Thursday, March 28, 2013

"Eat quietly, take gently and play secretly"

In our current Core III Environmental Sustainability class, we've considered the western relationship with a growing China, and what that means for the future of democracy and freedom on planet earth, especially in the light of climate change.

One take-home message is that an undemocratic and corrupt China is unlikely to be a good partner in reducing emissions, yet western emissions reductions alone cannot contain climate change in the absence of China.

Elsewhere, I've proposed an international "free trade" zone for climate-compliant countries, who would then charge tariffs on non-compliant ones. This seems, to my mind at least, to be the best, most active approach for the west. I don't think we can afford to be passive.

Another approach, not mutually exclusive, is to take every opportunity to foment real democracy in China, on the assumption that this would eventually be good for the climate. The Chinese people, who are tired of their corrupt and kleptocratic leaders, and have a deep desire for social fairness, are our best allies in this.

This isn't a trivial notion. Under normal circumstances, there's no internal political peace in China without the Confucian "mandate of heaven" -- which could be translated in today's propagandistic world as, if you want to rule China, you need to at least be sure that the majority of people are willing to "suspend their disbelief" in the proper authority of the government to rule.

According to Scottish-born Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, whose film we watched, the alternative is 动荡 -- Dòngdàng, or turmoil, such as occurred in 1989 in Tiananmen Square.

Even Mao, who famously praised the "earthy" culture of ordinary Chinese people, understood the power of the mass movement in China, and used it to considerable effect for his own gain during the Cultural Revolution, effectively setting the youth of the country against the elders, in an amazing upturn of traditional values that is almost impossible for westerners to comprehend. The social and cultural repercussions reverberate yet. A horrific case in point is the front page feature in the Guardian today.

This is what the Chinese leadership is most afraid of, says Ferguson. Everything else follows from this. And China may be on the brink. Regular protests against local and regional corruption are suppressed, but still occur. The government worries that these could eventually combine in a democratic opposition, a "Chinese spring."

The new president, Xi Jinping, has ordered at least a window-dressing approach to reducing corruption. Conspicuous display is now, apparently, officially discouraged. The change has come swift and fast. He's only been in office a few weeks.

It remains to be seen how deep this reform goes.

Perhaps not too deep. According to the conclusion of the NYT article linked above, and confirmed elsewhere, the saying among the elite is now, "Eat quietly, take gently and play secretly."

Here at Sustainability T & D, we'll be watching to see what happens, since the future of the planet depends on a China that can be dealt with on some rational basis.

We prefer democracy and reason, but we'll settle for reason.

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