China’s Next Act

A Q&A with Scott Moore

While discussions of U.S.-China relations tend to revolve around trade and national security, more focus ought to be given to issues of environmental sustainability, including health, and to emerging technology, argues the University of Pennsylvania’s Scott Moore. Moore spoke with ChinaFile Editor Susan Jakes about his recent book, China’s Next Act: How Sustainability and Technology are Reshaping China’s Rise and the World’s Future. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Susan Jakes: In your book you write, “in a future shaped by climate change pandemics and technology, all countries need China to succeed, and vice versa.” What do you mean by that?

Scott Moore: In my view, there are two sets of issue areas, they do overlap, but I think you can reasonably distinguish them. They have to do with sustainability on one side, and technology, especially emerging technology, on the other. The key thing about both of those issue areas is that China is central and critical to both. We cannot address the risks inherent in sustainability—whether it’s climate change, or future pandemics, or other kind of ecological issues—or address the risks inherent in the development of AI, or seize the opportunity that both those issue areas offer without China. Not only are we looking at a future that’s very much defined for China, the United States, and the rest of the world in terms of sustainability and technology, but we are also looking at China’s role in it.

Both of those issues sets are increasingly defining China’s economic development trajectory, its foreign policy, and even its domestic politics to some extent to a much greater degree than we often appreciate. We tend to think of China in terms of things like trade, geopolitical rivalry, and military competition, all of which are important. But when you look a little bit down the road, it’s those two issues areas—sustainability and emerging technology—that are really shaping where China is headed, and therefore where the world is headed.

What would it look like for China to succeed in these areas?

It would entail China being able to beat its decarbonization goals, to transform its economy from what’s now a really pollution- and resource-use intensive economic model to one that is much friendlier for the planet. That would be one that depends a lot more on things like services and investment, innovation—which is a little bit of a scary word when it comes to China, at least for the United States these days. And it would entail a China that is willing and able to engage responsibly with other countries to help set the rules of the road for some of these emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and biotechnology. That’s where the idea of competition comes from. Anybody who talks about China, in an American context, that’s almost the second word that comes out of their mouth.

One of the key conclusions I came to, in looking at these two issue areas of sustainability and technology, is that we often kind of think of them a little bit backwards when it comes to China.

Courtesy of Oxford University Press

As a generalization, we tend to think of sustainability issues, especially climate change, as ones that can only be solved through cooperation between the U.S., China, and other major countries. And to a degree, of course, that’s true. But as I look at it in the book, and have come to believe very strongly, I actually think that when you look at what we need to do to solve climate change, it’s really about deploying clean technologies at a much greater scale. That’s an area where economic and technological competition can be very helpful. I think the idea of competition can also be helpful when it comes to the other side of the climate equation, which is adaptation. It’s not something we talk as much about as mitigation, but it's going to be really essential, especially when we talk about the poorest and most vulnerable populations, whether in the U.S., China, or elsewhere around the world. I think unlocking the investment that we need to adapt effectively is something that can also be aided, or at least meshes well, with the idea of economic and geopolitical competition.

On the other hand, while we often talk about technological competition between the U.S. and China, I actually think it’s the emerging technology area that could see much more attention and focus given to cooperation with China. China plays such an important role in the development of emerging technology, that we aren’t going to be able to address the risks and seize the opportunities presented by the development of these groundbreaking or pathbreaking emerging technologies.

What would this kind of cooperation look like? And what do you say to somebody who has the general view that a whole range of technology issues are so inflected with our political values that how can we possibly cooperate on them when where we want to get as political systems seems so different?

When we talk about competition or cooperation, who exactly is doing the competing or cooperating? Typically, we tend to think of governments, especially national governments. But actually this is a relationship that is deep and broad and encompasses an extremely diverse range of actors—sub-national governments, universities, private companies, and state-owned companies—a whole range of different actors that have very different interests and incentives, all of which are extremely important when it comes to both competition and cooperation. I stress in the book that I think both competition and cooperation are things that all actors in the U.S.-China relationship need to take seriously. Even organizations that we don’t tend to think of as geopolitical actors, like NGOs or even universities, have to be prepared to engage in this sort of competitive dynamic as well as cooperation.

What do you say to people who say, yeah, you can have all your track-two dialogues, you can talk till the cows come home, but at the end of the day that doesn’t go anywhere unless there is real openness to the fruits of those conversations on the part of the national governments—which at this point seem not so open to those things?

I don’t think the non-state or subnational channel is ideal. It’s a second-best option and it’s no replacement for national-level dialogue. Ultimately, you have to get some type of diplomatic arrangement. Given the challenges, you have to start where you can and where there is an opening, and I think that’s at the sub-national and non-state level.

What do you think the biggest misperceptions are about the U.S.-China relationship regarding sustainability, public health, and technology?

I think the biggest is the idea that things like climate or ecological issues are all about cooperation, whereas tech issues are all about competition. I think that is approximately backwards, at least when it when it comes to China. I think that the sub-national and non-state dimension to all of those issues is really underemphasized. Another thing related to that is the pluralization and diversity of interests among different actors, particularly within China, engaged in these issues. Especially in the last few years, we’ve had this really reductionist view of what and who China is. And I think that’s sort of to the expense of appreciating the many diverse interests. One that I talked about in the book, in particular, is that tech firms in China tend to have very different interests than those of the state or the Party. The discourse in U.S. policy circles is to speak of them as one entity. That’s just not the case. They have very different interests. Obviously, the state, the Party, is the more powerful and holds trump cards. But the fact that they have these different interests is something that we shouldn’t lose sight of and it creates some important opportunities.

How do you tell American politicians and advisors that we need to compete and cooperate when that seems like such a mixed message? And how do you make it politically viable?

My main audience for this book was not inside the beltway, it was business and to some degree universities and other organizations, but really nongovernmental and non-state. I believe that is fundamentally the reality of the U.S.-China relationship, and that’s the constituency on both sides, frankly, where there is constructive change to be had. Having said that, my main message to policymakers is that whether your view is that we need to confront Beijing more strongly, over Taiwan, over other human right issues, or whether you do believe that we should have a more cooperative relationship with China over climate change and many other shared challenges we face, what we have to do is refocus our attention to these two issue areas: sustainability and emerging technology. Because they’re going to shape any kind of contingency over Taiwan. They’re going to shape how human rights oppression plays out. So we have to re-envision our thinking about China in terms of these two issue areas. That’s true wherever you fall along the political spectrum, and I do think that’s perhaps a somewhat subtle mind shift but a shift nonetheless that needs to take place.