Fulbright Scholar Reflects Back On Year In China Posted: October 13, 2009
Dear Family, Friends, and Teachers,
A year ago I arrived in China to begin my Fulbright grant at Peking University in Beijing, which I completed in July. Since then I have been interning at the US Department of Energy China Office, which is part of the Embassy. As I prepare to return home (I write this in the airport…), I thought you might be interested in some reflections on my experience here.
I believe that to live in China is to feel oneself at the center of something important, to feel the pull of tidal forces that are shaping the future. Any experience here is (or at least should be, in my mind…) colored by big questions, including China’s rise as a world power, its vast social challenges, etc. The differences between China and America, too, are obvious and numerous enough to easily preoccupy one’s thinking. But for all that, the most vivid impression from my time in China is the simple reminder that people are basically the same, generous and kind, and desirous of friendship and opportunity. If nothing else, my year here has provided a poignant reminder of that basic truth!
But beyond that, there is also an earnestness that seems to permeate Chinese society. I think, perhaps at the risk of over-generalizing, that life in modern China is shaped by a basic optimism and sense of possibility and opportunity. One of my most fundamental impressions of China is of a nation obsessed with building itself—I just don’t think anyone has a vision of the end result.
Which brings me to my reason for coming to China in the first place. I was interested in how China is responding to and dealing with the drastic environmental change wrought by its rapid development. As you might imagine with a topic like that, I hardly scratched the surface, let alone plumbed the depths (especially given China’s many distractions—so many cuisines, so little time). But in broad terms, I think the right way to think about China’s environmental future lies in some accommodation between two basic truths.
The first is that China has done a great deal, perhaps more so than any other country in the world at a comparable stage of development, to blunt the environmental impact of its development. China’s people have no desire to tolerate severe air, water, and soil pollution, and its leaders are eager to move the country to a less-resource-intensive, greener economic model (they, too, read reports claiming that the next economic revolution will be a green one!). In short, China gets it.
The government has set out a number of policies to minimize resource consumption, improve energy efficiency, and, more recently, to control its greenhouse gas emissions. China has programs that are little-known, but of staggering scale, to encourage afforestation and the use of renewable energy in rural areas. Environmental NGOs represent one of the most vibrant civil society sectors in China, and green consumerism and corporate social responsibility are growth areas. In these and several other respects, I believe China has made a serious effort to set out a vision for sustainable development, which again to its credit nobody has really ever done (despite constant references to sustainability in Europe and the US). You certainly don’t find a model for sustainable growth in the records of Western countries!
But the other side of the equation is that China’s efforts do not come close to preventing or ameliorating devastating ecological consequences, both for itself and the world at large. For one thing, some its accomplishments, which look impressive on paper, are paper tigers. Torrid growth in renewable energy, for example, masks serious issues with actually channeling the electricity produced to the grid. Greenwashing is common—China has a phrase, shengtai wenming, or “ecological civilization,” that seems to mean little apart from appearing on signage against a green background. But even more serious are the macro-scale, out-standing sustainability challenges that China will need to tackle over the next thirty to fifty years.
The first of these is to decrease the proportion of coal in its energy mix. Coal is extremely dirty, both from the perspective of environmental health and its contribution to climate change. However, it is cheap and abundant, promoting both energy security and grist for rapid industrial development. While there are many efforts to burn coal more cleanly, or to sequester its carbon content during combustion, there is little in the way of proven technology, and widespread deployment of these technologies is likely to be extremely expensive. Large infusions of cash, and the attention of thousands of researchers, are needed if these kinds of technologies can be made commercially viable.
The second challenge is to accommodate tens of millions of new urban dwellers in energy efficient buildings linked to sustainable transport systems. Estimates of the impact of China’s urbanization in coming decades are breathtaking—the entire population of the United States (300 million people) could move to cities, and be accommodated in some 50,000 new skyscrapers, by 2030. To avoid being swamped by a tidal wave of cars, smog, and other emissions, these new urbanites will have to live, work, and play in buildings that maximize the use of natural light, incorporate renewable energy sources like solar and wind and use cutting-edge insulation, and travel by subway, light rail, bus, bike, electric car and foot. If this is to happen, China needs massive assistance in improving energy modeling and in developing the sustainable design and planning sector.
Third, China’s water resource management system needs an overhaul. As a result of climate change, massive shifts in the distribution and availability of water throughout the country will imperil agriculture and rural development. Adaptation is probably feasible, but it will be expensive. Large investment in water storage, efficient irrigation, flood control, and water conservation technologies will be required. Moreover, China will need to accelerate water price reform, to encourage conservation, something that is politically unpalatable since the burden falls on poor rural farmers. Better water allocation systems also need to be developed-- one promising method is payment for ecosystem services (PES), whereby downstream water users, like urban industry, pay upstream “guardians,” like those living in headwater regions, to preserve forest land to prevent erosion and upstream water pollution.
Finally, China will need to rebalance its mode of development in several crucial respects. It must ease the disparity between the coasts and inland regions, but even more crucially it must allow and encourage the growth of public interest institutions—independent media, NGOs, citizen groups, and litigation. Since the founding of the People’s Republic, China has operated on the assumption that the Communist Party can best serve the country’s interests. Whether that was ever true is of course in my mind very doubtful, but in any case it’s clear that China is now too complex a place for one institution to do what’s best and right for the country as a whole. For the environment as in other issue areas, state-led capitalism has to be replaced with a richer, more complex, and more durable fabric of actors. China’s pollution and land use challenges will certainly never be solved by government fiat—the pressure of outside institutions is essential, as it was in the United States and other nations.
This last claim leads me to my final reflection, on China’s political future and relations with the United States. Having lived here for a year, I do of course have deep appreciation for many things about China, especially its people. I also believe that, at its best, China’s current regime and political system can effectively guide China towards a sustainable and liberal future. But I have little faith that China’s government will often act at its best. Like most political parties elsewhere in the world, the Chinese Communist Party is interested principally in maintaining power. Other interests, including those of the public, are subsidiary. In the absence of strong countervailing influences (which, in fairness, may yet emerge—never underestimate China), I believe that China’s political system will continue to be prone to corruption, injustice, and occasional extreme brutality (some of you may recall my email on my experiences in Xinjiang).
In my view, this state of affairs will have two primary consequences. The first is to increase the chance of acute civil strife. I am not one of those who believe that China is a powder keg waiting to explode. But there are several potential social time bombs—the most evident is the issue of self-determination for minority nationalities. Moreover, in general terms, I think that China may be headed for a severe identity crisis. The task of economic development has for the past thirty years provided a unifying mission for China, forestalling a coming to terms with its traumatic recent history, including the Cultural Revolution. At some point in the near future, I believe that this unifying thread to Chinese society will start to fray (perhaps it has already), and at that point serious questions will start to be asked about modern China and where it is headed. Beyond the general vision of becoming a developed country, I don’t think anyone has the answer, and that question will become increasingly important and divisive. One influence I fear could be decisive is that of extreme Han nationalism. I personally find this phenomenon terrifying, reliant as it is on xenophobia and bigotry. It is certainly not a dominant social influence at present, but it is virulent, and in a chaotic social situation I could see it gaining a great deal of influence.
The second consequence is that US-China relations may come to be increasingly defined by compromises on traditional American values. By this I mean generally Wilsonian liberalism, valuing human rights and the promotion of democracy abroad. There is no question that the US and China will need to cooperate as equal partners on a huge range of issues, from climate change to North Korea to global currency reserves. But to do so it America will have to downplay, or at least set aside, its traditional critiques of Chinese policy towards Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, and other human rights and values issues. In my mind, some progress is to be made by recalibrating human rights relations—if it is approached more as a dialogue on the challenges and ultimate benefits of building a multicultural and open society, in which the US has long experience, more headway might be made. But I think Americans will increasingly have to come to terms with the idea that their most important partner country is one which has fundamentally different political and social values.
One final thought: for the issue I’ve focused most intensely on, climate change, much will be determined by US-China cooperation in the coming months and years. I remain optimistic that such a partnership can avert the worst consequences of climate change, though some are inevitable. But it will mean a fundamental shift in economy, politics, and society. We will have to approach the entire earth system as something to be managed—the atmosphere as a common resource, and things like industrial structure as the concern of all countries, not only one. If this all is to come to pass, reflections like these I’ve offered on what distinguishes China will become far less important than those on what binds us all together.
It’s been a great year, and I hope to return to China often, but for now, it’s time to go home!
My best to you all,