Thursday, January 28, 2010

Past and Present Significance of the Cultural Revolution

by Michael Geracie  

[Introduction: I am very impressed and touched by this essay, written by a college senior in Physics. Not only is it well-written, but it demonstrates the discerning eyes of a thoughtful reader.  It gives me hope for the young generation. In addition to Michael's carefully laid-out analysis of the stories and characters, which is very interesting, please pay special attention to his conclusion, which catches the nuance of one of the book's main themes. Posted with permission. -- Xujun]

In Apologies Forthcoming, Xujun Eberlein presents a number of perspectives on the Cultural Revolution. In “Disciple of the Masses,” the reader observes the changing personal meaning of the Cultural Revolution in Shanzi as she realizes a more sophisticated view of her place in China’s political and economic framework. Belatedly, “She saw a reality that would never be taught in school. Sorrow overtook her, and she whispered to no one, ‘I’m sorry…’”. In “Disciple,” this new insight is lost forever, but in “Second Encounter,” the reader is shown how this realization of shame creates both tentative hope and enduring difficulties for all who live with its memory. The author explores the Cultural Revolution’s significance not only across social and gender boundaries, but also across time, illustrating a dynamic picture of meaning that helps the reader understand the Cultural Revolution both as an immediate experience, and as a shared historical tragedy with current and future implications.
In the closing of the book, Wei Dong notes “only those who survive the waste can understand”, and indeed, in “Disciple of the Masses,” Eberlein presents a detailed and messy picture of understanding in transformation, catalyzed by an environment of unremitting tragedy. In the course of the chapter, Shanzi’s confident commitment to revolution develops into a more sophisticated appreciation of the social, political, and economic conflicts within China. However, her story is also characterized by a singular resistance to this change, as Shanzi becomes an unwitting perpetrator of tragedy before recognizing it in the lives of those around her.
Interestingly, Shanzi is portrayed as a highly observant individual. She repeatedly notes the telling details of life in Lily Village, the evidence of suffering. However, her capacity for observation is neutralized by her inability or unwillingness to analyze her environment. When Shanzi first encounters Secretary Xia, she can immediately tell he “had never worked in the fields”. Yet, late into the chapter, she’s still hesitant to view his treatment of the villagers as unfair. Even after nearly a year of observation, “she needed more time to think” before accepting the existence of the social conflict she’s beginning to see.
This superficial nature is immediately apparent in the reader’s introduction to Shanzi. When Mr. Tan asks her why she is being sent to the countryside, he effectively probes her understanding of her role in current events. Again, Shanzi’s interpretation is shallow; she doesn’t even understand the point of asking, as the movement is “mandatory”. While certainly aware of her situation, she does not question or analyze, simply accepting what she’s told to do. Once in Lily Village, her initial ignorance, though understandable, is highly reluctant to give way. Eberlein’s division of the chapter into “seasons” reminds the reader of the sheer amount of time passed, and Shanzi’s delay comes across as even more striking. As soon as the “Summer” marker passes, the reader is aware Shanzi has spent at least two full seasons immersed in peasant life, yet is asking for expensive delicacies and wildly inappropriate questions such as, “do you always have watery gruel?” When Zhou Sixth mentions “public rice eaters” affinity for lotus root, Shanzi’s response “I like them too” shows she does not yet view herself as part of the crisis of want surrounding her.

"Youth" (oil paining by my friend He Duoling)

Shanzi’s eventual realization of the social and economic conflicts surrounding her is thus accompanied by the shock that she’s been a part of them all along. When “the caveman” begins to breach Shanzi’s carefully constructed worldview, she initially refers to an enemy “they,” responsible for China’s deterioration. The correction to “us” profoundly disturbs Shanzi. For her, as with many of the characters in Apologies Forthcoming, the lessons of the Cultural Revolution do not only change their view of the times, or of China, but bear deep personal significance and abiding pain. In the end, “I’m sorry” apologizes not only for informing Secretary Xia of Lily Village’s grain production, but for being part of oppression she didn’t understand.
In “Disciple of the Masses,” Shanzi’s experience is a tragic example of not only loss of potential, symbolized by the unsolved Goldbach’s Conjecture, but loss of memory and learning. However, Wei Dong carries a similar realization to the present, giving him the opportunity to consider the meaning of the Cultural Revolution to both himself and future generations with no direct memory of it. In particular, Wei Dong’s experience in “Second Encounter” shows the enduring difficulties of those that survived the Cultural Revolution. Even before Wei Dong encounters Zhang, he expresses fear of a “mainlander who would not hesitate to lay ambush for a fellow Chinese”. Though Wei Dong seems a model of forgiveness and change, his memory of the Cultural Revolution haunts him with anxiety and mistrust.
In light of Wei Dong’s concerns over future generations repeating the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution, his difficulty in discussing the past is quite threatening. In his final ruminations, Wei Dong mentions how passing through the Cultural Revolution may have been necessary to understand his own ignorance. However, shortly thereafter, he decides to stop thinking about it. Though he recognizes the necessity of remembering his shame, he is nonetheless quite resistant to actually doing so. This is more powerfully demonstrated throughout his discussions with Zhang. Despite Zhang’s openness, Wei Dong is reluctant to share any information, or even partake in the meal. When Zhang asks Wei Dong for his motivation in freeing him, Wei Dong deflects the question.
Thus, though Apologies Forthcoming shows hope for the future, that hope is portrayed dubiously, as the understanding requisite for future progress is necessarily accompanied by shame. While the shame itself may be a positive influence, the magnitude of the crimes of the Cultural Revolution enhances it to such an extent so as to choke Wei Dong’s attempts to discuss it. When current events remind Wei Dong of his own crimes, “his hands sweat cold”. As distant as the Cultural Revolution may be in place and time, its memory still bears acute significance, enough so to elicit a physical reaction.
At the same time, Wei Dong possesses a remarkable ability to examine his experience. When Zhang recounts the armed fight ‘8.31’, Wei Dong is clearly tense, checking nearby tables, goosebumps rising from the details. Though his emotions are heightened, his thoughts and questions show him approaching the situation with outward detachment. He patiently waits out Zhang’s dramatic presentation of events, carefully confirming the details. Repeatedly, Wei Dong nonverbally verifies Zhang’s account: his superstition, his numerical accuracy. In a number of instances, Wei Dong assesses the motivations of himself and his team. He also attempts to reevaluate the story’s personal significance, asking Zhang if his team killed others after he was freed. Eberlein takes care to note that through all this, Wei Dong holds his cup steadily.
Both “Second Encounter” and “Disciple of the Masses” are stories about realizing the painful realities of the Cultural Revolution. The opening quote connects the stories in this way. Between the two, Eberlein presents the Cultural Revolution as a continuing learning process, viewed from two different times. One story is looking back on the Cultural Revolution while the other lives in it, but both reflect on it. For Shanzi, her newfound awareness is a personal shock,not only upending her scholastic paradigm but elucidating her involvement in the structure of social and economic oppression surrounding her. Even as the surrounding catastrophe enables this realization, it consumes her. However, Wei Dong’s story explores the unique opportunity survivors of the Cultural Revolution have to put these lessons to use. His recognition of his own learning and of the necessity of its continuance show how the Cultural Revolution will and should remain a part of the public consciousness. However, the difficulty with which he endures it exposes lasting challenges to present and future generations. By considering the Cultural Revolution from both perspectives, Eberlein shows its lasting significance and more completely probes its complex meaning to a variety of audiences.

Monday, January 25, 2010

A Good Government is Hard to Find

Wow. Things like this make it impossible to not be cynical about government, be it USA's or China's. I feel great sympathy to those Chinese Internet activists who asked for Secretary Clinton's help to fight China's government control just a day or two ago.

CNN shouldn't have published this piece right after Secretary Clinton's "Internet freedom" speech, I suppose:

"U.S. enables Chinese hacking of Google," by Bruce Schneier, CNN (h/t Shanghaiist)

(Hope my readers will forgive me for being occasionally cynical)


Friday, January 22, 2010

The Oct. 15 "Counter-Revolution" Incident in Chongqing

This is rather bizarre news to me: on October 15, 2009, a "national conference" was held in Wansheng, Chongqing, by the "Chinese Communist Party (Maoist)," or "中国共产党(毛泽东主义)"(简称"毛共"). All (34) attendees were arrested by police. 

I read this in the latest issue of Remembrance, or <记忆>, a Chinese newsletter dedicated to Cultural Revolution (CR) research in China. The above news appeared in a brief report titled "Ten Things in 2009 Related to the CR," because "many of the participants in 'CCP (Maoist)' were Rebellion members during the CR." The CCP (Maoist) "only recognizes CCP's 9th and 10th Congresses that were held during the CR; they were arranging the so-called '11th CCP Congress'."

For the record, the actual CCP's latest Congress was the 17th, held in October 2007.

I searched the Chinese internet for media coverage, but found only the following two blog posts:

1. "Ten things in 2009 related to CR"  (2009年与文革有关的十件事)
2. "Chongqing's Oct. 15 counter-revolution incident" (重庆1015反革命事件)

The first one is the same report I saw in Remembrance, but the blogger's name, Bai Lei, is different from the byline ("Bian Du") printed in the newsletter. It could be a pen name, I guess.

The second post appeared on a leftist website www.mzdsx.cn, which gives some details of the incident: the participants were "old comrades" and the leader's name was Ma Houzhi; more than 150 armed police suddenly attacked and shots were fired; 24 of the arrested participants were detained for 10 days, and the remaining ten were still in jail waiting to be sentenced. But you have to muddle through its overwhelming CR language to get the details. It's not a pleasant read, I tell you.

Note the term "counter-revolution incident" in the post's title: it does not refer to the conference; it refers to the police raid of the conference. The words sent a shiver through me, as if the Cultural Revolution was coming back all over again.

Who are those people? What are they up to?

When I asked, a Chongqing friend who knew about this told me that the "CCP (Maoist)" has developed two "party groups" (党小组) in Chongqing. All are old factory workers in their 60s- 70s, who had played small roles as Rebellion members during the CR. "You know how muddled those people's minds are?" My friend wrote, "They couldn't even say who 'Teacher Ma' was after being inducted by him into his party, and they just followed him to 'do revolution'! Truly laughable, yet sigh-worthy. On the other hand, it goes to show that Mao's way still has its places at the lower level of society."

Having spent my childhood and part of my youth during the CR, my first reaction to the news was that those people were insane. What for? But I really shouldn't be so surprised. A few years ago when I interviewed ex-Red Guard leaders, one of them, now in his 60s, told me that if he could make enough money he'd build a dissident party truly Marxist-Leninist. The unsaid words: the CCP today aren't really that. I couldn't tell if he was serious or it was just words to impress his audience (me). I'd thought it might be a reflection of nostalgia for his Red Guard youth, a sentiment many other ex-Red Guards displayed during my interviews. Now apparently someone else – some Teacher Ma – was carrying out the idea he was unable to.


Huaxi Village


It was during those interviews in 2006 that I heard, for the first time, of a place called Huaxi Village. The ex-Red Guard who wanted to build a dissident party told me Huaxi Village is an example of true Communism and people there are having a great life. "You must go see it to know what I'm saying," he urged. He got me really curious, and I thought about making the trip. It turned out my younger sister, Maple, an avid traveler, had already visited Huaxi Village at the time. If your purpose is to talk to the villagers, Maple told me, then forget about it. They are not allowed to talk to any outsiders. (That did sound like "true Communism" to me.) Though it was a bit far, I didn't completely give up on the idea of visiting until one day I saw a big photo of the Huaxi Village, in which every house, relatively upscale as they all are, looks exactly the same.

In any case, as a writer I'm still interested in exploring the mentality and motivation of those "CCP (Maoist)" members. Meanwhile, another curious question comes to mind: don't those leftist people have the same human rights as the democratic dissidents do? If so, why haven't I seen any protests against their arrests from human rights groups?

Related articles:



Saturday, January 16, 2010

An Email from Hu Shuli, or Caing.com

It looks like Hu Shuli's new website Caing.com has inherited the customer email list from her previous magazine Caijing. I subscribed to Caijing's newsletter when Hu was the editor there; yesterday I was pleased to receive my first email from Caing.com. I have been looking forward to reading Hu's new magazine Century Weekly on line.

The new issue of Century Weekly has the Li Zhuang case as its cover story, with some intriguing details not seen in other reports, for example Li Zhuang's two encounters with Wang Lijun, the Chongqing police head credited for carrying out the crackdown on gangsters.

I'm a bit puzzled by the website's English (or pinyin) name. Why Caing.com, not Caixin.com, since Hu's new company is named Caixin? I don't think it's a typo.

Communist Spies at Google China?

Have fun and read this amusing version of the Google predicament story.  Clicking on the Chinese link results in a message "only the author can read this post." Predictably though, a Google search with the Chinese title "google事件真相(ZT)" finds copies on the internet. This time, the copies I saw were on a few Taiwan-based sites.

Did a CCP mole among Google.cn's Chinese employees caused the whole crisis? It sounds plausible. I was almost convinced when I read the English translation last night. However reading the Chinese version today I saw the term "tg" (="土共") in it, and that tells me the post was written by a Taiwanese. A mainland Chinese almost certainly would not use such a term, no matter how strongly he opposes the CCP. This probably also explains why copies of the post have appeared on Taiwan-based websites so far.

In any case, the author could be a good fiction writer. It is an intriging story. To have the original post disappear is also a good way to whet the readers' appitite.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Han Han: "Now I Know Why Google.cn Can't be Number One"

Excerpted from Han Han's latest blog post "I'm only exploring" at Sina.com:
另外,有很多的朋友问我关于谷歌要退出中国有什么感想。在谷歌图书馆扫描中国作家作品一事的时候,就有记者问我,GOOGLE未经你的同意,扫描了你的书放在网上供人免费看,说大不了赔你60美 金完事,问我怎么看。我说,如果他真这么干了,那就能解释为什么他的中国市场份额做不到第一了。回到家一上网我才弄明白,原来只是扫描了我的书一个目录而 已。于是,我才明白为什么他的市场份额做不到第一了,搞他的人太多了。其实,无论谷歌是真退出假退出,我都表示非常的理解,我唯独不能理解的是,有个网站 的调查,有7成的网民表示,不支持谷歌对中国政府提出的要求对审查结果不设置屏蔽审查的要求。在看一些政府官网的投票结果的时候,你经常觉得自己为什么永远是在民意的对立面上,看久了甚至觉得自己是个90后,怎么从来都是非主流。其实这些网站才是急需屏蔽的。我能够容忍把黑的说成是灰的,把白的说成是米的,但决不容忍颠倒黑白。

谷歌如果离开中国,最扼腕痛惜的应该是一些作家,当然,不是因为中国作家代表了社会的良知和进步的力量,他们从来不关系言论的限制,就算文化部门把中国汉字中的一大半都屏蔽了,他们也有本事在剩下的汉字里接着歌功颂德,他们痛心的是,早知道你要跑,当时就收下你那60美元了,我相信这应该会是大部分中国作家在电子版权上的第一笔收入。不就是想多要40嘛。

[in translation]
Also, many friends asked about my thoughts on Google.cn's withdrawal from China. When the incident of Google library scanning Chinese writers' works occurred, a reporter had asked me, "Without your agreement Google scanned your book to be read freely online, and they said at most they'd pay you $60 in compensation. What do you think of that?" I said, if that's really what they did, it would explain why their China market share can't be number one. But after I returned home and got on the internet, I found out only my book's Table of Content had been scanned. Now I understood why Google.cn's market share can't be number one – too many people are trying to screw it. Actually, whether Google.cn really withdraws or pretends to, I very much understand. The only thing that I can't understand is a poll on a website that shows 70% netizens voted to "not support Google.cn's request for no government censorship." When reading some polls on government official websites, you often feel yourself on the opposite side of the public opinion; after a while you even wonder, as if you are a post-90, how come you are always non-mainstream. Actually those government websites are the ones that should be blocked. I can tolerate someone saying black is grey, or white is rice-color, but I can never tolerate anyone confounding black and white.

If Google leaves China, some Chinese writers ought to feel hurt the most. Of course, this is not because Chinese writers represent society's conscience and progressive force, they never care about speech restrictions, even if the Cultural Department blocks more than half of Chinese characters, those writers will still be capable of using the rest of the characters to sing praises. The thing that hurts them is, "If I knew you were going to run away, I should have pocketed your $60 offer then." I believe this would be the first digital copyrights income for most Chinese writers. "We only wanted $40 more."

(Update 1/16: just saw that China Hush has translated the entire post one day after.)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

What Chinese Are Saying about Google.cn

Among the numerous articles on the Google China fracas, I found the following two most readable (h/t ESWN):


(wish I had the time to translate the Chinese one)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The People vs. Li Zhuang (2009)


The most unusual thing about the Li Zhuang case might be the sharp disparity between local people's reaction and that of the elites around the world.  By now major English media outlets have all reported on Li's sentence of 2.5 years, and almost without exception, questioned the justice of it.

But not the public of Chongqing. Yesterday I got an email from my older sister, a retired clerk living in Chongqing with a teenage son. She wrote, "Lawyer Li Zhuang practices law and breaks the law intentionally, his sentence is too light!" Coincidentally, just that morning I had spoken to a Chongqing friend on the phone. The friend, a senior physician, said that no one he knew had any sympathy whatsoever for Li Zhuang.  "So how do people feel about the crackdown on gangsters?" "All support it of course," he said. He went on to say public security and social order have improved since the crackdown began. As an example, he mentioned a friend's private clinic that he helped to set up. Before the crackdown, the clinic was extorted by gangsters for "protection fees," but those gangsters have disappeared now. He expressed surprise when I mentioned broad sympathy for Li Zhuang outside of Chongqing. "People here don't have good impressions of lawyers in general," he said. "Lawyers care only about money. Who pays more, is who they help."

Personally, I didn't think Li Zhuang's trial and sentence made a lot of sense. The arrest was too hurried and the evidence was weak. It does not bode well for Bo Xilai's image. Realistically, given the lack of judicial independence in China, I did not expect a fair trial. A judge "within the system," no matter how good he is, can't turn the system around overnight. But limiting the harm to society is still possible. Before Li's sentencing on Jan. 8th, I'd thought there might be a practical way out for the local court, that is, it could deliver a guilty verdict without jail time. I was disappointed, and I thought the judge missed the chance to become a "hero" of some sort.

Now in light of the local people's reaction opposite to what we read in media outside of Chongqing, I realized that the judge might not have merely chosen to be the government's gun. He might have felt that he was indeed doing the right thing for his people.

All this tells me that there is still a long, long way to go for China to become a truly "law-governed society," using the ironical title of the section in China Youth Daily where the first (and biased) report on the Li Zhuang case appeared.


Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Lawyer's Trial in Chongqing Rivets Public and Tests Chinese Courts

New America Media, news analysis, Xujun Eberlein, Published: Jan. 5, 2010

China's eventful 2009 ended with another controversial episode: a record-length trial in the widely observed case of Li Zhuang, a prominent criminal defense lawyer from Beijing. Li is accused of  fabricating evidence for his gangster client. The trial opened at 9:10 a.m. on December 30 at a local court in the city of Chongqing, with a heated argument between prosecutors and the defense team that lasted for 16 hours. The session adjourned at 1:03a.m. on Dec. 31. No verdict has yet been delivered, and a tense debate between news media, legal circles, and Internet commentators continues.

The Li case might seem minor, but taking place during Chongqing's powerful campaign to crackdown on organized crime, it could set an important precedent. While the prosecution has been criticized by legal experts, there is great local, popular support for a guilty verdict, and the trial’s outcome could affect progress in China toward judicial independence.



The case developed surprisingly fast. On November 22, Li was hired by the wife of alleged organized crime leader, Gong Gangmo, who faced accusations of murder, illegal weapons trade, drug dealing, and running a criminal organization. Li flew from Beijing to Chongqing and met his client three times on Nov. 24, 26, and Dec. 4. According to Li, each time he had arguments with the police who insisted on being present during the interviews.

Eighteen days after Li took on his client, on Dec. 10, Gong reported to the police that his lawyer was trying to fake evidence that he had been tortured. (Gong's action was later commented upon by legal experts as being "extremely unusual." Gong claimed that he did it in order to gain sufficient credit to avoid the death penalty.) Two days later, on Dec. 12, Chongqing police flew to Beijing and arrested Li, where he was visiting Gong’s wife in the hospital. According to reports, he was informing Gong’s wife that he was dropping the case. The next day, Li's arrest was formally approved by Chongqing's Procuratorate.

On Dec. 14, a major national newspaper, China Youth Daily, published the first news report on Li's arrest, written by the chief editor of the paper's "law-governed society" section. The article detailed Gong Gangmo's motivation for reporting on his own lawyer, and how Li obtained high legal fees from Gong – 1.5 million yuan (U.S. $220,000). The report portrayed Li as a greedy and malevolent lawyer. It stated that, on an investigation initiated by the "Chongqing crackdown leadership group," his crime of fabricating evidence and blocking justice had been clearly established by the collaborative work of the police, procuratorate, court, and Judicial Bureau.

The report caused such strong controversial reactions from supporters and contenders alike that the editor was stunned. She was quoted as saying it was, by far, the strongest response "in the 15 years of my journalist career."

Support for the partial report – and Li's arrest – came mainly from Chongqing netizens. To date, the crackdown on gangsters and government corruption has gained the city government and its leader, Bo Xilai, strong popular approval. The overwhelming majority of internet comments from Chongqing expressed anger at Li for "rescuing" a heinous criminal and making big money so doing. They believed that Li acted to impede justice and that he should be punished for it.

On the other hand, the chief voices in Beijing's legal circles, including many law offices and universities' law schools, strongly questioned the legitimacy of the reported evidence and article 306 of criminal law, which provided the basis for Li's arrest. They viewed his conversations with his client as nothing beyond a defense lawyer's standard practice and duty. They criticized the China Youth Daily article for partiality and fanning public sentiment against a man who has not been proved guilty.

In media circles, Chongqing's newspapers and web portals uniformly condemned Li, with most of their arguments based on the justice of the crackdown on gangsters. In contrast, more independent newspapers, such as those of the Nangfang Daily network and The Beijing News, tended to be more neutral,  and occasionally displayed sympathy for Li. After Li’s trial, the aforementioned reporter of China Youth Daily published another story. Perhaps having learned a lesson from readers' criticism, this time the article exercised caution in using derogatory language. However its biases against Li were not completely hidden.

Also worth noting is that several well-known Chinese dissidents used their Twitter posts to publicly support Li Zhuang, and criticize the Chongqing government.

All this made Li Zhuang's trial on Dec. 30 widely watched. Still, no clear conclusion could be drawn from it. From an neutral point of view, the prosecutors' case seems to be weakened by the fact that no single witness was present at the trial, and written statements against Li came from suspected criminals under detention.

The question remains whether the Chongqing court is capable of an independent trial uninfluenced by either the government or the public. During the trial, Li said an interrogator told him that his arrest was a joint decision by "three big heads," --the heads of Chongqing's Court, Procuratorate, and Police Bureau. If this is true, given the lack of judicial independence in China, one certainly has reasons to doubt whether a fair trial for such a case is possible. This said, the thoroughly argued trial that was open to the public did show signs of improvement in Chongqing's court system and raises hope for more.

One main issue the court debated was whether Gong Gangmo had, in fact, been tortured. Judging from various news reports, neither the defense nor prosecution convincingly established their claims. Consequently, whether Li Zhuang had attempted to fabricate evidence of Gong's torture remains unclear.

Legal conclusions aside, the Chongqing public's suspicion that a criminal lawyer like Li Zhuang is capable of doing anything in order to make big money needs no empirical support. Compared to the human-rights defense lawyers, who often work pro bono to help those at the bottom of the society, rich criminal defense lawyers are not as popular. Li's reported arrogance and disrespectful attitude toward the local court during his trial cast him in an even less sympathetic light in the locals' eyes.

On the other hand, the case practically puts the Chongqing government, and the Chinese legal system more broadly, on the defensive. The hurried arrest of Li raises concerns outside of Chongqing that legal process (however imperfect they are) was trampled to achieve political goals and that the broadly supported crackdown may not be as righteous as has been propagandized. Apparently, Chinese people have not totally forgotten the Cultural Revolution of four decades ago, a disastrous time when political righteousness was above everything else.

Related links:


Sunday, January 3, 2010

From Beijing to Copenhagen: I Don't Mourn the Missing 2050 Emissions Targets

by Tom Fiddaman, guest blogger

(Note: Tom is a friend and colleague of Bob's, who attended the Copenhagen Climate Conference as part of the CROADS team. With a Ph.D. in System Dynamics from MIT, Tom has researched the relationship between economic activity and environmental change, and looked at the potential effectiveness of a carbon tax and other schemes such as cap and trade. His reflections on Copenhagen and Beijing are well worth reading. – Xujun)

I've finally recovered from a long and frustrating week at COP15 in Copenhagen. Like many, I never actually made it into the conference center itself - even though I had the needed secondary pass, registration lines were just too long. I bailed out when the Danish police started passing out coffee in the queue. Instead, I spent the week with the Climate Interactive team, analyzing potential proposals, talking to the press, and preparing briefing materials.


 Copenhagen: Art & Carbon (photo by Tom Fiddaman)

What unfolded was a bizarre flurry of contradictory official and unofficial draft texts of an agreement. In the final hours of the conference, language about hard targets, enforcement, and other encouraging steps gradually disappeared. In the end, the assembled parties approved a decision that merely "takes note" of the nth hour "Copenhagen Accord" presented by the US and BASIC countries.

Many were bitterly disappointed by this outcome. I wasn't, primarily because my standards were low going in. It was clear from the start that individual country proposals did not add up to anything remotely like a future that limits temperature change to 2C (roughly 450ppm CO2 equivalent) or even 3C (550 ppm). A binding agreement for a massive change in course would have been astounding.

I also don't mourn the lack of hard 2050 emissions targets, for three reasons. First, statements about 2050 emissions are probably worth a bit less than the average political promise, i.e. next to nothing. Second, it's actually quite uncertain what emissions trajectory is needed to reach a 2C future. Our best guess is that global emissions would have to fall by 50% or so relative to 1990, but we could easily be unlucky enough to need 80% cuts or more. Third, while early emissions cuts appear to be cheap and beneficial in complementary ways, it's uncertain how fast and deeply we can cut over the long haul.

While hard long-term targets don't make sense, it does make sense to know where the world is aiming. I think it's laudable that the 2C temperature goal language survived in the final document. If taken seriously, it implies an emissions path very different from what developing countries have been willing to propose: a peak in emissions by 2020 to 2030, and substantial reductions thereafter. That's remarkably different from the kind of thinking I heard from Chinese policy analysts during a recent trip to Beijing and at a CNAS war game a year ago. The prevailing mental model - also evident in statements from India - seems to be that climate is a problem created by the developed world, so developing nations need time to grow their emissions, in order to build capital serving urgent human development needs and achieve some kind of emissions parity. The problem is that the physics of climate dictate that, even if emissions in the developed world go to zero tomorrow, emissions growth in the developing world must stop and reverse within two decades to reach targets like 2C.

It may be that a future with +3C or higher temperatures is viewed as "worth it" from a development perspective. Climate impact assessment is not my area, but it seems to me that with high population densities, monsoon climates, large coastal populations, endemic tropical diseases and glacial water supplies, China and India are particularly vulnerable. When you add in the possibility of knock-on effects from regional conflict, a very warm future seems like at best a great risk to take.

That should lead one to wonder whether growth founded on cheap fuel and free CO2 emissions, which will have to be undone within the lifetime of a power plant built today, is really development at all. Rather than seeking an emissions grace period, I think developing countries should be asking themselves what it would take in the way of policy and outside support to get on a greener path. That means breaking the perceived emissions-welfare link and getting foot hold in new non-carbon technologies rather than being locked into a fossil-energy-intensive infrastructure. I think there's a lot of merit to such a path, even if one considers only the narrow self interest of countries, rather than the enlightened self interest of the world.

Copenhagen and Beijing were interesting studies in technology paths. I saw more electric bikes in a week in Beijing than I've seen everywhere else put together. However, the car was clearly king of the new streets, striking fear into the hearts of pedestrians and cyclists, even more so than in some US cities. In Copenhagen, on the other hand, bikes were low-tech but ubiquitous. Clearly the difference is not a matter of wealth, but of deliberate choices: to tax cars heavily in Denmark, while providing excellent infrastructure for cycling. To be fair, Beijing is 10x the size of Copenhagen, but it seems that there must be choices China could make today that exploit its technical and manufacturing capability to move toward a development pattern like Copenhagen, not Dallas.

The trick is to choose a new path without triggering near term disruption that leads to political revolution (a topic that came up repeatedly in conversations about actions that might slow China's GDP growth). In that sense, China and the US are really in the same boat. Both went to Copenhagen empty handed, because neither had the political basis needed to find a common ground with stronger commitments.

The challenge for the coming years, I think, is not about extracting promises of deep long term emissions cuts from the developing world. Instead, the developed countries should be thinking about how to set a credible example in the near term, by taking effective action to reduce emissions and support adaptation. Only that will create a basis of trust sufficient to enable developing countries to take the next step.