China in Focus #4: “Strategic Distrust” and Climate Change

April 4, 2012 | 6:10 pm
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

(English titles were added by the author of this post.)

The Brookings Institution just released an interesting paper on Addressing U.S. -China Strategic Distrust. Authors Ken Lieberthal and Wang Jisi hope to help their respective political leaders “better fathom how the other thinks.” Lieberthal, a veteran American China hand with extensive government experience, offers his insider’s perspective on American views on the Chinese leadership. Wang, a well-known Chinese academic, presents his own assessment of Chinese views on the US leadership. The paper concludes that US and Chinese “distrust of each other’s long term intentions (‘strategic distrust’) has grown to a dangerous degree.”

One of the more disturbing claims in the paper is the following depiction of Chinese views on climate change.

To a great number of Chinese economists and opinion leaders, the whole discourse of climate change is a Western conspiracy, which is designed first of all to prevent China and other developing countries from catching up. 

I have been an attentive consumer of Chinese propaganda for the past quarter century. It is impossible to live in China and not be inundated with it. Chinese news and information services are consciously used by the Chinese government to shape public opinion. Moreover, because of the importance of the control of information and public opinions to the political viability of the Chinese Communist Party, the education, media and propaganda organs of the government have traditionally been controlled by the most conservative or “hard-line” communist elements within the party.

The description of official Chinese attitudes on climate change contained in the Brookings report — that it is widely perceived as a Western conspiracy — runs counter to a massive and consistent effort to educate the Chinese public on the reality and implications of climate change. The campaign has been underway for many years. The television clip posted above has been airing on the CCTV News channel several times an hour, seven days a week for the past several months. It is one of many similar clips meant to inculcate an awareness of environmental issues, including climate change.

While I cannot claim to have watched every single Chinese television program where climate change has been discussed, I have seen many, and not once have I heard a Chinese commentator express the view on climate change described in the Brookings report. Of course this does not mean that these views do not exist. But they are certainly not being promoted by the Chinese government. To the contrary, the Chinese government repeatedly and creatively uses its control over the Chinese media to tell its citizens about the realities of climate change, and to encourage them to do their part to mitigate it.

I have long felt that one of most significant sources of distrust between China and the United States is misunderstanding rooted in less-than-reliable information. There is a wealth of thoughtful commentary in the Brookings report, but its claim on official Chinese attitudes on climate change deserves careful scrutiny.