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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.

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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.

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评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Youth Climate Declaration? Making friends, right? What a load of crap. Can a few kids working together do what a gang of high officials can't? What, are they gonna meet up and watch 2012 together?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





What's Completely Useless?

In reply to comment 1:

So what you're saying is that, apart from high- ranking officials, not only the young, but absolutely no- one need participate in the climate change movement- what use are NGOs? What use is the man in the street protesting? What use is the "Earth Hour" lights- out movement?

Right, they're all completely useless. As I see it, their greatest function lies in putting pressure on the government and high- emission companies. The fears of a great many democratic countries may well come from this "crap".

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


1. 时间上只有9天,而且双方在此之前并未作出任何准备;
2. 起草者并非就完全熟悉该项事务。
3. 当时的政治气氛紧张,因此一份未经深思的宣言极有可能引来曲解。
我并不是反对青年有自己的想法和行动,但确实在那种环境下发表发表宣言还是得经过慎重考虑的。在我看来这不仅不是中国青年保守,相反 反映出他们的成熟一面。

China’s Rational Youth

On December 10th, following the China-US youth exchange, 5 delegates from each party began to draw up a declaration, and on December 19th the Copenhagen Accord was announced amidst controversy. Please note, it was amidst controversy. Here are three points in favour of not publishing the youth declaration at this moment:
1. The time period was only 9 days, and neither party had made any preparations whatsoever beforehand.
2. Those drawing up the declaration were not completely familiar with the affairs.
3. The political atmosphere at the time was tense, and thus a declaration which was not carefully considered was extremely likely to lead to misinterpretation.
I am not opposed to the youth having their own ideas and actions, but really, under these circumstances a declaration must still undergo careful consideration before being issued. In my opinion, not only is this not conservative by the Chinese youth, it is contrary to reflecting their maturity.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





How do American youth see this matter?

The government has its position, the youth have their ideas. A well written declaration has not been issued to express the position of China’s youth- we are concerned about and involved in climate change, but we do not wish to get into politics at all. Finally of interest is, what views do American youth have on this?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


中国青年可以在更多调研的基础上,在国内用更强势的姿态与政府进行对话,勇敢探索政治上的推动。她说:“毕竟现在已经不是二十年前的社会环境。”—— 看看国内铺天盖地的灾难报道吧,对政府的批评到处都是,媒体天天喊着要争取公民话语权。岂止是青年,太多人想用更强势的姿态与政府对话了。但是想想政府对互联网的封锁就知道其道路之艰辛。

Civil Society is just a legend

Chinese youth may carry out more research, then take more assertive attitude negociating with Government domestically, to promote the political evolution. She said: "After all, the social environment is not as 20 years before." - Take a look at the overwhelming disaster coverage in this country, criticism of the government everywhere, and the media cried every day for the expression right of the citizens. More than just the young, too many people want to play a more forceful role in the dialogue with government. Nevertheless, It's not hard to imagine how difficult this road will be when you think about the government's blockade on the Internet.
translated by Ziju Yang

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Responsibility cannot be avoided

Actually,prosperous economy means little without favorable environment condition sometimes. At present one of common shortcomings of most local governments is that they are somewhat short-sighted. What will it bring to people sacrificing the environment for the GDP ? Fighting over interests, everyone fears suffering losses. In fact, it is in self-destruction.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



The Middle Way?

The core of this kind of maturity consists of avoiding radicalism and conservatism, and maintaining a rational, critical attitude towards yourself and the world.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


很棒的文章!我们亚洲协会(Asia Society)的成员上周做了一个“两岸对话”的企划,一群来自中国大陆、台湾和美国的大学生聚在一起来弥合他们意见的分歧,这或许能作为青年之间有关气候变化的交流模型。这非常有希望。
罗伯特•布洛克(Robert Bullock)
美国亚洲协会(Asia Society)

Model for Dialogue?

Great article! We at the Asia Society just did a program last week with "Strait Talk", a group of univ students from PRC, Taiwan, and US that works to bridge differences, that might serve as a model for youth exchange focused on climate change. Very promising. Robert Bullock, Asia Society

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Do not fight against destiny

China is a strong power in the world and it will listen to no one but the destiny. In China, leaders are always the flowers and you can only be the leaves and it’s your honor to be a leaf. Even if the leaders at Copenhagen make the whole world satisfied, all credit goes to the Party and the government. It will have nothing to do with you “leaves”. Do not show off and mind your own business. Do not complain about everything. Is not China big enough to do something good and something big? Young man, do not be opportunistic.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

















A Comment That Might Be Off the Track

China always has the glorious tradition of “regarding the world as one’s own responsibility,” which is more prided on by the youth elites. Yet they suddenly remain silent when they should get rolling. Though it is what some people say the maturity of Chinese youth, but from my point of view, it is the continuing performance of “the well-behaved children”. Because their “parents” will not be pleased when they say something wrong, so it is better to say less.

Now that the youth’s performance outside is so well-behaved, I would not say more. But there are some points to be addressed.

First of all, say what you want to say, don’t think of the government, nor suppose before hand that you will be used by the others. On the one hand, you still have no capability to think in the government’s shoes; on the other hand, government will not be pleased – if you have considered all government affairs, then what’s the role of the officials?

Second, speak on your own behalf, do not consider yourself to be representing all the Chinese young people.

Third, the US secretary of commerce, Gary Locke, is also of Chinese descent. But Chinese youth‘s intention to cotton up to him did not result well. I remember that I have argued in a short article about objecting the public memorial ceremony to Emperor Huang: “The cohesion of a modern nation is based on the same values, not the same origins.” And this incidence has exactly proven my argument. Thus, I give my thanks to these young people.

But there is something I have to say: these youngsters have not comprehended the American values, including those of the ABC.

Fourth, I think there’s no wrong in the saying “do not discuss historical responsibilities, only the current circumstances”, for discussing the historical responsibilities requires us to figure out when to start. Perhaps Americans will say that, compared with China’s 5000 years of CO2 emission, USA has only 200 years. Furthermore, due to Chinese population is always the top of the world, even having a low per capita level, the number will be extremely serious if a very small average value multiplies 100 million.

In this sense, the American’s opinion should not be counted as wrong.

Yet, what we have to accuse USA for is that USA and capitalism have created a decadent life style featured by “large-scale manufacturing and large-scale consumption”. Moreover, they have led the whole world, China included, to the same path. This path functions ok when only Americans walks on, but it becomes a dead end when more peoples step on.

Fifth, USA’s criticism to China has another point worth our reflection: only considering low carbon emission, public ownership and planned economy is an irrational and inefficient system. For example, to blast a new building which has just completed and to rebuild it is almost unbelievable in western countries. Of course there will be some similar cases there, but definitely not so crazy like our country.

I have heard a joke which shows the state-owned economy’s inefficiency and high consumption:

When inspecting the underground pipelines constructions, the section chief of logistics in a college asks the constructor: “What’s the duration of the pipelines?” Answer: “50 years.” The chief frowned: “It is too long.”

Then the constructor at once corrects himself: “10 years actually.” But the chief sighs once more, saying: “Still too long, I will retire in 9 and a half years’ time. ”

Sixth, Chinese’s idea of consumption also differs from the westerns’. In another words, Chinese culture is more the food culture: Chinese people’s appetites seem to be bottomless. It is scary even to think about the idea of “sit idle and eat”. We can not afford to consume before, but with abundant money in hand now, we loosen our straps and eat. The worries from around the world absolutely are not redundant.

Since I have said a lot, I guess many Chinese people are not pleased. But my understanding only represents myself, I only say what I think without considering whether I am used nor scared of giving any burden on somebody.

Translated by Jieping Hu.