What China's Social Media Says about Greta Thunberg


[Note: I wrote this following the UN climate summit week last month, hoping to capture the public mood on Greta Thunberg and wider climate activism in China. It's a topic that is still evolving and I will continue to watch and write.]

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s scathing speech at UN climate summit slamming world leaders for failing her generation has won applause worldwide. But not in China, the world’s largest greenhouse gases emitter.

On Chinese social media, the public reaction was overwhelmingly disapproving, with comments ranging from skeptical, mocking, to hostile attacks against the broader youth climate activism and the even broader Western left-wing values such as environmentalism.

Her tearful speech asking world leaders “how dare you” at the UN-headquarter in New York has for the first time thrusted Greta Thunberg into spotlight in China, as UN posted a subtitled video of her speech through its official account on Weibo, or China’s Twitter.

About 30 hours after it was being posted, the video clip has already been reposted more than 8,000 times and received over 3,000 comments on Weibo. The most supported comment - with nearly 4,000 likes - was “Sick.”

However, before this week, Greta’s name was largely unknown to the majority of Chinese people, with mainstream media showing little interests in covering her story or the school strike campaign she initiated a year ago.

On China’s social media, once in a while there would be some posts about her over the past few months, although mostly in a rather disapproving tone.

The attacks on Greta are not unique in China. Right-wing politicians and commentators in Europe and the United States also reportedly made similar attacks. What unique in China is probably the lack of strong voices supporting her cause.

As in other countries, there was no lack of nasty attacks on Greta’s Asperger diagnosis. Yet other than that, the backlash against her are centered on several key arguments, which could shed some lights on Chines public’s nuanced and multi-layered perception — or rather, misperception — of climate activism.

Many of the Chinese commentators criticize her for being “hypocritical”, claiming she was only “performing” so as to garner more attention for her personal gain. And they seem to be convinced that Greta was being dictated by grownups of what to say.

“[As] a little girl without much knowledge, [Greta] reads out scripts from some ill-intentioned adults. After getting some nice media exposure, she’s now taking herself too seriously,” reads one of the top comments to Greta’s UN speech.

Another group of criticisms are related with conspiracy theories such as that she is being used by green groups for pushing an agenda that some Chinese people consider to be “extreme environmentalism”.

Many mistake Greta’s comments — for instance, the part lamenting pursuing eternal economic growth — as a call to stop development all together, and therefore getting very angry at her message for the world to take action to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

“There’re so many people in the world who still don’t have adequate food and face starvation. But you’re talking about environmental protection, regardless of the reality. How dare you!” One comment on Weibo reads, mocking Greta’s punch line.

“Think about those people who still struggle to get enough food, it was their dream and their childhood that got stolen,” another comment reads.

Others went on to condemn Greta’s lack of real actions, even though she took a zero-carbon sail trip across the Atlantic to attend the summit. Those who do know about the journey posted that her team would be flying and cause more emissions, which only reinforcing the “hypocrite” criticism.

Still others take the opportunity to praise China’s own action in protecting the planet, particularly through a gamified online tree-planting campaign launched by one of China’s tech giant, which allows people to plant trees via a few clicks on mobile phone.

“When she is busy making a gesture, Chinese young people are already making their own contribution to the planet. Why doesn’t she go planting some trees?” Reads one comment.

Another group of arguments on Weibo are centered on criticizing young people participating school strikes or any other forms of protesting, which many Chinese people see as culturally inappropriate in an education system that does not reward critical thinking, let alone challenging the status quo.

“It is students’ responsibility to stay in school and study hard. What is the point of missing school? Is it even useful?” Such prevalent skepticism also shows the majority of Chinese public do not believe that individual dissent could spark society-wide changes.

It is also worth mentioning that given China’s political system and heavily censored cyberspace, it is hard to gauge how Chinese public really think about climate change.

A State-backed survey in 2017 shows that 94.4% of respondents believe global warming is happening, and 97% support government policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yet a recent study published in the journal China Quarterly finds that average Chinese climate change concern is low relative to many countries around the world.

The palpable resentment against climate activism, as embodied in the online criticisms towards Greta, also coincides with a rising right-wing populist discourse in China’s cyberspace since 2016, which features hostility towards immigrants, Muslims, feminists, and more broadly, progressive values, as documented by scholar Chenchen Zhang.

One comment to the Greta’s video clip posted under UN’s official Weibo account reads: “UN is becoming more and more useless. It is taken hostage by a bunch of ‘white-lefties’ (the Chinese online nickname for people supporting liberal values). [António] Guterres is the worst (for encouraging illegal immigrations) and the least influential secretary general.”


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LilleJures自由撰稿人,关注环境气候议题,以及信息技术的社会影响。Rescue diver。
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