During the frantic final two days of negotiations at Copenhagen over the weekend, U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton set a clever trap for Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Having just announced that the United States would establish and contribute to a $100 billion international fund by 2020 to help poor countries cope with the challenge of climate change, Clinton added a nonnegotiable proviso: All other major nations would first be required to commit their emissions reduction to a binding agreement and submit these reductions to "transparent verification." This condition was publicly reaffirmed by Obama, who argued that any agreement without verification would be "empty words on a page."
Everyone in the room knew that "all other major nations" primarily meant China. From the beginning, China has steadfastly refused to place its commitments within a binding framework or accept outside monitoring and verification of its progress toward any promised targets. But the eleventh-hour U.S. proposal immediately isolated China. The onus was now on Beijing to agree to standards of "transparent verification." If it did not, poorer countries standing to benefit from the fund would blame China for breaking the deal. Clinton's proposal had cunningly undermined Beijing's leadership over the developing bloc of countries.
Chinese officials retreated to their well-worn negotiation mantra, namely arguing that such demands were an insult to China and would be a violation of Chinese sovereignty and national interests. Wen had been outflanked and was angry, even leaving the conference center and subsequently snubbing Obama in a couple of previously planned bilateral and multinational meetings involving the U.S. president.
Which raises the question: Why such an extreme response? As Mark Twain reportedly said, there are three kinds of deceptions: lies, damned lies, and statistics. China has long been engaging in a dangerous game of manipulating important economic numbers and concealing domestic commercial realities. Despite all its progress over 30 years, Beijing is afraid to shine too bright a light in dark places, and even more afraid that outsiders might be allowed to do so. In important respects, the government actually embraces opaqueness as a perceived advantage. The thought of "transparent verification" was seen as the thin end of the wedge, allowing outside experts broad authority to peer into the workings of middle China. It would have caused Wen to feel the distinct pang of panic that guilty men feel when they realize the jig might soon be up.
For two decades, NGOs operating within China have struggled not only with wary officials in Beijing but more trenchantly with local officials for access and information. But teams of international economists, scientists, inspectors, and statisticians roaming China to gather information on carbon emissions and reduction initiatives would have been unprecedented. In promoting China, Beijing projects an image of order and competence to the world. In parts of its wealthier coastal cities, China is that. But these international teams would undoubtedly discover exactly how dysfunctional the heart of the country really is. They would see firsthand and report back how China's 45 million local officials remain the most formidable obstacle to improving transparency in China's sprawling economic structure -- protecting their turf, defending their privileges, arbitrarily enforcing the law, and when it comes to economic performance, blatantly cooking the books.