(Bloomberg) --

The past year has seen some of the most encouraging steps from China to curb its emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases. But an increasingly vocal nationalist faction of society is making some progress difficult.

There’s a battle over the climate change narrative between those pushing for green reforms and those who view the measures as bending to demands from hostile Western powers.

After President Xi Jinping announced last September that China would reach peak emissions before the end of the decade and achieve carbon-neutrality by 2060, officials and state-run companies largely fell in line and echoed his ambitions — even as some public figures have openly questioned the feasibility of moving away from coal and curbing economic drivers such as construction and steel making.

Then this year a particular conspiracy theory started to gain traction: that foreign actors are reaching into Chinese society and policy making, trying to influence public opinion and derail the nation’s economic and geopolitical ascent.

PaperClip, a media platform that posted popular science videos, was forced shut down this summer after a blogger with 2.6 million followers on Weibo accused the website of being “anti-Chinese” and sponsored by “foreign forces.” The crime? PaperClip had called for reducing the consumption of meat because of its environmental impact, and some of its employees had posted “anti-Chinese” comments on Twitter.

As evidence of its foreign ties, the blogger, who goes by Sailei, cited PaperClip’s collaboration with World Wide Fund for Nature, a nonprofit based in Switzerland. Sailei has also posted videos attacking green non-governmental organizations in China for “carrying out the Western agenda” that have garnered million of views and been endorsed by official accounts belonging to the Chinese army and Communist Youth League.

Days after the COP26 climate summit earlier this month, the Global Times, a Communist Party mouthpiece that tends to reflect its more extreme positions, posted an article accusing Western media and local NGOs of working together to “smear China’s climate policies” and “use the climate agenda to squash China.” The newspaper also suggested that some NGOs were involved in “espionage activities” because they hosted climate-related discussions and academic conferences. The events were held in China and featured local experts.

A few days later, state-owned broadcaster China Central Television aired a 30-minute news program that accused international NGOs, including some working on climate issues, of conducting activities that served the U.S.’s anti-China agenda.

The problem is, in part, of Communist Party’s own making. As China’s relationship with the West has deteriorated over a range of issues from trade to human rights, the government has stoked public anger against any perceived slight. Luxury brands have been forced to apologize for offending Chinese culture, while even mild criticism of the government from the outside has led to vilification and censorship.

Activism has never been easy in China. Foreign NGOs are required to partner with a local group, which on its own leads to increased self-censorship. Campaigns as inoffensive as trying to save the oceans have become controversial, even when they’re endorsed by the authorities.

That’s what happened to WWF, which has been working with the Chinese government for four decades. A recent ocean protection campaign faced backlash even though it was co-sponsored by Greenovation Hub, a Chinese NGO under the Institute of Finance and Sustainability, an organization founded by former central bank adviser Ma Jun. Internet users like Sailei criticized the initiative as setting a double standard. They argued that China should be able to engage in the same consumption those in the West have long enjoyed, and also that the push threatened China’s maritime sovereignty. (Many videos promoting the campaign are no longer available on China’s internet.)

The Communist “Party has always been vigilant against foreign security risks, even as it has been quite open to the absorption of outside ideas,” said Alex Wang, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. “Citizens in some quarters have become increasingly vocal in expressing nationalist sentiment.”

That’s made it more difficult for Chinese researchers and activists to make progress on climate issues, which is one of the few areas where cooperation with the West is still viable. Many key projects, from accelerating clean energy adoption to forest protection and carbon capture technologies, can benefit from working with scientists and campaigners from around the world. But the current atmosphere makes local experts understandably wary of being tied to foreign groups.

The blanket charge of “foreign infiltration” whenever a local group works with an international organization could also make it harder to raise public awareness about the urgency of the climate crisis — one of the ten major tasks the government listed in its official roadmap for reaching peak carbon emissions.

Take PaperClip, which could have been an effective source of content to educate the public. Since it was launched in 2017, the website has shared popular videos on various climate-related topics with its millions of followers. They covered everything from how beef and soybean farming is linked to deforestation to the environmental costs of over-exploiting underground water.

“The risk of a Chinese-style McCarthyism is real,” said Wang from UCLA. “Will those who criticize bad environmental behavior in China be accused of serving as the handmaidens of foreign forces attempting to hold China back? There are incidents of this and it can be problematic.”

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