The disillusion of youth

Political wrangling at Copenhagen forced a group of young Chinese and American delegates to ditch plans for a unified front. Meng Si explains what happened.

On December 19 last year, the controversial Copenhagen Accord was agreed. On the same day, following a heated debate, a group of young Chinese delegates decided to abandon the announcement of a joint China-US Youth Declaration, uneasy about the dangers it might trigger.

The declaration in question had grown out of a meeting between the US and Chinese youth groups during the United Nations climate-change summit and described how the two sides had built up a sense of mutual trust and an awareness of their shared mission. It expressed their deep concern about global warming and their hopes that the governments of both nations would step up their efforts in the ongoing negotiations.

But, as the conference progressed and the pressure on the Chinese government increased, the Chinese members of this group of twenty-somethings opted to pull back. Their greatest concern was the inability to control interpretation of the declaration by western media and politicians and the risk that their actions could put yet more strain on the Chinese government – and bring unforeseen dangers upon themselves. “We were scared of being used,” says Ren Jiaojie, a journalism student at a well-known Beijing university.

Late last year, Ren and around 40 other young Chinese people arrived in Copenhagen, hoping to break the silence of their peers on the international issue of climate change. They constituted the largest Chinese youth group ever to take part in a United Nations climate-change summit.

The historic event received a great deal of press attention, with more than 200 media reports featuring the delegation’s activities. This was a chance to introduce the group’s environmental protection efforts and its connections with international organisations – but also to draw attention more widely to China’s younger citizens. One of the delegation’s members, Zhao Xiangyu, international director of China Youth Climate Action Network, pointed out in an online forum that “China has 400 million young people and they need to make their voices heard, to express their views on climate change.”

Their activities included dressing up as Chinese doctors and handing out “prescriptions” for environmental friendliness – a symbolic gesture to call for protection of the planet’s health by changing individual behaviour. But, after a meeting between the China and US youth groups, the two sides started to hatch a plan to “make their own voices heard” and to push for the best possible result in the negotiations. On December 10, after a workshop at Copenhagen University involving more than 100 members from both groups, five representatives from each side worked through the night to produce a draft declaration, which other Chinese participants then went on to revise.

But, as time went on, says Ren, the youth groups started to realise that the negotiations were much more complex than they had expected and that the issues at stake were not simply environmental.

On the same day that the youth groups were drafting their declaration, the so-called BASIC nations – Brazil, South Africa, India and China – unveiled their draft agreement, now known as the “Beijing Text”. This was seen as a response to the “Danish Text”, which favoured developed nations, and a demonstration of the tension between industrialised and emerging economies.

To longstanding observers of climate-change politics, such tension was hardly news. But China was placed in a particularly difficult position this time around. The United States’ public criticism of the country’s status as the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, coupled with requirements for Chinese transparency in Hillary Clinton’s proposed US$100 billion (683 billion yuan) financial-assistance package, meant that, for the first time, China was under pressure from both the developed and developing worlds. And a subsequent speech by president Barack Obama served only to sustain this pressure.

Meanwhile, a meeting on December 11 between 10 Chinese and American youth delegates and the US secretary of commerce, Gary Locke, left the group unsure of their next move. The Chinese participants came away from the 20-minute meeting with the official feeling somewhat disgruntled. The delegates seem to have expected a more supportive stance from Locke (a Chinese-American), but they found him to be very critical of China. As attendee Wang Ning recalls: “He didn’t discuss historical responsibilities, only the current circumstances, calling China the largest emitter of carbon dioxide.”

The changes and experiences of those few days split the group. “We have no control over media reports and the United States is looking for ways to put China on the spot,” said Li Li, a youth delegate who had attended the previous UN climate-change conference in Poznań, Poland. Some other members agreed, believing that the declaration was likely to be exaggerated by western media, particularly in the United States, and presented as a case of China’s young citizens putting pressure on the government – to China’s detriment. This was not what they wanted to see.

They consulted an official from the Chinese delegation, who, exhausted by the negotiations and the battle in the media, told the group that this was a political issue that they did not understand and should keep out of. Another Chinese negotiator had a more positive view and suggested that they mention the Kyoto Protocol, the twin-track mechanism and common but differentiated responsibilities in their declaration, along with affirmation of China’s efforts to reduce emissions. But some of the young Chinese believed this would simply be seen as an attempt to echo the government view – again creating a negative impression.

Due to their own lack of experience, the group also asked for advice from NGO staff and journalists. Ma Fenglei, who helped to write the declaration, recalls: “Some suggested we use the opportunity to call for developed nations to make further cuts. But others said we shouldn’t get too political.” A reporter from the China Youth Daily told them not to think too hard about it – to do and say what they wanted and to let the voice of youth be heard. As a result of this clash of opinions, an idea that had been motivated by a simple desire – to work for a common future – lost the impact that the group had hoped for.

Sun Xi, a Chinese student based in the United Kingdom, still thinks the group should have published the declaration: “It’s a public issue, and the young people of China should not have left without saying anything.” But some of those who advocated abandoning the declaration believe that a rushed statement would have been unwise. Others say that, while a sense of responsibility for the fate of humanity is important, responsibility to national interests should come first. Some Chinese reporters suggested it would have been more prudent to use the declaration to support the Chinese government and put pressure on the United States.

“Even if you ignore China’s 150 million impoverished people and just look at the averages, China’s GDP per capita is still not in the top hundred globally,” says Sun Xiaoming, head of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) club at Peking University. “China cannot take on too much responsibility.”

As a Focal Point of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) Youth Constituency (YOUNGO), Li Lina is well informed about youth groups, both in China and overseas. “Unlike in China, young westerners have rarely experienced the real changes that economic development can bring and therefore tend not to consider issues of national strength and personal livelihood,” she says. Although the beginnings of social awareness are now visible in China, she believes opinions are still guided primarily by concern for problems that the nation faces and a reliance on government action. 

On December 19, national leaders gathered in the main conference venue, the Bella Centre, for a final meeting. That same night, the Chinese youth delegation met in their hotel and held a vote. The decision: to remain silent.

Blogging later about how the declaration had failed, some of the participants expressed a sense of powerlessness in the face of political negotiations. “Perhaps young Chinese people will continue to experiment with methods of political participation,” says Li Lina, though she recognises that, in the short term, combining globalisation and a sense of national interest has created an intractable dilemma for China’s young citizens. However, in addition to making changes to their own lifestyles, young, well-informed people can start to take a tougher stance when pushing for political action at home, she says. “After all, it’s no longer the society of two decades ago.”

Meng Si is managing editor in chinadialogue’s Beijing office.

Homepage photo from China Youth COP15 shows Zhao Xiangyu (right) and other young delegates in Copenhagen.