Now that the “Green” Olympics in Beijing have ended, what is the future for sustainability in China?

The Olympics brought a new level of scrutiny to China’s looming environmental crisis. Whether it was the science fiction-like infestation of fluorescent green algae in Qingdao’s Olympic sailing harbor or the toxic smog that blanketed Beijing just days before the opening ceremonies, pollution seemed close to crashing China’s coming-out party.

The government performed dramatically under pressure: factories for hundreds of kilometers around Beijing closed their doors; thousands of local volunteers pulled the algae out of Qingdao’s harbor by hand; and workers bred millions of parasitic wasps to infest the moth larvae responsible for denuding Beijing’s trees, successfully “re-leafing” most of the city’s greenery. According to most observers, by the opening ceremonies the government had fairly successfully managed to clean house and push any lingering environmental problems under the rug.

Not for long. I spent the month of July in China meeting with experts, student organizers, and several NGOs who are struggling under the government’s watchful eye to make lasting improvements to their country’s environment. Those I spoke with many who believed that once the torch is extinguished at the Bird’s Nest stadium, the factory generators, car engines, and coal burners will be switched back on, and maybe even shifted into overdrive to make up for lost time.

While most of the government’s quick fix solutions are temporary at best, there are a number of hopeful signs that China may be lurching down the path towards long-term sustainability. From my experience in China, the most hopeful of these signs is the changing attitude among Chinese youth. Under the radar of most mainstream media, is a student-led environmental movement has been growing across the country.

In Guangzhou, I took part in the Green Long March, China’s largest youth conservation movement. This year, more than 5,000 students participated in 10 different march routes across 26 different provinces, engaging tens of thousands of people along the way. In April, the GLM opening ceremonies in Beijing attracted more than 11,000 youth for a day of tree planting. Cumulatively, the students marched 2,008 kilometers, an auspicious number corresponding with the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The Green Long March is a direct reference to Mao’s infamous Long March, the Red Army’s grueling trek across China to escape destruction and win the Chinese Revolution. While former Communist Chairman Mao Zedong is a controversial figure, the Long March still holds a mythological status in the Chinese public consciousness as a demonstration of unbending willpower.

The movement is filled with patriotism. Rather than a protest of government policy, the march was a show of support for the positive steps the government and Chinese citizens are already taking. Participants cheered tirelessly, “Smile, Beijing! Green Long March! Protecting the environment, it’s everyone’s responsibility!” (When was the last time you heard U.S. environmentalists chanting, “Smile, Washington!”)

The students I met shared a view of sustainability that is wrapped up in their pride for China’s astronomical rise to power. Their country’s recent economic growth, in their opinion, now allows Chinese citizens the liberty to start caring for the environment. On a more personal level, the improved economy meant many of them would be able to attend university – a luxury few of their parents had enjoyed – and they were motivated to study solutions to environmental problems. Still, many students were clearly embarrassed by the drumbeat of negative stories about China’s environment, and were motivated to tell the world a positive story about their country.

Before joining the GLM, I met Shane Zhao at a conference for Asian youth leaders in Hong Kong. Zhao and an American friend, John Romankiewicz, recently co-founded China’s Green Beat, a solutions-based video series about China’s environment.

And while this could be taken as evidence of young Chinese “Internet Nationalism,” the humorous videos depict sustainability efforts across the country. In Kunming, Green Beat examines the city’s monthly “No Car Day.” In Yunnan, the team visits villagers in Lijiang where the use of biogas digesters and efficient stoves is increasing. And in Beijing, the crew takes a bus to the suburbs to check out a new wind farm and discuss the importance of the Clean Development Mechanism used to build it.

I was more inspired watching Zhao’s videos and participating in the Green Long March than by any other news I have heard coming out of China. I found myself caught up in their excitement to seek out and support positive developments, and to take on responsibility for leading their quickly changing nation in the right direction. These young, motivated Chinese citizens understand their society’s role in developing a prosperous but sustainable future around the world.

As China’s Green Beat confidently states at the end of their video on wind power, “The path to a greener China is indeed a long one, and it will require a large investment of money and time. But if we create the beat now – a devotion to making China greener – we can make it happen!”