Qi Hang: Tracking China, on style

This will be the first of two post-COP24 posts summarizing my experience tracking China during the first week of COP24 at Katowice. I have opted to do two post-COP24 posts rather than one post-COP24 and during COP24, since I find that sharing my insights and reflections as a whole for the first week of the conference would make much more sense than segmenting them by time. I had also opted to document both the style and substance of China’s role at COP24 because I believe these two elements, together, paint an interesting and holistic picture.

Before I begin, a note on my tracking approach. I had started the week by focusing on one event per slot (generally speaking, COP24 events fit into 75- or 90-minute blocks throughout the day). I had quickly realized that that was not going to maximize my use of time since Chinese delegates would not be speaking throughout the entire event block. What I did was that I would switch in and out of several events during the same timeslot to capture as much as what I could physically do. I had also placed a greater emphasis on the China Pavilion side events much more than the negotiations themselves – my experience sitting in the working-level APA/SBTI sessions, as I will discuss later, was not very insightful.

I would sum up the Chinese delegation’s style at COP24 in one word: intentionality. Everything that they had put up – from presentations at side events and at the inaugural Facilitative Sharing of Views (FSV) was very intentional. Even the Chinese delegation itself was extremely self-reflexive about the intentionality of their style. The head of the Chinese delegation, Sun Zhen, who was in charge of all the events at the Pavilion, was aware of the perception of the China Pavilion, its events, the delegation and by extension, China itself, at COP24. At the opening event at the Pavilion on December 4th, Sun had, in my opinion, very peculiarly commented on the design and layout of the China Pavilion (it was closed off by four walls and frankly very inconspicuous compared to the fanfare of some of the other pavilions, in particular the EU, Japanese, Korean and Indonesian ones, where freebies and foods were abundant). The China pavilion’s simple, minimalist, unimposing, white-based aesthetic, according to Sun, reflects a kind of genuine and down-to-earth humility (“…the purpose of the China Pavilion is not self-praise, but an exchange of ideas and a showcase of business and public sector innovations and progress…”) and the solemnity and decorum that the very often “depressing” climate action policy work requires.

In the negotiation rooms, I found China to be a reticent leader – and again, by intentional design. China rarely speaks out against the consensus established, and often led by the EU. China, very often, also echoed the sentiments by the African delegates on more benefits and equity for the developing world – but China also rarely spoke on behalf of the developing world (partly why I didn’t find the APA/SBTI sessions informative, because I could not put my finger on exactly what China’s position was; in comparison, countries like Saudi Arabia and some of the more outspoken African and South American delegates have positions that are eminently clear). The term “torch leader” (引导者) – which was repeated several times during China Pavilion events – seems to capture this limbo between leadership and cautiousness rather well. China’s behavior during working-level negotiations seems perfectly in line with this, and China’s historical behavior in international institutions: the WTO, for example, comes to mind.

In the same opening speech – that I thought really set the tone of the China’s role at COP24 – Sun went on to emphasize the role of science in climate policy. This theme resonated very, very strongly throughout the entire week. All of China’s presentations, and in particular at the FSV, were extremely data-driven and relatively well-furnished compared to other countries, even those included in Annex I. Particularly in showcasing new technologies, such as using bamboo to accelerate decarbonization in the forestry sector, or provincial showcase of pilot studies in Zhejiang, the Chinese delegation spared no effort in presenting a very complete range of figures and data. This was something that I saw very few other countries do, or do to such an impressive extent. On this point regarding science, Sun ended by pivoting to the U.S. – slamming, without naming, the Trump administration’s rejection of science. In his words, “if you don’t believe in the science [of climate policies] then there really isn’t anything to talk about”. I thought that was an extremely salient moment that reflects the role of science in not only China’s pivot towards climate leadership, but also frankly China’s progress into a technological and economic giant over the last decades.

Throughout the week, I saw a confluence of two competing ideologies of Chinese leadership. On one hand, the technocrats and bureaucrats who are the main backbone of Chinese negotiations and remain committed in their policy work to the Deng/Jiang ideology of “hide your strength and bide your time” (韬光养晦). They put on no show and turn no eyes, dig their heels into the actual science and policy work. At the same time, Xi’s departure from such a low-profile foreign policy into great ambitions and great leadership is also very apparent. At the surface level, Xi’s famous rhetoric, such as “lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets” (绿水青山就是金山银山), “torch leader”, “community of shared future for Mankind” (人类命运共同体), “ecological progress” (生态文明建设) etc. Chinese ambitions are also clearly at plan, quite evidently during the FSV, where it very earnestly but also proudly presented its achievements in decarbonization, and faced questions of curiosity, learning and not malice from other countries, which China once again seemed very eager in answering and sharing (but limited by time). China clearly displayed substantive leadership on issues at COP24, as much as it would like to deny and avoid leadership.

Yet China remains defensive and closed-off, reflected not just in the aesthetic of the pavilion, but also in the greater stylistics of its presence at COP24. Officials and non-officials with affiliations to Beijing remain politician-like in pivoting from tough questions from the audience, particularly on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Lack of organization and evasiveness at the Pavilion events still reflects a country that is yet to be comfortable with being in the limelight or being bestowed with the responsibility of global leadership. Even Chinese ENGOs, representatives from several which I spoke to during the COP, remain defensive of China’s poor environmental records in certain aspects (such as coal use along the BRI, which they all seem to have a uniform line of argument, which is that China has complied with the local environmental legislations of BRI partner countries, which is fair and reasonably insufficient and unconvincing that China could not do better), and oblivious (but to their credit, curious and concerned) about how the rest of the world is perceiving China. Conversations with them reveal a Chinese state and civil society that is sincere and committed to climate action but still far from the global leader that we need right now.


Continued in Tracking China, on substance

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