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China Climate Change Decision Memo

Lessons for U.S. – China Climate Cooperation After COVID-19

MEMORANDUM TO THE NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR

FROM: Chetan Hebbale

SUBJECT: U.S. – China Disaster Response Cooperation After COVID-19

Executive Summary
COVID-19 has opened a window to understand the crisis management strategy of the modern Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As climate change exacerbates natural disasters as well as infectious diseases[1], China will likely deploy their successful pandemic response tactics of regional containment, mass mobilization, and population control to deal with these issues. However, the CCP will also likely continue a tactic that was unsuccessful – the suppression of information domestically and internationally about the severity of the crisis.

The U.S. has an opportunity to improve its relations with China with a package of policies that establish mutual support mechanisms for dealing with future emergencies. These policies could include establishing emergency hotlines to improve transparency, deepening institutional collaboration and best practices for developing health technologies and rapidly scaling up new infrastructure, and promoting public-private environmental stewardship.   

Background

The first “unknown pneumonia case” was documented in Wuhan on December 8th, 2019. On January 20th, 2020, Chinese president Xi Jinping declared that China was experiencing a disease outbreak from a novel coronavirus[2]. In those intervening 43 days, the number of suspicious cases began increasing exponentially with doctors in Wuhan warning friends on social media about the emerging threat.

The authorities of Wuhan and Hubei Province attempted to suppress these reports and punished eight doctors for “rumor-mongering.” They deliberately provided the public with false information on the number of cases and that no human-to-human transmission was occurring[3]. It was only after the first case appeared outside of China in Thailand on January 13th,2020, that leaders in Beijing were compelled to recognize that they may be dealing with a possible pandemic.

Once emergency measures were activated, the government quickly marshalled resources from the civilian and military sectors on a massive scale to dispatch medical equipment, construct overflow hospitals, and enforce lockdowns on nearly half a billion people[4]. In addition, state-owned enterprises like Sinopharm were given substantial resources to begin developing a vaccine. China’s aggressive measures were a global success with less than 5,000 deaths, the second lowest deaths per 100,000 people in the world[5], and producing half the vaccine doses delivered globally[6].

Discussion

Lesson #1: Information authoritarianism will be an enduring feature of the Chinese state.  The U.S. should establish lines of transparency with Chinese citizens.  

  • Local Chinese officials will continue to have an incentive to suppress negative information, not only regarding disease outbreaks, but natural disasters, financial frauds, and industrial accidents[7], because of the CCP’s performance evaluation and responsibility attribution pressures in the cadre management system[8]
  • Recognizing the vulnerabilities of this approach, the Chinese government has an incentive to prevent future disasters from affecting the global community. The U.S. could work with China to establish encrypted digital hotlines whereby Chinese citizens can anonymously report disasters and hot spot events to avoid retribution by local officials for revealing damaging information.

Lesson #2: The Chinese state is capable of quick mobilization on massive scales. The U.S. should conduct joint exercises with China to exchange best practices on rapidly standing up emergency infrastructure and scaling medical breakthroughs.

  • At the beginning of the response, China established a leadership small group (LSG) to be the nation’s top decision-making body for COVID-19 prevention and control[9]. The LSG enabled swift, decisive, and coordinated national action to deploy military and medical staff to quickly build makeshift hospitals and distribute medical supplies. While state-owned enterprises were directed to develop therapeutics, the Sinopharm vaccine has overall seen lower efficacy than the American-made vaccines[10].
  • The U.S. can learn from China’s organizational mobilization and China can learn from U.S. medical innovations. Joint exercises to prepare for rapidly building sea walls, flood shelters, and fire-proof infrastructure will be mutually beneficial for both countries to improve their disaster resilience. Facilitating more medical and academic collaboration on vaccine and therapeutics research from leading U.S. institutions will enhance the speed and efficacy of future medical treatments.       

Lesson #3: China has a cooperative citizenry that’s willing to make shared sacrifices for the greater good. The U.S. should work with China to leverage this public cooperation into community environmental action to reduce carbon emissions

  • Most of the world faced severe challenges in enforcing social distancing and quarantine measures both due to civil resistance as well as weak administrative coercive capacity. In contrast, China faced little resistance to their rigid lockdown measures. The collectivist values and communist ideologies of the Chinese people have conferred a remarkable degree of social discipline as well exercising self-restraint when personal interests clash with collective ones[11].  
  • Today, China is the world’s largest emitter of CO2 emissions – more than all developed nations combined[12]. The U.S. could help establish public-private partnerships with civil societies in China to leverage the spirit of collectivist values to install solar panels on homes, conserve and protect ecosystems, and reduce household fossil fuel use.

[1] Renee Cho, “How Climate Change Is Exacerbating the Spread of Disease,” Columbia University Climate School, September 4th, 2014, https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2014/09/04/how-climate-change-is-exacerbating-the-spread-of-disease/.

[2]  Alex Jingwei He, Yuda Shi & Hongdou Liu, “Crisis governance, Chinese style: distinctive features of China’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic,” Policy Design and Practice, July 19th, 2020,  https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/25741292.2020.1799911.

[3] Chunyan Ding and Fen Lin, “Information Authoritarianism vs. Information Anarchy: A Comparison of Information Ecosystems in Mainland China and Hong Kong during the Early Stage of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” China Review, February 2021, https://www.jstor.org/stable/27005556.

[4] Emily Feng, “Restrictions And Rewards: How China Is Locking Down Half A Billion Citizens,” NPR, February 21st, 2020, https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/02/21/806958341/restrictions-and-rewards-how-china-is-locking-down-half-a-billion-citizens.

[5] Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, “Mortality Analyses,” https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/data/mortality.

[6] Smriti Mallapaty, “China’s COVID vaccines have been crucial — now immunity is waning,” Nature, October 14th, 2021, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-02796-w.

[7] Associated Press, “China exonerates doctor reprimanded for warning of virus,” March 19th, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/virus-outbreak-accidents-ap-top-news-international-news-arrests-6f2e666485e9abae4bb112251eca77be.

[8] Ran Ran and Yan Jian, “When Transparency Meets Accountability: How the Fight against the COVID-19 Pandemic Became a Blame Game in Wuhan,” China Review, February 2021, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/784425.

[9]Alex Jingwei He, Yuda Shi & Hongdou Liu, “Crisis governance, Chinese style: distinctive features of China’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic,” Policy Design and Practice, July 19th, 2020,  https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/25741292.2020.1799911.

[10] Sui-Lee Wee, “They Relied on Chinese Vaccines. Now They’re Battling Outbreaks.” The New York Times, September 16th, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/22/business/economy/china-vaccines-covid-outbreak.html.

[11] Alex Jingwei He, Yuda Shi & Hongdou Liu, “Crisis governance, Chinese style: distinctive features of China’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic,” Policy Design and Practice, July 19th, 2020,  https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/25741292.2020.1799911.

[12] BBC, “Report: China emissions exceed all developed nations combined,” May 7th, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-57018837.

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