Wednesday, January 27, 2010

With China Rising, Moral Gaps Abound

Few people should have a regular column. I am not naming any names. But Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria is one of the handful of people who are smart, insightful, and original enough to deserve one. For instance, Zakaria rightly pinpointed "what is really at stake" in the recent Google vs. China episode. As we have argued here and Harry Harding has argued in Policy Innovations, it is about shaping global norms, or ethics. As he put in his Newsweek column, here is how Zakaria put it in CNN Opinion:

So far China has been remarkably successful at maintaining a system that has embraced markets, but also maintained a very controlled political system. My own view is that that cannot last forever, but that China is still in the early stages of modernization, and it is quite possible that it will be able to continue doing this for several decades. But I think it's very difficult to imagine China being a truly innovative country at the cutting edge of the information age, of global economics, if it has all these constraints on information, all this political control on human-to-human contact, which is what the next wave of the information age is all about. Ultimately the question is: Can China be a world leader that is admired, imitated and that shapes the global system and global values? There I have my doubts that an insular, inward-looking China that maintains tight political control over information and human contact will end up being the country that becomes the model for the world.

This is precisely what I heard last month during my month-long Asia trip, which took me to Singapore, Tokyo, Yokohama, Shanghai, and Nanjing. China's lack of openness broadly speaking is having a negative impact on its development. Specifically, the lack of free press and free expression is inhibiting the country's ability to tackle corruption and spur innovation. These ethical matters are not optional for civilizational advancement; they are essential for China to make the next leap, to be seen truly as a model, to emanate ideas, culture, brands, and enterprises that the world will seek.

In the coming years, assuming China's economy remains stable, the big picture question will be: How will China influence global norms?

As this expansive New York Times article put it, cataloging a decade's worth of China issues:

When the United States was snapping at the heels of the British empire, the global hegemon of the early 20th century, the situation caused plenty of friction, even though both countries spoke the same language, shared similar cultures and were liberal democracies. China, in contrast, is a Confucian- Communist-capitalist hybrid under the umbrella of a one-party state that has so far resisted giving greater political freedom to a growing middle class. Now its ascendancy is about to set off what many officials and experts see as a backlash on both sides of the Pacific.

My guess is that China's influence on the world will result in a convergence of norms. More equality among nations at the global level and eventually more equality among people at home in non-free countries like China. The Google episode in China seems to prove my point: Companies like Google and countries will seek compromise. As relative power equalizes between companies and countries, it will be a process of real negotiation. The alternative is conflict or even disaster.

During my visit to China last month, I presented to a Chinese university several of the ethical gaps I see emerging between China, the United States, poor countries, and the rest of the world in the climate change arena. These gaps, in my mind, will make the climate change mitigation and adaption process difficult.

- The countries least responsible for climate change are the most vulnerable to its effects

- Emerging economies, such as China and India, no longer represent the interests of the poorest and most vulnerable, which seek immediate solutions, and are using the poor as a shield

- The pace of the international political process of negotiation in Copenhagen (and in Mexico City this November) does not match the scientific urgency of climate change

- Most of the countries that will most need to adapt to climate change do not have the political or budgetary capacity to place adaptation in their spending priorities

- Similarly, the security implications of flooding, droughts, and cyclones are not being considered by the countries most vulnerable to extremism and militants who could take advantage of disasters

- The right to "dirty" development and poverty relief is in opposition to the devastating consequences of climate change

- Exiting the dirty development path through clean tech can run up against the protection of intellectual property rights on technology

- The benefits accrued to previous generations by polluting contrast with the current conditions in poor countries

- Nuclear energy promulgation bumps up against the security interests of nuclear nonproliferation

- Central government goals of emissions reductions can oppose the goals of local governments, which are concerned about job creation or are plagued by local corruption and vested interests

- A global ethic on climate change therefore is needed since "finger pointing" will likely derail climate change negotiations yet "naming and shaming" is expected to be the likely enforcement mechanism

As scholar Samuel Fankhauser described in his Dec. 7, 2009 article "If it warms up, who's going to pay?" it may be better to consider adaptation support as "a way to show solidarity, to fairly deal with a shared challenge. The strong should help out the weak."

Photo by vasilken.

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