Chen Jiajun, 25, is making a name for himself with a set of wheels and a dream. The educational psychology graduate student at South China Normal University has long been an avid bicyclist and two years ago, he formed a group called Bike Guangzhou to promote cycling and to push for equal access to roads.
Last month, the NGO called on hundreds of cyclists to ride across Guangzhou for international World Car-Free Day. It has also hosted a series of events to boost awareness of the benefits of cycling.
How did your education lead you down the path to an NGO?
Aside from my bachelor's degree in environmental engineering, I have been concerned with environmental protection ever since I was a child. Scientific technology is important, but so is how it's used and who uses it. I wanted to research the theory and practice of getting people to believe in and protect the environment.
What is your thesis about?
My graduate thesis is about how to foster positive youth development. Past academic studies have mostly been focused on youth problems such as drug abuse and violent behaviour, but I'm hoping to instil positive personality traits and nurture virtues such as compassion, justice, equality and contributing to society. I love working with people, advocating ideas, changing perspectives and fostering action. I don't believe so many young people work in finance and banking simply because they worship material things. A lot of it has to do with a lack of faith and belief. I want to find out how to foster positive values and help more young Chinese people follow their dreams and make them come true.
What is missing in young Chinese today?
They lack the ability to believe in their strengths. There may be too much competition with so many people in China, which has convinced them that even if they work hard, they might not obtain what they want.
How did you get started?
I began as a volunteer in 2008 for the Guangzhou Green Point Environmental Protection Information Centre, a grass-roots NGO of mostly university students. I attended skill-building courses and was assigned to convert ideas into a real campaign.
Why did you choose to work with bicycles?
At the time, no one seemed to be concerned about using bikes as a mode of transport. Bikes not only encourage people to live a low-carbon lifestyle, but are also a crucial form of transport as they don't require fuel. Bikes are also closely linked to road planning, which requires public participation, giving us a starting point to help shape urban development.
What is your fondest memory involving bicycles?
When I was a child, I always rode on the back of my dad's bike, or rode my own bike to school when I was older. It was never an inconvenience. And we didn't need to worry about cars running us over. It was a free and joyous experience - you could go anywhere in Guangzhou on your bike. There were lots of trees and the roads were clear, not filled with car exhaust.
What's wrong with Guangzhou's roads?
Guangzhou's roads are dominated by cars, so cyclists and pedestrians need to fight for space and equal access. But who's going to cycle when public buses cost only 2 yuan (HK$2.44) per trip and renting a bike costs 3 yuan an hour? We hope there can be more designated bicycle pathways. But the reality is that most cycle tracks are used as traffic-buffer zones shared by pedestrians and vehicles, and even for public facilities such as road signs and dustbins. Cycle tracks in Guangzhou have been poorly planned, unlike in Beijing, where such paths are shadowed by trees and have barriers blocking vehicle access. Guangzhou's cycle tracks are not interlinked, and users often have to get off their bikes and push them. Public areas at shopping malls and office buildings do not offer bicycle parking areas. In this society, people get respect for driving a good car, but never for riding a bike.
How was your idea turned into action?
First, we wanted to raise awareness. We gave a 400 yuan classic bicycle made in Guangzhou to our then mayor, Zhang Guangning, who rode it round the conference room in his office. He even invited officials from the environmental protection and traffic committees to listen to our views. It was a rare experience, not only in Guangzhou but also in mainland China generally.
What happened next?
The success of our first campaign set a very high bar for us to reach in later events. Frankly, I didn't expect it to turn out so well. My mind went blank when reporters asked about our plans, because we had prepared only for that single campaign. After that, we spent a few months reflecting on our experiences. We also set out a vision for Bike Guangzhou - a safe cycling environment, with blue skies and white clouds overhead. We now have more than 30 core volunteers.
What lessons did you take away?
I became a more mature campaign organiser. This year, we've used a microblogging platform to collect information and push the idea of cycling. Once, we asked cyclists to photograph traffic blights across Guangzhou and more than 200 were identified, including places with cars parked in bike paths or confusing traffic signs at bike path entrances.
Have traffic police taken any notice of your campaigns?
From the pictures we've captured, we see noticeably more policemen patrolling for randomly parked cars on cycle tracks. The traffic police are putting more messages on their microblogs reminding motorists not to use cycle tracks. But we are looking for more concrete action, such as the removal of obstacles to cycling.
What sort of red tape do you have to deal with when organising events?
We have to be mindful of how many people we are going to call upon, even if we are doing nothing more than cycling. Often, our events could easily have been branded as illegal gatherings if we hadn't filed a request with the authorities. We ask members of the public who want to take part in our outdoor events to register, and we need to submit their ID information to police to get clearance in advance. We also need to be mindful of whether our events might generate any sort of message that is at odds with government policies. And we need to get backing from government departments or an NGO with an official background. All of this is extra work that makes our job so much more complicated.
What's your bike like?
It's a fold-up bike with 12-inch wheels. It's lightweight and I can pack it in a few seconds to go on the subway. It cost only about 1,000 yuan.
How do you fund Bike Guangzhou?
We get funding from two organisations and corporate sponsors. But I had to borrow about 10,000 yuan from friends to help pay for our latest event. I hope to get the money back from selling more sponsored products during our event just so I don't have to chip in too much on my own.
What's the outlook for NGOs on the mainland?
The scope of development is limited. No matter how creative your campaign idea is, it might never come to pass, because you need to consider how officials might react to it. We haven't yet managed to register ourselves officially, as we are still developing a more mature organisation. I hope Bike Guangzhou can become more independent and not rely on my efforts alone. I want to put more time and energy into my studies.