China’s Image Campaign: Green on the Outside, Black on the Inside?

“Green mountains and clear water are as good as mountains of gold and silver,” said Chinese President Xi Jinping as he underscored his country’s commitment to becoming an “ecological civilization” at the 2016 UN climate change conference in Marrakech. Fine words. But should we believe them?

After years of being known as one of the dirtiest countries on the planet, China is now making a concerted effort to re-brand itself as a proponent of green energy. This forms part of a wider, multi-channel effort to boost its global soft power that encompasses everything from building new language institutes to trying to head major UN bodies. However, whether this is a legitimate strategy or just good PR is a question Beijing still struggles to answer convincingly.

Undoubtedly, China is making some positive changes. The country has been catching up with its counterparts by planning new national parks. Aimed at protecting areas of outstanding beauty and preventing environmental damage from construction, mining, and pollution, the parks are due to open in 2020. This is also the deadline China has set for ploughing $361 billion into renewable power sources. The Chinese government hopes that in just three years, these sources will account for half of new electricity generation in the country.

So far, so good. But scratch beneath the surface, and there are indications “Green China” is actually just a veneer disguising a less palatable reality.

China is still the world’s largest producer of “black” aluminum. In 2016, coal still powered 88% of production. Pollutants released by aluminum production and other shady practices are among the many reasons that China’s inland waters are so befouled. According to Greenpeace China, 80% of shallow ground water wells are polluted.

Continuing with the aquatic theme, China – having depleted its own marine stock through unsustainable fishing methods, like trawling – is taking steps to improve its fishing stock through a summer moratorium on fishing in the South China Sea. While they allow their own marine life to recover, Chinese fishermen are now marauding through foreign waters, exploiting the coasts of some of the poorest countries in Africa.

These environmental projects – many of them undertaken for appearance’s sake – are a main component of China’s global soft power campaign, which encompasses the environment but also the arts, culture, literature, and more. The campaign started a decade ago, when the Communist Party declared a new objective to invest in its soft power as a complement to its rapidly growing economic and geopolitical clout. It’s estimated Beijing spends some $10 billion per year on the campaign, one of the most generous state-sponsored public diplomacy projects in the world. That money has been building quite a few new cultural centers.

Many of China’s investments in global prestige are aimed at boosting China’s presence – and its influence – within key multilateral institutions. One major opportunity to do so will take place at UNESCO over the next several weeks, where the Chinese government has been pushing for its candidate, Qian Tang, to become the next director general. For a country that has previously shown open disdain for the UN and its core norms – not least environmental protection and human rights – this indeed seems to be a sea change.

However, just as with many of China’s new “green” projects, Tang’s campaign is simply another component of Beijing’s drive to boost its international standing. When it comes to UNESCO, China has become adept at using the organization to its own advantage, having secured 52 World Heritage-ranked sites that stand to earn millions, if not billions, in new tourist revenues.

There is more than just China’s international reputation at stake here. UNESCO has been mired in a financial crisis since 2011, when the US cut off roughly 22% of its budget over the organization’s acceptance of the Palestinian Authority as a full member. UNESCO has also been rocked by internal political scandals. These include not only persistent divisions over the Israel-Palestine conflict, with Israel most recently slamming UNESCO’s decision to recognize the old city of Hebron as a Palestinian World Heritage site. They also extend to recent allegations that the husband of current Director General Irina Bokova was involved in the vast money laundering scandal known as the “Azerbaijani Laundromat.”

Given all this, the organization needs to select its next leader with caution. Unfortunately, there’s little sign Tang would be the right person to oversee an agency with so many flagship environmental and scientific programs, let alone the one to mend its internal divisions. And most of the other candidates are hardly better. France’s candidate, Audrey Azoulay, has been accused of demonstrating overtly pro-Israel bias, raising questions about her ability to help the organization rise above its current impasse. Qatar’s horse in the race, Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al-Kawari, has been accused of endorsing anti-Semitic works by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and would be arguably worse.

Perhaps the only candidate that enjoys positive relations with both Israel and the Arab world – and could bridge the current divide – is Moushira Khattab, who can point to extensive experience as a diplomat and as Egypt’s representative at UN headquarters in New York as well as the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Vienna. Her candidacy leans on a track record of pushing progressive reforms in defense of women’s rights in Egypt; Khattab has, for example, been a leading advocate against the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM).

Given the challenges UNESCO currently faces to its core missions in the Arab world, a candidate from the region could speak and act with greater inherent legitimacy – but that will not alter China’s incentives to pursue Tang’s candidacy.

None of this is to say that China’s soft power campaign is entirely self-serving. Numerous aspects of its environmental program and its support for Chinese language programs are undeniably positive. Yet China still has a ways to go. Given UNESCO’s own internal difficulties, allowing Beijing to lead the organization would be a bridge too far.