The recently concluded 20e The National Congress of the Communist Party of China cemented Xi Jingping’s new status as the man in charge of China for an indefinite future. An indication of his new strength and status is that he is now often referred to in the press as “the great helmsman”, a title not used since Mao.
Xi’s opening speech to the Party Congress began by describing the mess his predecessor had left for him and how he cleaned it up. The rest of the speech focused on how he planned to ensure past problems did not reoccur, the two key elements of which are control and national security. Xi made it clear that by control he meant that the Chinese Communist Party must continue to “reform” itself (especially by fighting corruption) so that it can direct and control all aspects of life in China, from education and science to economy and culture.
Regarding national security, Xi said China faces challenges abroad due to “hegemonic, authoritarian and bullying acts”, including, among others, sanctions. Xi called for strengthening all aspects of the Party and government’s national security apparatus, especially the military to deal with the potential dangers of “rough waters” and “dangerous storms” to come.
Xi’s predictions of bad weather ahead for China were accurate, but misdirected. There will be tensions and increased competition in China’s relationship with the United States and other democracies in Asia, the West and elsewhere – but these are conventional challenges sensitive to traditional forms of government and bilateral engagement. or multilateral. If China and Xi are not looking for a physical fight outside of mainland China, they are unlikely to find one attacking them.
The most serious (and most predictable) long-term threat to China’s prosperity, security and stability – veritable “dangerous storms” – comes from the cascading impacts of climate change on the natural world in and around China. , and not on other nations.
Xi has acknowledged in the past that climate change is a problem for China. For example, during the Party Congress in 2017, he noted that “the damage mankind inflicts on nature will come back to haunt us”, and said that China had taken “a driving seat in international cooperation to respond to the climate change”.
Xi’s past concern was well placed. The China Meteorological Administration estimates that climate change is producing a pattern of extreme weather events, from heat waves to extreme rainfall flooding inland regions. Flooding of a different kind is a growing problem along China’s long urbanized coastline. The World Bank reports that China is one of the two countries in Asia most vulnerable to permanent coastal flooding due to sea level rise. A recent study on the financial risks associated with climate change, for example, revealed that even if global temperatures increase by only 1.5 degrees Celsius, rising sea levels by 2100 would flood seaports and airports in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tianjin and Shenzhen and displace millions of people.
The combination of inland flooding and heat waves will affect Chinese food production. The China Daily reported that climate change will test the country’s food production. A study on the subject estimated that at the upper end of projected increases in global temperatures, Chinese food production could fall by around 9% by 2050, while a more moderate increase in global temperatures would decrease production. Chinese food of about 4%.
China’s overall vulnerability to a range of consequences of climate change impacts has led Swiss Re, a leader in the global reinsurance industry, to report that among the world’s major economies, China is the most exposed to shocks and shocks. disturbances due to climate change.
Recent reports from the UN and the IPCC clearly indicate that the world is on track for temperature increases beyond the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees Celsius, possibly as much as at or slightly above 3 degrees Celsius. These warmer temperatures will have impacts in China that will be increasingly evident to the Chinese public, from flooded streets and subways in inland cities to flooded coastal cities with seawater. , heat waves, droughts and rising food prices. Without bold action, China will face mounting economic costs and potential political discontent or unrest from the cascading effects of climate change, which could undermine the very Party control and national security that Xi has prioritized. in his opening speech on 20e Party Congress.
Despite the growing likelihood that global temperatures will rise far beyond the Paris Agreement targets, Xi has backtracked on his 2017 pledge that China would be an international leader on climate change.
In August, China broke off bilateral climate talks with the United States, and Xi subsequently failed to reiterate his 2017 climate leadership pledge at this year’s National Party Congress. Instead, he referred to the environment and “green development” goals in general terms, noted that China would move “cautiously” toward peak carbon emissions and carbon neutrality, and only used the term “climate change” once – and not in the context of taking leadership on the issue. Xi also noted that China would continue to rely on coal for now, but would strive to make it a “cleaner” source of energy.
Xi may have lowered his and China’s profile on climate change out of concern for his national challenges. These include dealing with the economic and political consequences of its increasingly unpopular Zero Covid policy and a slow-running crisis in the property sector. Ironically, however, ongoing climate change will increase infectious disease problems in China (and around the world) and wreak havoc on China’s real estate market, especially in coastal cities.
Xi has set ambitious goals domestically and internationally to spur China’s continued “rise” over the decade, but the cascading effects of climate change on the natural world over the coming decades risk disrupting both Xi’s plans and China’s rise.
The COP-27 climate meetings in Egypt will reveal whether Xi’s climate rollback at the Party Congress was tactical, designed to further emphasize his themes of Party control and national security, or if he decided to make climate action a lower priority. Given China’s status as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, that matters. Without a sharp cut in China’s emissions in the near term, the world – and China itself – will pay a heavy price, and the “great helmsman” will have to steer China through any “dangerous storms” he might have to avoid.
Kenneth C. Brill is a retired foreign service officer who served as an ambassador in the Clinton and Bush administrations and was the founding director of the US National Counterproliferation Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence..
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