What’s going on at the China Corner in the COP18? Eye-catching performances showing China’s connumdrum

The Chinese government again put up an elaborate China Pavilion in the COP18 Climate Change Conference in Doha. Everyday is filled up with fanfares of side-events and ceremonies from dawn to dusk. Despite the heavy dose of corporate footprint in the China Pavilion and official statements on China’s climate achievements, these presentations and performance in some ways reflect China’s strategic positions and dilemmas in negotiating for climate and advancing its economic development.

China Sold-out?

Since the Durban climate summit, China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) has been sponsoring the China Pavilion activities. This year, CNPC gave 1 million Chinese yuan (160,000 USD), which explains the subtle and quite ornate addition of CNPC’s logo at the bottom of the China Pavilion banner (picture left). CNPC is the largest oil and gas producer and supplier in China and the fifth largest in the world, present in over 70 countries.

China Pavilion banner and the CNPC logo at the bottom

On Wednesday morning December 4th, China Pavilion saw presenter after presenter from within CNPC, PetroChina (the natural gas arm of CNPC) and BP talking about their renewables investment, new shale gas technologies, carbon capture and storage research, etc. This CNPC-Chinese delegation partnership cannot seem to be more appropriate when the conference itself is hosted in carbon-powered country. The Chinese government seems to be comfortable with associating its image with the fossil fuel industry – albeit an industry that presents itself as engaging in cutting-edge research and investment in energy efficiency and renewables. But despite the ostensible green-washing, it is as if China is suggesting that “let’s face it. There is no way we will stop using fossil fuel and stop growing. At best we try to make it cleaner and suck up exhaust and inject it back into the ground.”

South-South collaboration, substance or “hurried” delivering of promise?

“China is a great developing country, which is willing to take global responsibility,” praised Renata Lok-Dessallien, UNDP Resident Representative in China, in the Tuesday morning China Pavilion “climate change South-South cooperation” side event. Xie Zhenhua, vice chairman of the National Development Reform Committee (NDRC) and China’s top negotiator, took the opportunity to iterate China’s positions in Doha and its effort towards international collaboration. “The international collaboration on climate change depends on both international rules and practical cooperation. South-South cooperation between developing countries is an important force to move forward the two wheels, ” said Xie.

At Rio+20 Earth Summit in June this year, Premier Wen announced that China would contribute 31.7 million US dollars towards helping “small island nations, underdeveloped countries and African countries tackle climate change.” China will also provide training and capacity building of experts in climate change mitigation and adaptation in these countries. NDRC has led the efforts and set fund with the help of the Ministry of Finance. China has signed memorandum of understandings with 10 countries including Grenada, Ethiopia and the Maldives to donate more than 500, 000 LED lights and energy-efficient air-conditioners. During the event, Xie invited the Minister of Environmental Protection of Ethiopia to accept the 11,000 LED lights. The LED lights are produced by the state-owned communication and electronic equipment giant Potevio. A top manager of the Haier group, another Chinese multinational company, also appeared at the side event, whose company provided the air-conditioners.

It is yet clear, however, how these donated products will be distributed and maintained. According to the Deputy Director-General of Ethiopia Environmental Protection Authority, the government would work with a parastatal energy company to coordinate the distribution of LED lights to households. He said the lights were already in the dock and more details would be worked out later.

The Haier manager Zhou told a different story. “The products will go to retrofit the governmental buildings and facilities,” said Zhou. When I asked why not the households, he replied, “we can’t trust the government to deliver that. Too much corruption.” So these products are only for public buildings.” The manager revealed that the company won the government bid to supply the equipment.

The "NDRC program of provision of goods to address climate change" handover ceremony: representatives from Ethiopian EPA and China Potevio signing the acceptance letter with Xie in the back

The Chinese enjoy the gift-giving culture and understand tacitly the return of favor in the future. It seems that this South-South cooperation reflects China’s “going out” strategy encouraging Chinese companies to invest overseas. Haier’s appliances and electronic products have permeated the especially the European and Latin American markets and it has factories in several continents. He believed that this project would facilitate a potential entry of Haier into the markets in these small developing and/or small island countries whose populations still lacked purchasing power now. Both of the companies will send in technicians to help at least the initial installation and help train locals.

Xie in his speech acknowledged that the hand-over and training were conducted in a short amount of time with little previous experience. Questions remain with respect to the long-term maintenance of the products, and to what extent the one-time gift-giving can help the recipient countries realize low-carbon development.

Chinese NGOs closer with the government

This year’s China Pavilion also features an unprecedented amount of Chinese non-governmental organizations (NGO) in the environmental field. “It is the first time that civil society NGOs are given the chance to organize a side event of their own in the official pavilion,” said Bi Xingxing, coordinator of China Civil Climate Action Network, “previously, we were only able to organize side events in collaboration with government agencies or government organized NGOs.”

Chinese environmental NGOs have been active in greater coordination in the COP process since COP 14 in Poznan. In COP 15 in Copenhagen, nearly 50 Chinese university students and young professionals organized the first-ever Chinese Youth Delegation (including myself) to participate in the international climate youth movement and engage the political discussion of climate policies.

A panel of NGO representatives on the Wednesday “non-governmental organization discussion session” introduced the wide range of work they were doing. From monitoring water quality through GIS-based interactive maps in Southeast China, researching and advocating for green finance policies of Chinese banks, to promoting campus energy saving initiatives in Chinese universities, many of the NGOs are engaged with cutting-edge environmental work in China. In the past, foreign foundations fund most of these organizations, but increasingly domestic foundations such as the Society of Ecology Entrepreneurs are playing an important role. Several NDRC’s climate change white paper in the past a few years have recognized the role these NGOs played in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

It is a delicate balance the Chinese NGOs are maintaining: extending their influence over government policy-making while maintaining the political space the NGOs, particularly environmental ones, have been increasingly enjoying. Many practitioners show optimism towards the strengthening the civil society to urge more ambitious actions inside China.

As the biggest developing country with the highest carbon emissions in the world, China’s position can be obvious and “ambiguous.” As a Haitian official delegate said to me while sharing the long bus ride this morning, “it is ambiguous because it sometimes stands with the developing countries block G77+China while sometimes it acts like a developed country trying to avoid responsibility.” But no matter what, we can see a China that is trying to be seen as taking up responsibility while carving out a living space and leaving glaring footprints in the global landscape.