In Discussion with XR: on Identity and Activism

Updated: Sep 4, 2020

Chit Chong is an HCCS trustee and a member of Extinction Rebellion (XR). He recently spoke to Southeast Asian XR members Belle, Sarah and Nuala. They discussed their backgrounds and what has propelled them to become activists.

What is Extinction Rebellion?

Extinction Rebellion is an international non-violent direct action group dedicated to compelling the Government to stop climate change by delivering on their Three Demands: For the Government to Tell the Truth – about the impact and urgency of climate change. It must communicate this to all parts of society; For the government to Act Now - to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025; for the Government to Go Beyond Politics – to create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.

To achieve these aims, XR held protests to halt activity in London in April and October 2019, and plans similar events in September 2020. Their protests are often highly creative and fun. XR parked a Pink Boat in Oxford Circus to symbolise the impact of rising sea levels and used it as a sound system.

They have been successful in getting Climate Emergencies declared in 1,700 local governments, 700 cities and eight nations. This includes Hackney, London and the UK Government.

Can you tell us about yourselves and what you do at Extinction Rebellion?

Chit: I’ve been in environmental campaigning for 30+ years. I’ve been involved in XR for the last 2 years, I was arrested in October.

Belle from XR Fashion Action and Animal Rebellion
Belle from XR Fashion Action and Animal Rebellion

Belle: I'm part of the XR Fashion Action team, I’m also Animal Rebellion. I’m half Chinese and English and grew up in colonial Hong Kong caught between cultures. My mother was Chinese, my father British, so I was constantly challenging norms and questioned practices in Hong Kong culture. I wouldn't have done this if my father had not presented another way of thinking.

I grew up during Hong Kong’s rapid development, so I saw the natural environment destroyed in the name of progress. Even at a very young age, it made me feel very uncomfortable. I went to Lantau Island which has a beautiful landscape, and my father’s friend said, “Over there’s going to be the hotel, there’s the multi storey car park, and there’s where the shopping centre will be. She was a property developer mapping how the environment was going to be destroyed.

Nuala: I've been on XR’s media team since February 2019. My heritage is Chinese and English but I’m white passing. I find it difficult to be around people’s guilt around racism - sweeping declarations that it is a white movement although that isn’t something that happens particularly in XR. Other than my dad and my aunt, I’ve grown up with mainly white people, so white majority culture is very normal to me.

Sarah: I am Singaporean from my mum’s side. I grew up in Indonesia where my family have lived for about 35 years. I don't experience racism because I look white. At the same time, I came here at 9 to go to boarding school. I hadn’t spent much time in this country before then, and I didn’t know much about British culture. It was a shock, and I felt I was speaking the same language but nobody seemed to understand me. I was a complete outsider.

Belle: I have always felt an outsider. In Hong Kong, I was a loud eccentric, in Britain I was quiet and eccentric. I was considered eccentric wherever I was. I have never felt totally integrated. When I was younger, that was hard. I came over when I was 17 and I felt self conscious. I found it quite difficult - I spoke the same language but I didn’t understand other people’s references.

As I’ve got older, I have appreciated the outsider view that doesn’t take things for granted. I think it gives a unique perspective. It makes it easier to be different, to stand on the street if you believe in something. Sometimes in my life, I have tried to conform, but not anymore. I am interested in the theme of the outsider and how we are still outsiders.

How did you come to XR and have you found your involvement?

Chit: My perception of XR is that it’s been one of the most diverse environmental groups I've come across.

Nuala is the Extinction Rebellion Press and Spokespeople Coordinator
Nuala, XR Press Coordinator (Twitter @NualaMai)

Nuala: I love your article, Chit,”Why did a 61 year old Chinese man decide to get arrested?”, Being of Chinese heritage, with an immigrant background, yet causing trouble is so counter-intuitive to not attracting attention. There’s something challenging but also liberating about that.

One of the things I bring to the media team is that as an outsider, you always have to be aware of how you look to others. Sometimes in XR, there’s a lack of awareness in how we come across, I feel more aware of how we look and what looks cliquey or arrogant from the outside.

Sarah: I thought I was doing enough if I did a job and lived a life that was good, someone else would change the laws. I went to XR’s NVDA training, and 80% of people in the group had not been involved in this type of activity before. It was something completely different for me to do and what my social circle was doing.

Naula: An academic study found overwhelmingly that XR has helped mobilised people who were previously not activists, or not politically active. Just through that you go beyond who the environmental groups were ordinarily reaching.

Sarah: There’s a real strength in understanding other cultures. We need to build a global movement through people who have grown up and been immersed in other cultures. I realised that when I went back to Indonesia and met with XR there. I was able to apply what we’ve done here, to the situation there, given the difference in culture and politics, and the different type of responsibility that the country has. I think XR needs these types of people.

Can you talk to me about how people haven’t felt comfortable in XR?

Nuala: The article, in Gal Dem - raised the issue that arrest is more difficult and not really possible if you are from a marginalised community. XR worked very quickly to try and address that. There have been other issues about the perception of how XR will come out and say things directly about capitalism, or confusion about our politics. This is a misinterpretation, as we don't have a colour blind perspective, so we could improve how we communicate our approach.

Chit, HCCS trustee and XR member
Chit, HCCS trustee and XR member

Chit: The Wretched of the Earth article implied we are too nice to the police, and the police were too nice to us, and we lacked credibility because we hadn’t been beaten up by the police enough. The issue of HS2, shows that that is clearly not the case.

How has the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement impacted XR?

Belle: Black Lives Matter has made me aware of racism I experienced outside XR. I have called on them to help me better understand the BLM movement. At I was 8/9 I was called a “chink”. I remember my sense of rage, even at that age, that all of my experiences and individuality were being reduced to a word. That has given me the smallest window of understanding of the experiences those in Black Lives Matter.

Nuala: There have been several conversations about and with the BLM movement for support with organising, which we are very willing to do. We welcome those opportunities to create relationships and support the movement.

Chit: Despite previous demonstrations, BLM has shown that people of colour successfully demonstrated because they were organised. From reading the Wretched Of The Earth article, my understanding is that black people do not demonstrate because it hurts them more. Yet in future, will that mean they are more attuned to demonstrations and breaking the law for an ideal that will enable them to be more attuned to what XR is doing?

Nuala: There was an action in Brighton where BLM and XR joined together. XR protected a space to mark the lives of people of colour who had lost their lives in WW2 from some of the far right groups turned up.

March for Reparations

Nuala: Every year for the last 6 years, there is the March for Reparations. This year the group decided instead to do an occupation. Their concept of reparations is holistic and talks about their environments as well as their situations.

Esther Stanford-Xosei’s piece published in The Ecologist explains that reparations refers to compensation but also repair and paying attention to harm and stopping it. It’s not just about the victims but also about the perpetrators. For example, people of Chinese heritage have that both ways. China as a nation state is doing very well, but people there also suffer from air and water pollution, lack of food safety.

Chit: For me, reparations for Malaysia is simplistic as we weren’t the first people to arrive - there were successive waves of people. In some ways, China is so close in terms of its development to the west, in terms of carbon footprint and even per capita it is quite large. There is no clear lack of climate guilt that I feel.

How about XR Globally?

Sarah is involved in XR Fashion
Sarah is involved in XR Fashion

Sarah: Indonesia has found growing the movement difficult. The idea of arrest is tricky, there are also basic problems such as the heat, so long protests outside are difficult. Recent societal protests saw students killed. You have to be careful - if you make a mistake, you are putting your life on the line. XR Indonesia coordinators are aware that whatever decisions they make, they’re risking lives.

Most supporters are young, middle class. In Jakarta there’s a lot of money from fossil fuels, so we’re all wrapped up in it. Another dynamic is lack of education, the system is very behind even the rest of Asia. XR Indonesia put on a university talk similar to one in the UK, and added more information about climate change. The talk lasted two hours because there were so many questions about the science and they had to explain the very basics of the greenhouse effect.

In the UK everyone learns that at school but this is the level that educated people in the city in Indonesia - the majority don't have that level of education. My mind boggles at the effect of climate change there. We’ve got 17000 islands, 13000 islands are inhabited and they are very remote. These people have no understanding of why the climate is changing, but they do understand that coral is dying and less fish in the ocean. They do not understand that they will be underwater. In Jakarta, they are planning to move the capital to Borneo because it's meant to go underwater by 2050.

Nuala: It's the opposite here because we’ve understand the theory but we’re not feeling the impact, but they are feeling the impact and don’t have an adequate explanation of what is going on.

Chit: In Malaysia, our PM who trousered $1 billion, and the extent of this corruption trumped anything potential environmental protest. In other countries there are much more immediate problems that stop environmental protest.

Belle: The rich countries are responsible for the poorer countries being devastated by climate change. It’s being talked about but unfortunately not acted upon fast enough.

HCCS is extending our remit and expanding our audiences and will be working together with XR in the future. If you would like to find out more about XR, please visit:

Sarah Yeh

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