Kate Mackenzie Who snubbed who – and Wen – at Copenhagen?

Although China was hardly the only country to be criticised over the weak outcome of the Copenhagen climate meeting, it is still clearly smarting over some of the accusations levelled at its role there. One of the most cutting was a comment by environmental activist and Maldives advisor Mark Lynas, whose account of a final meeting between heads of state on December 18 pointed the finger squarely at the Chinese delegation – including Premier Wen Jiabao, who Lynas says did not even attend but instead sent a ‘second-tier’ official whose lack of authority frustrated proceedings.

New comments by Chinese premier Wen Jiabao shed some light on China’s view of what happened at Copenhagen – but the overall picture remains murky.

Wen, answering questions after a big speech yesterday, spoke of his bafflement at the portrayal of China’s role in the talks:

From Xinhua:

Wen said he and the Chinese delegation had not received any invitation to a small-scope meeting between several countries’ leaders on Dec. 17.

Wen said he learned from a European country’s leader, at a banquet hosted by Danish Queen, about the meeting that would be held later in the evening, and saw China was on the list of the meeting’s participating countries.

“I was shocked as I had received no notification that China was invited,” he said.

Wen said when it was confirmed that there had been no notification of the meeting, he decided to send He instead.

But hang on a minute: which meeting is he talking about? According to Xinhua, Wen was “asked to comment on his “decision not to attend a key meeting” before the Copenhagen climate change summit”. But the meeting Mark Lynas referred to took place on the Friday night – December 18, not 17:

Here’s what actually went on late last Friday night, as heads of state from two dozen countries met behind closed doors.


What I saw was profoundly shocking. The Chinese premier, Wen Jinbao, did not deign to attend the meetings personally, instead sending a second-tier official in the country’s foreign ministry to sit opposite Obama himself. The diplomatic snub was obvious and brutal, as was the practical implication: several times during the session, the world’s most powerful heads of state were forced to wait around as the Chinese delegate went off to make telephone calls to his “superiors”.

We couldn’t quite see that it was simply a muddled date either, because that dinner hosted by the Danish queen was certainly on Thursday March 17.

But a lengthy Xinhua/China Daily report (which we looked up after it was mentioned in  Dow Jones story) reveals the Chinese account of the evening of March 17:

Something unexpected however happened during the dinner. A foreign leader mentioned to Premier Wen inadvertently that a certain country would call a small-group leaders’ meeting following the dinner to discuss a new text. This caught Premier Wen’s attention, because the list of invited countries held by this leader had the name China on it, yet the Chinese side had never received any notification about this meeting. Premier Wen then sought confirmation with some other leaders, who told him that indeed such a meeting was scheduled after the dinner. It was really absurd that the country who called for the meeting never informed China.

Fair enough then – but it’s still not clear who attended this meeting and how important it was. The bigger question is, was the failure to invite Wen accident or design? Given the apparently ad-hoc nature of these talks – and the fact one Chinese delegate was was accidentally barred entry in the first week of the conference – anything seems possible.

On the other hand, was this also Wen’s reason for apparently snubbing the meeting that Lynas talks of? And how important was that meeting? Lynas’ account says about 60 attendees were there and mentions heads of state from the US, Germany, Australia, Maldives, Ethiopia and Denmark, as well as UN chief Ban Ki-Moon. (And as geography professor Yu Zhou points out, his report raises questions not only about which countries attended that meeting, but about the wider practice of unofficial meetings of select countries taking place at Copenhagen.)

The Chinese account appears to put far less importance on this meeting – if we’re matching up meeting references correctly. After the meeting between Wen and leaders from Brazil, South Africa, and India – which Obama later joined – ended (emphasis ours), the Xinhua reports write:

The United States then had consultations with the EU countries, and the BASIC countries also held discussions with other countries. Later, some countries held a small-group consultation on the draft text.

Word came in an hour later that the relevant parties had reached consensus on a draft resolution and would soon submit it to the plenary for a vote.

In contrast to Obama’s approach of pressing to be involved in talks (he reportedly ‘crashed’ the BASIC meeting; or at least arrived early), the impression in the western media was that Wen shunned one of the important final meetings, leading to claims of ‘arrogance’.

But as many of these meetings in the final days of the conference appear hastily convened and outside the formal UN structure, the real details of who snubbed which meeting – and why – might never be clear.

Related links:

What exactly happened at Copenhagen? (The China Beat)
The post-Copenhagen heat on China intensifies (FT Energy Source)