Copenhagen: China’s Oppressive Climate

As the UN’s Climate Change Conference opens in Copenhagen this week, much attention will focus on China and the United States, who are, by a wide margin, the world’s two leading emitters of greenhouse gases. The success of the conference will depend in part on whether both countries can live up to recent pledges by their leaders to curb emissions. Just as important for China, however, is the need to address repression—until now ignored by the Obama administration—of citizen activists trying to call attention to the country’s environmental problems.

In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, Zhang Zuhua and Jiang Qisheng, two drafters of China’s Charter 08, wrote that:

Chinese people do not like fetid air, foul water or the prospect of a cooked planet any more than anyone else does. But the citizens who speak out on these issues are repressed. Government officials, whose interests are often intertwined with the industry and commerce that is responsible for pollution, do not want complaints about the environment to be expressed publicly.

Zhang and Jiang list five recent examples of protests—each involving hundreds or thousands of people—against the dumping of industrial waste into China’s air or water. They add that “these are not isolated cases; there are many like them throughout China.” In each case authorities quelled the demonstrations by arresting their leaders, whom Zhang and Jiang name, and for whom they list the prison or labor camp sentences, ranging from 18 to 36 months, that these people are now serving. Their convictions were for “rumor-mongering,” “extortion,” “providing state secrets overseas,” and “inciting subversion of state power.”

In late November, in the town of Panyu, a suburb of the city of Guangzhou in south China, hundreds of demonstrators began to protest plans to construct a garbage incinerator in their neighborhood. The protests have grown and continue to the present day. International news coverage has been fairly good, and this is one reason why authorities have not been able to crack down. Another reason, though, is that the protesters have devised a new tactic. They refuse to acknowledge a leader. Protesters hold placards that say “We have discipline, but no organization” and “no one represents us.”

Nearly all Chinese protests of environmental abuse have concerned air and water pollution, not climate change. When people choke on the air that they breathe and see their children die of lead poisoning, the threat of climate change seems remote by comparison. But Zhang Zuhua and Jiang Qisheng are no doubt correct to say that Chinese people have no more appetite for “the prospect of a cooked planet” than anyone else has. The problem is that the issue has not been properly presented to them. China’s state-controlled media and education curricula avoid the topic. From the rulers’ point of view, one more cause for protest is one more threat to their grip on power.

The Obama administration has said several times that it wants China as a reliable “partner” on global issues. Apparently seeking to turn this wish into a reality, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to Beijing last February seeking Chinese government cooperation on climate change, terrorism, and the economic crisis, while declaring that issues like human rights should not “interfere.” Here she was in line with the long-standing practice of “China experts” in and around U.S. governing circles, who tend to downplay discussion of China’s dismal human rights record until it becomes little more than short lists of political prisoners presented to China’s leaders behind closed doors.

China’s political prisoners do, of course, need help. But to isolate the human rights issue in this way is a radical misconception of what is at stake. U.S. officials would do better to view the issue as pervading almost every other matter of concern between the U.S. and China, including urgent problems like global warming. Take the restrictions on carbon emissions now promised by both countries: President Obama has pledged to cut U.S. carbon emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020; the Chinese government has announced it will cut its “carbon intensity”—a measure of the rate at which its emissions increase—by 40 to 45 percent—also by 2020, also compared to 2005.

China’s per-capita income is less than 10 percent of America’s, and its carbon emissions, per capita, are only about one-quarter those of the U.S. Facts such as these leave the U.S. with no morally sustainable grounds for objecting to different yardsticks for the two countries. But how will the world monitor China’s compliance with any agreements that might be made at Copenhagen? Chinese officials have already stated that they will not accept outside monitoring of China’s emissions except on industrial and other projects that are funded by foreign countries—just as they have refused to accept monitoring of the country’s industrial pollution by their own citizen activists. The refusal of China’s rulers to accept monitoring poses a dilemma that will be hard to resolve.

The reason why the Obama administration chooses to soft-pedal China’s human rights problems is that it does not want to upset or provoke the Chinese government. This is a fair point; attention to human rights does indeed irritate the leadership in Beijing, and these are the people with whom the U.S. has to negotiate. But we should reflect on why this is so. Is it because the authorities see human rights as a small issue, separable from others, easy to set aside while everything else moves forward? Hardly. If that were so, they would not be irritated. China’s rulers know, even if U.S. officials pretend not to, that the human rights issue involves their entire political system.

Chinese people themselves will eventually make the difference in getting their government to respect and uphold human rights. The outside world cannot do this. But outsiders are badly mistaken when they overlook China’s silencing of its own citizens, or seek to separate it from global problems such as greenhouse gas emissions. The best Chinese partners for the international community would be the environmental activists and the large and growing number of ordinary people in China who are concerned about pollution. As long as their voices are repressed, it will be difficult for the most populous country to take effective action on global warming.