China: on the world stage at Rio

Guest post by Huang Hongxiang, visiting student at Columbia University.

"Over the full three days I never heard anyone mention China", said a member of the Brazilian delegation.

He was not the only one to notice China’s absence from the recent Rio+20 Earth Summit. From what I saw, it certainly seemed China was hiding among the many delegations present at Rio.

"During the three-day preparation conference, China did not deliver a single speech. In a number of meetings no member from the Chinese delegation was to be seen." That was the impression of Yong Rong, policy advisor at Greenpeace East Asia. She believes that China’s negotiation strategy at the summit was to deliberately "keep a low profile". Relying on group statements issued on behalf of the "G77 + China", as opposed to raising an individual Chinese voice, seemed to be an effective way of protecting the Chinese position.
An NGO observer told me that throughout the negotiations the South Korean delegation was diligently taking notes, reflecting on what to support and what to oppose. By contrast, she observed, “the Chinese notebooks stayed empty, without even a single word".

During the past 20 years, China has undeniably made great strides in the field of sustainable development. Such progress should be praised, and areas of particular achievement, such as population control, have been widely reported in the western media.
An official from the United Nations Population Fund, he told me that China “did well at population control” since the population is bound to decrease in future, warning that the problem now lay with the population explosion in Africa.  Yet because of controversy surrounding population control measures, he believed the topic would “be avoided in the negotiations”, lamenting “I just don’t know how we can achieve sustainable development if we neglect population control”.

During a small side-event looking at this issue, I spoke to a British academic who said that while it is easy to criticise China’s family-planning policies, if people went to China they would understand the need for such strong action, and could see its benefits.

Yet on the international stage, China’s voice was unusually frail.

Take, for example, China’s side events at the Rio summit.  At these events, a handful of Chinese entrepreneurs took to the stage to share their experiences in environmental protection. One participant from the audience commented: "Of course, there have been many achievements in China which deserve praise, especially given the challenges involved in running long-term sustainable development projects, but these representatives are not good speakers. Not only do they struggle to communicate in English, but, more importantly, they fail to choose the right message – it’s always ‘official-speak’ – just big, empty words”.

At the closing stages of the Rio Summit, the appearance of Sha Zukang – the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs – at a press conference organised by PetroChina, attracted flocks of foreign journalists eager to hear his take on the Chinese position. But the journalists I spoke to were disappointed. An hour and a quarter into a 90 minute press conference, the panel had still not taken a single question from the floor. An Indonesian journalist told me that journalists simply began to leave, tired of being ignored and unable to ask questions.  In the end, according to Sola, “it turned into just another side event”. 

Translated by chinadialogue volunteer Jonas Borchers