Hu Jia: A very different youth

China Youth Daily – Freezing Point
Cai Ping, July 25, 2001

When I heard about Hu Jia, I was full of admiration. I even felt he should be a model for young people to follow. A 27-year-old young man who sought neither fame nor fortune, doing countless things to protect the environment and wearing himself out until he got hepatitis. He had just left the hospital, but often worked until two or three o’clock in the morning. Every day my colleague’s email inbox would contain a large quantity of messages about the work he was doing. The things he cared about and dealt with were extremely diverse and even trivial, but he was extremely passionate about all of them. Full of doubt, I asked my colleague if he was sick. My colleague said yes, he’s got hepatitis. No, I said. I mean sick in the head.

“Because you’re the only one who sent any money”

On the telephone, Hu Jia’s voice is weak. He lives a long way from me, he’s just come out of hospital and he isn’t well, but he insists on cycling over to meet me. In the end we arrange to talk at the newspaper.

Early that morning, I go down to meet him. He’s very fashionable, short, his hair dyed yellow and permed, a string of Buddhist prayer beads on his right wrist and carrying a heavy backpack. His voice is very small and hard to hear, and I often have to ask him to repeat what he has said.

Hu Jia is calm, graceful and courteous. He is surprisingly modest and always seems to be thinking of others. While he is talking to me, people constantly call him on his mobile phone to ask him about some small matter. Each time, he quietly says “sorry” to me, then turns his head and keeps his voice down on the phone, worried that he might disturb other people. I’ve very rarely seen such courtesy in a young person and at first I think he is putting it on.

Hu Jia has no job and he has no income from his environmental work. But he did have a job before. He graduated from the School of Information Technology at the Capital University of Economics and Business and he likes computers. Someone who specialized in this kind of field should find it very easy to find work. When he graduated in 1996, Hu Jia was employed as an editor at Beijing TV. He could easily have developed this as a career. But just at that time the People’s Daily published an article called “The destiny of a Chinese man and an old Japanese to control the desert” which changed his life.

Hu Jia still clearly remembers the time, headline and writer of the report and as he talks about this his calmness cannot conceal his excitement. That a young man should change the course of his life because of one article seems too accidental. But Hu Jia stresses that as a student he was always concerned about the problem of desertification in China, and he and his fellow students calculated how many trees would need to be planted to stop it. “Really,” says Hu Jia “we were too naive then, too simplistic.”

At Spring Festival in 1996, Hu Jia took 100 yuan from his New Year money and sent it to Inner Mongolia – to the people trying to control the desert in the report. He was 23. I find it rather hard to accept that a 23-year-old man was still getting New Year money.

Afterwards, Hu Jia phoned the place and asked if they’d received the money. A girl answered the phone and said with great certainty that they had. Hu Jia thought this was strange. The People’s Daily had so many readers and the article was so well written, it must have caused a flood of phone calls. So how could it be so easy to say the money had arrived? The girl’s answer shocked Hu Jia: “Because you’re the only one who sent any money!”

At that time, a good friend of Hu Jia, a young man called Lin Yi, also read the article and was just as moved by it as he was. He had a job and an income then, so on Lin Yi’s birthday the two of them set off for Inner Mongolia.

When they got there, Lin Yi took out 3,000 yuan and donated it to the place, and the two of them spent a week planting trees with the old Japanese man and the people who worked there. It was early in the year and the ground was frozen. Striking it with a pickaxe had no effect on the frozen ground and sent painful shockwaves into their hands.

Hu Jia heard there that more than a thousand Japanese people came over to plant trees each year. It cost a great deal to get here from Japan, so he wanted to know how many Chinese people came. The answer was a great disappointment to Hu Jia. He and Lin Yi were the first two real volunteers to come here from China.

Hu Jia was the first to send money. He and Lin Yi were the first self-financing volunteers to come and plant trees. Compared with the Japanese people, Hu Jia found this fact hard to bear.

“You don’t think you’re obsessed?”

After that, Hu Jia worked at Beijing TV for just one year and then left. He joined the environmental NGO Friends of Nature.

His efforts to protect the environment took him to many remote nature reserves, using up all his savings。

The reason he left Beijing TV was because he felt deeply that funds were absolutely necessary to do environmental work in China. While he was doing this work, it pained him that he didn’t have enough money for it so he signed up for a project management training course. He hoped that when he finished the course he could work on decoration projects, earn some money and then go back to working for the environment.

A year later, he got the project management certificate he had hoped for.

I ask Hu Jia: “How much did this training course cost? Who paid for it?”

He answers: “Several thousand yuan. My parents paid.”

Earning money wasn’t easy for Hu Jia. The people he worked with barely hid their desire for money and drank at the dinner table until they were red in the face. “I’m a Buddhist,” says Hu Jia. “I don’t drink. Those people’s standards were far lower than environmentalists.”

In the end, Hu Jia dropped the idea of first earning money. He felt he wasn’t cut out for it.

Working for Friends of Nature, Hu Jia could only get environmental project money, a tiny amount compared with what a formal job would pay, but Hu Jia didn’t care. He liked being busy all day like this, and the feeling of being needed.

I ask Hu Jia when he discovered he had hepatitis. He says that several years ago he felt extremely weak. When he was the liaison officer for the Hong Kong Friends of the Earth in Beijing, finding a location, taking care of all the procedures, he felt tired in a way he never had before. It was only later that he found out he had hepatitis, but at the time he didn’t care. Work was the most important thing in Hu Jia’s life and he simply couldn’t stop.

Hu Jia had a girlfriend – a medical student. Being with someone like that, he ought to know what hepatitis could do to a person – what it implied.

I say: “Hu Jia, really you made your hepatitis worse by your own delay.

Hu Jia just shakes his head and smiles fatalistically.

I ask: “Hasn’t being a vegetarian for so long made you malnourished. You don’t even have any strength in your voice.”

He says: “Being a Buddhist doesn’t necessarily mean not eating meat. I’m a lay Buddhist, but I’m used to being a vegetarian. I can’t eat meat again.”

Hu Jia says that as an only child his parents pampered him. He is extremely dependent on his parents, and he transferred that dependence to his girlfriend. Every morning, she would prepare Chinese medicine and put it beside him. But in the evening, she would find that he hadn’t drunk a drop. This upset her a lot. At that time, she was a graduate student and very busy, but she still often looked after Hu Jia. She would write to him, telling him to take care of his health and recuperate. But Hu Jia was a workaholic and very obstinate. He didn’t listen to any advice. His girlfriend said to him: “You’re always taking care of other people’s affairs. When are you going to look after yourself?” She felt Hu Jia simply didn’t care about her and it hurt her so much that she finally left him.

Hu Jia says his girlfriend’s tutor doesn’t want her to have any contact with him. He believes she’s talented and could even go abroad. But Hu Jia hasn’t even got a real job. As a man, he knows he can’t bring her any happiness. His girlfriend has written to him telling him to stop working and treat his illness properly. “It’s only now I understand what she was saying” says Hu Jia, sadly.

Hu Jia still believes he can get his girlfriend back. “She’s not avoiding me because of my disease,” he says. “It’s because I’m too stubborn. I ignored her advice. I ignored her.”

I ask: “What are you going to do to get her back?”

He says: “I want to get a part time job that I can do at home without having to rush all over the place. That way I can recuperate and work at the same time. But I’m afraid I can’t do that kind of work well. I’ve already got used to this kind of life, seeing myself as a vital link in a network. If I don’t finish a day’s business, I can’t sleep. I sometimes don’t get to sleep till four in the morning, then I’m up again at seven feeling anxious.”

A lot of Hu Jia’s work is writing emails, connecting everything to do with the environment, telling people someone’s phone number, someone’s address, where to find information, sending information, etc. Actually, because he was in hospital, he had to leave his positions with Friends of Nature and Hong Kong’s Friends of the Earth. But after he left the hospital, even though he had no formal income, he still did the same work.

I say: “You ought to understand, China’s environment isn’t going to get worse without your work. The world won’t stop turning without you.”

He smiles gently: “I know all that. But I can’t let go.”

“You don’t think you’re obsessed?”

“Maybe,” he says calmly.

“I can’t turn back. I don’t dare to think about the future.”

After I got to know Hu Jia, a large number of emails he sent out to people would arrive in my inbox each day. At first, I read all of them. Later, the first thing I did when I logged on was to delete all of his messages because I was worried about the limited space in my account. In the end, I had to write to him and ask him not to send me these emails anymore because I already had enough material from him.

Nevertheless, I was still very moved by Hu Jia and all the things he did. Since childhood, he liked everything about nature. He says people should coexist in friendship and harmony with plants and animals. He believes the current definition of social studies is far to narrow, focusing only on people. People shouldn’t think they are above animals. Social studies should be broader, including all of nature. Mankind is the cause of conflict between people and animals. People destroy the environment animals need to survive, so they have no choice but to go into people’s fields. Mankind ought to ponder on this, and seek out its root cause.

He says he used to feel very close to Buddhism and in 1997 he became a Buddhist because it emphasizes kindness. He says that now if an ant climbs onto his arm he doesn’t crush it. He gently picks it up and puts it on the ground. When he gets up in the morning, if he sees a sparrow fly away in fear, it upsets him all day. He says small birds shouldn’t be afraid of people. Harming animals doesn’t mean you are strong. It’s protecting animals that shows you are strong.

Hu Jia tells me that since he was a child he liked small plants and flowers. He believed he could talk to them, and watering them with a small can gave him a sweet feeling. If he saw that a small tree was growing very slowly, he would ask “What’s the matter? Why have you still not grown? Haven’t I given you enough water? Don’t you have enough nutrients?” But now he hasn’t got time for these things because when he doesn’t look after them properly he feels ashamed for a long time. He says when he’s old he wants to grow a big garden full of flowers and plant many trees.

In the Hoh Xil nature reserve he saw herds of Tibetan antelopes running like the wind. Sitting in the car, he felt he was an animal too and everyone was friends. That was their home and we had entered it. He saw Tibetan wild donkeys and thought they too were extremely lovely. He wanted to go and slap them on their round backsides, make them run away fast and tell them “if someone comes for you with a gun, run like this.”

Hu Jia says he cannot understand why people would want to go and kill them. They’re the same as you. How can you shoot them?

As Hu Jia talks about these things, his voice is a little louder and his speech is faster. He really seems like a pure and simple child. Being with Hu Jia, it always feels as if he is far away. He seems to live in another world of singing birds and the fragrance of flowers. That is his dream world and it’s that world that he keeps struggling for. But it’s not the world that we really live in.

I really want to go and see Hu Jia’s home, but he says no. “My cousin told me donkey turds shine on the outside. My place is a mess.”

I ask: “What has your room being a mess got to do with me. I just want to see the environment you live in.”

In the end he agrees, saying “You’d better prepare yourself. It’s going to be a shock.”

I ask Hu Jia: “Afterwards, did you carry on doing environmental work with no income? Since you left Friends of Nature, what have you lived on? What about the hospital, seeing the doctor?”

He says: “I depend on my parents.”

Hu Jia’s parents are both in their 60s. In the past, they were both attacked as rightists. They’re retired, but they still work for a small company. Hu Jia says they don’t do it to earn money. It’s something to do.

I say: “You depend on your parents for everything. How can it not be to earn money. Is your family that well-off?”

Hu Jia shakes his head.

“What will you do in the future? You work so hard, how is your health ever going to get better? How will your girlfriend come back? Do you plan to get married? You can’t depend on your parents your whole life.”

Hu Jia can’t answer this. He sighs deeply and says: “I can’t turn back. I don’t dare think about the future. I know that if I want a family and a career, I need a basic monthly income. I know that if I marry someone I have to give her a good life. But I don’t dare to think about all this. I can’t stop working. I hope I can get my girlfriend back. I’d be willing to live just one more day if we could be together again.”

I say at once: “That’s what you want, but don’t you think you’re a bit selfish?”

Hu Jia says earnestly: “I really love her. I know it’s not very likely. She sees me too clearly. I haven’t changed any of these things. I’m like a speeding car with no way to stop.”

A 27-year-old man with no income, bad health, his girlfriend has left him, he doesn’t dare to think about the future. Hu Jia can only work furiously. He never considers other people. He considers work and protecting the environment. He doesn’t dare to think about himself.

“Can I meet your parents?” I ask him.

He says: “The people who understand me most are my old girlfriend and my best friend Lin Yi.”

Lin Yi is the young man who went with Hu Jia to Inner Mongolia to plant trees and donated 3,000 yuan.

He wants to blaze a new trail

I ask Lin Yi on the phone where he lives. He asks me where I live and we both say at the same time: “So far away.”

So once again, we decide to meet at the paper.

He’s a handsome young man – tall, thin, wearing jeans, a sleeveless tunic and a small waist pack. His big eyes look out with a cold gaze, he rarely smiles, speaks unhurriedly. He’s calm and uses fashionable language. He’s very cool.

Originally, I wanted Lin Yi to tell me about Hu Jia to help me understand him more. I hadn’t thought that after talking for a short while we would start off a debate. We argued for a whole morning because I couldn’t accept his views that were so removed from practicality, so certain and even rather extreme.

Lin Yi is the kind of young person who has created his own set of beliefs. It takes a lot of effort to debate an issue with him. At first, you think you can persuade him to your way of thinking if you try hard enough. But then he lowers his head, smiles and comes back at you with a counter-argument, leaving you feeling defeated.

He particularly hates private cars, believing that private cars have moved on from polluting the environment to polluting the soul.

I say that in today’s fast-paced society, private cars have brought efficiency and convenience and have become a necessity. For example, if I use public transport I can only go to two places and get two things done. But if I have a car, I can do many more things. It saves time and energy. You can do more and make a greater contribution to society.

He says: “In the 1950s there weren’t many private cars. Didn’t people still work and live?”

I say: “You want the country to go back to the past?”

He asks: “What’s wrong with the past?”

He talks to me about environmentally friendly cars. He says so-called “environmentally friendly cars” are really nothing more than cars that reach a low-pollution emissions standard. But the environment isn’t just the air. It also includes resources like minerals, water, the soil and all the living organisms and the environment they live in. From a “greater environment” point of view, there is no such thing as an “environmentally friendly car.”

Car production is a major consumer of energy. It requires large amounts of metal, coal, rubber, plastic and other materials. If you take into account all the resources consumed in the production process and the liquid, gas and solid waste that it produces, plus the substantial increase in production because of the popularization of “environmentally friendly cars” and relaxation of limits on the number of cars, then “environmentally friendly cars” do even more damage to the environment.

I say that under present circumstances, the development of “environmentally friendly cars” is a positive measure to protect the environment and not making them won’t reduce the total number of cars. He says, “I’m not absolutely against private cars, but I am against the government forcefully promoting them.”

Lin Yi is more individualistic than Hu Jia. He didn’t graduate from senior high school because he often had disagreements with his teachers and the school wouldn’t let him continue studying. Later, he worked in marketing and advertising, earning up to four or five thousand yuan a month. When he discovered that advertising didn’t suit him, he immediately stopped doing it. Like Hu Jia, he worked for Friends of Nature, performing a diverse range of tasks. But when he felt that continuing this kind of work would mean he could only do that for the rest of his life, he immediately stopped doing it and went home. Now he writes at home. He says he wants to blaze a new trail like this. He hopes to use his writing to influence people.

I hadn’t expected it, but Lin Yi is also a vegetarian. He says he started in 1998, but he isn’t a pure Buddhist. He doesn’t drink alcohol, doesn’t chat online, has few friends and usually likes to be alone thinking about problems.

At lunchtime at the paper’s dining hall, he asks if each dish has meat in it. I ask him if he minds me eating meat next to him. He says, “That’s your personal choice, but whenever I get a chance I try to convert a person to not eat meat. So far, I’ve persuaded two people.”

I say: “If you don’t eat meat and other people don’t eat meat, will making yourselves weaker change the situation for animals?”

He says: “The torch of learning is passed on from teacher to student and from generation to generation. The conviction of purification can only be passed down by a few.” At this point, Lin Yi no longer seems like a cool young guy. He seems more like a mature middle-aged man.

After lunch, I say I have a request – I’d like to go and see his home. He hesitates, then says: “I have a request too. You can’t take any photographs.”

Lin Yi’s parents are ordinary wage-earners. At the moment, they’re on holiday and Lin Yi is the only one at home. As soon as we get inside, he says to me like a child, “I’m hot. I want to get changed.” I say, “Then get changed.” After he’s changed into shorts, he flaps his tunic, and says, “It’s a hot day. I don’t wear a top at home.” I say, “Take it off.” So Lin Yi sits opposite me, bare chested in his shorts and starts chatting with me again, speaking with that same calm and leisurely tone.

Lin Yi lives very simply. He hasn’t got a pager or a mobile phone and usually sends emails. He rides an old bicycle made for women. But he has two large bookcases full of books. Most of them are ancient Chinese philosophy. Every evening, he meditates for half an hour and then reads books and writes essays. An editor who published his work originally thought the writer was 40 years old. When he found out it was a good looking young man, he could hardly believe it.

I demand to see Lin Yi’s essays. He turns on the computer and I see a great many essays written in the same systematic, clear and calm way that he speaks.

A few days ago at the Taiyangdao crocodile show in Harbin, as a trainer was performing the breathtaking act of putting his head in a crocodile’s mouth, the crocodile suddenly “became savage” and snapped its mouth shut, biting the trainer’s head. Several people managed to force its mouth open, but the trainer suffered many deep wounds in the head and face and lost a great deal of blood.

Some months ago, at the Snake Emporium in Wuhan, a worker with 12 years butchering experience was killing a snake when he carelessly allowed himself to be bitten. His boss generously paid 120,000 yuan to charter a plane and fly him to Guangzhou for emergency treatment, saving his life.

To be bitten by a poisonous snake or a beast of prey and be at risk of death deserves sympathy, but my reaction after reading these two reports was different: they brought it on themselves!

When Australia was being colonized, the people who arrived took a fancy to this bountiful land, and introduced rabbits. The result was that Australia, where grass-eating animals had few natural enemies, very soon had hundreds of millions of foreign guests. They were highly fertile and very destructive. A colony of rabbits could practically wipe out a whole field in one night. Before long they had created a desert.

So the people there began to bring in cats, hoping they would be natural enemies of the rabbits and control their numbers. They didn’t think that the domestic cats would take a fancy to their chickens. Not only did they not keep down the rabbits, they rose up in rebellion, became wild cats and harassed the farmers. And so the wild cats became another major problem.

The disappointed people thought of dogs, hoping to use the dogs to subdue the cats and bring an end to this tragedy. Who would have thought that when the dogs arrived in Australia, they would decide that this was paradise and one after another leave home to become wild packs. They attacked cows, sheep, chickens and ducks – all livestock and poultry, big and small. There were even many people who were bitten by the wild dogs.

At this point, the people there finally came to their senses and realized that they themselves were the directors of this series of tragedies. If, at the start, they had not thought themselves so clever bringing rabbits, then cats, then dogs, then today Australia would not have to spend vast sums of money clearing out these “unwelcome visitors.”

The crocodile and the poisonous snake that harmed people in the city and the plague of rabbits in Australia seem quite separate and unrelated. In fact, that is not so. These three have one thing in common and this is the reason why they caused harm and disaster: it is entirely because they appeared in places where they should not appear. And the decision to put them in these places was made by precisely the victims who moan and complain – ourselves.

Actually, the real victims are the animals. Whether it is animals that perform for our pleasure, or animals that are put on the plate to satisfy our desire for food, how many people notice their tragic plight?

A crocodile or a snake have only to hurt a person without killing him and we are “deeply concerned,” but thousands upon thousands of wild animals fall victim to the club and the butcher’s knife; innocents to the slaughter. Can this be reasonable? Animals that once lived happily in a natural environment have been snatched away and forced into the city. If a few of them do nothing more than offer justifiable resistance, we condemn them as “killers” and call them “savage,” but when we originally grabbed them and brought them here, was that humane? We are perfectly aware that some wild animals are dangerous. We clearly should not hunt and trap these animals. We are perfectly able to live in peace in our own separate worlds. But we push on regardless of danger, ignoring risks. Since that is the case, who is at fault?

I remember as a child at school, whether it was biology, history or politics, in every subject I was taught that people and animals are different. The difference is that man can use tools, or that man is able to think. Today, based on what we know about animals, we have discovered that these theories are not true. I think the difference between humans and other animals is that normal animals instinctively avoid risks, while man does the opposite. Man is clever and brave, and is especially good at creating dangers for himself, considering this a worthy trait.

In the West, journalists say “Dog Bites Man isn’t news. Man Bites Dog is news.” That means only unusual or illogical things are worthy of attention and deserve to be reported. Using the meaning expressed in this phrase, I beg the media to think about what kind of situation an animal is in when it attacks a human. If it is caged by man and faces slaughter, then it is man we ought to be questioning.

I ask Lin Yi: “Your article really isn’t bad, but will you be able to make a career and a living out of articles like this?”

He lowers his head and smiles just a little: “I don’t know.”

“Then why do you say you want to blaze a new trail?”

“I want to give myself three years. If this doesn’t work, then I’ll go back into the ordinary world and do things I don’t want to do.”

I say: “Everyone can have things they like doing. I admire your determination and the conditions you’ve set. But in three years time you’ll be 30. Your girlfriend is still at university. Can you be sure that your relationship won’t change? Are you going to live off your parents for the next three years?”

“If things change, there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ll just have to put it down to experience. As a man, I should give my wife a good life and I’ll work hard to do that. As for my living expenses, I keep them down to a minimum so that as far as possible I’m not a burden to my parents.”

Lin Yi has a “son” called Ah Long – a beautiful big white cat. It’s seven years old. Lin Yi picks it up to show me. He presses his face close to Ah Long’s and says: “Look, he’s sick. He has to eat all kinds of medicine every day. He still hasn’t woken up.”
When I go to leave, Lin Yi stops me. He wants to show me his big tortoises.

In the sun porch, I’m startled by a pair of huge tortoises in a washbasin. “When I bought them they were only this small. I’ve raised a lot of small animals.” Lin Yi gesticulates proudly and in an instant he’s become a big sweet boy again. I think back to the morning when he was still telling me about profound theories of Chinese Taoists and Buddhists and I suddenly feel that the person in front of me is quite unbelievable.

I can’t work out if Lin Yi and Hu Jia’s characteristics can really represent young people today. They really do deserve to be called complete environmentalists and they have paid a huge price for this. But is this lifestyle of theirs something other young people can emulate?

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