When Phoenix Meets Dragon

Huairou statue
Huairou statue

Be on the lookout out for a Chinese lunch special known as “Phoenix meets dragon.” This is a culinary combo of land and sea delights–usually chicken and shrimp. If shrimp are out of stock, dragons can also be metaphorically presented on your plate as squid. Not the real thing? No matter. It may suit the mood better. Symbols are partly what international politics is all about.

Mind you, ingesting even symbolic dragons is no light matter. At ancient world gatherings, Chinese emperors displayed their dragon designer fashions on clothing, chairs and crowns as testimony to their heavenly mandate to rule. The mere presence of the monstrous shape was supposed to attract attention–and it usually did. So did the image of the phoenix, a grand symbol of the empress. Side by side, the phoenix and the dragon were supposed to rule.  The phoenix’s magic came from a life energy that promised rebirth out of the ruins of her own ashes. She was the force of change that moved heaven and Earth and her reign created a balance of power.

On many public occasions, such as during the High Level Political Forum or UN Security Council meetings, the world’s leaders carry on the ancient dragon tradition. They charge through waves of global despair, hoping to fire up attention to the environment crisis. Granted, most of this dragon stuff is symbolic, but that comes with the job. Heads of state should represent ideas, be eloquent speakers on issues that matter and lead global opinion. Nothing about their job says they have to do much more.

So where is the phoenix? Where is the spirit of renewal we need for negotiations on the environment to be a success? These days, it is found lingering among indigenous peoples and other less stately folk, where it feels much more at home. Women’s organizations and representatives of civil society help make up a global environment movement from the grassroots up. And this movement is our only chance for reviving a spirit of hope that could make governments bring international environment agreements back to life.

There is great wisdom in the ancient Chinese belief that positive influences arise from a balance between different kinds of power. We need both the bottom-up spirit and agitation along with the top-down approval and policies. Women and NGOs will undoubtedly work long hours to lobby, exchange views, reach consensus and draft amendments to the UN document. They will raise their voices in protest against lack of equal representation on delegations and attempts to sideline their issues.

That kind of counter move is just what is needed to balance off the huffing and puffing that often surrounds inter-governmental debates. The environment and women’s movement must promote a synergy with governments that, like the phoenix and the dragon brings opposite together. And you thought I was just talking about lunch.