Rise of Chinese ultra-nationalism complicates Xi’s climate ambitions

The past year has seen some of China’s most encouraging moves to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions that warm the planet. But an increasingly vocal nationalist faction in society makes some progress difficult.

There is a battle over the climate change narrative between those pushing for green reforms and those who see the measures bending to the demands of hostile Western powers.

After President Xi Jinping announced last September that China would peak in emissions before the end of the decade and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, officials and state-owned companies broadly aligned and echoed to its ambitions – even though some public figures have openly questioned the possibility of moving away from coal and curbing economic engines such as construction and the steel industry.

Then this year, a particular conspiracy theory began to gain traction: that foreign actors are entering Chinese society and policymaking, trying to influence public opinion and derail the economic and geopolitical rise. from the country.

PaperClip, a media platform that posted popular science videos, was forced to shut down this summer after a blogger with 2.6 million Weibo subscribers accused the website of being “anti-Chinese” and sponsored by “foreign forces”. The crime? PaperClip had called for reducing meat consumption due to its environmental impact, and some of its employees had posted “anti-Chinese” comments on Twitter.

As proof of his overseas ties, the blogger, who goes by his name Sailei, cited PaperClip’s collaboration with the World Wide Fund for Nature, a Swiss-based nonprofit. Sailei also posted videos attacking green non-governmental organizations in China for “carrying out the Western agenda” which garnered millions of views and were endorsed by official accounts belonging to the Chinese military and the League of Nations. communist youth.

Days after the COP26 climate summit last month, the Global Times, a spokesperson for the Communist Party who tends to reflect its more extreme positions, published an article accusing Western media and local NGOs of working together to “Smear China’s climate policies” and “use the climate agenda to crush China.” The newspaper also suggested that some NGOs were involved in “espionage activities” because they were organizing academic climate talks and conferences. The events took place in China and featured local experts.

A few days later, the state-owned China Central Television aired a 30-minute news program accusing international NGOs, some of which work on climate issues, of carrying out activities that serve the United States’ anti-China agenda.

The problem is, in part, the Communist Party’s own making. As China’s relations with the West have deteriorated on a range of issues from trade to human rights, the government has stoked public anger at any perceived affront. Luxury brands were forced to apologize for offending Chinese culture, while even slight criticism of the government from outside led to defamation and censorship.

A worker uses a torch to cut steel pipes near the Datang International Zhangjiakou coal-fired power station in north China’s Hebei Province in November. | AFP-JIJI

Activism has never been easy in China. Foreign NGOs are required to associate with a local group, which in itself leads to increased self-censorship. Campaigns as harmless as trying to save the oceans have become controversial, even when endorsed by the authorities.

This is what happened to WWF, which has worked with the Chinese government for four decades. A recent campaign to protect the oceans suffered backlash even though it was co-sponsored by Greenovation Hub, a Chinese NGO under the Institute of Finance and Sustainability, an organization founded by former central bank adviser Ma Jun. Internet users like Sailei have criticized the initiative as establishing a double standard. . They argued that China should be able to indulge in the same consumption that Westerners have enjoyed for a long time, and also that the push threatens China’s maritime sovereignty. Many videos promoting the campaign are no longer available on the Internet in China.

The Communist Party “has always been vigilant against foreign security risks, even though it has been quite open to absorbing outside ideas,” said Alex Wang, professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and co-director of the Emmett. Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. “Citizens in some neighborhoods have become louder and louder to express their nationalist sentiment. “

This has made it more difficult for Chinese researchers and activists to make progress on climate issues, which is one of the few areas where cooperation with the West is still viable. Many key projects, from accelerating the adoption of clean energy to protecting forests and carbon capture technologies, can benefit from working with scientists and activists around the world. But the current atmosphere makes local experts rightly wary of being linked to foreign groups.

The blanket accusation of “foreign infiltration” whenever a local group works with an international organization could also make it more difficult to raise public awareness of the urgency of the climate crisis – one of the top 10 jobs for government. listed in its official roadmap to achieve peak carbon dioxide emissions.

Take PaperClip, which could have been an effective source of content for educating the public. Since launching in 2017, the website has shared popular videos on various climate-related topics with its millions of subscribers. They covered everything from how beef and soybean production is linked to deforestation to the environmental costs of overusing groundwater.

“The risk of a Chinese-style McCarthyism is real,” said Wang of UCLA. “Will those who criticize the bad environmental behavior in China be accused of serving as servants to foreign forces trying to hold back China?” There are incidents about this and it can be problematic. “

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