The Chinese government has been turned off this Saturday's "Earth Hour" after officials realised the event falls on a newly created holiday to commemorate the ousting of the Dalai Lama from Tibet.
Chinese journalists and student groups have been told to scale back their participation because images of cities and campuses turning dark do not fit the upbeat propaganda message that the authorities wanted to convey by declaring 28 March "Serf Liberation Day" in Tibet.
The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, has urged people around the world to participate in Earth Hour, which he called the largest ever public show of concern about climate change.
The WWF, which started the event three years ago, hopes that 1 billion people will join the temporary global switch-off at 8.30pm local time. Illuminations will be cut at The Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, the Empire State Building and the Moscow government headquarters. But hopes for a similar show of global solidarity in the Forbidden City, Beijing University and the Chinese state broadcaster (CCTV) have run up against official unease about the clash of dates.
The Chinese authorities declared Serf Liberation Day as a holiday in Tibet to bolster domestic support for Beijing's policies in the Himalayan region after a storm of international criticism in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics. It marks the entry into Tibet of the People's Liberation Army and the fleeing of the Dalai Lama into exile.
When the new holiday was announced in January, the state media reported that it was intended to "thoroughly reveal the vicious nature of the feudal serf system and the ulterior political purpose of the 1959 armed rebellion by the Dalai Lama group".
But their chosen date coincides with Earth Hour, which has been held on the last Saturday in March since the first of the annual events in Sydney in 2007.
The fixture clash has left the authorities and organisers in a quandary. China's government, which has set impressive goals on renewable energy and pollution control in recent years, does not want to be seen as an outsider in the global fight against climate change.
Environmental NGOs, which have struggled for recognition in the one-party state, do not want to have their campaigns caught up with the divisive subject of Tibet. According to local journalists, students and NGOs, the compromise is an awkward mish-mash.
CCTV, the state broadcaster, has been ordered to scale back plans for day-long coverage of the switch-off around the world, but it will transmit highlights.
At Beijing University, the authorities have forbidden students from overtly participating in Earth Hour. Instead they will organise a "star-gazing" evening that will require them to turn off the lights to see the heavens more clearly.
A director from the university's environment education centre said more extensive plans to highlight energy concerns and protect the environment would be postponed until 22 April, which is Earth Day. He said "lack of preparation" had prompted the change.
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Other sources said the ban was imposed because some people in the university considered the WWF a "suspicious organisation".
But outside the conservative bases of CCTV, Beijing University and the Propaganda Department, there will be a higher level of participation.
The Shanghai government has fully endorsed the event. Visitors to the Bund waterfront on Saturday will see the neon skyline across the river darken as the iconic Pearl Insurance Tower switches off along with the Jin Mao building and International Trade Centre. Illuminations will also be cut at Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour, Baoding, Dalian, Nanjing and several technical universities.
The switch-off is supported by world-renowned pianist Lang Lang, actress Li Bingbing and television host Yang Lan, and has corporate backing on the mainland from Nokia, Ikea and Coca-Cola. The most striking display in Beijing is expected to be the dimming of lights on the Olympic Bird's Nest stadium.
Considering it has the biggest population and the most carbon emissions in the world, China accounts for a relatively low share of the more than 3,000 cities that have signed up for involvement worldwide.
But organisers said momentum was building towards greater Chinese participation next year, when Earth Hour will fall on a different date from Serf Emancipation Day.
"Earth Hour aims to highlight the overwhelming support for people around the world for action on climate change, and has no relationship to any other event," said Dermot O'Gorman, WWF China representative. "Given what we've seen in major urban areas such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong this year, we expect more people will participate in Earth Hour to take action on climate change in the years to come."
The scope for higher levels of public awareness was evident at Beijing University yesterday, where a supposedly "unplugged" campus concert arranged as part of the countdown to Earth Hour proved as high-voltage as the average CCTV variety show with dazzling stage lights, huge amplifiers and numerous TV cameras.
Students from more than a dozen top universities took part in the spectacular, in which many of the performers' songs emphasised the bright future awaiting "the glorious children of heaven" as elite students are known.
Of six audience members interviewed by the Guardian, only one expressed a sense of urgency about the global environment. "As the people of the Earth we face the same problem. It is the 11th hour. We must do more," said Wang Zhenxiang, a business student.
Most felt their generation was more privileged and money-orientated than their predecessors. "We are more fashionable, more commercial. We can have big homes, drive a big car and travel to other countries just like foreigners do," said Zhang Minneg, a financial services student from Shanghai.