China, Carbon, and Transformation of the Global Political Economy (Or: OEP, yeah you know me)

I don’t have a dog in the fight of the “relevance” of American international political economy or “open economy politics.” Thomas Oatley penned a strongly worded critique about its irrelevance for contemporary issues, Mark Copelovitch and Henry Farrell debated it a bit in what can only be described as a “twitter exchange.” And while I’m old enough to remember a similar cry of irrelevance for the whole discipline of political science or at least its subfield of international relations that happened in the late great before–a cry that received substantial criticism–my point here is not to take on big question of whether OEP/American IPE scholarship has studied the right topics in the right proportion.

Instead what I want to focus on is a short snippet of Oatley’s piece that Jessica Green posted yesterday that is fascinating.

Provocative take on the trajectory of IPE in the discipline by @thoatley in which he offers a very different interpretation of China’s role in decarbonization. h/t @henryfarrell cc @jonasnahm @thomasnhale @jessicacweiss— Jessica Green (@greenprofgreen) March 16, 2021

This quote from page eight has a lot going on. At the system level, Oatley’s focus on energy systems is fine but underweights both demographics and ideas. To use language more closely aligned with Oatley’s my prior would be to see global political economy as structured by parameters of many kinds, with political, economic, ideational, and energy-related significant in that order.

More strikingly, I see China’s rise as both currently undermining the “existing carbon economy” and constituting a transformation of the global political economy.

China’s massive fossil fuel usage in its rapid growth has highlighted the tremendous cost of urban air pollution, putting it on the front page and above the fold. Just this past week, Beijing experienced a strong sand storm this past week that reminded many of the days of “airpocalypses” tied more closely to coal and gas burning than Gobi desert sand blowing into town.

Those high pollution days are now much rarer because of actions taken by the Chinese government to improve air quality (quantified through Air Quality Indices with interesting political manipulation of statistics but that’s another post). While the particulate issue is in some ways distinct from the climate change issue, movement on the former allowed China to gain some high ground on the latter. More significantly, the massive public health problems of China’s urban air pollution help substantiate the economic case for global decarbonization. That is, separate from the climate change issue (which is big, obviously), not burning fossil fuels — if we can find some clean alternative, i.e. electrified transport and industry powered by renewable energy — makes economic sense purely from the reduced harms to public health. So, China’s rise and ensuing pollution has helped drive global decarbonization by making obvious the toll that burning fossil fuels does to human hearts and lungs.

Additionally, China has invested significantly in electrified transport, battery development, and renewable energy, where it is far and away the global leader in both production and installed capacity. (For more, Jonas Nahm has an excellent chapter on Chinese energy politics.) While it is true that many of China’s electric vehicles are currently powered by coal-fired generation, Xi’s 2060 carbon neutrality pledge suggests that coal’s days are numbered. That pledge also spurred Japan and South Korea to make similar pledges, albeit setting themselves an earlier deadline of 2050. If anything, China’s dominance of the solar supply chain is leading to concerns that it might use that power as political leverage in other domains and to others suggesting that the US needs to pursue green industrial policy to ensure corresponding strength in other sectors.

In the end, China’s rise until 2010 surely supported the carbon economy, but the past decade has seen a decisive shift in transforming it.

More broadly, Oatley’s claim that China has not transformed the global political economy is hard to fathom. Admittedly, as a China scholar, I’m sure that my vantage point is distorted. To relax sometime last week (the week before? time remains hazy in pandemic-land), I took a New Yorker off the top of the pile to edutain myself with nicely written prose and hilarious punctuation. There’s an article about aquaculture in Gambia, and I think, “I eat fish, this will be interesting.” But the fourth paragraph has “illegally dumped waste from a Chinese fish-processing plant called Golden Lead,” and the next one includes words that I’ve come to dread: the Belt and Road Initiative.

Materially, Chinese-made goods are ubiquitous, Chinese investments are everywhere. Chinese consumer preferences shape the movies we watch and the relative prices of different chicken parts.

Ideationally, Chinese economic development has reshaped narratives about economic divergence of the “global north and global south” into one of convergence and reduced global inequality. Chinese economic reforms helped chip away at the intellectual basis for communism as an alternative to a neoliberal capitalism that was ascendant in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The profit possibilities of offshoring production–cost advantages in domestic competition as well as dreams of extracting profits from China–became difficult for corporations to argue against and helped deepen the idea that firms duty was to focus narrowly on quantitative metrics of share prices than take a more holistic view of supporting all of their relevant stakeholders. And then this offshoring leads to political undermining of the very system of neoliberalism that it helped occasion and strengthen. The China Shock has led to more than a disruption of industrial employment but concerns about globalization in all forms, reactionary anti-immigrant politics, etc.

Finally, China’s economic development and its consistent use of industrial policy has undermined neoliberal capitalism away from it’s all markets all the time to being more accepting of government intervention in the economy. For every Venezuela mention by Fox News, there is a counterpoint to be made that … well, didn’t that work in China?

In the end, political science as a discipline and IPE as a sub-subfield in particular seems much more engaged in the messy real world of politics in 2021 than it did when I started off in this profession … two decades ago. Is it perfect, of course not, but we iterate and continue.

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