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Is it Ever Possible for the West to See a “Responsible” China?

Many in the West have tried to coax China to act more “responsibly.” But is it possible for China to ever act “responsibly”? I don’t think so – not because China is inherently not “responsible,” but because an “irresponsible” China is born out of the imagination of an insecure West. In this atmosphere, the only way for the West to deem China to be “responsible” is for China to stop being an independent polity and tow the Western line. Here is a case in point.

Today James Fallows wrote an interesting article on whether China is merely Self-Interested (as any power is) or “Actively Maligned” against the International Order. I won’t repeat what he wrote, suffice for me to quote his reasonable conclusion that:

My experience and judgment are very strongly on the side that the self-interest of a rising China is, more often than not, compatible with the interests of the existing “world order,” notably America’s.

What got my attention is not the conclusion, but a quote he referenced reflecting how many in the West believe China has acted unfairly and irresponsibly at every turn.

It’s not just the economic implications of the undervalued RMB that has people like me (generally though not dogmatically pro-free trade) angry about China’s economic practices. It’s a sense that China doesn’t play by the same rules as everybody else. I don’t know if revaluing the RMB will have positive or negative results. I doubt it will have much of a short-term impact on U.S. unemployment. I suspect it will lead to a Chinese buying spree of American and European assets that will spark a backlash in the opposite direction. (OMG, how did the dollar get so undervalued?)

But I feel strongly in my bones that China needs to start playing on a level field with the rest of the world. It’s not just currency manipulation. The rare earths controversy was kind of a last straw. How can they get away with that kind of stark trade war for political ends? Everyone seems to back off and run scared when China throws a tantrum. I can only applaud Norway for its spine. (Although I wonder if Norway’s government was making the decisions instead of the Nobel Prize Committee, would it have shown as much backbone?)

I believe this started back in the Cold War when we used China as strategic leverage against the Soviet Union, and allowed the Chinese to dictate the world’s position on Taiwan. China hardly seemed like a threat back then, and why not show some sympathy for its impoverished multitudes by not standing entirely on principle? But at this point, it’s become an absurdity — if not moral cowardice — to continue bending the norms of global interaction for fear of being excluded from China’s economic power. No wonder the rest of the emerging world has begun looking to China as a model rather than the US or Europe!

I’m not sure how these feelings should translate into specific policy prescriptions. I suppose I should be more sympathetic to China’s own deep-rooted national feelings that it is just responding to centuries of Western domination. But how long can we continue tiptoeing around these sensitivities while allowing China to play by its own rulebook?

Let me ask: what is China doing that is unfair?

About the Diaoyutai incident, even if presuming that China did impose economic warfare on Japan, the idea that tying politics to economics is inherently unfair and that China is the only nation to commit such uncivilized acts is plainly false and wrong.

The West (especially the U.S.) is the true master of tying economics to politics.  It conditions economic aid to political demands in developing countries.  It freezes assets of organizations that sport politics it does not like.  It imposes sanctions against regimes around the world in the pure pursuit of self interests (the sanction against Iran is only the most recent example). (The WTO framework itself – under which the current complaints are couched – represents the mother of tying economics to politics, where market access is tied directly to political concessions. But that’d have to be the subject of another post.).

So even if China did contemplate using economic coercion to achieve political goals, China hardly is the only power in the world to do so. In the specific Diaoyutai incident, China should have all the right to use economic means to fight back a Japan intent on going on the offensive against China in its territorial disputes.

In accusing China of playing unfair, the above writer also complains how China does not sport a democratic government and is beginning to command respect from an ever increasing number of nations. I don’t get it: so must China be a liberal democracy to play fair now?  Must China not be so popular to play fair?

This xenophobia of China must stop. Consider the most recent WTO investigation by the U.S. into Chinese “illegal subsidy” in promoting the green tech industry.

One of the most important results of Copenhagen is that nations agreed to devote significant resources to develop green technologies to curb carbon growth. Thus the U.S. itself has offered tax incentives, credits, grants, special regulatory treatments to promote its own green industries. So have E.U. powers – to their credit – done their part in promoting industries in Europe.

Yet when China does the same – and ends up leading the world in mobilizing industries to develop low-price, practical green technologies (the proof of China’s success can be seen in the charts James Fallows provided) – what do you get?  Yes, the U.S. cries foul. Instead of receiving kudos, instead of being recognized as a RESPONSIBLE GREEN LEADER, China gets slapped with another label of playing unfair.

Thus the game seems to be to damn China if it does and damn China if it doesn’t. As the writer above noted: if China did not appreciate the Yuan, it would be accused of gaining an unfair export advantage. But if China did continue to appreciate the Yuan, it would probably soon be accused of gaining an unfair buyer’s advantage.

More than ever, I believe the idea of an irresponsible China is born out of Western fear and insecurity. For the sake of global peace, prosperity, and development, people in the West must rise above their own insecurity and see opportunities where they exist … instead of ghosts where they don’t.

  1. xian
    October 19th, 2010 at 01:06 | #1

    Meh, someone else being immoral doesn’t justify yourself being immoral. But that’s beside the point.

    Is there something wrong with currency manipulation? Or protectionism? Economic leverage? They’re perfectly legitimate ways to conduct stately affairs. It works as long as each side denies it and calls out others for doing the exact same things they’re doing themselves. People need to realize the global theatre runs on realpolitik, not “values” or utopian ideals about fairness. China is simply better at playing the game.

  2. Charles Liu
    October 19th, 2010 at 01:47 | #2

    Unless the “official narrative” of China changes, the indoctrinated mass in the West will never see China any other way besides denigration, demonization, marginalization.

    Even then it’ll take 40-60 years for two brainwashed generations to die off and allow a new public opinion to take hold.

  3. raffiaflower
    October 19th, 2010 at 05:35 | #3

    His view is from inside the looking glass of the Washington Concensus. Supporters of the Beijing Concensus, which is commanding an increasing following from other developing nations, see China’s actions in a more favourable light.

  4. October 20th, 2010 at 11:24 | #4

    A good article from China Dialog regarding this latest “investigation” by the U.S. into Chinese illegal subsidies of its green tech industries.

    Pointing the finger the wrong way

    Dale Jiajun Wen

    On September 9, the biggest union in the United States, United Steelworkers, filed a 5,800-page petition under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, alleging that the Chinese government has violated international trade laws by providing hundreds of billions of dollars in illegal subsidies to its green-technology producers and exporters.

    The organisation asked the US government to initiate an investigation and bring this case before the World Trade Organisation (WTO) – and on Friday last week (15 October), Barack Obama’s administration obliged, announcing the launch of a probe into the complaints.

    A US union complaining that China is not joining the race to the bottom? This sounds shocking. It is true that China is investing more in renewable energy than the United States. According to a report by US-based non-profit The Pew Charitable Trusts, in 2009 China ploughed US$34.6 billion (231 billion yuan) into clean energy, while the United States only invested US$18.6 billion (124 billion yuan), 0.39% and 0.13% of their GDPs respectively. But isn’t significant investment in fossil-fuel alternatives what every country needs to do in order to reduce greenhouse-gas emission as well as to generate green jobs? In this regard, Spain, which pumped 0.74% of GDP into clean energy in 2009, and the United Kingdom (0.51%) are also in the front ranks.

    On September 22, a panel of experts including those from United Steelworkers and BlueGreen Alliance (a labour-environment alliance initiated by United Steelworkers and the Sierra Club) gave a joint briefing in Washington DC entitled “Leveling the Playing Field – Clean Energy Subsidies in China: A Briefing on the United Steelworkers’ Section 301 Petition”. One cannot resist asking: do we truly need such a “level playing field”, where everybody talks about the necessity for renewables and low-carbon development, but doesn’t act on it? Why can’t United Steelworkers ask the Obama administration to support green jobs with real deeds instead of empty words? Instead, they attack China for doing the right thing, the thing the US government should itself be doing.

    To give it fair credit, the BlueGreen Alliance is still trying to spin the petition to highlight the need for domestic action. In a September 9 press release, the organisation stated: “Today’s Section 301 petition filed by the United Steelworkers underscores the importance that the United States act quickly to take advantage of the job-creating opportunities of the clean energy economy. Every day America delays action is another day that China capitalises on jobs created in the production of clean energy technologies that could and should be developed, manufactured and installed in the United States.”

    Unfortunately, this does not change the fact that the 5,800-page petition largely focuses on what is wrong with China instead of discussing what is wrong with US domestic policy. You can guess the outcome – it is almost part of human nature that if a problem can be framed as “somebody else’s” (in this case, China’s) then people lose the incentive to search for solutions at home. The real problem here is quite obvious: lack of ambition and coherent national policy in the United States.

    Discussing this issue, a German friend commented: “There are people who prefer installing wind turbines or making solar panels, there are people who prefer pushing papers. The problem with America is that, in this land of lawyers, more and more people prefer pushing papers. What hope exists for the US manufacturing industry if even the labour unions prefer pushing papers with their 5,800-page petition instead of installing wind turbines?” A 2009 report in the Guardian newspaper indicated some potential for positive change, with blue-collar workers pushing for green jobs, but the potential has not yet been realised. And, for many observers, the hope is dashed by this lengthy document of finger-pointing.

    To be honest, China’s rapid expansion of renewables, especially the solar industry, does have problems. Despite the recent increase in subsidies to domestic users of PV panels, more than 90% of Chinese-made solar panels still go to overseas markets, largely because solar electricity is so much more expensive than energy from conventional sources. Given the high energy cost of PV-panel manufacturing and related pollution, some Chinese experts are questioning the green credentials of the PV industry, or even suggesting it is nothing but a new, low-end manufacturing sector for China.

    Obviously, the Chinese government needs to fine tune its renewable policy to address these concerns. But on the global scale, China is certainly moving in the right direction. A 2009 UNDESA report called for a global green new deal to mobilise substantial public resources – in the order of US$500 to US$600 billion (3.3 trillion yuan to 4 trillion yuan) a year – to tackle energy poverty, while over the next 10 to 15 years driving the price of renewable energy down to levels where it can compete with fossil fuels and be affordable for the global poor.

    We should be glad that China is doing its bit with its serious commitment to renewables. It is probably not enough against the backdrop of the colossal challenge of climate change, but it certainly shines in comparison to the inaction of the United States. What an irony that a US union is seeking to penalise China for doing it.

    In order to slow down and eventually reverse dangerous climate change, we need a positive competition, a race to the top and a race to the future, which in this case means that, instead of finger pointing, US workers need to ask their own government to at least match China’s support for renewables. Given that the United States is the richest country in the world, it should do much more. In the light of the bailout and huge subsidies the US government lavished on the banking industry, the manufacturing workers are justified in complaining and lobbying for more support. They deserve sympathy in this regard, but their chosen target of the complaint is utterly misguided.

    A friend from the United States commented that China is in an impossible position: “Either (the Chinese) don’t take action on climate and we slap a BTA [border tax adjustment] on your imports, or take action and we challenge your support of green tech.” She is right on the mark. The number of Chinese climate sceptics has grown since Copenhagen, largely as response to unreasonable China-bashing on the issue. One scary yet common response to Mark Lynas’s widely distributed article blaming China for the summit’s failure was, “Let’s unite with the US right wing to destroy the stupid European climate agenda.” Needless to say, this knee-jerk response is wrong in many respects, but that does not change the sad fact that Mark Lynas’s article has probably done more to discredit the climate issue among the Chinese population than all the western sceptics combined.

    I have been in China for the last month, spending many hours talking to sceptics. I described the negative impacts of climate change on agriculture and rural livelihoods that I have already witnessed in many parts of rural China, trying to convey the message that the science of climate change still stands despite problematic climate politics. Now I am deeply concerned that this new development of US climate protectionism will push people further away. If China is blamed no matter what it does on climate, what better evidence is there to convince people that climate change is merely a western conspiracy to constrain the growth of developing countries?

    Many of my Chinese environmentalist friends and I are doing our best to salvage the integrity of the climate agenda. In this context, this petition really feels like a stab in the back. I think it is a challenge for all people who are seriously concerned about climate change and environmental sustainability as a whole: for the last two years, the climate politics has been largely abducted by US internal politics, which seriously and increasingly undermine the integrity of the climate issue. One sceptic already said to me: “This US union blames China for supporting renewables too much. Not surprising. What do your western green friends say about this?”

    I will stop here and pass the question to all green friends: what is your answer to this? It is up to every one of us to show with our words and our deeds that the climate issue is a common issue for humankind, and not just an issue for the green lobby, the renewable-energy lobby or any other special interest group.

  5. November 2nd, 2010 at 16:41 | #5

    Just placed this article on the Recommended Readings List.

    I’ve in the past explained away the “prejudice” the West continues to hold against everything Chinese in terms of a “religion” founded on Western liberalism. Well, here is a good overview of that religion.

  6. r v
    November 2nd, 2010 at 19:13 | #6

    Politics is what the young and foolish believes as reasoning in the madness of power, as much as all criminals believe that their criminal motives are always rational justifications.

    On each count, crimes are never rational, and politics cannot be reasoned. In at least that much, Politics and Crimes share lack of logic.

    As such, we do not fight crimes with more crimes, we cannot spew political irrationality to cure political irrationality.

  7. silentchinese
    November 4th, 2010 at 09:10 | #7


    Personally I think the fear that some how china will ditch the “climate change” agenda is unfounded.

    The bet is that if science of climate change is right, then that means green tech, green tech means jobs.

    if the bet is that if science of climate change is wrong, still that means green tech, green tech means jobs.

    switching to alternatives to fossil is aligned with so many solutions to china’s problems (environment, energy crunch, jobs) that it is a such a natural fit.

  1. May 25th, 2018 at 17:08 | #1

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