What exactly happened in Copenhagen?

Commentary and coverage of China’s role at Copenhagen has been widespread in the past few weeks, including from some of the writers and journalists we pay close attention to like Xujun Eberlein, Pallavi Aiyar, and Evan Osnos, among many others. Here, China Beat contributor Yu Zhou critiques the reading of China’s role as it has developed in the Western press.

By Yu Zhou

More than two weeks later, little consensus emerged from UN climate change conference at Copenhagen beyond the fact the conference was badly organized and chaotic. We have heard conflicting interpretations and accusations. Yet a picture has emerged in some English media that the Chinese delegation bullied and managed to sabotage the conference for a global treaty. In particular, a popular article from the Guardian by Mark Lynas offers the most direct first person account on this line of the story. The article has been picked up around the world in Western media and blogsphere (NPR, Times Magazine, New York Times, to name a few). It not only serves as a key narrative of Chinese delegation behavior, but is also seen as a worrying indication of arrogance and self-centeredness of China as a new superpower.  Yet, what is troubling is that this article refers to absolutely nothing from China’s own explanation beyond offering author’s assertions of China’s intentions, in addition to other developing countries.  On Dec. 25, Xinhua released its own account about the experiences of the Chinese delegation (English translation). Comparing the two, the conflicts are rather revealing. Without adopting the conclusion or sentiment of either account, this post relies on details offered in both.

I do not doubt the accuracy of Mark Lynas’ story. But what bothers me is the part of the story that are left out of his article—details that are critical to understanding Chinese actions at the conference—and the logics of in his conclusion. I will quote from Lynas’ article liberally.

The article made an opening claim that China’s Copenhagen strategy “was simple: block the open negotiations for two weeks, and then ensure that the closed-door deal made it look as if the west had failed the world’s poor once again.”

By way of evidence, it offers that “Sudan behaves at the talks as a puppet of China; one of a number of countries that relieves the Chinese delegation of having to fight its battles in open sessions. It was a perfect stitch-up. China gutted the deal behind the scenes, and then left its proxies to savage it in public.”

Another related article at Guardian identifies these China’s “proxies” as Sudan, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. None of the articles provide any evidence how these nations were acting under guidance from or in concert with China. It is not a secret that some these countries have long-standing anti-Western attitudes, and have never hesitated to voice their opinions at any UN forums they had access to. Why would Lynas presume that if one country voices an anti-industrialized country sentiment, it automatically acts as China’s proxy and works for China’s strategies? Does he share the Bush doctrine that “you are either with us or against us”? It is disheartening to see environmentalists adopt such a line of reasoning.

Then, Lynas offers his personal eyewitness account.

Here’s what actually went on late last Friday night, as heads of state from two dozen countries met behind closed doors. Obama was at the table for several hours, sitting between Gordon Brown and the Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi. The Danish prime minister chaired, and on his right sat Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the UN. Probably only about 50 or 60 people, including the heads of state, were in the room. I was attached to one of the delegations, whose head of state was also present for most of the time.

What I saw was profoundly shocking. The Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, did not deign to attend the meetings personally, instead sending a second-tier official in the country’s foreign ministry to sit opposite Obama himself. The diplomatic snub was obvious and brutal, as was the practical implication: several times during the session, the world’s most powerful heads of state were forced to wait around as the Chinese delegate went off to make telephone calls to his “superiors”.

First of all, Lynas did not tell us who this group of heads of state were. In what capacity were they negotiating a close-door global deal? Who selected the countries to be at the table? What criteria were used? Who was consulted in the organization process? What texts were they negotiating? According to the most press, there were two meetings that Premier Wen allegedly skipped. It is not clear at which one Lynas was present. If there were a total of 50-60 people, it could not be more than 20-30 countries present, while there were 193 countries at the conference. The Xinhua account said that Chinese Premier Wen was astonished to hear about this (or another) meeting from a foreign leader at a banquet without being informed by the conference organizers. Alarmed at what might be a setup, he left the banquet and later decided to send a second-tier officials instead.

One can understand the desperation of the conference organizers to get together some smaller assemblies to work out a deal. Yet, it is not clear whether such exclusive meetings would be legitimate in the context of the Copenhagen conference.  If China were not consulted or informed in the selection and organizing process, is it truly surprising that they became suspicious and Wen decided not to be present? Given that the Copenhagen conference was plagued by various versions of drafts negotiated in exclusive circles from the very beginning, Chinese reactions to these selected meetings does not seem to be groundless. In fact, a recent article by Martin Khor, also at Guardian, clarifies that the exclusive meetings convened by Denmark in the last two days of the Copenhagen were indeed not mandated by the UN convention and were against the established multilateral process. Khor suggests that these meetings were precisely attempts to override the previous weeks of negotiations by all participants.

One might argue that the final Copenhagen accord also emerged from a selected group of countries, including the US, China, India, South Africa and Brazil. But there are major differences. The final accord was not a legally binding treaty, and with the exception of Obama, who was interested to reach a global accord, the rest of the heads of state went to the meeting to coordinate their stands as a group, rather than drafting a deal for the world. In contrast, according to Lynas, the meeting he was present at was intended to reach a global deal.

I am certain that had the Chinese not been in the room, we would have left Copenhagen with a deal that had environmentalists popping champagne corks popping in every corner of the world.

Lynas further describes the behavior of Chinese representative at the meeting:

To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general, know this: it was China’s representative who insisted that industrialized country targets, previously agreed as an 80% cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal.” Why can’t we even mention our own targets?” demanded a furious Angela Merkel. Australia’s prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. Brazil’s representative too pointed out the illogicality of China’s position. Why should rich countries not announce even this unilateral cut? The Chinese delegate said no, and I watched, aghast, as Merkel threw up her hands in despair and conceded the point. Now we know why – because China bet, correctly, that Obama would get the blame for the Copenhagen accord’s lack of ambition.

Here the Chinese delegate comes across as truly rude and unreasonable. But wait, is Lynas saying that EU countries needed China’s approval for a unilateral emission target? Did I miss something here? Lynas explains that China blocked this target so that China could shift blame to Obama? But everyone already knew before the Copenhagen conference that Obama’s hands were tied by the difficulty the US Senate would face in passing the major promises of a climate bill.  How could an act by China blocking a deal shift more blame to Obama? Wouldn’t it simply shift blame to China? Lynas’ logic makes no sense.

Lynas offer further explanation or speculation, and habitually without consulting any of China’s long-standing positions.

All this raises the question: what is China’s game? Why did China, in the words of a UK-based analyst who also spent hours in heads of state meetings, ‘not only reject targets for itself, but also refuse to allow any other country to take on binding targets?’ The analyst, who has attended climate conferences for more than 15 years, concludes that China wants to weaken the climate regulation regime now ‘in order to avoid the risk that it might be called on to be more ambitious in a few years’ time’.

There is no doubt that China and other developing countries do not want to submit to a binding target on their total emission. Yet what is truly strange is that the article grants China the ultimate power to stop any country from issuing its own target reduction. What right does China have to stop the UK or any other EU country from unilaterally cutting 80 percent of its own emissions? This is especially odd since China made its own unilateral target and announced that it won’t link the target with any other country. Are these so-called unilateral cuts from the EU in fact linked with some conditions that Lynas did not convey in his piece? The Chinese representative in Lynas’ article appeared only capable of saying no, and he was not cited to offer any explanations for the Chinese delegation’s actions.

Unrelated to Lynas’ article, Alex Pasternack offers an explanation at the popular Treehugger site. Martin Khor on Guardian further elaborates the reasons for a rejection by developing countries of the two targets mentioned in the Lynas’ article (50% for the world and 80% for industrialized countries). Among other problems, “[t]he acceptance of the two targets would also have locked in a most unfair sharing of the remaining global carbon budget as it would have allowed the developed countries to get off free from their historical responsibility and their carbon debt. They would have been allocated the rights to a large amount of ‘carbon space,’ historically and in the future, without being given the obligation and responsibility to undertake adequate emission cuts nor to make adequate financial and technology transfers to developing countries.”

It appears that these reasons must have been well articulated for days in the earlier parts of the Copenhagen conference. Yet, Lynas appeared to either have never heard of them or have completely ignored them. What he said about India offers clues to his selective listening.

The Indians, in particular, have become past masters at co-opting the language of equity (“equal rights to the atmosphere”) in the service of planetary suicide – and leftish campaigners and commentators are hoist with their own petard.

For Lynas, India’s concern for equality has no legitimacy. On the contrary, United States and other industrialized countries were seen as much more sincere in avoiding “planetary suicide.”  “Obama needed a strong deal perhaps more than anyone. The US had confirmed the offer of $100bn to developing countries for adaptation, put serious cuts on the table for the first time (17% below 2005 levels by 2020), and was obviously prepared to up its offer.” Lynas probably was among the very few participants in Copenhagen who were convinced of the US’s all-out effort to stop climate change.

These are just some of the holes in this commentary. Yet as it is making its rounds on the Internet, it invents and fortifies an unreasonable, rude, uncaring and hegemonic China in contrast to the selfless and vigilant industrialized countries (read: the West) who are working collaboratively for broader global welfare. The article was quoted in Time Magazine commentary by Joe Klein: “2010: the China Challenge.” Lynas was also cited and interviewed in the New York Times Science Blog—Dot Earth. The article has been reposted by countless popular English news and blog sites (Simply google the title of the article to see the wide circulation). In addition to other recent events at the end of 2009, it formed the basis for numerous commentaries on how China has no regard for international opinions and welfare.

Xinhua’s account of Copenhagen depicts Wen as the hero in the conference. While it says that Wen was initially committed to a legally binding deal, it never specifies what the ideal treaty would be like from the China side. Still, there are some interesting details missing from the Western reporting. Beyond the fact that Wen was not informed by the conference organizer about the meeting with selected countries, we also learn that Wen went to a scheduled UN speaking forum only to find that no one would be there for another hour and a half, underlining the chaotic nature of the conference. Some western press speculated that Wen was offended by Obama (Telegraph, UK) since Obama implicitly criticized China in his opening speech (New York Times), which prompted Wen to skip two meetings of the heads of states, to humiliating Obama (New York Times, coedited by Wei Jingsheng, among others). Yet Wen held a private meeting with Obama right after Obama’s “critical” speech for which all sides reported good results. In the dramatic scene where Obama crashed into the meeting Wen held with the India, South Africa and Brazil heads of state (a meeting UK’s Telegraph deemed “secret”), Associate Press reported only that Obama busted into the meeting, but Xinhua reported Obama asked Wen, who was chairing the meeting, whether he could come in or wait for the scheduled individual meeting with Wen. Wen invited him to join the group. This suggests that neither Obama nor Wen acted as “cowboy” to confront or humiliate each other. The meeting also did not seem to be that ‘secret,’ since Wen had the option to meet with Obama individually but chose not to exercise it. One also wonder if Wen had intended to meet with the leaders of major developing countries in secret, should he choose a different location, rather than arranging this meeting at the same place right before meeting with Obama?

Lynas also claims that China cared nothing about the fate of small island nations, but we learn from Xinhua that Wen met with the representatives from island nations for over two hours to listen to their concerns, something Obama did not do. Even if we cannot fully trust the Xinhua interpretation of these events, what emerges from these details is quite a different China from the one portrayed in Lynas’ article, and those discrepancies point to more critical differences not just in the actions at Copenhagen but in the way that China and the West view their diplomatic roles and legitimate behavior in the UN process.

In retrospect, conflicting interpretations of such a chaotic conference are unavoidable, especially given the very different positions held by people from different places. But what is unacceptable is the tendency to make grand statements while completely disregarding the other side of argument, in other words, delegitimizing any other positions by fixing labels and ignoring their own explanations, even if these are long-standing ones. These remarkably different media accounts of the supposedly critical events in Copenhagen illustrate that if the West and China want to deal with each other with any measure of success, a good place to start is at least trying to listen to the other side before jumping to conclusions.

Yu ZHOU is a Professor of Geography at Vassar College. She is the author of The Inside Story of China’s High-tech Industry: Making Silicon Valley in Beijing.

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