December 15, 2021

A few blocks away from Tiananmen Square, amid the cavernous splendour of the Beijing Hotel Convention Centre, an array of senior Communist Party officials gathered in September to proclaim a clear message: by “focusing on cutting carbon emissions… China will promote green development, and continuously improve its ecology”. The annual general meeting of the China Council for International Co-operation on Environment and Development (the CCICED) was in full swing.

Rapturous applause filled the room, though that was hardly unexpected. Conferences run by the CCP are not usually marked by dissent, especially when they’re attended by the likes of Xie Zhenhua, who led China’s delegation to Cop26, and vice premier Han Zheng, one of the seven standing committee members of the Politburo, the Party’s supreme elite. Indeed, as the room fizzled with optimistic eco-rhetoric, you could almost forget that China is the world’s biggest source of greenhouse gases — and that the new coal-fired power stations in its construction pipeline alone have a greater capacity than Britain’s entire generation fleet.

What was remarkable about this meeting, though, was the surprising presence of an external delegation: joining the CCP apparatchiks on a collection of screens dotted around the room were a number of enthusiastic Britons and other Westerners. According to the official conference report, the “foreign committee members and partners lauded China’s ecological civilisation building and its new and greater contributions to promoting the construction of a clean and beautiful world”.

Who were these people? Strange to tell, they consisted of a veritable Who’s Who of British, European and American climate activists.

Here, for example, was Professor Lord Nicholas Stern, Chairman of the Grantham Centre on Climate Change at the London School of Economics, and a longstanding government adviser who wrote a report for Blair’s Labour government on the need to go green. He told the meeting the world is beginning a “new growth story” that “fits well with China’s vision of an ecological society”.

Here too was Kate Hampton, chief executive of the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), which is mainly bankrolled by the billionaire Sir Christopher Hohn, a key financial backer of Extinction Rebellion and one of the world’s biggest sources of green largesse. During the meeting, Hampton said she “supported Chinese leadership on setting the global path for fulfilling Paris goals” — the attempt to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius — and praised China for “supporting green Covid-19 recovery”.

Others were equally fulsome, including Laurence Tubiana, France’s former climate ambassador and now chief executive of the European Climate Foundation, which also gives millions to British green campaigns, such as UK100, an alliance of local authorities pledged to turn Net Zero by 2030; and the Conservative Environment Network.

Also present were representatives from ClientEarth, a law firm that tries to block development in Britain and other countries on environmental grounds in the courts; the Worldwide Fund for Nature, whose president is Prince Charles; and representatives from rich and influential organisations based in America including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the World Resources Institute and the Energy Foundation.

And yet in the weeks since the CCICED meeting, Cop26 has come and gone; and largely thanks to China, any hope of a meaningful deal has evaporated. On the last day, British minister Alok Sharma was reduced to tears when India and China refused to promise to phase out coal. Back in the real world, President Xi Jinping has said China will increase annual coal production by 220 million tonnes.

Such moves have, unsurprisingly, attracted robust criticism. Professor Jun Arima of Tokyo University, one of Japan’s Cop26 negotiators, told me that allowing China to benefit from cheap, coal-fired energy will only consolidate its industrial domination. Lord Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, pointed out that China’s leaders have repeatedly shown they are not “men of their word”.

Yet those in attendance at the meeting in September have been unified by their reticence. Why?

Last year, in their book Hidden Hand: How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World, Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg revealed how China influences Britain and other Western democracies by seducing their elites. Its ‘useful idiots’ often believe they are acting for the common good, but become blind to Xi’s avowed ambition: for China to achieve global supremacy by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the Maoist revolution.

Nowhere is this more effective than in the climate movement. I asked a specialist researcher fluent in Mandarin to examine open-source material from the Chinese web. The results suggest Western greens have become prime targets. Perhaps this isn’t so surprising: before he was a climate negotiator, Xie Zhenhua helped run the Party Discipline Commission, which operates a secret prison network where torture, according to Human Rights Watch, has long been rife.

I asked Hamilton if China’s wooing of Western environmentalists explains why the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide has aroused so little protest? He believes it is likely: “They’ve fallen for what the Party calls ‘discourse control’ — to shape the way the rest of the world thinks and talks about China, presenting the Chinese government in a favourable light. Toadying to the Party leadership is letting them off the hook.”

For Lord Stern, this is nothing new: his environmental record is littered with papers saying CCP leaders are making great progress, and suggesting — prematurely — that their coal use and emissions have already or will soon peak. In 2014, for example, he claimed in a paper for the World Economic Forum that China was “emerging as a global leader in climate policy”. His co-author was He Jiankun, a ‘counsellor’ to China’s top administrative body, the State Council, and the director of the Energy, Environment and Economy Institute at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. Three years later, following the the annual WEF jamboree at Davos, Stern said: “The world is looking for a climate champion. In China, it has one.”

Has Stern been naïve and let himself get too close to the CCP? Certainly for the Party, Tsinghua University has a special role: it is Xi Jinping’s alma mater, and home to multiple labs conducting secret research for the People’s Liberation Army. Yet the pair still work together: Stern’s spokesman told me that Tsinghua and the LSE are joint leaders of the Global Alliance of Universities on Climate, which held two international meetings before Cop26 with contributions from Alok Sharma, US climate envoy John Kerry, and — of course — Xie Zhenhua.

This year, for what it’s worth, Stern has called on China to stop building new coal-fired plants. But he still spoke at this year’s CCICED, while his spokesman told me that China remained “keen to learn from the UK’s example of world-leading action on climate change” and said the rate of increase in its emissions had slowed enormously. While this may be true, China’s emissions continued to rise even through the pandemic, and now exceed the total produced by rest of the developed world.

On paper, at least, you might argue there’s no harm in that. After all, the CCICED’s “mission” is to build “a more beautiful China and a green and bountiful world”. Who could possibly object?

Hardly anyone, I suspect, until they learnt that, the CCICED’s Chinese members include not only top Party bosses but officials who work with China’s United Front Work Department, one of the CCP’s main instruments for exerting influence abroad. Among them is Li Xiaolin, a top party cadre and the daughter of China’s late president Li Xiannan. Until recently, she was the chair of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries — which, as Hamilton and Ohlberg show in their book, is one of China’s most important foreign influence organisations.

What does this mean in practice? According to Patricia Adams, director of the Toronto-based environmental think tank Probe International, in 2017 a new Chinese law forced foreign NGOs there to submit to “close supervision” by the Ministry of Public Security, responsible for crushing dissent and controlling China’s secret police. Any organisation deemed to have “harmed the national interest” risks having its assets seized, its staff jailed, and being permanently banned.

Adams knows this fully well: in 2014, when the new law was being discussed, two Chinese academics she was working with were arrested and later jailed, and Probe International named as co-conspirators. Their crime? “Picking quarrels and provoking troubles” for speaking out on issues such as the rule of law. After that, Adams tells me, “it was no longer safe for us to work in China”. As for the Western environmentalists who still do, she adds: “They hope they can influence China’s leadership. But they are also aware that for them, to publicly criticise China’s policy would be suicide.”

Take, for example, the aforementioned CIFF, whose Chief Executive attended the CCICED gathering in September. Along with the WWF and ClientEarth, it has a branch in China which is subject to CCP control. There, the CIFF employs one Wang Yi as its “independent adviser on climate projects”. As chance would have it, he also happens to be a high-ranking member of China’s puppet parliament, the National People’s Congress.

To what extent that compromises his impartiality is anyone’s guess. But it is striking that the CIFF — a registered UK charity — gives away millions of pounds to projects in China. These include an £18 million grant to “help contribute to peaking China’s emissions”, £14 million to give China “evidence-based recommendations” for renewable energy, and, most astonishingly of all, £8 million to assist China “in global climate governance”.

This might not matter quite so much were Sir Christopher and the CIFF not prominent funders of green causes in Britain and Europe. He has personally given £50,000 to Extinction Rebellion, with a further £150,000 from the CIFF. When these payments emerged in 2019, Hohn said: “I recently gave them £50,000 because humanity is aggressively destroying the world with climate change and there is an urgent need for us all to wake up to this fact.”

But not, apparently, to China’s role in it. When I asked an Extinction Rebellion spokesperson why they never said anything about China, she told me: “It would be divisive to put pressure on one particular nation. It would be hypocritical.”

Yet the CIFF’s China connection extends well beyond Extinction Rebellion: it is also the biggest funder of the European Climate Foundation, based in Brussels but with an office in London, to which the CIFF donated £29 million last year. Strikingly, the ECF’s deputy chair is a familiar figure: the CIFF’s Kate Hampton.

Like the CIFF, the ECF website provides few details of the groups it funds. But its UK ‘grantees’ include ClientEarth and the Conservative Environment Network, an alliance of more than 100 Tory MPs and peers set up by environment minister Zac Goldsmith and his plutocrat brother Ben.

Its ‘global ambassador’, meanwhile, is the Prime Minister’s father, Stanley Johnson, a self-declared “Sinophile” who said last year that China “will come over to our side”, and it was vital “not to raise the temperature” by criticising them. He added he had recently enjoyed “a wonderful, wonderful meeting with the Chinese ambassador”, at which, after discussing global warming, they had sung the Flanders and Swann song ‘Mud, Glorious Mud’ together, inspired by mud’s supposed ability to absorb carbon dioxide.

And yet for all the pledges made in recent years by China and Western environmentalists, the evidence suggests that any future action will be strictly on China’s terms. For many years, Chinese leaders avoided trying to promote the Communist system in the West, but since Xi took power in 2012, this has changed. China, says Clive Hamilton, now touts the ‘China model’ as superior to the West’s.

Anyone doubting this had only attend yet another Beijing meeting, held in June at a Chinese government office by the Foreign Environmental Cooperation Centre, part of China’s environment ministry. The meeting’s attendees included staff from the CCICED, and discussed “the building of ecological civilisation and the community of common destiny”. One leading participant was Chen Xiangyang, the Director of China’s Total State Security Outlook Research Centre — an arm of the Ministry of State Security, which has helped to direct a regime of surveillance against Chinese citizens.

Meanwhile, Qiushi, the CCP’s theoretical journal, published an article in Chinese this year which explores how foreign environmentalists can be utilised. The idea of ecological civilisation, it says, is “Marxist and scientific by nature”, and will have a big role in spreading the China Model’s appeal.

None of this is hidden. This article uses Chinese documents, but all are available on the Mandarin web. Yet climate change activists continue to blindly give China a free pass on its emissions and continued use of coal.

An ECF spokesperson told me: “Climate change impacts every country and so we work with every country, and of course that includes China.” A CIFF spokesperson added: “China is the world’s largest emitter and its transition to a net zero economy is therefore of utmost importance to the entire world. CIFF’s work in China aims to accelerate this transition.”

ClientEarth said: “As a result of our work delivering legal training, the legal system in China is now used to hold Chinese government bodies to account… We are focused on reducing pollution and bringing down emissions both in China and from its overseas investments.” And a WWF campaigns chief added: “All countries need to contribute towards reducing emissions to net zero by 2050. By promising to stop building coal plants abroad, China had ‘given an important signal’.

Ultimately, however, the meaning of that “signal” remains unclear. Is it a sign that President Xi is seriously committed to saving the planet? Or is it a sign that he understands how to fool an influential group of Western environmentalists, with the intention of making that planet his own?