypes nor to criticise Chinese
economic growth. In the West, however, things are quite similar. There, economists are anxious that European industry should play a key role in the field of environmental
technology. Therefore it is quite clear where the priorities lie. When China is considered as a problem within the context of saving the planet, there seems to be an indirect claim that industrialisation is a privilege of the fi rst world. Furthermore, when assessing the work of climate experts and NGOs in China, we should not necessarily apply European standards. In China you have to take a more tactile approach, as Mark Siemons, the FAZ (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) correspondent once wrote from Beijing: “the opportunities and the alternatives of action are extremely ambiguous, however this vagueness does cause not paralysis or lead to standstill. Instead this is apparently what actually sparks action.”

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