China’s millennials are increasingly pursuing happiness and sustainable living rather than wealth and luxury.
Well, that is the view of award-winning sci-fi writer Chen Qiufan, who insisted this tech-savvy generation is waking up to environmental issues.
His acclaimed dystopian novel Waste Tide, which depicted workers picking through toxic electronic detritus and children playing with discarded bionic limbs, served as a warning to his country at a time when it was the world’s rubbish dump.
But in the seven years since it was first published, China has started to take action by banning the import of most plastic recyclables and other materials in January 2018.
“The younger generation is paying more and more attention to this issue,” Chen said about the push to protect the environment.
A former Google employee, he pointed out that many young people in China have shrugged off concerns around money that preoccupy their parents, who lived through the turmoil and aftermath of the Cultural Revolution.
“They’re pretty much relaxed and are focused on living a more happy, healthy, eco-friendly lifestyle,” the 37-year-old said.
Although China’s Greta Thunberg is unlikely to emerge anytime soon given the Communist regime’s restrictions on protest movements, Chen said there is a growing tide of interest in environmental symposiums and exhibitions in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.
Many of his friends are beginning to feel guilty about flying, he even admitted.
Chinese are showing their concern online too. Ant Forest, an Alipay mobile game that rewards users for adopting more environmentally friendly lifestyles by planting actual greenery, has led to around 122 million new trees in the ground since 2016, according to the United Nations.
Speaking ahead of an appearance at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival this week, Chen said his passion for environmental issues was sparked by learning of the town of Guiyu – a waste site for the developed world’s electronic junk that was once branded an “environmental calamity” by the UN.
Despite growing up just 60 kilometers (40 miles) away in the southeastern city of Shantou, he had barely heard of the e-waste hub where tens of thousands of poor workers dismantled discarded television, mobile phones and batteries.
Often, they did this with no protective gear, leaving them directly exposed to toxic chemicals.
“There was a childhood friend who worked for an American recycling company and he told me about this place Guiyu,” Chen, one of the stars of China’s flourishing science fiction scene, explained.
“I went there and it was totally shocking. They [the workers] suffered very low pay, they were infected by toxic air, water and soil,” he added.
He began to question the throwaway culture of the developed world.
“Waste is basically invisible in many ways, you dump it into the trash and it just disappears and that’s how our urban life functions,” he mused. “But actually somebody is suffering from this.”
An alumna of prestigious Peking University, Chen is among of crop of talented Chinese sci-fi writers who are asking questions of their fast-changing country and the wider world, as well as finding literary success.
Fellow novelist Hao Jingfang’s Folding Beijing, a tale of class inequality that echoes the real-life struggles of migrants in the Chinese capital, bagged a Hugo Award in 2016. Chen has also claimed a string of prizes in China.
In his work, he critiques our increasing reliance on tech and its ramifications on society as well as discussing the degradation of the environment and its poisonous effect on the poorest.
“We can see a lot of kids in the countryside who are very poor and they basically use their phone to play games to kill time because their parents are all working in the cities to make some money.
“But for those kids that are living in the city – from middle-class, well-educated families – they are mostly limited to using the tech for education purposes. So that makes the gap bigger and bigger,” he said.
But ultimately it is the whole global system that needs to change, with tighter regulation around both tech and the culture of materialism that is driving the toxic waste problem.
“The issue is not resolved, it’s just transferred. It’s always there, switching from one backyard to another,” he said.
Chen Qiufan is attending Hong Kong International Literary Festival which runs from November 1-10.