The aftermath of the Copenhagen talks appears to have gone through three stages in quick succession: the first was an attempt to figure out what exactly the talks accomplished; the second a sort of stunned silence as the truth set in of how far we still have to go; and the last, a sudden outpouring of recriminations. This final stage, which has largely focused on China’s role at Copenhagen, is a reflection of larger issues at play as China takes its first major steps in asserting itself on the world stage.
The Chinese government’s behavior at the talks demonstrated a level of self-confidence that, to many western observers, seemed premature. Duke professor Liu Kang, in a different but related context, made this analogy: “China is like an adolescent who took too many steroids. It has suddenly become big, but it finds it hard to coordinate and control its body. To the West, it can look like a monster.”
The backlash in American and European media against China’s behavior in Copenhagen backs up this view. A Guardian contributor accuses China of intentionally sabotaging the talks in an effort to make western countries look bad. Britain’s climate secretary, Ed Miliband, made similar accusations, and Jiang Yu, China’s frustratingly obtuse press secretary, fired back in a typically ham-handed manner.
Some Chinese commentators have observed a conspiracy among western countries to denigrate China. Zhao Haijian, writing in the Guangzhou Daily, says, “Some western media have flattered China, and to some degree have affirmed China’s sudden rise and its influence. But behind this we can often discern the hidden intentions of western countries” (一些西方媒体如此“抬举”中国，在某种程度上是对中国崛起和影响力提升的一种肯定，但在这背后，我们常常会看到一些西方国家居心叵测的动机). Zhao argues that, by falsely flattering China, western countries seek to more easily put it in a bad light. A case in point, says Zhao, is Copenhagen, where the United States tried to inflate China’s importance so that China would have to foot a bigger part of the bill to fight climate change.
A preponderance of conspiracy theories usually indicates widespread misunderstanding about a complex issue. The backlash against China’s behavior at Copenhagen in western media, and the angry denials of the Chinese government and its supporters, seem to me to be natural reactions to China’s perceived “rise” in the world. The Chinese government undoubtedly feels it is in a period of momentum. China just held a successful Olympics, it’s about to put on a massive World Expo, and it seems to have weathered the economic crisis better than just about all western countries, at least for now. The government’s ego may be a bit inflated. It may believe it can throw its weight around more freely than in the past.
The Chinese government needs to learn how to negotiate more skillfully -- it’s unacceptable that Wen Jiabao skipped a meeting with Barack Obama and other leaders -- and, of course, it needs to work hard on its public relations. And western observers must come to grips with the fact that China is here to stay, and realize that its government is not always scheming how best to increase its influence while decreasing the power of western countries. The Chinese government, and even China itself, often comes off as monolithic, but it is full of contradictions and internal debate.
In the coming years and decades I suspect we’ll see more situations like the one in Copenhagen, as the world adjusts to countries like China, India, Brazil, and others that are willing to exert newfound global influence. Coping with this shift in global power structures will require patience, flexibility, and a willingness to understand the viewpoints of others.