The news that jailed Chinese democracy activist Liu Xiaobo had been awarded a Nobel peace prize barely made a ripple inside the Tianjin climate conference hall today.
That was mainly because participants were wrapped up in the strangely compelling task of removing brackets from the negotiating text. But it also reflects tight censorship of the domestic media and lingering unease among Chinese officials about any public campaign outside the one-party system.
At a very different level, this has been evident at the Tianjin conference, where civil society groups have played a prominent and positive role. They have informed, advocated and sometimes goaded participants in a way that will be entirely familiar to people in Europe.
But however constructive, such organised alternative voices are a relatively new phenomenon in China and the organisers of the Tianjin conference - the first United Nations climate talks to be hosted in the country - have been uneasy about accommodating them.
Creative and wacky stunts by some NGOs - a feature of major conferences overseas - have been notably thin on the ground during the past week. Even activities that might have cast China in a positive light have been abandoned or revised because they were outside the bureaucratic comfort zone.
WWF had to give up plans to take journalists to the renewable energy hub of Baoding because of tight restrictions on the number of foreign reporters that an NGO is allowed to escort.
Greenpeace had to plough through a field of red tape to display a fake melting iceberg in a local park. Local officials were so uneasy about the event they insisted fire extinguishers were on hand in case the iceberg ignited and sparked a wider blaze. This was particularly bizarre given the activity's location - on a concrete square more than 10m away from the nearest grass verge.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, another proposal to launch foam in the shape of CO2 into the air was flatly refused. The authorities warned that anything entering the space above the conference centre would be shot down by security forces.
Inside the political bubble of the conference centre, however, NGOs said they enjoyed similar treatment to that expected in other countries. The head of China's negotiating team, Xie Zhenhua visited the booths of Greenpeace and other environment groups. Several domestic organisations also launched a joint appeal for action.
"We were able to do pretty much all we wanted to do," said Christian Treite, communications director for Global Campaign for Climate Action.
But China still has a way to go to accept alternative voices. While the environmental NGOs at Tianjin stayed well within prescribed limits, Liu's more contentious advocacy of political reform has resulted in an 11-year jail term and his near removal from public record.
The Chinese blogosphere has buzzed with news about Liu's Nobel prize, but censors have also been working overtime to delete positive coverage of the news and warn posters not to overstep the mark.
Ten hours after the announcement that a Chinese citizen has won the Nobel peace prize for the first time, the volunteers at Tianjin were still in the dark.
"Liu Xiaobo? I have never heard of him," said one - a refrain that was repeated in varying ways among all of those I asked on the way out of the conference hall.
Sunday, 10 October 2010
Civil society finds a voice at China climate talks | Jonathan Watts | Environment | guardian.co.uk