Changing faces: China’s empty attempts to clean up with the G20

Photo: Jacoline Schoonees/CC BY-ND 2.0

By Tan Zhi Xin

Just as the Chinese government cleaned up Beijing before the 2008 Olympic games, Hangzhou was given a facelift in the lead-up to the G20 summit this week.

Residents received weeklong holidays and were encouraged to leave the city; construction stopped; only some vehicles were allowed entry, and factories – including more than 200 steel mills – were asked to stop production to reduce air pollution. Haze disappeared, and blue sky returned, but this rare flash of colour brought criticism; sarcastically tagged “G20 blue”, just like 2014 “APEC blue” and 2015 “parade blue”.

Regrettably, the blue sky that appeared during the 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and 2015 Victory Parade vanished hours after the conclusion of the summit and the parade. The fleeting phenomenon suggests that the clean up was nothing more than a trick to improve the country’s global image as a major power. China was not actaully interested in environmental issues.

But this time round is different. China went beyond scratching the surface by ratifying the Paris Agreement; is a real Chinese commitment to becoming a more responsible stakeholder in the international community emerging?

Heightened regional tensions

Against the backdrop of rising regional tension, many alleged that the cleaning up of the city and the ratification of the Paris Agreement are attempts at whitewashing China’s geopolitical foreign policies.

In the background of the summit were Beijing’s refusal to accept the judgement of the Hague tribunal on its claim to disputed waters in the South China Sea. There is also the sour relationship with its neighbour South Korea over the deployment of America’s most advanced missile-defense system – Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD).

In this context, it is unsurprising that many perceive China’s cleaning up of Hangzhou and ratification of the Paris Agreement as trying to divert global attention away from its aggressive foreign policies. Yet there is a reason to believe that the measures were about not saving face on the global stage by covering up its belligerence elsewhere in the world.

Tackle climate change

Allegations about the whitewashing of Chinese foreign policies in this way, does not stand up in the sense that China separates geopolitics and environment. In fact, paradoxical as it may sound, China has always been at the forefront of addressing climate change – despite being the world’s largest carbon emitter. Beijing is well aware that continued economic development needs a clean environment.

Domestically, it has adopted measures such as shutting down polluting industries and implementing legislation to reduce carbon emissions. It is also investing heavily in renewable energy in the hope that it could gradually move away from coal as a primary source of energy. Chinese companies are currently the largest investors in renewable energy in the world. As recently in 2014, the parliament passed a new environmental law which punishes polluters.

Internationally, China has signed over twenty international environmental agreements, and used its diplomatic clout to convince many developing nations to adopt aggressive greenhouse gas emissions targets.

Rubberstamp politics

The Hangzhou summit that has just concluded was immensely important to China. It was a platform for China to showcase its leadership, expand its soft power, and present itself as a constructive global citizen that is committed to peace and stability.

The summit this week actually saw world leaders coming to a consensus on a number of global issues, particularly the two difficult areas of protectionism and reviving sluggish economic growth. It also addressed problems in the areas of Brexit, corruption, and climate change. Leaders have agreed that cooperation is the key to better global governance. However, in reality, the talk of unity and collaboration at the summit was simply a charade.

The final communiqué sets down the new understandings achieved at the meeting, and the future of global economic development. However, these agreements had already previously been reached at ministerial level. The lack of other enforceable plans in the final announcement reinforces the notion that it is nothing more than political doublespeak.

More importantly, the G20 summit was “overshadowed by the lack of political strength of most leaders of G20”, making it difficult for a tougher stance on global issues. Nonetheless, even without substantial achievements, China is still the biggest winner at the summit, despite its increasing aggressiveness and tarnished reputation.

“The strengthening of China’s position as a global investor and next in line to have a world reserve currency places Xi in an impossible position of political influence,” said Laurence Brahm, a Beijing-based political analyst.

Based on what we have seen this week, China’s strong rhetoric against cross-border protectionism calls for structural reforms and a boost to global economic growth. There is also talk of standing up for developing countries, projecting China as a good global citizen keen on playing a greater role in the international community.

More importantly, Beijing’s efforts to play the diplomatic nice guy diverts attention away from its aggressiveness in the South and East China Sea. At the same time, its organisational and leadership ability has earned the Chinese authorities domestic political points by stirring up nationalistic sentiments. In that sense, the Hangzhou summit is a whitewash of China’s aggressive geopolitical foreign policies; the lead-up to it is not.