Biden and Xi Expected to Meet at Virtual Climate Summit
Despite official aspirations, environmental cooperation isn’t likely to significantly improve U.S.-China relations.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to meet virtually to address the climate crisis, an annual national security campaign raises fears about insidious foreign spies, and China’s central bank steps in to save an asset management firm in crisis.
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U.S.-China Climate Diplomacy Is Mostly Hot Air
Chinese President Xi Jinping will speak at a virtual climate summit led by U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday. He is also expected to speak privately with Biden on the sidelines. The results of the two-day event, which includes 40 world leaders, aren’t likely to amount to much, just as Beijing and Washington’s joint statement last weekend simply reiterated commitments both sides had already made separately. As always with climate diplomacy, the summit’s aspirations could be more dramatic than the outcome.
Analysts regularly cite the climate crisis as a major reason why the United States should cooperate with China and avoid confrontation. Even when U.S.-China relations were relatively healthy, climate cooperation was seen as a way to improve the relationship rather than treat it as a goal in its own right. But I’m skeptical of sacrificing human rights concerns to ill-defined and poorly enforced international cooperation efforts. As Lauri Myllyvirta argues in Foreign Policy, competition can be a powerful catalyst to get countries to reduce carbon emissions—and one that is certainly more likely in the current international environment.
Both activists and U.S. officials once treated the environment as a key area for U.S.-China engagement, both in diplomacy and at the grassroots level. But since a brief flourishing in the early 2010s, green activism has been crushed by the state. Diplomacy, meanwhile, produced the Paris Agreement, which aims to increase transparency about emissions goals but contains no actual enforcement mechanisms other than peer pressure—a weakness underscored by the Trump administration abandoning the deal, although Biden rapidly rejoined.
In reality, the single most powerful step the United States has taken to effect environmental change in China was when the U.S. Embassy in Beijing published accurate Air Quality Index numbers on its website, leading to public outcry that helped lead to far cleaner cities in China.
Climate diplomacy is sometimes framed in the same terms as arms reduction summits between the United States and Russia. But there is a key difference: With arms reduction, each side’s incremental moves toward disarmament depends on the other’s. By contrast, reducing emissions doesn’t leave one country vulnerable if the other side doesn’t do its part. And there’s every reason for countries to act on their own—especially if, like China, they have thousands of miles of low-lying coastline, barely enough arable land to feed the population, and ongoing environmental crises.
Unlike in the United States, climate denialists in China have little political power. That wasn’t always the case: In the 1990s, some Chinese leaders eager to use fossil fuels saw climate change as a Western conspiracy to keep the country down—an idea that persisted into the 2000s. As the threat to China itself became clearer, the government cracked down on climate denialism. But powerful state-owned fossil fuel enterprises, such as Sinopec—the world’s second largest company, still often work internally to slow climate change commitments.
One argument suggests unless China reduces emissions, climate deniers will point to its pollution record as an excuse not to act. But it seems equally possible that agreements struck with Beijing may give Republicans more ammunition by allowing them to accuse Democrats of submitting to Beijing. Closeness to the United States, meanwhile, has become very risky for Chinese officials. If it achieves anything, Xi’s appearance at this week’s summit could at least allow some leeway for Chinese officials to reach out to their U.S. counterparts.
What We’re Following
Spy mania. Last Thursday marked China’s annual National Security Education Day, a spectacle of paranoia that began in 2016 where citizens are reminded of the need for vigilance against foreign agents, saboteurs, and others undermining socialism. The first time it was held, posters warning of threats posed by seductive foreign boyfriends went up throughout the Beijing subway system. This year, the People’s Daily issued a handy infographic for spotting a spy. State media made examples of others, such as the case of a 20-year-old student “bewitched and abetted by foreign forces” after interning for an unnamed foreign media outlet.
There is serious conviction inside the Chinese party-state that the West is fomenting a “color revolution.” In Xinjiang, Beijing has used this perceived threat to accuse long-time Uyghur members of the Chinese Communist Party of separatism. It also drives concerns about Western culture that have led to the removal of foreign textbooks from schools. In Hong Kong, the first National Security Education Day since the law that effectively ended its autonomy last year saw a major propaganda push aimed at children and schools.
Missing Xinjiang data. The latest release of provincial data from Xinjiang omits key demographic information—likely because previous data, including a rise in sterilizations in minority areas, has been used as evidence of the Chinese state’s genocidal intentions in the region. Even as China has expelled and harassed journalists, blocked access to sensitive areas, and closed archives, local governments have still uploaded troves of documents online, creating valuable windows into the system’s workings. But as Beijing comes under closer scrutiny for human rights abuses, officials may take more care with those materials.
Censored feminists. More than 20 social media accounts belonging to prominent Chinese feminists have been removed in the last week following campaigns by misogynistic nationalists accusing them of “separatism.” Throughout Xi’s crackdown on civil society, China’s feminist movement has held on despite prominent arrests. That is in part because the communist state once had explicitly feminist goals, which allowed some limited ideological space for activists to operate.
But concerns about an aging population and Xi’s patriarchal tone have led even official institutions, such as the All-China Women’s Federation, to encourage women to choose a family over a career. Strangely, an essay by former Premier Wen Jiabao about his recently deceased mother was also censored this week—perhaps for speaking of a need for “fairness and justice.” (Wen, who positioned himself as a champion of ordinary people, even faced censorship while in office.)
Tech and Business
Unbuckling the Belt and Road. Australia has ripped up pledges between the state of Victoria and China as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), saying they are inconsistent with Australian values. The 2018 commitments immediately drew controversy due to the tense relationship between Canberra and Beijing, which has only worsened since, and concerns over Chinese investment in Australia. They were the main target of Australia’s Foreign Relations Act last year, which gives the federal government increased powers to block state-level deals. In the United States, meanwhile, it’s possible the tail may wag the dog: Some state governments have introduced their own anti-China restrictions.
U.S. universities under scrutiny. Proposed U.S. legislation with bipartisan backing could transform the relationship between U.S. universities and China. Under the new rules, deals or gifts more than $1 million will be scrutinized by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which usually examines business deals and has become a major vehicle for blocking Chinese mergers or acquisitions that involve sensitive intellectual property. U.S. universities have been criticized for projects like joint campuses in China and accepting Beijing-run Confucius Institutes on their own grounds.
Higher education institutions often depend on large numbers of Chinese students, but in the post-pandemic world, Chinese applications have fallen by more than 70 percent, which is likely to cause a serious financial crisis.
China Huarong saved? The Chinese state-run asset management firm China Huarong has had a rough year. Its former head, Lai Xiaomin, was executed in January for bribery and embezzlement. That the state actually carried out the death penalty may indicate just how bad the corruption was inside China Huarong; most death sentences in China are nominal, especially for high-ranking former officials or state-owned enterprise managers. But Lai’s corruption was the least of China Huarong’s problems: The firm, in which the Ministry of Finance has a 61 percent stake, holds $260 billion in assets and was in severe financial trouble, with its 2020 bonds plunging to 67 cents on the dollar in March.
The central bank appears to be stepping in to support the firm, reassuring international investors. Ironically, China Huarong itself was set up to handle the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
What We’re Reading
“The Wrestlers Fighting to Build a Chinese WWE,” by Kenrick Davis, Sixth Tone
U.S.-style wrestling, with its mixture of athletics, melodrama, and colorful costumes, is not that far from traditional Chinese theater. But it’s never really taken hold in China, unlike in other countries that have made it a billion-dollar global industry. This story about promoters trying to make professional wrestling successful in China is both funny and revealing. (Pair it with Lauren Teixeira’s piece in Deadspin about how a mixed martial artist accidentally became a Chinese political dissident.)
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer