A Story by Holly Chang

50 Chinese Youth in Copenhagen

posted on December 16th, 2011   23019 views


This essay is a personal reflection of my experience at the end of 2009 as the lead organizer of the first grassroots Chinese youth delegation to a United Nations Conference.  There were fifty young people in our historic delegation, and it was the first time Chinese youth actively participated in civil society on the world stage.

“Feelings that Linger” (中文版以下)

 In Beijing

During the most important events in our lives, we often forget the details of what we said or what we did. But what usually lingers in our memory is how we felt. When I was first approached to take on this project, I remember feeling both inspired and nervous. I think I was sharing a cab ride with my best Chinese friend Shane Zhao in October 2009, rambling in our usual “Chinglish” way about the weather, China, and the future of youth. Shane said he had this idea about Copenhagen, but he had no funds, no plan and no experience.  As the conversation continued, I remember thinking I didn’t have much to offer.  But Shane and I had a rare friendship with a strong sense of trust and shared missions. So I said something like “OK, let’s bring some youth to Copenhagen”.  Later at home I would think about our conversation, and vacillate between feelings of excitement and panic.

A month later, I had become a crazed madwoman. My best friend and colleague, Ann, and I were pulling many all-nighters in a row, frantically rewriting countless versions of funding proposals, juggling the logistics of organizing a big delegation trip, training our teams on climate knowledge, while we gave pitches to everyone and their grandmother to support our cause.

I remember feeling my spirits lifted after I went away for a business trip and came back. While I was gone, all the youth delegates had organized their own sub-teams (Policy, Media, and Campaign) and managed to efficiently delegate all the upcoming tasks. In a matter of days, these young strangers had formed the semblance of a united delegation; prepared to put forth the best they each could offer to a mission larger than themselves.

By this time, Ann, Shane and I had approached nearly 100 organizations to support our initiative with no clear confirmation of funds. At wee hours in the morning in my living room, we would take turns encouraging each other with words like “Don’t give up!” and our slogan “No Other Way!” Privately, I was gripped with fear that we were going to let the delegates down, and that the three of us could no longer distinguish our courage from our desperation.

Less than two weeks before the start of the conference, our first three major donors (Nike, YOUNGO, and The Ford Foundation) confirmed significant funds to support our mission. When I saw the emails in my inbox, I jumped up and down, flapping my arms in elation.  Then in private I unraveled into tears with immense release and gratitude for the first real signs of hope to complete our mission.

Later, I remember sending a calm and cool email to the team to inform them of good news, making sure to sound like we had of course expected funds to come all along, and things were completely under control. In the last week of November, we were still under-funded. We also discovered that even the donations already pledged would not arrive in time for practical purposes.  And to top it off, our biggest potential Chinese funder had backed out completely.

I still remember the painful silence when we announced this news to the team in Beijing. As the days dwindled, we were forced to make some tough decisions. We decided to take the risk of buying all 40-plus flights and accommodations on our personal credit cards. If our elders knew what we were doing, they probably would have scolded at us, “No way!” But defiantly, we rushed to pack for Denmark, stuffing our luggage with t-shirts that said “No OTHER Way”, and big inflatable letters that spelled out “GREEN CHINA”.

In Copenhagen

When the first pod of us landed on December 4, Copenhagen’s skies were spitting freezing rain down on us. Helsinki airport was on strike and our luggage never arrived in Copenhagen. We found our way to the hostel and checked in, but those first few days, my chest was heavy with fatigue and financial worries. We had arrived at last, but I was utterly exhausted, wearing eyes like a refugee.

The next morning, we all got up early and coordinated t-shirt colors, then rushed to attend the 5th Annual Conference of Youth. I will always remember the buzz of energy that hit us at the conference, from the thousands of young people from around the world, reminding us why we needed to be there.  They had all gathered in Copenhagen ready to learn, share, and collaborate, and stake a claim on their future survival on this planet. Chinese youth had finally arrived at the party.

A couple days later, the official opening ceremony of the UN negotiations took place, and I felt relieved that we seemed to all be managing with the conference’s security logistics. But shortly after my brief moment of relief, I was blindsided by the blitz of hundreds of non-governmental events in Copenhagen, launched in parallel with the official negotiations, all vying for our full attention. That night, I was rushing between forums and lost my laptop inside the conference center.  I felt as if someone had cut off my leg at the beginning of a marathon.

Unfazed by my personal snafu, our Media, Policy and Campaign Teams launched into a full run. We all started campaigning, collaborating, blogging and having face-to-face conversations with thousands of people from other countries and other sectors. The minutes became an unending avalanche of urgent tasks, intense lessons and moment to moment decisions on managing the delegation.  The delegates seemed to always be scattered, and nervous tension became my only loyal companion.

Throughout those days, the corporate engineer in me wanted very badly to create management tools and more top-down structure to control and increase efficiency for the delegation.  But others reminded me that this was supposed to be an experiment in bottom-up activism, led by Chinese youth, however messy that would be.  So I braced myself as I witnessed our delegates diving headfirst into the strange and roaring global civil society movement at Copenhagen.

Amidst the mayhem, I found comfort in always seeing the familiar faces of our delegates in a sea of strangers. There was also extraordinary kindness from strangers. I will never forget the young artist named Jason who delivered boxes of bread and fruit to our hostel after he discovered that Chinese youth were tight on cash for food. After he dropped off the boxes on two separate occasions at our hostel, I never saw or heard from him again.

I still remember the warmth of laughter when young people from China and America shared their stories at our US-China youth workshop titled “Our Shared Future”. Every personal journey started in parallel yet eventually converged in Copenhagen. Even during the contentious debates of US and Chinese national responsibilities and approaches to climate problems, there was a sense that the youth drew wisdom from diverging perspectives, and we created a momentary safe-zone from the hostility unfolding elsewhere in Copenhagen.

There was one night Ann and Shane returned from a rainy visit with Yang Peng of the SEE Foundation. I had been nursing a fever in bed at the hostel, and they surprised me with an electric flask that Yang Peng had gifted to us to boil water. It was such a simple gesture but brought me such joy, just imagining a few days of the hot drinks and bowls of noodles we could finally make in the cold and wet city.

By the final days of the Copenhagen negotiations, over 100 heads of states and celebrities had arrived, and the conference exploded into tribal-like mayhem with Hollywood-worthy plot twists, roughened security, sensationalized media reports and increased frustration by non-governmental activists. Euphoria, confusion and distrust consumed the air in Copenhagen. Our delegates’ climate change blogs began receiving hundreds of thousands of hits from mainland China.  At the same time, we also started to find the faces of some of our young delegates published by international newswires alongside looming headlines that implied China’s sole guilt in negotiation failures. I felt torn with worry for the safety of our delegates, while trying very hard to remain focused on our missions.

In the culminating days, our group debated exhaustively on whether to publish a US-China youth joint statement. We wanted to send a positive message and signal an insistence on building trust and shouldering shared responsibilities amongst American and Chinese youth.  But we became paralyzed by the uncertainty of how the international media would portray our efforts, amidst a mounting PR crisis for China and breakdown of trust in Copenhagen. We never published our statement in the end.

When I finally arrived back in Beijing, I felt like a famished soldier returning from war. I spent Christmas Day quietly recounting the past weeks, mindful that our efforts were far from perfect. I privately wondered if I had failed the team, or if I should have done more to bring about a more positive outcome.

Moving Onward

In hindsight, I realize that we accomplished a rare feat. We started as a loose grassroots group of Chinese youth with no money, no government authority, no institutional capacity.  We simply wanted to show the world that Chinese youth cared about climate change, and that the future generations of China were an important stakeholder of the United Nations climate treaty. The COP15 experience educated us all in the complexities of the political negotiation process and on the critical importance of building capacity to communicate and have dialogue. I believe our efforts were successful in helping to inspire a new consciousness of climate change amongst the mainstream in China, especially for the younger generations.

Nevertheless, the feeling that lingers most from Copenhagen is a sense that our work is not over. It is just the beginning. Climate change is one of many critical issues that China must address as it develops and rises in global importance. The youth are inherently better at doing some things than adults could ever be, having grown up with the internet in a rapidly changing world. More so than ever before, I am convinced that we need to support and institutionalize these types of youth efforts to harness their unique strengths and foster a more globally competent generation.

For me, Copenhagen will always stand out as a rare time of pure intentions, youthful courage and raw emotions. As our youth delegates lean forward into the rest of their lives, I hope their feelings of passion and conviction from Copenhagen will linger on. After all, it is only if we feel that we care.  And only if we care will we act.  And it is only if we act shall we all be saved.




时间越来越紧迫,我们只得做出一些艰难的决定。我们冒险用各自的自私人信用卡支付了四十多人的机票和住宿费用。如果我们的长辈知道我们这么做,大概会冲着我们大喊“不行!”。但我们还是匆匆收拾行装,在箱子里装上写着“没有退路”的T恤,和大大的“GREEN CHINA”充气字母,前往了丹麦。


Every Pengyou has a story.
We want to hear yours.

2 responses to 50 Chinese Youth in Copenhagen

  • Wow. Great piece. I particularly enjoy this passage: “The COP15 experience educated us all in the complexities of the political negotiation process and on the critical importance of building capacity to communicate and have dialogue. I believe our efforts were successful in helping to inspire a new consciousness of climate change amongst the mainstream in China, especially for the younger generations.” Your story is an inspiration for us all. I can’t wait to see you again, I’m applying for the Youth Summit, whereupon if I get in I just might have a story similar to yours to whip up. =) I hope all is well in Beijing, when is the Project Pengyou team coming to Shanghai again? You guys should plan a promotional event on campus at NYUSH…just saying. Again, your work and story is amazing. Xin Nian Kual Le, gong xi fa cai

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