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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Tibet, no; climate change, yes!

March 29, 2009

Bo Gu
By NBC News
March 25, 2009

BEIJING -- When American laser-graffiti artist
James Powderly was arrested and jailed for six
days in Beijing during the Olympics last August
for plotting to project the words "Free Tibet" on
a building near Tiananmen Square, he probably
wouldn’t have imagined that half a year later
Greenpeace China would be allowed to do something
similar ­ only this time with the message: "Time
is Running Out to Stop Global Warming."

On Monday Greenpeace China turned Yongdingmen,
one of Beijing's ancient city gates, into a
gigantic countdown clock ticking down to the
United Nations' Climate Change Conference to be
held in Copenhagen in December.

A security guard looks at the Greenpeace China
countdown clock projected onto Yongdingmen Gate in Beijing on March 23.

The group also called on China to play a
leadership role at the meeting with strong
emission control commitments, urging President Hu
Jintao to personally attend the Copenhagen
meeting.  "As the largest global greenhouse
emitter, China can and must take a leadership
role in tackling global warming," Greenpeace
campaigner Li Yan declared at the event.

But while Greenpeace China, which was allowed to
set up shop in Beijing in 2002 (albeit only as a
"branch" of the Hong Kong- registered
organization), has enjoyed greater leeway than
most non-governmental organizations, that doesn’t
mean the floodgates of public protest are now
open to all comers. Rather, the group’s
environmental message happens to dovetail nicely
with the Chinese government’s growing recognition
­ spurred by public worries ­ of the importance of environmental protection.

Let’s talk about global warming, not human rights

In his report to parliament earlier this month,
Premier Wen Jiabao pledged to "work tirelessly"
to reduce China’s energy consumption, lower
emissions, protect the environment and "implement
the national plan for addressing climate change."
The large caveat is that economic growth will
remain the government’s primary goal, especially
in the face of the current economic crisis.

There does appear to be some sincerity behind the
talk, though some of it springs from
self-interest, such as drawing attention away
from controversial irritant issues such as human rights.

Hoewever, Hillary Clinton’s recent visit shows
that China’s leaders are more willing than before
to engage with the United States, and the world,
on issues of global warming and climate change.
Efforts to curb greenhouse gases were a central
issue during the U.S. secretary of state’s
February talks and her trip included a visit to
an energy-efficient power plant in Beijing.

According to a source familiar with the
Greenpeace campaign, the planning of the gigantic
countdown event took into consideration China's
growing desire to be seen as part of a "positive
force" in the fight against climate change.

"The local police and authorities were told that
it would be a public education event, and they
said ‘Yes,’" said the source, who asked to remain
anonymous due to the sensitive nature of
obtaining government permits for public demonstration.

A lot more sources

Still, China’s policy on what is allowed in the
arena of public discourse is an ongoing evolution.

In part, this is because the government has come
to realize that it is no longer the only source
of news. Although people working for government
organizations are still forced to subscribe to
state-owned propaganda newspapers like the
People’s Daily; when they go home they can share
stories on their personal blogs or Twitter
accounts and exchange photos or videos on
websites like Picasso or tudou.com.

And when citizens in Xiamen (in south China)
"mass walked" in the streets to protest a
chemical plant project and used cell phones to
spread the message or when people in Weng’an
burned government buildings and police cars
during a demonstration ­ it was an alarm bell for
authorities that maybe they need to change their
own public relations strategy.

In similar vein, Beijing is reportedly planning
to invest more than $6 billion in Chinese media
organizations, similar to CNN or the BBC, that
will be compelling and informative ­ but, most
important, patriotic. In addition, crisis
management training is being delivered to
government officials who used to know next to
nothing about talking to the media.

Taking things slowly

But there are still some taboo subjects. Open
Google in China and type in "Falungong," a banned
spiritual sect, and all you can read is how evil
this belief is and how many victims the religion
has directly or indirectly killed. Or if you try
"Dalai Lama," you find "Dalai Lama’s five lies,"
or "How the Dalai Lama Clique betrayed and fled China."

So if James Powderly thinks he could come out to
project his ideas on a city wall like what
Greenpeace has done, he’d be wrong. The line
remains very clear. Don’t expect to cross it.

NBC News Beijing Bureau Chief Eric Baculinao contributed to this report.

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