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Is China Afraid of International Scrutiny?

Beijing’s Balancing Act on Climate
24 December 2009

by Daniel Michaeli

A Foreign Policy article from earlier this week argues that China is “afraid to shine too bright a light in dark places,” revealing the corruption and disorder in most of China–and that this is why Wen Jiabao refused to subject Chinese emissions to outside scrutiny at Copenhagen. But the article’s author, John Lee of the Hudson Institute, is focusing on exactly the wrong part of the picture.

The article confuses the interests of the central government and local governments. Indeed, if (as claimed), the central government was planning on “cooking the books” on China’s emissions, why did Lee write an article mostly about the perceived risk of transparency exposing China’s local corruption problem? Would that even be relevant as a factor in deciding whether to allow international monitoring, if China’s goal were simply to fabricate its emissions figures?

On the other hand, if (as also claimed), the central government faces a serious local corruption and implementation problem, past experience suggests that international scrutiny might be invited to help in that effort. Parts of China’s central government have actually relished the opportunity to bring international pressure to bear to reduce corruption. Major examples include village-level elections in the 1980s and 1990s (the Ford Foundation and others were invited in to put pressure on local leaders to run fairer elections) and WTO negotiations/entry (resulting in a huge growth in transparency in the business world, albeit not yet up to Hong Kong’s standards).

Thus, if there were a powerful part of the bureaucratic machinery in Beijing that wanted to see the major reductions in carbon emissions the world was hoping for, international scrutiny might have been invited–to put pressure where the central government had trouble putting pressure.

That’s why, ultimately, this comes down to the ways China’s central government perceives Chinese interests. As I wrote earlier this week, participation in Copenhagen was partly an attempt to reduce the chance that Chinese exports would be subjected to emissions tariffs in the United States (China’s top export destination) and the European Union.

But, more fundamentally, the rule of China’s communist party depends–as it has since the death of Mao–on a combination of providing material wealth to the population and stoking nationalist sentiment. Reducing China’s emissions necessarily reduces economic growth, though it provides side benefits like better quality of life and fewer pollution-related protests.

In my view, then, China’s climate change policy is based on balancing three concerns:

  1. Economic growth to ensure continued one-party rule.
  2. Reducing pollution to address the concerns of local populations that are increasingly vocal, and sometimes violent, about health risks from ineffective government regulation of industry.
  3. Mitigating international pressure, which could produce negative economic repercussions, thus affecting concern #1.

One could also add a fourth factor: energy security. Like the United States, China sees efforts to use less fossil fuel at least partially in terms of reducing dependence on imported oil and gas. But this is not directly connected to emissions–indeed, from the energy security perspective, domestically-mined coal is a perfectly acceptable alternative to imported petroleum.

All this adds up to a lack of will in Beijing to take the steps the international community is demanding. Chinese leaders face a difficult balancing act, and so too does the international community as it seeks to bring Beijing into a binding climate treaty.

I welcome any ideas from readers on these issues.

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