Archive for the ‘Environment’ category

A Better Read

November 15, 2009

By way of contrast with the NYT article I discussed in my last post, see the much more informative Christian Science Monitor article titled:  “US eyes China as global partner” (link here: CSM article)

I don’t agree with every detail in the piece, but the general outline (the administration sees China as a partner to tackle global problems; this is new territory for China and it is moving very cautiously in this direction) gets the basics right.

I still can’t get over how widely NYT missed the mark.


Obama Visit to China: Analysis too Awful to Ignore

November 15, 2009

I’ve been away from this blog for a long time, but every now and then something outrageous enough surfaces to drive me back:

One of the great pleasures of my younger days was sitting on the promenade in Brooklyn Heights, sipping from a container of Tropicana orange juice while nibbling on a fresh pastry and taking a leisurely read through the Sunday New York Times.  I note this to emphasize that I am a huge fan of the NYT.  It is in fact the first thing I read each morning (though online now).  But that is why a particularly shallow and sensationalized article from that source is so upsetting.

Headline of the article (on the first page of the paper’s online edition) reads:  “China’s Role as Lender Alters Dynamics for Obama’s Visit” and here’s the link: article.

The gist of the piece can be summarized as:  The US owes China a lot of money so, unlike his predecessors, Obama is afraid to criticize China too much on his visit there.  Some samples from the article:

“… unlike his immediate predecessors, who publicly pushed and prodded China to follow the Western model and become more open politically and economically, Mr. Obama will be spending less time exhorting Beijing and more time reassuring it.

…It is a long way from the days when President George W. Bush hectored China about currency manipulation, or when President Bill Clinton exhorted the Chinese to improve human rights.

Mr. Obama has struck a mollifying note with China. He pointedly singled out the emerging dynamic at play between the United States and China during a wide-ranging speech in Tokyo on Saturday that was meant to outline a new American relationship with Asia.

“The United States does not seek to contain China,” Mr. Obama said. “On the contrary, the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations.”

He alluded to human rights but did not get specific. ‘We will not agree on every issue,’ he said, ‘and the United States will never waver in speaking up for the fundamental values that we hold dear — and that includes respect for the religion and cultures of all people.’”

What a crock.  It is really disturbing to see such a total lack of understanding of US-China dynamics from such a distinguished source.

Here’s the way to think about the way the Administration is approaching US-China relations, including the President’s visit:

1)   Important countries get treated differently from less important countries, always.  Since Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, the US has treated China more carefully than Liberia.  For that matter, Liberia treats the US more carefully than Peru.  And Russia treats Japan more carefully than Chile.  All administrations from Nixon on, have maintained a delicate balancing act of seeking to promote a wide range of evolving US interests with China, including security, trade, and human rights.  Some administrations have pushed on a particular area more publicly at one time and others have pushed on other areas at other times.  This administration is no different in this regard.

2)   The money the US owes China is just not a factor in the overall mix of policy considerations shaping this (or the previous) administration’s approach.  Yes (as noted in the NYT piece), the Chinese now ask more questions about the health of the US economy.  But this reflects their increasing sense of vulnerability about their exposure to the US economy.  One could just as well write an article saying that the Chinese leaders will be especially nice to Obama because they want to encourage him to take policies to keep the US economy strong and protect the value of China’s large US debt holdings.  It is pure nonsense to suggest Obama will pull his punches on human rights or other issues because China holds lots of US treasury bonds.  The US wants to get the US economy back on track and wants China to maintain strong economic growth while shifting to more reliance on domestic consumption.  The Chinese government, and the rest of the world, want, and need, the same thing.  There may be differences at the margins on particular policy steps, but there is no “leverage” here that either side has on the other.

3)   Though the fundamental US approach to China has not changed in 37 years (i.e., an effort to pursue a complex and changing set of US interests, each has brought its own style and areas of emphasis, in part depending on external developments (think: mutual fear over the Soviet intentions, Tiananmen, the collapse of the Soviet Union, etc.).  This administration clearly believes it is now critical to deepen cooperation with China in preventing global catastrophes, especially those dealing with:  the global economy; climate change; the spread of weapons of mass destruction; North Korea and Iran; and pandemics.  The process of deepened cooperation on global issues began in the Bush Administration with regard to the economic crisis, but the current administration is clearly seeking to broaden and deepen this kind of engagement.  In doing so, it is the case that more activities and public pronouncements on China will center around these global issues rather than others in the relationship.  I suppose one could say that in this sense the Administration is giving less public attention to human rights in China, but this is not the same thing as suggesting that the administration is treading lightly in this area because the US owes China a lot of money, as the NYT suggests.

4)   And last but not least:  Those who slam the administration for allegedly being afraid to press China on human rights have some serious explaining to do.  If the policy of publicly hectoring China on human rights was so successful in the past, why are we all still so concerned about the human rights situation there?  Where are the big achievements from that approach?  If the tough approach is the key, why did Bill Clinton (cited as a role model in the NYT piece) back down, with egg on his face, from his linkage of human rights to trade in the early part of his administration?  The point is that this administration’s enhanced cooperation with China on key global issues coupled with a less public approach on human rights stands at least as good a chance of achieving results as the in-your-face approach to this issue that some urge.  I believe progress on human rights in China will take decades and that those improvements will come as the result of changing priorities by the people of China.  Respectful exchanges of ideas with government and non-government actors in the US will play a role in this process.  Public hectoring adds little to the mix.  In any event, that fact that the current administration has shifted from a more public, critical approach on human rights to one emphasizing broad cooperation between our countries and quiet discussion of human rights, does not mean they are abandoning the search for progress in this area.

So, with much sadness, I can only report that this NYT article reaches a new (recent) low in China analysis from the news publication I admire most.  Let’s hope things improve soon.

The Balance has Shifted

May 26, 2009

For any who may have missed it, Speaker Pelosi has come and gone from China (one among many summary articles; this one from AP via Yahoo News:;_ylc=X3oDMTB0cHRwdmExBF9TAzIxNTExMDUEZW1haWxJZAMxMjQzMzMwNzUx) .

The big news:  she kept her focus on the climate change and energy issues that had been bruited as the focus of the trip.  That is to say, she did not publicly raise human rights in any significant way, and this virtually on the eve of the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen.


Since 1989 Speaker Pelosi has been among the leaders of those in the Congress who have wanted to elevate human rights issues above all other issues in our relationship with China.  In addition to visiting China in 1991 and unfurling a banner in Tiananmen Square, she has made human rights the focus of virtually all her major public statements on China and generally sought to keep this contentious issue front and center in bilateral relations.  On a practical level, she has been among those who have helped ensure that only limited USG cooperation funds could be used for programs with China.  Clearly, her approach has changed dramatically now (and for the better; I don’t know if she raised human rights privately with Chinese officials (my guess is she did), but that is certainly more effective than banners in Tiananmen Square).

But I will go out on a limb and say that the real big deal here is that, 20 years after Tiananmen, US priorities with regard to China have finally and definitively (and appropriately) been reset.  When Hillary Clinton laid out Administration priorities on her first trip to Beijing (cooperation on the economic crisis and climate change/energy) it was not clear that human rights hawks in Congress, esp. Speaker Pelosi, were on board.  We can now be certain she is.

To be clear:  I don’t think Speaker Pelosi (nor the Administration) is swearing off raising human rights issues with Chinese counterparts (nor should they).  Secretary Clinton made that clear in her comments in Beijing and subsequently.  But it makes a difference how you raise such issues (privately is much more effective than publicly) and the context within which you do so (ie, making clear that cooperation on critical global challenges is the centerpiece of the relationship).

However, the balance in the US regarding our approach on human rights has shifted.  With the Speaker of the House of Representatives/one of the leaders on human rights issues with China having recalibrated her approach, I predict that (barring another “Tiananmen-type” incident in China) human rights for the rest of this administration, and beyond, will revert to its appropriate place in the overall bilateral relationship (think about where it was when Nixon pursued his opening to China or when Ronald Reagan authorized the sale of weapons to the PLA).  And it’s about time.

Finally, I’d note that while not intended as a tit-for-tat by the Administration or Speaker Pelosi I would think, the Chinese government will attach importance to this change in approach.  For this reason I believe that, in addition to making our human rights efforts more effective, this recalibration of our approach will also create a better environment for tackling issues of common concern, be it climate change or North Korea.  An added bonus.


May 11, 2009

Last week I had the pleasure of spending two and a half hours discussing contemporary China with twenty senior US and international military medical officers (none from China, alas) at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, TX. This was one small part of a program the Army Medical Command runs several times a year.

I had a long presentation prepared, but the group was lively and engaged and I spent most of the time responding to their (thoughtful) questions. I found as I went along that I prefaced many of my responses (on human rights, China’s policy toward North Korea, the effect of China’s huge foreign exchange reserves, development of the Chinese military, etc.) with the phrase, “Well, it is complicated…”. Soon this became a running joke with the participants and as soon as someone asked a question the entire group would chant the phrase in unison before I began my response.

Even a casual reader will note that many of my posts in this blog have tried to convey the complexity of China and of issues in our bilateral relationship. And every now and then something catches my eye that really brings this complexity home to me:

Most China watchers will by now have read accounts of the edict issued by county-level officials in Hubei Province requiring local civil servants (collectively I guess) to smoke 230,000 packs of locally made cigarettes over the course of the year (Reuters piece on this: The ostensible goal was to support the local cigarette company (too many local folks preferred the cigarettes from a neighboring province), increase its sales, and thus raise the county’s tax revenue. After a large local uproar and national and international press attention the edict was rescinded.

To an American this is pretty silly stuff. One of those humorous little pieces that newspapers or tv news shows throw in to lighten the day’s stories. But to me, this episode should be required study for all US diplomats and businesspeople contemplating work in China. Think for a minute what this episode tells us about the challenges of governing and doing business in China:

1. Motivation: what motivates local officials in China? Health of the local citizenry? Nope, increased tax revenue/increased economic growth. The system is sending clear signals that local officials are responding to. (Note: the same could be said with environmental protection vs. economic growth. Efforts have been made to factor “green GDP” into the evaluation of local officials, but I’m not sure that this has yet shown much impact.)

2. Education level/worldview: The fact that these officials could be so blind to the negative health and public relations aspects of this edict says a lot. I suspect their education level is low, they have little experience outside their province, and their view of the world does not extend much beyond the county borders in fact. We need tax revenue; cigarette factory is major employer; let’s set a quota for smoking local cigarettes. Think of the challenge of running a country with enormous numbers of local officials with such limited vision.

3. Government/industry relationship: A major problem in China is the “too close” relationship between government and companies, esp. at the local level. The impulse to favor local companies over those from “outside” is strong and well documented in the Chinese press, which often notes examples of “local protectionism”. It can be a desire for tax revenue and economic growth, personal relationships between company managers and government officials, or corruption. But how do you build an open and competitive market under such circumstances? And imagine the challenges if you are a foreign company going up against a local (or national) champion!

4. Level of government involvement: Today the Chinese government has much less control over personal behavior than in the past, but this episode underscores the extent to which there persists a much broader view of the scope of government involvement in personal, economic, and political matters than in the US. I have no doubt that Central government officials were appalled and embarrassed by this incident. And yet, on issues such as the development of China’s IT sector, they readily embrace a broad involvement by the government in nurturing and protecting chosen Chinese companies. Very different issues, but there is an underlying consistency of perspective re the role of government. I have also commented on this in the context of the requirement that Chinese films must get government approval before being submitted to international film festivals. We’ve had too little government oversight in the US in recent years in the financial sector, but China has had way too much across the board for several decades.

5. Role of media: this is a positive. Years ago this incident would never have come to light. At best it might have found its way into one of the internal reports prepared for central government officials to monitor developments at the local level. The report might or might not have resulted in action. However, this story was splashed across domestic Chinese news (with tv news anchors criticizing the local officials on the air), the internet, and foreign media. Within days of exposure of the incident, the edict was rescinded. This is a huge change for governance in China. It highlights the extent to which media controls have been relaxed somewhat and the positive role the media can play in improving the work of government when given the chance.

The New Dialogue

April 1, 2009

It’s official. US and China announced establishment of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (no idea what the official acronym is yet, but I’ll use S&ED), successor to the Strategic Economic Dialogue (SED) of the Bush Administration. Full text of White House announcement is here:

Some quick reactions:

1) Most important thing is that Administration and Chinese have moved quickly to get this effort off the ground (note: this is one of the points made by US-China Business Council President John Frisbie in his announcement welcoming the new dialogue. Text here: ). As I noted in a previous post (Counterparts), I think some observers fuss over the details of the structure, rank of the counterparts, etc. To me, once you get up to the Vice Premier/State Councilor level (as the new forum does (continuing past practice)) you are fine. Implementation is really the most important thing (see below).

2) I appreciated that the official announcement singled out the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT) for special mention. As I noted in a previous post (An Ode to the JCCT), I don’t think contentious trade issues (nor human rights) should form the centerpiece of the bilateral relationship (the huge global issues are just too important now), but the JCCT remains very important for its substantive and political role. I hope the JCCT remains focused on addressing specific trade and investment issues. Discussion of cooperative projects is important, but resolution of real world issues should remain the core of the JCCT. It is virtually unique in that regard among the many bilateral fora.

3) Also pleased the announcement emphasized the importance of strengthened military to military relations. This too has a unique importance among the bilateral interactions. That topic is the subject of a short piece of mine (written a week ago) which will shortly be posted on the redone National Strategy Forum Review website (I’ll provide link when it is up).

4) I’m a bit unclear about how the energy and environment piece fits in here. It is referenced in the statement and I am assuming it is a part of the “strategic track” of the dialogue, chaired by Secretary Clinton. I understand the Chinese side had previously indicated that (former Chinese EPA Administration) National Development and Reform Commission Vice Chairman Xie Zhenhua would lead China’s side of discussions on these issues. Seems to me that is fine for the detailed, substantive discussions, but there needs to be (and I assume there is) an understanding that these key topics fall under the overall umbrella structure (so they are linked directly into the senior most discussions).

5) No specific mention of food and product safety, but I assume these fall under the reference to continued cooperation in (a long list of areas, including:) health. Anyway, both sides are highly motivated to address food and product safety so not sure that a huge amount of the senior most attention is needed for that.

But the real key in such a process is implementation. It is implementation, rather than the words on the page, that will determine how much value comes out of the new structure. And there are three key elements of implementation:

Thoughtfulness/preparation: It is easy for these dialogues to degenerate into rote recitation of talking points. The formal plenary sessions will never depart too far from that, but the margin of difference can matter. Also, in smaller groups and on the margins it is possible to engage in more give and take. However, all of this requires lots of staff work in preparation. Clear agendas with topics that have been thoroughly discussed at lower levels, with outcomes (if any) pretty near final are important. Goal is not a free wheeling negotiation at the table between senior US and Chinese officials, but rather a deeper discussion (at the table and on the margins) of the key issues which lower level officials have teed up.

Intensity/focus: This was one of the great strengths that Hank Paulson brought to the table. His personal intense work style and focus on China permeated the SED process and ensured continuous engagement on the issues. I’m not convinced that the folks working the new S&ED will need to continue with Sunday morning planning meetings and phone calls from the Secretary at all hours of the day or night, but it is important that the principals devote a significant amount of time and attention to driving the process, including frequent conversations with their counterparts between formal sessions (see my post on Communications).

Staffing: I think the architecture for US-China relations in the Administration has been driven mainly by Jeff Bader (Senior Asia Director at the NSC) and Jim Steinberg (Deputy Secretary of State). From my perspective there are no better people to be taking this on. They have the vision and practical smarts needed now to further advance US-China relations. However, as the new dialogue process gets up and going it will be important to have a (small) group of core staff who focus full time on the S&ED (or, actually two groups, I guess, one at State and one at Treasury). Each of these groups should be wired in high enough at each department so they are above the various bureaus, each of which may have a different set of views and priorities. (Note: I know State a lot better than I know Treasury. At State there is the danger that the many bureaus who will want to have a piece of the action, will get into endless squabbles and turf battles. For this reason I think it is especially important for there to be a core group (maybe attached to Steinberg’s office or the Secretary’s)). And these groups will need to continue to have close coordination with the NSC. And of course a similar counterpart arrangement on the Chinese side.

So, bottom line: It is great that the new process has been launched. As the cliché goes, now the hard work begins.

Why Hillary was Right

March 17, 2009

You’re angry with your neighbor because his kids steal apples from your tree.  You’ve spoken to him repeatedly, with little effect.  Meanwhile, a forest fire roars toward your street.  Your neighbor has a swimming pool and you have a pump.  You can: a) continue to argue over the apples and watch both houses burn; or, b) put your dispute in perspective, take your pump to his pool, spray water on both houses, and prevent a catastrophe.

It’s a simplistic analogy, but not far from where we have been in US-China relations.   Public debates on China have become focused on a host of disputes which are significant, but which don’t represent mortal threats to Americans and our way of life.  These include theft of intellectual property, the value of China’s currency, human rights, China’s investment practices in Africa, etc.

Such issues deserve attention from the US Government.  However, we need now to recognize that these concerns are in a different league from issues where bilateral collaboration is essential to prevent potentially catastrophic outcomes for us (and the world):  1) the global economic crisis; 2) climate change/energy challenges; and, 3) pandemics (bird flu, SARS, etc.) and product safety.  Some cooperation is already ongoing on these issues.  However, the goal of the new administration should be to move this cooperative agenda with China to the center of the relationship.  Achieving this goal will require two elements, one of form, and one of substance.

First, the administration in language and symbols should make clear it sees management of catastrophic global challenges as the center of the US-China relationship.   Presidential speeches on China and visits to the country should highlight this aspect of our relations, as should the agendas for visits by senior Chinese leaders to the US.  The “core message” of administration officials at all levels should emphasize this “strategic direction” for the bilateral relationship.  The administration too should work with those in Congress who understand China’s key role in tackling global issues to get their support.  Publicly positioning our strategic cooperation with China on global issues front and center as the defining theme of the relationship alone will be a significant development.

Substantively, the administration should develop significant, jointly funded US-China projects that can serve as the concrete expression of our strategic cooperation on global issues.  The area of energy/climate change is most ripe for such projects, but in any event, it will be important to have a few high profile projects showcasing the joint efforts we are making to prevent catastrophic global outcomes.

Certainly, this approach will require a reciprocal response from China.  China’s leaders too will have to overcome the voices of protectionism and mistrust which limit their ability to raise the focus of the relationship above lesser frictions.  If we make a strong effort to redefine the relationship I believe we will elicit a corresponding response from China.  If not, we are none the worse off for trying.

This approach does not mean dropping our efforts on other issues.  We should continue to press our human rights concerns, bring cases against China to the WTO when appropriate, etc.  However, the list of issues in our bilateral relations is huge, and we need to set as a priority cooperation on global issues where failure would lead to catastrophic outcomes.  In fact, to the extent the cooperative elements of the relationship grow, mutual trust and interdependence will increase, and solutions to trade, military, foreign policy and other issues will become easier.

I am optimistic about the direction of Obama Administration China policy in this context.  I believe Hillary Clinton on her trip to Beijing was signaling an approach similar to that I propose here.  Certainly, the politics of rising above areas of difference with China to focus on cooperative elements of long-term, “strategic” importance to the American people are incredibly difficult.   But there is a precedent.  At a time when China’s domestic and international policies were in all respects far worse than today, President Nixon saw that a focus on positive developments in US-China relations was key to dealing with the strategic issue of his day, an expansionist Soviet Union.

Let’s hope the Congress and all concerned Americans can at this critical time again apply a long-term, strategic vision to this important bilateral relationship.


Behind the Curtain Launches

March 17, 2009

Please cue the virtual drum roll. Here we go. Behind the Curtain is officially launched.

After close to 30 years working on US-China relations in the US government and private sector (see bio on the “About Hank Levine” page) I have developed some strong views on the subject. What I bring to the blogosphere is the perspective of a long-time practitioner, someone who has spent countless hours with Chinese counterparts questioning, negotiating, berating, being berated, arguing, and, above all, trying to move issues forward in practical ways toward mutually acceptable resolutions. And, I have spent even greater countless hours in meetings with colleagues in the US government and US companies, working to shape their views and plans of action in directions that I think would yield the greatest advancement of US public and business interests in our relations with China.

In other words, I have seen first hand how the sausage of US-China relations is made, and even helped turn the handle on the meat grinder from time to time.

I have had some successes over the years and also bear the scars received on the many occasions I stumbled and fell in my efforts. This blog is my attempt to take the accumulated experience of those years of effort and apply them to events as they are unfolding today in the most important bilateral relationship that each of the two countries has. I hope readers of the blog will feel they gain some increased understanding of current bilateral developments from it. But anyway, I hope to hear comments from those who see a value here and those who don’t.

NB:  Before starting this blog I touched base with my college housemate, David Weinberger, who is a widely quoted author and speaker on how the internet is changing the way we think and act.  I need to offer my thanks here to David for his helpful thoughts.  His blog (on internet stuff) is at: