«That’s what I am on the world for»

Howey Ou is the only climate striker in China. In two phone calls with the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche Howey Ou talks for the first time in detail about her climate strike in Guilin, China, her motivation and why she is still the only one striking. 

Howey Ou, age 16, stands in front of the government building in Guilin, a city in southern China, to protest her government’s indifference to global warming.

She holds up a poster in Chinese characters. It reads: "The climate crisis is the biggest crisis that human beings will ever face." Howey implores her classmates to join in her strike. The date is set: May 26th, in China, on the Communist Chinese mainland.

When the launch date arrives, Howey is alone.

Each following day, the brave teenage activist goes on Twitter to post pictures of herself taken by her father. She pleads for solidarity in “the first climate strike in China.” Greta Thunberg, her globally famous Swedish counterpart, tweets that Howey is “a hero.” But six days later, Howey is still alone with her strike sign. And, now, she has become an apparent target of the authoritarian, ever watchful, Communist Chinese government.

On Wechat (the Chinese equivalent of Facebook), her account gets blocked. No strike pictures have been uploaded to Twitter since the beginning of June. She has only tweeted sporadically about her cause. Worry grows. Has Howey disappeared? Is the nefarious Chinese government involved? Everything points to sinister government forces. Her climate crusade is being buried.

It is Friday, 9:57pm, Swiss local time. A Twitter private message pops up on my smartphone. The sender tells me she is too young to be addressed as "Mrs. Howey Ou," but she is ready to grant an exclusive telephone interview. She suggests that we use the app, “Signal.” “Maybe it is safer.”

Howey Ou talking to reporter Roman Zeller 

Hi, how are you?

Great.

Are you still alive?

Yeah, I am.

Where are you, right now? It is 2.00pm, Beijing time. Are you striking in front of the government building?

No. I am walking outside near where I live. Have you seen my posts on Twitter?

Yes, I saw them.

I stopped my strike last Friday. The police prohibited my strike in front of the government. They said it is illegal.

They told you that you are not allowed?

Yes. I did the demonstrations without a permission. It is illegal here. So, before I am not having a permission, I will prepare some materials for the forum.

Which forum?

A forum from the 14thuntil the 16thof June in Guilin. I am still trying to get access to this forum.

What is it about?

It is about the climate. The Chinese environmental envoy will attend and also some Chinese political officials.

Will you be allowed to give a speech like Greta?

I am not sure. I still haven’t received access to it, yet.For now, I am just trying to attend the meeting to talk to them and tell them my story.

But they prohibited your strikes. Is that the reason why you stopped posting pictures?

Yes. That’s the reason.

Are you back at school, then?

Yeah.

What do your classmates say when they see you?

They are kind of interested in this whole thing. But they still cannot understand it. I think it is because they are lacking environmental education. And, also, they have a lack of bravery. They still think that I should go back to school.

Why do you believe it is important to strike for the climate?

I had an experience last year, in June of 2018, when I read a magazine, the “National Geographic.” The magazine’s theme was plastic pollution. I read it again and again, and my understanding of environmental issues got deeper and deeper.

Since then, I promote everyone to reduce their use of plastic. From this experience, my understanding and my interest in climate issues intensified. I feel the fear of animals suffering and how the environment gets polluted. I could not live or study normally.

Have you ever been educated about the climate in school?

In geography, they have mentioned it a little bit, like, a few pages. But there are almost no details about it. As Greta said, she knew about the climate crisis at the age of eight, and she has also studied it in class. I think I have learnt it all myself, not at school. I just read some books which I enrich myself with. Actually, I have just been knowing the truth of the climate crisis since December last year.

You mentioned Greta. Did she influence you to go on the street and fight for the climate?

Yes. I have never thought about demonstrating by myself, because there are some classic historical events in China. We all learned that we cannot achieve the immediate change, that we cannot do it on our self. In China, we know that we can only wait for others, wait for the government to do something.

About social media: Is Twitter your main platform to spread your protest?

Yes, I use Twitter.

Have you ever been banned on Twitter?

No, I haven’t been banned yet.

Could you use Wechat in China like you use Twitter?

I am not sure. I haven’t tried.

But on Wechat, you aren’t blocked yet?

I have been blocked on Wechat several times. But not because of the strike. It was just because I said, “hello” to somebody, too much. I don’t think so.

So, you cannot spread your strike locally. I studied in China, and my Chinese friends told me that they have never heard about you.

Yeah, I know.

Do you think you can reach them?

No. It’s just my friends and my family that know that I am striking. No one else.

Do you know that you do not appear on Baidu? [The Chinese search engine equivalent of Google] However, on Google you appear immediately.

Yes, I know. This is because of the staff of the local media. They just passed by when I was striking. People know that this kind of thing will not be reported by the mainstream Chinese media.

The media has no interest?

They want to cover it. They don’t want others to know about it.

And what do random people say when they pass by and see you striking? Are they paying attention?

Some of them do. But not so many. I talked with a few people in the seven days I was demonstrating. And some of them criticized me and said that there is something wrong with my head.

What exactly did they say?

They said that I have been brain washed.

Do your friends tell you the same?

They are shocked, as well, at first. Later, they told me that it is dangerous and that I should try to protest in another way. I said that this is the only thing that I can do, for now. And they said that this protest might have a negative impact for my development, as well as my family’s.

Have you been contacted with organizations in China? Or globally?

Only with a few. In China, I think the organizations about environmental protection are not as many as there are in Europe. And the spirit of almost all of them is not very suitable for me. I don’t really agree with them. There is not so much activism — almost none. Most of them just use programs and projects. And I think this is not suitable to the climate crisis.

At the moment, you have no support of any organization or any person with your climate strike?

Yes. I am just in contact with organizations abroad. But they didn’t offer any concrete support.

And they also haven’t told you how to handle media requests? No one does that for you?

No. I do all by myself, for now.

We talked about your friends’ view. What do your parents think about your climate strike? I have read that your father took the picture of you standing in front of the governmental building.

My father only took me, there, the first day. Later, on the sixth day, I went by myself. I took the photos myself or I asked some passengers that walked by to take them.

And what do your parents think about your protest?

At first, they were shocked about my idea. Later, they just disagreed with my opinion and they don’t want me to risk demonstrating. After the police talked to me, they were furious about this. Their attitude was a very extreme disagreement with me.

What were they furious about: the police shutting down your strike? Or you keeping up your protest?

Me going to strike.

So, they don’t support you?

Yeah, they disagree with me.

Let’s talk about your goals with your strike. Where should this lead?

I want the Chinese government, as they promised, that they will take actions to face the climate crisis. Immediately.

How will your future look like?

I will keep on trying to involve people into the movement. I think that’s what I am on the world for. Maybe I can do something. But I am not sure.

What is your dream?

I would like to work for an NGO or the United Nations.

In the climate sector?

Maybe for environmental protection or animal protection.

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