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It has been a long journey to reach this moment …

  • In 1972, Nixon traveled to China
  • In 1973, the Philadelphia Orchestra became the first international orchestra to perform in China
  • In 1974, I began to study Mandarin at college
  • In 1976, Mao died (and the Cultural Revolution with him)
  • In 1978, Deng and the CCP began experimenting with economic reforms
  • In 1979, Carter normalized relations
  • In 1980, I traveled to the mainland for the first time
  • 1n 1982, at its 12th National Party Congress, China adopted economic reforms as its priority policy

Just this past week — forty years later at its 20th Party Congress — China under Xi has formally abandoned economic growth as its top priority for national development (along with the international partnerships on which that growth depended for trade, investment, access to capital markets and innovation) and prioritized instead “security” (with all the ideological baggage which that entails in Xi’s worldview).

Put simply, Xi has just crossed the Rubicon …

I wrote on Monday in Ideologues Meet Markets that I would share my considered view on the implications of the just concluded 20th National Party Congress after a few days of rumination and reflection. I am doing so now. Xi has just crossed the Rubicon. His move not only upends a forty-year trajectory of the most dynamic economic growth ever witnessed in the world, it threatens — more ominously — the foundations of the post-WWII international order and the unprecedented seventy-year run of (relative) peace the world has enjoyed at the global level.

An extremely well observed account of what this moment means is contained in the political economist Yuen Yuen Ang’s opinion piece in today’s New York Times. I reproduce below that piece in its entirety:

China’s Era of Reform Has Officially Ended

By Yuen Yuen Ang

Forty-four years ago, Deng Xiaoping kicked off the period of “reform and opening up” that transformed China from a poor, autarkic nation into an emerging global power.

President Xi Jinping officially ended that era last week. He emerged from the Chinese Communist Party’s congress in Beijing with unchallenged authority and plans for China that revolve around his obsession with control and security — even if that means harming the economy.

It’s a momentous change in outlook.

Deng Xiaoping’s strategy for China’s spectacular economic achievements had two main components. The first was a collective leadership arrangement within the Communist Party. Deng rejected Western-style democracy, but China’s tumultuous decades under Mao Zedong had taught him that one-man rule is dangerous. He and the party introduced partial checks and balances into politics at the highest level, including term limits. The second component was a single-minded pursuit of economic growth that, Deng famously declared, would be China’s “hard principle.” Officials throughout China dove headlong into promoting growth at all costs — bringing prosperity but also corruption, inequality and heavy industrial pollution.

Last week in Beijing, Mr. Xi dismantled those foundations. He ensured that he would remain paramount leader of China for a third term — if not for life — and packed the party’s leadership with loyalists while heavily prioritizing national security over the pursuit of economic growth.

In his speech to the party congress at the Great Hall of the People on Oct. 16, he mentioned “security” significantly more often than “economy,” a major break with precedent. He went further, declaring unambiguously, “National security is the bedrock of national rejuvenation, and social stability is a prerequisite for building a strong and prosperous China.”

In Chinese politics, small changes in wording can herald big shifts in ideology and policy. If there were any remaining doubts about Mr. Xi’s intentions, he dispelled them by vowing that China would stick to its zero-Covid policy, “without wavering.” His government’s approach to the pandemic, a public health policy in name, is in reality the most powerful security tool devised by the Communist Party, restricting access to the country and controlling who can go where, underpinned by tracking apps that citizens and visitors must have on their smartphones.

For observers long accustomed to Deng’s growth-first ethos, Mr. Xi’s policy choice is mind-boggling. The Covid controls are angering citizens, crippling China’s economy, decimating domestic consumption, disrupting manufacturing and logistics, and repelling foreign and local investors alike.

Why is the most powerful Chinese leader in decades so obsessed with security and domestic control that he would sacrifice the economy? The answer lies in an array of domestic and foreign challenges, some worsened by Mr. Xi’s own policy choices.

Politically, he probably fears the proverbial knife in the back after making enemies through a decade-long anti-corruption campaign in which thousands of officials — possibly including potential political rivals — were punished and is doubling down on repression out of his instinct for self-preservation.

On the economic front, he faces smoldering crises, including an economy that is slowing sharply, a property sector meltdown and record-breaking youth unemployment. These problems have been exacerbated by the Covid controls and by Mr. Xi’s “common prosperity” campaign — a strategy for narrowing inequality and addressing monopolistic behavior by big tech firms and other private companies, which was punctuated by an abrupt and sweeping regulatory crackdown last year that has alarmed investors. The market backlash was intense: Within months, more than a trillion dollars in value at many of China’s most innovative companies evaporated.

On foreign policy, Mr. Xi has projected an ambition to challenge American primacy. The Trump administration’s chaotic handling of the pandemic prompted Mr. Xi to boast that “the East is rising and the West is declining.” But his triumphalism was premature. China is far from an even match with the United States in economic, military or technological power. And while American democracy is in crisis, the United States remains strong, a true superpower and a free country able to criticize and renew itself. Mr. Xi criticizes the West for seeking to contain China, but his hubris and aggressive approach helped bring about this threat.

To be sure, Mr. Xi does not intend to completely abandon the capitalist success that rejuvenated China and brought global respect and influence. And to his credit, he has confronted serious problems that his predecessors swept under the rug, particularly corruption and economic inequality. His vision of a powerful China, respected on the global stage, is warranted given his country’s size and economic clout.

But addressing China’s myriad problems will require measured steps that Mr. Xi seems disinclined to take. Putting out fires in China’s economy must begin with relaxing Covid restrictions and importing more effective vaccines, something that his government has prevented. These won’t be miracle cures, but they are necessary first steps that will go a long way toward alleviating stress on China’s people and reassuring investors that his leadership team has not lost all sense.

Mr. Xi has plunged China into a vicious cycle: A hubristic and authoritarian leader, unaccountable to society and unchallenged even by his own advisers, makes poor policy choices, which add to his problems, exacerbating his fears of a revolt and leading to more repression.

The consequences of his decision to emphasize security over economic vibrancy will be global. China is the world’s second-largest economy and the biggest trading partner of dozens of countries. A prolonged economic slowdown in China will increase the risk of a global recession, with many countries sharing the pain. In the long run, there may be winners as China’s waning competitiveness hastens a shift in global supply chains to other emerging economies. But if China turns inward, it will lose. Chinese tech companies are already expanding overseas to compensate for a restrictive home environment.

China’s great capitalist revolution under Deng and his successors is now history. So is Mr. Xi’s first 10 years in office, when there was at least a minimal layer of checks on his power from moderate, non-loyalist officials. China under Mao and the former Soviet Union proved that absolute dictatorships fail miserably at making nations prosperous and strong. They bring only impoverishment and false security. Mr. Xi is likely to relearn those lessons in the coming years.

Yuen Yuen Ang (@yuenyuenang) is a political economist and the author of “Chinaʼs Gilded Age” and “How China Escaped the Poverty Trap.”

As we await Sunday’s introduction of the official lineup for the 25-person Politburo, the 7-person Standing Committee, the Premier and the President over the next five years, what has already become clear is that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has gone all in on Xi Jinping. While the field might possibly look somewhat different at the next Party Congress, the broad contours for the global picture for the coming five years are becoming clear. The bold brushstrokes were drawn by Xi during his nearly two-hour speech delivered last Sunday. Since then, there have been ample signs of what’s to come. The team being assembled around Xi will be made up of apprentices filling in with finer brush strokes for Xi, not near-peers willing to argue for painting a different landscape.

“Dystopia with Chinese Characteristics” (my title). Original print artwork by Yang Yongliang

So what are the big takeaways from the Congress so far for the global community to consider?

  • The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” is the goal for the CCP and Xi alike. There’s no daylight between Xi Jinping and the Party on this point. China wants back at the center of the world.
  • Zero-COVID policy can only change marginally. It bears the weight of Xi’s claim that “Chinese-style democracy” is superior to traditional Western-style democracy. Look, fewer people died, right?
  • Whatever the economic headwinds, the ship of state will stay “secure” and on-course as long as Xi is at the helm. (Translation: state security and ideology to be prioritized over Deng’s economic reforms)
  • Taiwan’s incorporation into China — which, post-Hong Kong, is now only feasible by outright coercion or military force — is the sine qua non of the full achievement of China’s great rejuvenation

And what are some key things that we’ll be watching in this this space in the weeks and months ahead to gauge Xi’s and the CCP’s success in making progress toward this vision:

  • Fall-out from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (neither of which were mentioned once in Xi’s speech)
  • Performance of China’s economy in light of Covid lockdowns, real estate sector implosion, regulatory crackdown on tech firms, and the drag of Belt & Road Initiative debt burdens
  • Push-back from the U.S. and Europe, from non-aligned nations and the developing world, and from China’s own citizens as Xi pushes dictatorship with Chinese characteristics as his “new choice for humanity.”
  • And, most crucially from my individual perspective, the “tech-tonic” shocks upending global economies as competition over microchip innovation, production and supply continues to ramp up

Please accept my apology for the mysteriously truncated version of yesterday’s post you received and please click here to access to the corrected and full version of that post. Thanks to several of you for pointing this issue out to me promptly and thanks to all of you for your patience with this goof.

Kevin Rudd, global president of the Asia Society and former Prime Minister of Australia, knows China well. He wrote in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal that:”The 20th Congress, which gets under way Oct. 16th will be different (from other Congresses since the opening of the 1982 reform era). There’s only one appointment that matters now: Xi Jinping, China’s Chairman of Everything. The delegates will reappoint Mr. Xi to a third five-year term as general secretary by a vote of 2,296 to 0.”

I don’t disagree with the main point that Kevin Rudd is making here but there is also a more nuanced view that is important to bring to bear. Wednesday’s post set the table for this more nuanced view. That perspective involves understanding the seven appointments which will be announced on Sunday to the Standing Committee under Xi. The crux of the issue is whether those seven appointments represents a line-up of Xi loyalists — in which case Rudd’s take is spot on — or whether there are appointments enfranchising power-bases at odds with Xi’s direction and indicating that the Party wants some checks on Xi’s untrammeled authority.

Here’s my cheat-sheet to reading next week’s Standing Committee appointments in light of this question:

Chutes & Ladders: 20th CPP National Congress Edition

So what to watch for?

(Scenario 1) Signs that the CCP is totally bought into Xi being Chairman of Everything

Premier Li Keqiang (aged 67 and therefore normatively eligible for another term) is gone

— No one in their early 50s joins the Standing Committee (showing Xi doesn’t want heir apparent)

Chen Min’er, a Xi loyalist and champion of Xi’s war on poverty, is appointed

Ding Xuexiang, a Xi loyalist and Xi policy enforcer, is appointed

(Scenario 2) Signs that the CCP wants some checks on Xi’s untrammeled exercise of power

He Lifeng, an internationally-friendly protégé of retiring economic czar Liu He, is appointed

Hu Chunhua, who like Xi had a stellar early career but hasn’t been close with him since, is appointed

Li Hongzhong, party boss of Tianjin and not “a dyed-in-the-wool” Xi man, is appointed

Li Xi, party boss of independently minded Guangdong province, is appointed

Finally, keep an eye on Chen Quanguo, party boss of Xinjiang in charge of Uyghur “reeducation,” and Liu Jieyi, head of the Taiwan Affairs Office and the political dimension of the Taiwan reunification project. Whether their stars shine brightly or dim will also give an indication of the degree of CCP support for Xi’s hardline policies on these two fronts.

So that’s the scorecard I recommend you follow. We’ll circle back next week and tally up the score after the Standing Committee line-up has been brought out, in rank order, onto the main stage of the 20th National Party Congress.

Volume 2, Number 4 in Global TECHtonics: U.S./China Fault-line series

 

The weekend’s big development in the technology arena is Beijing’s eleventh-hour move to alter the timing and trajectory of the sale of TikTok’s U.S. operation.

We touched on the Trump Administration’s August moves against TikTok’s parent Bytedance in the U.S./China De-Coupling: 4 Levels of Risk post two weeks ago.  On August 6th, President Trump signed two executive orders which started a 45-day time-clock involving two Chinese companies with hugely popular social media apps – ByteDance (owner of TikTok) and Tencent (owner of WeChat).  According to those orders, U.S. citizens and businesses would be barred, once the 45-day period expired, from any transaction involving the company and/or its products.  On August 14th, the Trump Administration modified the order as far as it affected TikTok by putting a new order in place, giving TikTok 90-days within which to complete the divestiture of its U.S. operation to an approved U.S. corporate buyer.

The widely-presumed reason for this change being made so shortly after the announcement of the original order is that U.S. potential buyers interested in acquiring the U.S. operations of TikTok had pitched their interest to the White House.  It is not surprising that U.S. potential acquirers would be focused on TikTok and not WeChat.  The number of TikTok users in the U.S. is estimated at 80 million in comparison with 19 million for WeChat.  Its growth rate in global markets is far faster and, critically, its algorithms have nearly ubiquitous applicability whereas WeChat algorithms are more geared to Chinese user behavior and are so less replicable in other world markets.

Two groups of interested buyers have emerged publicly since the August 14th announcement:

  • Microsoft/Walmart: As Instagram and other social networks edge into offering shopping features, Microsoft and Walmart are looking to establish themselves at the strategic center of this opportunity with one bold acquisition  move.   Put simply, Walmart would provide the e-commerce component for TikTok while Microsoft would manage the crucial cloud-computing infrastructure.  The deal offers competitive advantages to both firms – Walmart would become better positioned to compete with Amazon and Microsoft would gain experience with an innovative and cutting-edge set of algorithms and data-sets.
  • Oracle: According to analysis by the New York Times business reporter Mike Isaac, “Oracle could use TikTok’s data about social interactions to benefit its cloud, data and advertising businesses.” Also, like Microsoft and Walmart, Oracle is interested in the opportunity the deal would afford “to offer customers a hyper-personalized experience in both content and commerce.”

Going into the weekend, the expectation was high that Bytedance’s preferred acquisition partner would become known and that negotiations would shift to a new phase of negotiation with only that chosen partner.

So, what was the development over the weekend which changed the trajectory and pace of this deal?  The Chinese government announced late in the day on Friday that any sale of Bytedance’s assets would be subject to a brand-new set of restrictions affecting artificial intelligence exports.  As reported in still-developing coverage in the Wall Street Journal, “the new Chinese restrictions highlight the extent to which TikTok, a breakout social-media hit—especially with younger U.S. users—has been thrust into a geopolitical contest between the U.S. and China over the future of global technology.”

I’ll limit my commentary on this development to three main points – a historical observation, a key point having to do with the present-day competition in advanced technologies between the U.S. and China, and my personal handicapping of where this deal is likely to go in the weeks ahead.

 

Historical Antecedent: The U.S.-Japan Trade War

While observers sometimes invoke the U.S.-Japan Trade War as a template for understanding our current tensions with China, the contrasts between the two are probably more instructive than the similarities.  A future post will return to the broad comparison.  For our purposes here, I will single out one important point of contrast.  The U.S.-Japan Trade war became incandescently hot as a political issue in the lead-up to the 1992 U.S. Presidential election.  But while that was happening, commercial developments on the ground were already in motion to begin lowering the heat.  The industry sector in which the grass-roots transformation took root and started having great effect was the automotive sector.  The seed for that bottom-up transformation was the fact that, post-war, Japan had developed intellectual property in their domestic market  that made them more competitive than the U.S. industry in a number of vital areas of automotive manufacturing (e.g., inventory management, quality control, customer-based innovation, etc). Led by Toyota, the Japanese and U.S. industries started reaching an accommodation even before politicians in the U.S. turned up the volume on their anti-Japan megaphones.  Japan would license out its intellectual property and bring its production closer to its customers in the U.S. by building factories and supplier networks in the U.S.  In return, American companies would gain access to know-how in areas where its competitiveness was lagging and also gained greater access to the restricted Japanese market.  At a political level, investments in new state-of-the-art production facilities in the non-unionized south brought jobs into key congressional districts.  Of equal importance, auto workers, their families and their communities started having the experience of working alongside Japanese managers on U.S. soil.  In the process, real-world people-to-people experiences built on collaboration replaced the one-dimensional caricatures being amplified by politicians and the media.

The Chinese have studied this experience whereby Japan lessened the political tension of the U.S.-Japan Trade War while, simultaneously expanding access to the lucrative U.S. market and affluent U.S. consumers.  For various reasons, they have not been as successful in applying the model.  We’ll examine the broader set of reasons in a future post but, for present purposes, one salient reason is that China, generally speaking, has not developed the portfolio of intellectual property focused in high-value industries (like, for Japan, automotive and consumer electronics) and highly sought after by U.S. companies.  Except, that is, until now as China emerges with competitiveness in advanced technology fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and autonomous vehicles.

 

Looking at Both Sides Now:

The U.S. innovation ecosystem represented by Silicon Valley is, and is likely to remain for the foreseeable future, peerless in many important respects – depth of talent and experience, access to capital, connectivity to leading universities, basic research capability and innovation mindedness.  In three respects, however, emerging tech competitors in China enjoy advantages which U.S. firms can’t match.  First, China has been for years the biggest and fastest growing market in the world and U.S. companies can’t afford to cede that base of users entirely to their Chinese competition to monopolize.  However, the ability of U.S. firms to access those consumers is highly constrained by a whole raft of protections – many non-WTO compliant and others not yet covered by WTO ground-rules — by which the Chinese government limits foreign access to its home market and by which it supports its home-grown champion companies.  Second, China may enjoy a tactical advantage through its laser-focus on market applications (as opposed to research and academically-based innovation). Third, AI firms in China definitely enjoy a leg-up in algorithm development because they have direct access to the world’s largest user-base for smart phones and are less constrained by privacy protections for those users.  These latter two advantages for Chinese tech firms are persuasively presented by the former President of Google China, Kaifu Lee (a Taiwanese national whose computer science PhD thesis at Carnegie Mellon gave birth to the world’s first speaker-independent, continuous speech recognition system) in his book AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order.  In Lee’s view, “the United States may have been a first mover in AI but that advantage will not last forever. The AI era will reward the quantity of solid AI engineers over the quality of elite researchers. Strength will come from an army of well-trained engineers and entrepreneurs, and China is training just such an army.”

So, stepping back, there is now for the first time since normalization of U.S.-China relations a strategically-important (emerging) industry where Chinese firms hold important competititve advantages over the U.S.  Unlike democratic Japan, this high-stakes competition is associated with a Communist regime with all that that entails for public attitudes in the U.S.  And there is little in the of way local ties-that-bind being built quickly and effectively on a people-to-people basis.  Nothing that can match the stabilizing experience with Japan investment into the U.S. in the 1990s. Together, these three factors go a long way to illuminating the huge pressures that have been building up under the U.S./China technology faultline on both sides of the U.S. political aisle.

 

Where’s The TikTok Deal Likely to Go?

Despite the fact that practically nothing is known yet about the details of the PRC government restrictions announced on Friday, two things can be safely said.   First, the fact that the PRC government is invoking national security as a basis for governing the commercial activities of its leading artificial intelligence firms is hardly surprising.  The competition between the U.S. and China is, for reasons just examined, acute.  The U.S. and other countries routinely monitor and manage international commercial activity for their technologically-advanced products and services, especially those that are ‘dual-use’ in both commercial and military applications.  The second point is that the timing of the announcement tends to be viewed in the U.S. as so transparently tied to the on-going negotiation involving TikTok that it will be viewed more as a political beanball, than a fair pitch.  This despite the fact, as pointed out by an astute comment (see below), that these new regulations had been proposed prior to Trump’s August 6th announcement and were in a public comment process.

The Chinese government action raises the prospect that key algorithms and other vital data – everything that makes TikTok tick — may be stripped out of the sale by its Chinese parent corporation as a new requirement of Chinese law.  That result would fundamentally change the value proposition for both the Microsoft/Walmart and Oracle bidding teams.  It’s like the difference in value between a top-of-the-line computer and that same computer with all its electronics removed.  At the very least, the PRC government action will force all parties to slow the pace of their negotiations and delay the deal being sealed until there’s greater clarity about what will ultimately be allowed.

With Friday’s move, it’s likely that the Chinese government will be satisfied with slowing the deal and changing the trajectory of its fall-out for global technology competition.  Scuppering the deal entirely would risk dramatically escalating the issue with Trump and his Administration.  That would go against China’s temporary strategy of muted response to the Trump Administration’s recent, pre-election flurry of jabs.  The idea in Zhongnanhai in the run-up to November 3rd is to give its wolf-warriors and nationalistic netizens enough to appease their appetites but not enough to risk fanning Washington-Beijing flames out of control.

So, with the clock ticking down to 64 days before the U.S. election and with 78 days before the Trump Executive Order 90-day deadline expires on November 12th, the endgame of this global chess match is now ruled by the time-clock.

TikTok, TikTok, TikTok …

 

ambitions

Bear with me. I’m going to kick off today’s post with a snapshot about how we organize the blog’s content week by week in order to set the stage for then revealing the slight wrinkle with today’s post. Boring. Hang in there, though … there’s a good reason.

 

The TEA Collaborative produces three blog-posts per week: on Mondays (aspirationally, at least) we put out a tech-related post which takes care of the T in our name; on Wednesdays (ditto) an energy/environment post which covers the letter E; and on Fridays (ditto) an A post for Ambitions (by which we mean the effort to chronicle the seventy-year undertaking by the government of the People’s Republic of China to leverage their huge population, along with other assets, to confront the world with a new, ambitious model of change at vast scale and speed).

So as not to get trapped into rigidity, we have also been planning all along to fold occasionally a so-called X-factor post into this T-E-A formula.  X-series posts will generally be the contribution of an invited guest blogger who is an acknowledged Xpert (sorry, couldn’t resist) in the broad field of U.S.-China relations.

Today’s post turns out to be a bit of a hybrid between A and X.  Originally, we were lining up an X-series post which I thought might appear today but, for various reasons, that expert will need to hold off her appearance until September.  Since I did not myself have anything particularly cogent prepped for Ambitions as a fall-back, I went through much of the day yesterday mentally open, in equal measure, to either inspiration or dumb luck. Dumb luck won the day.

As a result, I am able to present here both a fortuitous hybrid — content that actually does fit the A-Series perspective but happens to be delivered by a different X-series expert.  (The wrinkle is that the X-series expert is not yet aware that he is filling in this way.  I’ve written him today to explain and to get his blessing.  Having gotten to know him in a sense after listening to more than 100 hours of his podcast series, I’m pretty sure he’ll go for it.  If not, though, I’ll have to pull this from the blogsite.  So, you might want to read fast.)

OK, here we go …

In our T(ech) post from last week, Fiddling Around with U.S.-China Tech, I asserted: “there was undoubtedly a measure of optimistic naïveté in the West in assuming China’s willingness to dutifully assume the role of a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the post-WWII world order.  If the Chinese had conceived of their nation as only having been born in 1949, assuming the mantle of responsible Pax Americana stakeholder might have fit more comfortably. As it was, Chinese conceived the People’s Republic of China as the heir to a Chinese polity which had been the dominant economy in the world for sixteen of the previous eighteen centuries.  They weren’t predisposed to simply adopting some newcomer’s rules and norms as to how China should conduct itself on the world stage.”

Today’s post is going to put meat on the bones of that assertion.  In order to do so, I will turn to Mike Duncan — creator, author and narrator of the magisterial History of Rome podcast series.  On the occasion of the 100th episode of his series, Mike took listeners’ questions.  For the remainder of this post, I am going to take his answers to two questions from that podcast, reverse the order in which he answered them, and share his erudition here to shine a bright light on the two component parts of my assertion:  first, why would the Chinese not naturally think of themselves as heirs to something very special which pre-dated 1949 by quite a few years; and, second, why would the Chinese not naturally have some skepticism about falling in line with a new-fangled U.S.-led world order dating back to 1949.

Except for the headings, the following two points of text are entirely drawn from the 100th episode of Mike Duncan’s History of Rome podcast.

  1. China Has More Historical Continuity Than The Roman Empire (And That’s Saying Something)

Question:
What, if any, relationship existed between ancient Rome and China?

Answer:
The majority of the contact between Rome and China was indirect, but the two great bookends of the world certainly knew that the other existed. The Han Dynasty, which persists in one form or another from about 200 BC to 220 AD was rising at the same time as the Romans, and as Rome headed East, the Han headed West. And it was during this period that the links became more overt. With the stabilizing hand of the Han in place the famous Silk Road was able to knit itself together, carrying silk and other Oriental treasures from China all the way to Antioch, and from there to Rome, while, among other things, Roman glasswork made their way back to the Chinese.

In 97 AD a Chinese embassy was sent West to try to make contact with the kingdom of the Da Qin, which is what the Han called Rome. But apparently they were stopped short in Mesopotamia after the Parthians explained that the difficult crossing to Rome would take another two years at least. This bald faced lie was meant to keep the two poles of the lucrative trade routes, which Parthia controlled, from ever meeting and working out a way to bypass the Parthian middlemen.

In 166, though, a Roman embassy was sent east and was able to make contact with the Chinese emperor. Debate still swirls about how the Romans got there, whether by sea or overland, but a meeting definitely occurred and the Romans offered up all kinds of gifts from the West, including a book of Greco-Roman astronomy. Nothing concrete seems to have followed the meeting though, and thereafter the two sides continued to simply trade with one another indirectly via the Silk Road or by the sea routes around India.

For the remainder of the Empire, Chinese silk remained a highly sought after luxury item in Rome, and was a major point of contention, both for old school conservatives who found how revealing the fabric was disturbing, and proto economists who worried about how much gold was disappearing east for nothing but a few scraps of cloth.

2.   What’s the Enculturated Chinese Attitude Towards a ‘Pax Americana’ Dating Back to 1949?

Question:
“One of the earliest topics that was brought up is the purported similarities between ancient Rome and the US. What are the main similarities and differences between ancient Rome and the present and historical US?”

Answer:

Well, let’s go through the obvious list. The United States kicked out a monarch, founded a republic wildly skewed in favor of a rich aristocracy (that was self-consciously modeled on Roman institutions), dealt with violent upheavals as the lower social classes attempted to capture some power for themselves, expanded aggressively on their own continent before accidentally capturing overseas territories, and is now utterly dominant militarily, politically and economically. What else do you need to know?

Throw in the fact that if you believe the Soviet Union was Carthage and that the Cold War is our equivalent of the Punic Wars, then you can even locate us within the larger timeline right around the rise of the Gracchi brothers and, hey, look, Tea Parties.

Except that one thing that’s really been driven home to me lately is that while you can find these superficial similarities, there are much deeper differences. Every powerful nation follows its own trajectory, for its own particular reasons, towards own particular end, though usually at the height of each one’s power, they claim that they are the rebirth of the Roman empire.

For me, the biggest difference between America and Rome is that compared to Rome, the United States is a baby and could be very well proved to be merely a flash in the pan. The Roman Empire became the dominant state in the Mediterranean around 200 BC and remained as such in one form or another until the fall of Constantinople in the 1450s. I mean, we are talking about a nearly 2000 year period where you simply cannot talk about anything that occurred in North Africa, Europe, or the Middle East without talking about Rome. America, by contrast, was a pretty decent regional power for about a century, a pretty major world power for about 75 years after that, and has been living with the kind of unipolar prestige Rome enjoyed for centuries for about the last 20 years.

If the United States of America is still around in 3010, I think maybe then we can start talking about comparisons to Rome. Until then, things happen, nations rise and fall, and borders shift. I’m not saying America can’t dominate the world for a millennia. I’m just saying that it’s an awful lot to ask of anyone.

Rome was all about longevity and stability, and that is a test that no one in the West has been able to pass since.

My Personal Postscript

We live in a polarized time.  Many people who I encounter in the blogosphere will be inclined to take this post as evidence that I am somehow an apologist for the PRC.  Let me set the record straight on that possible perception:

  • My entire professional life has been dedicated to supporting U.S. Government institutions (e.g., the U.S. Foreign Service), U.S. Government programs (e.g,. the U.S.-China EcoPartnership program) and U.S.-led People-to-People cooperative programs such as The Philadelphia Orchestra’s engagement with China
  • Above and beyond my professional involvements, I personally believe that America’s multi-cultural, future-oriented perspective is the world’s best path forward, at least as far as I have so far encountered
  • I do not believe in historical determinism.  There is nothing about either Rome’s or China’s longevity which I find instructive for understanding their futures, except for the single fact that the people who grow up in that cultural tradition feel it in their bones
  • But, as I took pains to lay out in my Where I Stand post, I will never shy from seeking to understand, take into account, and respect my counterpart’s reality when grappling with a shared problem so that solutions which work for “my side” will also work for theirs.  Those are the solutions that stick.

The COVID-19 pandemic holds lots of lessons for addressing the climate change challenge.  I’ll tackle the knottiest set of lessons — those concerning differing global responses, U.S. partisan cleavages, the psychology of risk and individual choice, and the ethics — in an upcoming post.

For now, I will simply set out a list of ten major impacts which the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the climate change mitigation effort.  Four negative, four positive, and two ‘the jury is out.’

FOUR NEGATIVE IMPACTS

 

POACHING, LOGGING & PROTECTED AREAS LOSS

The impacts of COVID-19 — reducing mobility, leading to job cuts, and diverting world attention — have made the work of guarding against poaching, illegal logging and other threats to protected areas much more difficult to accomplish. Endangered specie and protected areas are suffering as a direct consequence.  Possibly, enhanced satellite surveillance and monitoring may be put to greater use in the future to help deal with this problem.

 

SUSTAINABLE TOURISM

The Travel & Leisure Industry has been perhaps the single most hard-hit industry sector as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  As a new start-up, the Sustainable Tourism sub-sector has felt this impact particularly hard.  Many Sustainable Tourism operations are in underdeveloped or developing countries and run by local cooperatives which don’t have access to capital resources to sustain them.

 

CIRCULAR ECONOMY & WASTE MANAGEMENT

Circular economy refers to design solutions that repurpose waste from every point in a system so that is can be reused, optimizing the system from an efficiency and sustainability standpoint. Factories and entire cities are working to implement circular economies.  The logistics of waste management is a key link.  As you’ll know post-COVID if you’ve tried to recycle plastic bags at your market, that link in the cycle is currently broken.

 

ENVIRONMENTAL ACTION MOBILIZATION

Humans are hard-wired for connectivity and, while online methods of mobilization allow for greater efficiency and scale, they lack the impact of people gathering together … both from the standpoint of the participants and the observers of the activity.  Countless environmental action events have now been cancelled due to COVID-19.  Even the COP26 meeting to review progress on the Paris Accord has been postponed a year.

 

 

FOUR POSITIVE IMPACTS

 

REGENERATIVE URBAN GARDENS

Along with baking and at-home yoga, urban gardening is one of the activities which has seen a huge spike since COVID-19 forced us to stay closer to home.  This is a hugely positive development since urban gardens have shown — through programs such as the Philadelphia Horticultural Societies Growers Alliance — that they transform neighborhoods. Food deserts become locales with healthy food while improving the quality of the air.

 

15 MINUTE CITY CONCEPT

As  Financial Times and Treehugger have described, the 15-Minute City concept is “having a moment” thanks to COVID-19.  Developed by Professor Carlos Moreno at the Sorbonne in Paris and based on the Lazaretto model developed in Milan during a 16th c. plague, the 15 Minute City plan is to “offer services and quality of life within the space of 15 minutes on foot from home,” the same time a commuter might have waited on the platform for a train.

 

MORE INCLUSIVE LOCAL CLIMATE ACTION PLANS

Among the many things which the COVID-19 pandemic has made painfully obvious is that fact that certain disadvantaged and at-risk communities take a disproportionately heavy hit.  One bright side from this realization is that Sustainability Offices throughout the country are dusting off their city’s Climate Action Plan and reimagining them with a more inclusive vision.  I don’t know if this effort is yet underway in Philadelphia but it should be.

 

IMPACT ON SOCIAL IMPACT INVESTING

COVID-19 initially had a disruptive effect on social impact investing, but that disruption has been overcome.  Perhaps because the pandemic has highlighted vulnerabilities in our maximally-efficient economy (and maximally-stressed work-lives) ideas and innovations for more balance and resiliency in work- and life-styles are popping up.  Social impact investing is watering the growth of those new ideas.

 

TWO ‘THE JURY IS STILL OUT’ IMPACTS

 

AIR QUALITY

The shutdown of economic activity and drastic reduction in the use of fossil fuels has of course led to a short-term amelioration in air quality, as the twin maps of China clearly shows.  But the jury is out on the critical question of what will happen as activity resumes.  Will economic pressure cause backsliding to abundant and cheap carbon fuels or will the Resiliency Lesson from our experience from the pandemic be learned?  We know that areas with worse air quality suffered more from the virus.

 

INFLECTION POINT – YES OR NO?

We can enlarge the air quality question to the environment as a whole.  Our efforts now to revive economic activity can either be rote or be reimagined.  There are lessons which the pandemic has taught us about our interdependence and about what is most important in our lives.  Will we apply what we have learned to recharging our economy in ways that are more resilient and regenerative or will be fall back on old habits? The answer will reverberate across coming generations.

 

These last two impacts are complex, still-evolving and extremely important.  I will return to each in a future post.

For now, stay safe, healthy and involved.

 

 

Volume 2, Number 3 in Global TECHtonics: U.S./China Fault-line series

A U.S.-led initiative to reach out to China and to welcome it into the community of Western nations began with President Nixon trip to Beijing in February 1972.  Orchestrated by Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Advisor at the time, the trip was a brilliant Cold War gambit to exploit the growing rift between Moscow and Beijing. The trip kicked off a seven-year process of “normalizing” relations between the West and “the sleeping dragon” of Asia and, in so doing, divided the Soviet bloc. Through almost half-a-century and a bipartisan succession of Presidents, the effort to engage with China continued as that country woke from its Cultural Revolution nightmare and began to rise up, shaking the world as it did so.

February 1972 was the Year of the Rat (Water Element) in the Chinese zodiac.  Forty-eight years later we are again in the Year of the Rat under the Metal Element.  In Chinese traditional thinking, we have gone from a time of suppleness and fluidity to a time of hardness and intransigence.  In the minds of most Western observers, we have passed from a strategic engagement with China to, under President Trump, a time of open competition on the world stage and strategic disengagement (“de-coupling”) in the technology arena.

This post will save for another time the broader discussion about how and why this shift came about other than to make three general, even obvious, points.  First, there was undoubtedly a measure of optimistic naïveté in the West in assuming China’s willingness to dutifully assume the role of a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the post-WWII world order.  If the Chinese had conceived of their nation as only having been born in 1949, assuming the mantle of responsible Pax Americana stakeholder might have fit more comfortably. As it was, Chinese conceived the People’s Republic of China as the heir to a Chinese polity which had been the dominant economy in the world for sixteen of the previous eighteen centuries.  They weren’t predisposed to simply adopting some newcomer’s rules and norms as to how China should conduct itself on the world stage. Second, there has undoubtedly been tactical overreach and ill-advised swaggering by President Xi Jinping since his triumphalist speech at the 19th Party Congress in September 2017.  U.S.-China relations would undoubtedly be on a more stable track today had Xi Jinping played his cards differently, following suit more with Deng Xiaoping’s opening bid of “keeping a low profile (hiding one’s capacity) and biding one’s time” (韜光養晦、有所作為) rather than flashing his Made in China 2025 card so conspicuously. It can be argued that it’s better from the U.S. standpoint for this “world order competition” to be out in the open. Third, the horse is definitely out of the barn.  No U.S. Administration is going to try to get that horse back on the 1972-2017 normalization track. The world has changed and what is needed is a U.S. Administration which recognizes real challenges from China but does not exaggerate them and which marshals the resources to address those challenges in an efficient and effective way, rather than wastefully and non-productively.

The remainder of this post uses last week’s The Four Levels of Risk post as a backdrop to a quick sketch outlining just how wasteful and ineffective the Trump Administration’s policy of technology de-coupling from China is becoming.  I’ll do this sketch with three brushstrokes – the view from U.S. boardrooms, the view from the cultural sidelines and the view from history.

 

The View from U.S. Boardrooms

A CNBC.com article by Arjun Kharpal published on June 4, 2019 made no reference to the Tiananmen anniversary but did point out that the Trump Administration’s Huawei policy was quickly hoisted on its own petard  – failing to get allies to broaden the campaign but leading to a marked acceleration of China’s efforts to develop its own semiconductor industry to supplant U.S. semiconductor supply in the Chinese market and, eventually, in world markets.  “The Huawei incident has indeed stimulated the development of China’s domestic chip industry,” Gu Wenjun, analyst at China-based semiconductor research firm ICWise, told CNBC by email” wrote Kharpal at the time. Now, one year later, Trump Administration policy is digging this hole deeper and at a faster pace:

  • Qualcomm is reported to have lost current orders worth as much as $8 billion as a result of the Trump Administration’s May 2020 tightening of trade restrictions imposed against Huawei. The new regulations block all chipmakers that use U.S.-made equipment or software from producing chips for Huawei (though companies can apply for a license to continue supply)
  • Following the Trump Administration’s August 6th signing of an Executive Order banning transactions by U.S. companies with Tencent, the owner of the WeChat app, market research firms scrambled to assess the impact on Apple and its installed base of iPhones in the strategically vital Chinese market. The surveys all pointed to the same result – as many as 90% of iPhone users in China would drop the Apple product and switch to Android devices if the WeChat app were no longer available on their iPhones.
  • The same August 6th Executive Order targeted Bytedance, parent company to the massively popular TikTok app. Seasoned observers who are able to gauge the U.S.-side push-back against this action and know the sloppiness with which the Executive Order was drafted, expect an eventual climbdown by the Administration – if not before the November 3rd election, then shortly after it.

 

The View from the Cultural Sidelines

There are two culture wars raging – a partisan one in U.S. domestic politics and an international one between a suddenly tarnished U.S. model and a much-hyped “bright and shiny” new Chinese model.  The same dynamics at play with the COVID-19 pandemic are at play in the technology sphere.  Domestically, Trump works to energize his base with claims that China is the enemy and that his Administration’s COVID response and China de-coupling response are “the best” that any President could possibly do.  Front-line health workers and tech experts know that, in both cases, the claim lies far afield from the truth.

In China, the popular view cuts to the bone of Trump Administration posturing.  His new nickname is 建国 (Jiànguó), a popular name given by parents to their infants especially during the nationalistic years of the Cultural Revolution.  It means “Build the Country.”  In other words, Trump Administration policies are widely seen as accelerating the same nationalistically-driven Sputnik-type race to advanced semiconductors, artificial intelligence, robotics and the tech future which the policies ostensibly are meant to forestall.  Trump’s impulsive “Only I Can Fix It” approach playing to a grandstand of partisan supporters has made the challenge which Xi Jinping’s China presents the U.S. more acute.   An approach which takes measured and deliberate stock of that challenge and which aligns interests and works closely with the U.S. business community and international partners would be far more effective.  Pumping up nationalist sentiment in both the U.S. and China serves only to narrow options and increase risks of conflict spiraling.

 

The View from History

A pithy take on Trump’s approach to the U.S.-China technology challenge comes from a widely-respected former colleague who has decades of high-level experience with China from political, national security, economic and think-tank perspectives.  He writes “(Trump is like) King Canute trying to fight, instead of the ocean tides, the tides of technology.”

I’ll conclude with another, somewhat longer historical reference which illuminates Trump’s campaign of China-bashing as a central element of his re-election strategy.  It is drawn (almost) verbatim from Episode 66 of The History of Rome podcast series by Mike Duncan:

“Conscious that his standing with the people was taking a hit, the Emperor decided he needed to find someone to take the fall for the fire.  Someone he could point to and say it was them, not me, I didn’t have anything to do with it.  But he couldn’t just grab someone off the street because, with his popularity sinking like a stone, that would just engender the further charge that he was setting up some innocent to take all the blame.  What Nero needed was someone, some group that the people disliked even more than him, someone that the people were ready, willing and able to believe had done this horrible thing if for no other reason than that the people were looking for an excuse to round up and punish them. Enter the Christians. In the thirty odd years since the death of Christ, nascent Christian communities had begun cropping up throughout the Empire.  At first, they were primarily Jewish in character but through the missionary work of St Paul, known later as the Apostle to the Gentiles, this new religion began to spread into the Greco-Roman world.  By the Emperor’s reign, a tiny community of believers, led according to tradition by St. Peter, had established a religious beachhead in Rome itself. The problem the early Christians faced in Rome, though, was not just that their religion, in comparison to the wider pagan world, struck the average Roman as downright weird, but also that at this point most Christian adherents were non-citizen resident aliens in the city who spoke primarily Greek or Hebrew. So the Christians in Rome looked different, spoke a different language, usually came from the lower rungs of the social ladder, and belonged to a strange monotheistic cult that seemed to have cannibalistic overtones. All in all, they were capital O Other in every sense of the word. And as has been proven over and over again by history, whenever terrible things happen to a community – economic problems, floods, plagues, fires – it is the capital O Others who usually get blamed. So desperate to shift responsibility for the great fire away from himself, the Emperor looked at these Others and decided to lay it all on them.”

The only change I have made to this podcast text, recorded in August 2009, was my substitution of the central character’s title instead of his name.  Even with that switch, there’s little surprise who that Emperor was.

Nero.

 

 

Everything that I have ever done professionally has been approached and viewed through the lens of one of two disciplines.  Eventually, I learned to combine the two.

The first was the discipline of cultural anthropology. A twelfth-grade class in 20th c. religious thought led me to major in Asian Comparative Religion at Princeton which led me (after a year of traveling overland from Europe to Taiwan via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal) to a joint MA/PhD program at the University of California at Berkeley.  Two and a half years living at 10,500’ in the village of Tengyi in the Manang Valley north of Annapurna (pictured below), taught me how to see the world through the eyes of people with different circumstances and values.

 

The other was the discipline of diplomacy.  I joined the U.S. Foreign Service in the spring of 1988, a little more than two years after getting my degree.  (I should mention at this point that I made very good use of the intervening time by moving to New York to court Grace, by marrying Grace, and by renovating our first house in Brooklyn.) Having cleared the various assessment hurdles of the Foreign Service test and having been given an offer to join, it wasn’t a hard decision.  My clearest career idea upon receiving my doctorate was that I did not want to stay in academics.  And my only interview in the corporate world – with SmithKline (now Glaxo) – could have made for an amusing episode of The Office.  So I took the offer. Having come in initially through the State Department, I asked for a lateral transfer into the U.S. Department of Commerce branch of the Foreign Service, because my sense was that — for the two places I really wanted to be posted, China and Japan – a lot of the Embassy action was on the business side.  I wasn’t wrong. Anyway, the point I want to make here is that the anthropological viewpoint worked well with the diplomatic viewpoint to help me see issues in three dimensions and, with that better field of vision, helped me resolve some the issues at the heart of the U.S.-Japan Auto Talks and other knotty diplomatic challenges.  I don’t think I ever told business clients, and rarely told Embassy colleagues, that I was trained as a cultural anthropologist.  I definitely never contemplated for a moment putting PhD on my business cards. But I used the anthropological perspective every day during my time in the Foreign Service.

 

With this as personal introduction, I’ll share here the three roadmaps – ‘pathmaps,’ more accurately – which have been most helpful in guiding me through both the magnificent panoramas and the minefields of modern U.S.-China relations.  In coming weeks, I will give each of these works its own dedicated post.  Today will simply list the three with brief thumbnail intros and identify the common thread I have found most useful.

 

1

Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century

By Orville Schell and John Delury

Random House (2013)

Given to me for Christmas in 2013 by James Gibney — former Foreign Service colleague in Tokyo, editor extraordinaire, and godfather to my younger son – Wealth and Power brings to life a simple but profound insight.  Through the life stories of eleven completely different individuals — in some cases, mortal enemies – Schell and Delury show how all eleven hew to a single goal, China’s rejuvenation through the acquisition of wealth and power.  The early 19th c. scholar Wei Yuan and the activist Feng Guifen proposed completely different courses of action; the Empress Dowager Cixi, the “new citizen” Liang Qichao and the reformer Sun Yaat-sen all saw radically different pathways to modernization, Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong led opposing sides of a decades-long civil war, and Zhu Rongji (whom I met as Mayor of Shanghia on several occasions during my first posting there) and Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiabo had entirely different conceptions of the moral duty of a citizen in modern China.  Nonetheless, despite differing in their ideas of the best means to reach the goal, they all shared an absolutely identical understanding of the most urgent goal in their lives – helping China acquire enough wealth and power to regain its traditional standing as a world colossus.  (This goal, incidentally, continues to be inculcated in the education of every school child in China today).

 

2

Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order

By Bruno Maçães

Hurst Publishers (2019)

 

This book is included not because it is one of the best books about China.  Far from it.  John Pomfret’s The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom and countless other books would make that cut in front of Maçães.  The reason for Belt and Road’s inclusion here is that Maçães does something few too scholars and commentators on China bother to do.  He puts himself into the minds and mindset  of the Chinese government planners who are charting China’s future.  This is what an anthropologist does and the insight it provides helps minimize misunderstanding and creates more space for successful diplomatic outcomes.

Maçães is himself a former Portuguese diplomat with extensive experience in Hong Kong and China.  To give just a sense of his approach, Maçães argues that Western theories of international relations entirely miss the basic conception at the heart of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  In Maçães’ view, that conception “follows Taoist logic: the single concept first divides in two — land and sea — then in several — the corridors and coutnries — then in many — the specific projects and privileged locations” in the BRI enterprise.

 

3

The U.S. and China in the 21st Century: Sub-National Sino-American Relations

Course Number IMPA 608 in the School of Liberal & Professional Studies (FY 2019 & 20)

International Masters of Public Administration, Fox Leadership International

Instructor: Terry Cooke   Co-Instructor: Liyiran (Shelly) Xia

 

This is the course I taught at Penn for two years before COVID-19 hit and the course was furloughed.  I hasten to point out that I am adding it here because of the input from students, rather than because of my syllabus.  The course is designed in two parts: the first seven weeks involves readings, lectures and classroom discussion structured on the basis of my syllabus; the second seven weeks, the most valuable part of the course, is a knowledge co-creation exercise based on original research, much of it in Chinese, which the students conduct and present.  It is through this knowledge co-creation exercise and through insights provided by the students and Co-Instructor Shelly Xia that I have been able to articulate the framework which informs the Ambitions portion of the TEA Collaborative project (T = Technology, E = Energy/Environment, A = Ambitions).  The Ambitions portion seeks to understand and systematically present the MacroDevelopment vision which Chinese government planners have been elaborating and adjusting since the birth of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 (and have been communicating clearly in their Five Year Plans).  It is an effort to apply the joint lens of anthropology and diplomacy to better understand the motivation and to better delineate the opportunities and challenges associated with China’s MacroDev trajectory.  We use three time periods (and, in the last time, period two different geographies) to organize this undertaking:

1949 – 1978:               Version 1.0 of the PRC MacroDev Model

1982 – 2009:               Version 2.0 of the PRC MacroDev Model

2012 – Current:           Version 3.0 of the PRC MacroDev Model
A) Domestic Release
B) International Release (Belt & Road Initiative

Note: the years not covered above were years of opaque, internal deliberation
within the Chinese Communist Party leadership

 

The Common Thread

 

 

I hope the point is obvious.  The common thread here is being able to understand the world as seen through the eyes of your counterpart.  As in business, you don’t always know whether your counterpart will prove to be protagonist or antagonist, friend or foe.  In order to negotiate the best possible deal, however, it is always vital to understand as well as possible that counterpart’s motivations, core values and thought processes.  Whether the climate of U.S.-China relations is chilly or warm, I choose to stand firmly on that ground.

 

The global scientific consensus, most prominently supported by the work of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), assesses with high confidence a global warming increase of 1 °C as measured against preindustrial levels. Currently experienced effects from the 1 °C global warming which has already occurred include: loss of sea ice and glacial shrinking, accelerated sea level rises, shifting atmospheric and oceanic currents, longer and more intense heat waves and hurricane seasons. Impacts on the biosphere include the shifting of plant and animal ranges, earlier plant and tree flowering, and rapid declines in bio- diversity. All of these changes threaten the equilibrium of the planet and, more fundamentally, the continued viability of human adaptation to the planet.

The most recent comprehensive report issued by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2018 compares the difference in impacts on human societies (the ‘delta’) if global warming is allowed to reach 2 °C as opposed to being stabilized at 1.5 °C above preindustrial levels. These delta effects2 include: an additional 10 million people endangered by sea level rise; several hundred million more people made susceptible to poverty; 50% more people exposed to water stress; loss of 1.5 million additional tons of global annual catch for marine fisheries; the number of plant and animal species on which human life depends losing half their habitat.

Clearly, the challenge is epochal. Even assuming that all countries in the world fulfill their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) pledged in the Paris Agreement, the world is currently on track to exceed 1.5° C by 2050 and to remain well above that threshold into the next century.

At a national level, the challenge is no less urgent or less central to societal well-being. Even for an administration notably skeptical of climate change science and aggressively committed to deregulating and redefining environmental standards so as to lessen the severity of threat assessments, the outlook remains dire. According to the Trump Administration’s most recent Climate Assessment3, which synthesizes the data and projections from thirteen federal agencies, key risks facing the nation as a direct result of climate change include risks to communities, the economy, water quality, citizen health, ecosystems, agricultural and food supply; the nation’s infrastructure; and the nation’s defense. To quote directly several specific examples:

  • “Climate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in communities across the United States, presenting growing challenges to human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth;”
  • “Without substantial and sustained global mitigation and regional adaptation efforts, climate change is expected to cause growing losses to American infrastructure and property and impede the rate of economic growth over this century;”
  • “The quality and quantity of water available for use by people and ecosystems across the country are being affected by climate change, increasing risks and costs to agriculture, energy production, industry, recreation and the environment;”
  • “Impacts from climate change on extreme weather and climate-related events, air quality, and the transmission of disease through insects and pests, food and water increasingly threaten the health and well-being of the American people, particularly populations that are already vulnerable;”
  • “Ecosystems and the benefits they provide to society are being altered by climate change and these impacts are projected to continue. Without substantial and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, transformative impacts on some ecosystems will occur; some coral reef and sea ice ecosystems are already experiencing such transformational changes;”
  • “Rising temperatures, extreme heat, drought, wildfire on rangelands, and heavy downpours are expected to increasingly disrupt agricultural productivity in the United States. Expected increases in challenges to livestock health, declines in crop yields and quality, and changes in extreme events in the United States and abroad threaten rural livelihoods, sustainable food security, and price stability;”
  • “Our Nation’s aging and deteriorating infrastructure is further stressed by increases in heavy precipitation events, coastal flooding, heat, wildfire, and other extreme events, as well as changes to average precipitation and temperature. Without adaptation, climate change will continue to degrade infrastructure performance over the rest of the century, with the potential for cascading impacts that threaten our economy, national security, essential services and health and well-being.”These effects are felt most directly at the local level. This is because the costs which climate change inflicts globally and nationally – costs of community disruption, slowing economic growth, deteriorating water quality, ecosystem disequilibrium, and infrastructural decay – are mostly borne at the local level. To address this challenge, the City of Philadelphia, like most major cities in the country and many counties and townships as well, has its own Climate Action Plan. Generally, these local plans have three major components: (1) at the grassroots level, the plan serves to connect with various stakeholder groups such as businesses, educational institutions, residential associations, and engaged constituencies to raise awareness and help coordinate common effort; (2) at the local governmental level, the plan articulates the limited number of focal areas where local government has determined its scarce dollars canhave greatest, proactive impact; and (3) at the supra-local governmental level, these plans serve as the blueprints for collaboration with other cities and regions, as the justification for federal budget requests, and as the channel for consolidating and reporting local ‘carbon emissions savings’ into the Paris Agreement NDC process.

As we have learned with the COVID-19 pandemic, a straightforward scientific fact can be politically complicated.  Acknowledging and addressing human-caused climate change is politically complex in the U.S. at this moment.  So is cooperating with China on anything.  Recognizing those complexities does not, however, absolve us of the responsibility to find a way forward on both the science and the international relations.

1.5° is where the U.S. and China must meet.

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