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COP21, China's role and developed nations' obligations as reported in Chinese media

COMMENTS

4 December 2015 13:17

By Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus, an intern with the Lowy Institute's East Asia program

Coverage of the Paris climate conference by China's media has been largely positive, with reports portraying China as a driving force in climate negotiations, willing to work with the international community to reach a consensus. So far, views on China's representation at COP21 under the leadership of Xi Jinping are very different to how China's presence at the Copenhagen talks in 2009 was perceived by Western media. Various reports at that time accused China of undermining the conference. In this week's coverage, China's media has focused on the country's domestic and international efforts to fight climate change and made very few comparisons to Copenhagen.

China's U-turn on climate negotiations can be partly explained by worsening pollution. In an ironic coincidence, on Monday, the day COP21 began, the northern areas of China including Beijing, Tianjin, Xi'an and Jinan were blanketed by heavy haze and pollution with an AQI air quality index of 500 (by way of comparison, the average US city has an AQI of less than 100). As Weibo user @???: asked, 'if Beijing wasn't so heavily polluted would our country care about the environment?' As if in response, an editorial in Global Times declared air pollution has acted as a 'warning bell', prompting China to act on climate change and fulfill its responsibility as the world's largest developing country.

An editorial in People's Daily gave an indication of how seriously China's leadership takes the threat of climate change. It stressed the need for the Paris talks to succeed, observing 'we have no plan B because there is no planet B'. Also emphasising China's commitment was a piece in Xinhua that highlighted the many independent and voluntary actions China has undertaken to address the challenge of a warming planet, including instances of international cooperation.

In Xi Jinping's speech to the summit he warned against a 'zero-sum mentality', and called on all countries, especially developed nations, to assume a 'shared responsibility' for climate change. While Xi stated that China's actions are driven by an international 'sense of responsibility', he reiterated the principle of 'common but different responsibility' in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change must be adhered to. China's view is that its contributions will, and should be, different from developed countries.

The need for a Paris agreement to factor in differences between developed and developing countries was echoed in a Xinhua article, which called for an agreement that would reflect different 'national levels of development.' An opinion piece in Global Times also praised China's efforts for 'taking a lead role among developing countries', citing the establishment of the BASIC alliance and China's 20 billion yuan contribution toward a South-South climate change cooperation fund. An editorial in the English language Global Times took an uncompromising approach to the need for developed countries to take a greater responsibility. It contrasted 'China's generosity and dedication' with the actions of some Western countries who try to 'wriggle out of their due moral obligations', while blaming developing countries for blocking a new international treaty. A readers poll in the People's Daily reflected this hard-line attitude: 56% of respondents believed developed countries should accept more responsibility for fighting climate change. 

Other reports suggested China's contribution in Paris had won international approval. As one article in Global Times stated, the international community views China as an 'important contributor' to international climate change negotiations, and a 'positive driver in the multilateral negotiation process.' To further underline the importance of China at the talks, an article in Global Times used the classic technique of citing foreign media reports to support China's position. The article quoted a French media outlet which stated that 'without China's participation the climate talks would have no hope of succeeding.' And, as a visual reminder of China's pre-eminent role, the front page of Tuesday's edition of People's Daily was filled with images of Xi meeting with Barack Obama, Francois Hollande and Vladamir Putin.

Much of the coverage, along with Xi's speech, included rhetoric that has characterised Xi's rule. His reference to building a 'common destiny for mankind', his referral to a 'future of win-win cooperation', and the reference to a 'global green community of common destiny', were all, for example, echoed in a Xinhua article. This suggests the need to take action on climate change is becoming a part of the wider discourse within China.

In contrast to Copenhagen, Chinese leadership appears to have taken a constructive approach at the Paris climate talks. As China continues to rise, it is keen to be seen as a responsible international player contributing to global governance. Acting in good faith at COP21 is one way to demonstrate this. Media coverage that emphasises China's valuable contribution is making sure this international play is not lost on the domestic audience,

Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images

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