CPR (Climate Public Relations): China’s attempt to resuscitate its image in Cancun

Photo copyright 2010 Angel Hsu

Chinese lead negotiator Su Wei is interviewed by Chinese press while exiting side event Dec. 1, 2010

By Angel Hsu, Phd candidate and Yale Climate and Energy Institute Fellow

“China is still very hurt from last year’s Copenhagen talks,” the lead of the Chinese youth delegation, Lina Li, told me yesterday on one of the many buses shuttling this year’s participants at the UN Climate Summit in Cancun.  Her statement was in reaction to what she felt were unfair media accounts placing blame on China, which – as a developing country – she and many Chinese feel have already shouldered more than its share of the global burden to address climate change.

To say the least, China was hurt.  In fact, it was so stung that the Chinese government spent the entire year from Copenhagen to Cancun trying to rebuild an image that was injured when international headlines claimed that China “wrecked the Copenhagen deal.”  Domestic accounts tried to put a band-aid over Lynas’s portrayal and instead paint China in a positive, constructive light. According to the official Xinhua news account, Premier Wen Jiabao came into the negotiations during the final 60 hours, working side-by-side with U.S. President Obama to “keep the rivers flowing eastward.”

“History will remember the important contribution of the Chinese government to the success of the Copenhagen conference,” the article recounts.

But will it? Or has the media been permanently scarred with a negative image of China in the climate negotiations?

recent interview of Minister Xie Zhenhua – the head of China’s climate delegation – revealed a China still smarting from the blow of Copenhagen.

In response to interviews from foreign journalists, Minister Xie complained of media bias, telling China Dialogue, “[…] what was published wasn’t at all what I’d wanted to say. I made 10 points, they only wrote about four.”

While true – the article went on to quote a British journalist who defended the foreign media by saying it’s rare to have even three or four points from any official regardless of nationality – Xie’s statement reflects the lack of clear, coherent messaging from the Chinese in the climate talks, often to the detriment of China’s image.

On the other hand, I don’t think Xie’s complaints are entirely without merit either.  Particularly in the fast-paced coverage of climate negotiations – which are mired in technical jargon and a sea of acronyms – journalists sometimes don’t get it right. For example, I was telling a fellow Yale delegate today that one of the main issues I am following here in Cancun is U.S.-China relations. Her face immediately brightened when she said, “Ah, you must be so happy by the news!  I read on the UNFCCC website that the U.S. and China reached a deal here.”

For a minute I wasn’t sure we were attending the same conference, until she showed me this article – “US, China close in on accord on key climate issue” by the Associated Press.  According to this article, the U.S. and China have reached an agreement on one of the most contentious issues of the talks – that of transparency of Chinese emissions data and whether they would be subject to international measurement, reporting and verification (MRV).  I’ve written herehere, and here about how major an issue this is for both countries.

So you can imagine my surprise when I read this headline that after a mere two and a half days of negotiation, when U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing told me yesterday that the U.S. hadn’t even officially met with the Chinese delegation.  Upon reading the article’s contents, I realized the author was basing these conclusions upon a “softening” of tone on the issue of MRV between the two sides.

As someone who has watched this debate unfold from Copenhagen, I have found nothing new here in Cancun that the Chinese themselves haven’t been saying about MRV – particularly during October’s intersessional climate meeting in Tianjin, when they reaffirmed efforts to increase transparency and “international consultation and analysis.”  But what perhaps is different is the Chinese approach to their messaging and communication strategy this time around in Cancun.

This time China has come prepared.  When I arrived at my hotel in Cancun, I found a stack of glossy, full-color copies of a 16-page China Daily special published exclusively for the climate talks and featuring multiple aspects of China’s clean energy and climate change efforts (pictured left).  Articles range from China’s position in the Cancun talks to its efforts to promote low-carbon growth in cities to op-eds by foreign experts on international collaboration with China on clean energy and climate initiatives.

Also advertised on the back page is the announcement of a ‘COP16 China Day’ on Dec. 6, which is organized by The Climate Group and the Chinese delegation.  Attendees will have the opportunity to discuss China’s 12th Five-year Plan with Minister Xie himself over breakfast while also hearing from a number of other Chinese government officials and entrepreneurs who are directly involved with China’s green policies.  On Wednesday, lead Chinese negotiator Su Wei spoke on a side event co-hosted by the Chinese government and the UN Development Programme about all of the progress China has made to meet its energy intensity reduction goals over the last year.

“While some aspects of China’s actions and policies can be examples for other countries to follow, there are still some lessons we are learning from,” Su told a standing-room only crowd in Cancun.

After fielding questions from the audience, Su was mobbed by a throng of mostly Chinese media and youth who asked for his autograph.  He then exited the room, slowing wheeling a small suitcase while simultaneously expertly fielding questions from a news broadcast reporter.  Recognizing the importance of media and communications on this international stage, Su and the Chinese are trying to resuscitate an injured image to breathe new life in a negotiation that could desperately use the fresh air.