New heroes are born every day on the major Chinese Internet portals. One of the most recent is Zhang Qingtian, 74, a farmer in mountainous Fude village, Kaixian county of Chongqing municipality.
Zhang has been a farmer all his life. He is single and has never traveled outside his village. For many years, he lived in a camp in the mountains, with only a kerosene lamp for light. In 2005, he moved into a new, 60-square-meter house near the village center, which the village had built to provide him with better care.
Now Zhang has won renown on the Web, having been listed on the popular Internet encyclopedia www.baidu.com because he used only 6.1 kilowatt-hours of electricity over the past five years. Zhang has one, 5-watt light bulb in each of his two rooms; he uses them very sparingly because he generally goes to bed when night falls.
Since his story appeared on the Web two weeks ago, more than 20,000 netizens have expressed their admiration for Zhang. Some of them have calculated that Zhang turns on a light for an average of about 30 minutes a day.
Zhang Qingtian has been hailed as a fine example of low-carbon life, and deservedly so. He explains that he tries to use as little electricity as possible in order not to burden the village unnecessarily.
I have some misgivings about all this praise for Zhang in the media, however. His lifestyle is simply not one many of us want to emulate.
Electricity is one of the key ways to improve the lives of people like Zhang.
Mao Rufu, an official in Luojiang, Sichuan province, told me one of the first things he noticed when he settled in a poverty-stricken village 12 years ago was that the village couldn't get enough electricity because of inadequate power facilities. Children in the village had to do their homework in the courtyard as dusk fell because there wasn't enough power to light their homes, he said.
One of the first things Mao did to improve life in the village was to upgrade the power.
In recent years, almost every rural household has been linked to the grid.
"Television has opened our eyes and minds to the outside world," Yu Sancheng of Yonghe county, Shanxi province, told reporters.
Rather than emulating Zhang Qingtian, we should strive to make power available to every rural household to ensure that children have light to do their homework and their parents and grandparents can watch television or listen to radios to keep them linked to the outside world. We don't want to see a new generation of rural people like Zhang - illiterate and knowing little about things outside their villages.
Promoting a low-carbon life should start with the "haves" in the urban centers, not with the "have-nots" in remote rural areas.
We should begin by limiting the amount of energy used by offices and public buildings. We should require that corridors and offices have sound or movement sensors installed to automatically turn off lights when no one needs them.
And of course, the sensors should be properly installed. On a recent visit to the European Union Commission, I had to converse with my host in relative darkness because the sensor in the office building where we met was unable to detect people talking.
Above all, we should encourage urban families to limit their consumption of energy resources. One place to start would be advertisements seen in many apartment buildings that promote two cars per family.
And while we city-dwellers make do with less, I think society should enrich the lives of people like Zhang by providing them with TV sets.
The author is Assistant Editor-in-Chief of China Daily. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(China Daily 11/12/2010 page8)