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Eight years after drawing foreign and domestic media’s attention as “China’s first pro surfer”, Darci Liu’s passion for surfing has only grown — so much that she has spent the last four years working full-time to promote the nature-loving philosophy of the wave-riding sport, leaving the competitive surfing circuit after only four years.
“Nobody likes to surf in waves of trash,” says the Hubei native, a couple of days before her participation in the WISE conference hosted at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. The title of her keynote speech, “Surfing for a Sustainable Future,” encapsulates how Liu is taking the clout amassed from her pro surfing days and using it to refashion herself as a environmental activist that is both cool and likable.
“If you tell Chinese people, ‘don’t eat shark, don’t pollute, don’t do this and that’, they’re not going to listen to you,” says the 32-year old, whose company Ji Le (亼樂) sells recyclable beachwear, among other eco-friendly products. “My goal is to present environmental protection as a lifestyle that is cool, just like a surfer.”
Statistics justify Liu’s decision to ditch the pipelines and dive headfirst into the rubbish heap of problems afflicting China’s coastlands. Making up only 14% of the nation’s landmass but home to around half of the country’s 1.4 billion population, this area has been in dire straits for a long time. As Jake Kritzer of the US-based Environmental Defense Funds reports:
“China’s domestic fishing fleet catches in excess of 13 million metric tons, which exceeds the Ministry of Agriculture’s recommended sustainable catch by 4 million tons. Aquaculture has caused significant nutrient loading. More than 60% of coastal wetlands in China have been lost due to coastal development, land reclamation, sea level rise, and other stressors. Pollution from a variety of sources heavily impact more than 80% of the coastal zone in China.”
Liu experienced the magnitude of the problem while organizing beach clean-ups around Hainan, her home for the past decade.
“We’ll never be able to pick up all the rubbish out there, that’s why we have to address the root of the problem,” she says in a promotional video.
Hence why the Chinese surfer believes public outreach to be most effective solution. Just as she won over countless friends afraid of trying out surfing, she hopes to infect Chinese people with her positive energy and convert them to the cause of ocean protection. This, she believes, is dependent on people taking it upon themselves to make bearable changes to their daily habits, rather than guilt-tripping them into becoming fully-fledged members of an organization such as Greenpeace.
However, standing against this voluntarist approach to activism lies a cliff wall of cultural mores that has only just started to erode. The vast majority of Chinese adults don’t know how to swim, something that might come across as shocking to anyone in the US or Europe who received a basic swimming education from a young age. Even for those living in coastal metropolises like Shanghai or Tianjin, relentless urbanization has wiped out or polluted most of the spots that have enough sand to be considered a beach. And for the few born with a yearning for the sea, there are still strong disincentives, such as the pejorative social connotations of having tanned skin, usually associated with being a “country bumpkin” or a rural migrant worker.
“In the beginning, my parents didn’t really like the idea of me surfing; they said having a tanned skin would make me ugly, the sea was dangerous, etcetera,” recalls Liu.
Furthermore, what seems to be lacking in the psyche of many Chinese is an emotional attachment to the sea, the kind that makes beach-dwelling people like the Portuguese extremely sensitive about maritime conservation. At the same time, China is a voracious consumer of seafood, and the public is largely unaware of its deleterious effect on coastal and marine ecosystems.
This does not mean, however, that public outreach is doomed to failure – In 2011, NBA Hall of Famer and GOAT of Chinese basketball, Yao Ming became the face of an awareness campaign on shark fin consumption that has been instrumental in challenging what sceptics thought was an untouchable pillar of Chinese gastronomy. Most recent government surveys observe an astonishing 80% decrease in shark fin consumption since 2011, in no small measure because of the Shanghai native’s efforts; a survey conducted in China by WildAid shows that of all the respondents who stopped consuming shark fin, 82% pointed to Yao Ming’s awareness campaign as the reason.
Liu centers her outreach around aesthetically-pleasing video content designed to touch, rather than torch, its Chinese audience. An advert filmed for scuba-diving company PADI features her gracefully gliding on some waves as a Kygo-esque summer beat intensifies the wanderlust trying to be conveyed; a similar concept is used in an advert for energy drink brand Ichimore (日加满).
She’s also incorporated social media with a #NoPlasticUseChallenge where participants were encouraged to spend 24 hours without consuming single-use plastic once, and recording themselves doing it. Riding the wellness bandwagon, her company’s WeChat public account links surfing to popular land-based sports and fitness regimes such as yoga, with one article entitled “Yoga is basically surfing on land”. However, lacking Yao Ming’s influence, none of these campaigns have come remotely close to going viral in the same way his shark fin initiative with WildAid did.
“It’s all about positive energy!” Liu says, ducking a question about the areas where China’s maritime conservation needs to improve.
Positive energy has indeed been the Chinese government’s approach to global environmental issues. When Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris Accord last year, effectively on the grounds that climate change is bogus, Xi Jinping received praise for China’s noticeable increase in green energy investment. Some China-watchers, however, called out Xi’s use of buzzwords like “ecological civilization” as “Potemkin environmentalism” – dishing money and feigning concern for global environmental governance in order to draw attention away from other, less commendable approaches to governance, i.e. textbook geopolitics.
“I think with everything Chairman Xi is doing for the environment, there is good reason to be hopeful about the future,” Liu says.
Although her grassroots activism lies outside the purview of “ecological civilization” and its prescription of large-scale institutional innovation, the sea-lover has big plans of her own. Namely, a environmental education documentary, perhaps something akin to a Chinese version of Blue Planet, the BBC-produced documentary series on marine life narrated by the iconic naturalist Sir David Attenborough.
“The director I’m working with is still writing the script but the vision is clear: six episodes, all on China’s coastlands. Episode 1 will be about plastic pollution, Episode 2 will be about turtles…” and so on and so forth. Liu hopes a fundraiser will be enough to bear the costs of this ambitious project.
Although one might regard this as wishful thinking, the truth is that China’s largest crowdfunding platform, Qingsongchou, amassed a total of 20 billion RMB for an array of projects in 2018 alone. Given that many of its users have created half-baked sob stories to swindle the money of many a good Samaritan, someone as passionate and charismatic as Liu could easily touch many users to loosen their pockets. She’s already showed signs of sharp Instagram instincts with some striking pictures.
There is no doubt that, with some savvy marketing and financial aid, Liu has everything she needs to become a high-profile ambassador for China’s coastlands; it is rare for Chinese models to wear what she wears and pose the way she does, surrounded by a heap of garbage. Combined with her upbeat personality and fluent English, the surfer-turned-conservationist is not your average run-of-the-mill tree hugger, but someone who has already demonstrated signs of being a bridge-builder, speaking at high-profile conferences and engaging with Western social media platforms.
The country certainly needs to do a better job in cleaning up its coastline, and to this end Liu’s relatively fresh take on environmentalism could become highly influential.
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