Li Changchun is often referred to as one of the most powerful men in China, in Asia, and, increasingly, in the world. He is a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee. On April 8, he awaited our arrival at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Between him and I stood a group of newspaper editors from throughout Asia, along with giant pillars, thick walls and a strict protocol that had to be followed to the letter, or to the number.
Yes, to the number. I was Number 15. I needed to remember this fact at all times. I also needed to be constantly aware of the identities of Number 14 and Number 16. This was to ensure the lineup was adhered to without fail wherever we were – whether lining up outside the Great Hall of the People, standing in line to shake Li Changchun’s hand, or sitting in the large, well-lit room among a circle of editors. The editors sat and assiduously listened to Li, who spoke with the authority and power of a man known to be Number 5 in China. Or was it Number 3? Frankly, I cannot remember; I was nervously trying to remember my own number, and the ones before and immediately behind me.
I was in Beijing to attend the China Daily-Asia News Network Conference. This was focused on climate change and the environmental challenges facing Asian countries, especially following the failure of the Copenhagen meeting last December. Media producers grappled with their responsibility towards the increasingly pressing subject. Chinese government officials labored to showcase their country’s efforts in lowering carbon emissions, carefully juxtaposing their success with the failures of Western governments, and the US government in particular.
Major polluters took on the position that their companies were incessantly trying to curb emissions, and some went as far as to discuss the need to “educate the public” regarding their responsibility towards the environment. It took me a while to wrap my head around this one: the world’s largest contributors to environmental damage reaching out to the public and asking them to play a positive role in challenging global warming and climate change? Go figure.
At times, and despite clearly sincere efforts put forward by newspaper editors, the whole event seemed an exercise in futility. The government official, as all government officials everywhere, blames some other official of some other government. The polluters argue that they too are doing their part, and are in fact practically adopting progressive stances.
A leading Coca-Cola Company executive who addressed the conference, for instance, sounded more like an environmental champion, a Greenpeace activist even. In the meanwhile, media men and women stood quietly puzzled; they needed the ad revenues from the company (and other similar companies), along with governmental approval to make their work possible. At the same time, they are, in theory, the voice of the voiceless, the representatives of those who are suffering, and will continue to suffer, as a result of the dramatic, rapid and destructive environmental challenges.
It’s a stand-still. The trio has every interest in keeping the discussion alive, but very little reason to move forward in any substantive way. Any discussion of lowering carbon emission becomes immediately political: fingerprinting, accusations and more. A new cold war around the theme of global warming is already underway. The “U.S. vs China” scenario will remain until a paradigm shift takes place. Meanwhile, the Maldives will continue to sink, followed by 14% of Bangladesh.
So what are the media to do? Most of them rely on the same business model that requires the constant funding of the same companies, and often governments that have themselves disproportionately polluted our environment. These companies and governments have also stifled the debate on finding a sensible exit from the quagmire in every way imaginable.
Perhaps the media should be reconsidering the entire business model. Those who are sincere in wanting to educate, engage and influence the public sphere need to first liberate themselves as far as possible from the controlling grip of corporations. Only then will they be able help us to act upon the challenges facing our world as a result of man-made environmental disasters
Until this happens, we will continue to talk gibberish, using all the right terms, all the positive clichés, and yet we will achieve nothing but a few feel-good moments at yet another conference in yet another crowded city, itself polluted to the core.
Now back to Li, No 5 (or 3). The man was in fact much more pleasant than one would expect, considering the very rigid protocols and security checks that greeted us. He spoke comfortably and freely. He joked often. He spoke of the need for a unified Asian media voice to counter the influence of Western media. He challenged accusations that China is a closed society, and spoke of the rapidly growing number of websites, blogs, and the increasing access of foreign journalists and media to his country.
In fact, the discussions at the forum by various Chinese officials and by Li himself were filled with juxtapositions and comparisons between China and the West, “us vs them”, “they say, we say …” The editors from Number 1 through Number 18 (myself included) listened and politely nodded.
If the world can indeed afford a new cold war on political, economic and trade grounds, the environment can hardly afford such quarrels. The icecaps are melting; the Borneo rainforests are shrinking by the day; the list of endangered species is growing; drought, floods and other such tragedies are affecting millions, destroying lives and scarring generations.
The fact remains that human suffering simply cannot be politicized. And it must no longer be held hostage to numbers, clichés and slogans.