Following decades of growth and development, Chinese officials, businesses, and institutions now play a critical role in every major global issue. The challenges posed by climate change, pandemics, and emerging technologies make dealing with the Chinese state, its firms, and other institutions more complex and more critical than ever before. In China’s Next Act: How Sustainability and Technology are Reshaping China’s Rise and the World’s Future (Oxford University Press), Scott Moore argues that none of these increasingly pressing, shared global challenges can be tackled without China and, as a result, that the world must re-envision China’s rise and global role in in terms of sustainability and technology. 

In conversation with Angel Hsu on September 15, 2022, Dr. Moore explores China’s part to play in tackling shared ecological and technological challenges.

About the speakers


NITAI DEITEL: My name is Nitai Deitel, senior program officer at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. I am pleased to introduce our guests for today’s interview, exploring how shared ecological and technological challenges are forcing the world to re-envision China’s rise and the world’s future.  

Scott Moore is a political scientist, university administrator and former policymaker whose career focuses on China sustainability and emerging technology. He is director of China Programs and Strategic Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the new book China’s Next Act: How Sustainability and Technology Are Reshaping China’s Rise and the World’s Future.  

Moderating the interview will be Angel Hsu, assistant professor in the Public Policy Department and Energy Environment and Ecology Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research explores the intersection of science and policy in the use of data driven approaches to environmental sustainability, particularly in climate and energy, urbanization and air quality.  

Both Scott and Angel are fellows and the National Committee’s Public Intellectuals Program. Angel, the floor is yours.  

ANGEL HSU: Thank you so much, Nitai. And thanks so much, Scott, for joining me in this conversation today. I have your book, I was really enjoying reading through it, and I was impressed by how much ground you cover. You’re talking about China’s political and economic history, where it stands today, and how it influences China’s global positioning on really key issues, including environment and sustainability.  

You have a chapter in there about the pandemic and also emerging technologies such as digital surveillance, which we know have been a little thorny in China’s rise. So I was wondering if you could first talk about your motivations for writing the book, and why now.  

SCOTT MOORE: Thanks so much. There is kind of a personal answer to your question and more of an academic one. So let me just quickly try to cover both, though they are related. The personal reason is that soon after I finished graduate school, I had the opportunity to spend a year at the U.S. Department of State and actually opened in [the book’s] preface talking about this, this experience showing up pretty much right out of graduate school where, as you know, and many of those listening will know, is intensely specialized and then being handed this portfolio called ESTH, which stands for Environment Science, Technology and Health on what’s referred to as the China desk at the State Department.  

So for somebody coming out of graduate school and having just sort of written a dissertation and things like that, the idea of expecting one person to cover so many very different, extremely technical issue areas sounded somewhere between laughable and downright dangerous, and that that remains true. But nonetheless, over the course of my time there at the State Department, I did come to appreciate this kind of set of issues and some of the connections between them, at least when it comes to China.  

And at the time—this was about the kind of latter years of the Obama administration and cooperation, or at least dialogue with China on those issues and in particular on climate change. I was there that the year leading up to the Paris Agreement essentially and cooperation on what was then trying to combat a very serious Ebola outbreak—those issues raised were really seen as not just the most promising areas of engagement and diplomacy with China, but potentially as ways to integrate China into the global community and international system more broadly.  

So those issue areas kind of came to be seen as having a lot of strategic importance, even relative to the more traditional issues like trade or geopolitics that had traditionally been the focus of diplomacy with China. And so it was that kind of environment that I was exposed to. Obviously, the better part of a decade later, we’re in a very different place when it comes to China. And I think very frankly, the vision that I think many people had, at least in the administration at that time for there being some potential for particularly U.S.-China cooperation on areas like climate change and public health has failed, at least for now, both to address those shared global challenges and to form that bedrock of a more constructive relationship between the two countries.  

I really wanted to understand why that is. I spent a lot of brain space, frankly, over the last year, trying to think about why exactly that that dream failed, at least up till now. And the more conceptual answer to the question which is related is that I think for the most part, the discussion about U.S.-China relations and China policy tends to think about these big global challenges and China’s role in them as being somewhat divorced from issues of competition, the deep fissures in the relationship over areas like human rights or Taiwan, when in fact I think they’re increasingly and somewhat unfortunately, very closely related. I wanted to develop some connective tissue between these ideas of competition or rivalry between the U.S. and China and trying to square that with the reality that so much of our life and future are shaped by these shared global challenges in which China has an indispensable role to play.  

HSU: Yeah, and I want to pick up on that particular point, because I think you’re right in that we think about the U.S. and China being these two global powers. And on issues like pandemics and public health and climate change, I think conceptually and theoretically, particularly in the political science and global governance literature, there has talked about the need for collective action and for cooperation. And that’s where a lot of the international policy responses has stemmed from, like the Kyoto Protocol and other global agreements.  

But I think this this question about whether or not competition is actually the more appropriate framing in this relationship is a really great question and point that you bring up very early in the book. So I was wondering if you could unpack this for us, because I think for many of us it sounds really counterintuitive and it requires us to reshape our thinking about how we engage with China in a more competitive sense rather than cooperative. Can you just unpack that a little bit more for us? What do you mean by we should be competing or potentially competing more with China on these issues instead of trying to cooperate? 

MOORE: Well, it’s certainly the key question and I’d start by saying and in fact, I do kind of try to get to this fairly early on in the book is that at least when it comes to China, we talk so much about cooperation, competition. Sometimes you hear other C words, co-opetition, things like that, without really defining them or without really like having sort of a next-level down understanding of what those things actually mean. So one of the things I try to do fairly early on is deal with that a little bit, and better define what we mean and what we think about when we talk about cooperation versus competition, at least when it comes to China.  

I think the key thing that distinguishes cooperation is there’s sort of a benefit that that stems from interaction or exchange or dialogue that’s just sort of good for its own sake. This is something that’s good to do independent of whatever kind of material gain might result from it, and that there is every expectation that both sides can gain more or less equitably.  

What’s different, I think, about competition is thinking that, well, we still need to have dialogue, we still need to trade, we still need to do all the things that bind in one way or another the U.S., China and other countries. But our aim is fundamentally to make sure that our side gains more than the other side. And that expectation of there being some this is just good to do and positive for its own sake isn’t really there. And I think when you kind of map that to these issues like climate change, what that means is there’s still a recognition that there has to be some level of communication, cooperation, collaboration, even collective action. But it’s not necessarily in the spirit of something that produces gains for both sides equitably.  

And I think that’s a key differentiator when it comes to the focus particularly that that you pointed out in political science and international relations about the need for collective action to address global challenges like climate change—that’s still, I think, very much true. And I certainly wouldn’t want to contest that. What I do think is helpful to kind of distinguish between is just this idea of why and how you have interaction and the sort of expectations that both sides bring to that. And in particular, this idea that you can achieve gains for one side over another is really important. And it’s sort of a key realization against this backdrop of, frankly, continually rising tension and rivalry that I think does make it somewhat impractical, unfortunately, to expect there to be sort of kumbaya, type of approach to cooperation, whether it’s on climate or other issues.  

HSU: Yeah. And let’s dive a little bit deeper into in particular the climate and clean energy relationship between U.S. and China. Can you talk about how these dynamics, the tension between cooperation and competition, but in particular, a competition has played out in the energy sector and also climate policies in China. And if you’re able to say or you’re willing to say, who do you think has been the winner in these issues?  

MOORE: So I think up until now, it has been the United States. And I think one of the ironies I think actually behind the state that we find ourselves in with U.S.-China relations is I actually do think in most material areas, the United States has gained certainly more than China has, and certainly more than it’s lost from all kinds of interaction and trade and investment with China.  

But that being said, there have been significant negative impacts as well. And that’s what we’re seeing. Another way I think, of answering your question is to kind of start with the idea of getting back to the definitional issues. What exactly is it that we need cooperation on [with regards to] climate change or other kind of global public goods or shared global challenges?  

And I think there are two key things. One is you definitely need some type of a binding international agreement. That’s just the nature of the international system that we live in, that at some point you will need some type of binding international agreement that enforces significant cuts on greenhouse gas emissions and punishes any country that that would that would break that agreement. So that type of thing is obviously something that to some degree you have to get the United States government, the Chinese government, and other major emitter governments on the same page for.  

The other thing I think that you would want cooperation or need it for is to produce the key clean technologies that we need for decarbonization at the lowest possible cost. And this is something that some of our colleagues have done a lot of thinking and work on. And to the extent that you can utilize China’s unparalleled manufacturing economies of scale to produce that, ideally using foreign intellectual property or producing some returns for foreign firms as well. That is an attractive form of economic and technological cooperation when it comes to China.  

Unfortunately, there are lots of political and economic barriers to both those types of cooperation. And I think that’s where the idea of what gains can you produce through competition comes in. And you’ve thought a lot about this and written about it as well, Angel. But in the book, the main thing that I talk about is the idea that this kind of framing of competition might provide some impetus for governments on both sides to invest more in basic research and development for advanced versions of clean technology to support decarbonization. And I would add just that we have seen some good examples of this, like the Inflation Reduction Act, which was justified in part by President Biden as helping the United States to compete more effectively with China.  

HSU: Yeah, and it definitely seems like this competition driver has become a lot stronger in recent years. As you said, with the Inflation Reduction Act. And certainly if we trace back and as you do in the book, to the emergence of China’s clean energy technology, they were thinking about it not from a climate and energy perspective, but from an economic competitiveness issue.  

They said if we invest now, we produce and invest huge subsidies into these programs. The development of wind and solar PV (photovolatics), that’s going to give us that type of competitive advantage. Can you talk about these two possibilities for collaboration? I think on the first one, the legally binding international treaty for at least climate change and energy, that’s just not happening.  There was no traction. I think you and I were both at the 2009 Copenhagen negotiations where we saw how that just miserably failed. And that just clearly has not been on the table because of the competitive dynamics between the U.S. and China. And that’s why we have Paris, which is bottom-up and allows for countries to decide what they can contribute to the issue.  

I’m wondering then, is there any room for fair competition? You talk about the tensions between U.S. and China that really, I think, introduce a lot of noise into our ability to actually have conversations with Chinese counterparts on the climate issue. And so from your perspective, and as a former policymaker, do you think that there is any room now? And what might be those points where we can try to cooperate with China on climate change and energy?  

MOORE: Well, another kind of key thing floating in the background here and that was sort of in my mind when I was writing the book, is that the U.S. approach really has been to try to kind of separate these global challenge issues. And climate is certainly the best example from the more from an American point of view, at least more problematic issues in the relationship that seemed to work for a while.  

But recently, as many will know, we had a pretty definitive end in Beijing’s decision to suspend cooperation or dialogue, more specifically with the United States on climate change as one of several retaliatory measures following Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. So in the short term at least, we’ve seen a total end to dialogue or cooperation. And I think, unfortunately, that what that signals and one of the big questions is how long a course that will last, whether there will be a resumption of that. Certainly we have signals that there’s informal dialogue, which is good news, but that I think is a pretty strong signal that there is unfortunately a connection between the rivalry and competition dynamics in the broader relationship and the sort of shared global challenge issues like climate change. So what space does that leave, or does that leave a shrinking one? But I think one nonetheless.  

And another kind of point I try to draw out in the book is that China is massively exposed to ecological and climate risks much more than is commonly appreciated, although that’s becoming more evident all the time. This past summer heat wave is the most recent and best example of that. It’s on many measures, the most severe heat wave on record anywhere in the world. A large part of central China suffered through, and that was accompanied by a punishing drought continues to really hammer China’s industrial production, for example, there. This is an issue that is not going away for China’s policymakers as much as their American counterparts. And there is a strong interest in taking action on climate change that is more ambitious than what’s been done so far, just as there is with the American counterparts.  

I think the final kind of point that your question raises is, what’s the value of continued diplomacy on both sides in the U.S. and China? What’s different, particularly on the U.S. side, since passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, is the both sides have enacted relatively ambitious domestic commitments on climate change, more ambitious and sort of formulaic on the Chinese side than on the American. But nonetheless, both sides have sort of set pretty ambitious goals, and the focus is now on achieving them primarily through national action.

And so I do think there is sort of less stress, so to speak, placed on that high level diplomatic collaboration. In the short term, there probably isn’t a lot we can expect, both because of the tensions in the broader relationship, but also in part because the focus is shifting, as it should, to national action. Though I do hope there will be some scope. I think we have to be very modest in expectations, but I hope there’s some scope to do something on adaptation. I think that’s the clear gap that that exists and that it’s crying out for some attention.  

HSU: Yeah, I think that’s a really fair point. I mean, just speaking to cooperation, I think we are all quite surprised, or at least I was quite surprised even at the Glasgow negotiations that happened in 2021, that the U.S. and China were able to come together on this global methane partnership. But I think given this new context, that that’s a major question, whether or not it still makes sense to cooperate on these issues or whether or not, as you said, more of the focus will just evolve to more domestic actions, which also could be incredibly impactful.  

And I like your point about adaptation because China was not alone in suffering triple digit heat waves. And in the U.S., California’s San Francisco has been experiencing triple digit temperatures. I think there’s a lot that we could work together on. So I think that’s a that’s a really fair point.  

I want to pivot a little bit back to this this other question about China’s innovation system, which you talk about and knowledge production. And one area we have seen China be incredibly successful in this innovation space has been on clean energy technologies, including solar photovoltaic, solar water heaters. You talk about them being an unsexy technology. And actually, I actually think it’s actually incredibly sexy if you think about how incredibly they’ve been able to dominate the market and you drive around the Chinese countryside and all the rooftops are covered with solar water heaters, which is huge, but also electric vehicles, which has also been, I think, a big emerging sector for U.S. to compete in.  

I was wondering if you could talk about some of the key elements of China’s approach and whether or not you think their model of innovation is actually replicable outside of China or is it unique to China? I’m asking this because there’s been so much conversation since Biden became president about whether or not the U.S. can or should compete with China in the space, because, as you said, it’s not necessarily easy to just overtake China when they have established manufacturing supply chains.  

MOORE: Yeah, I think the short answer is no. And I think there are several, but several important longer things to say. One of which is that there are aspects of China’s approach to clean technology development that have planted the seeds for, I think some of the more unfortunate or problematic tensions that that exist in this space and reasons why it’s not very realistic, unfortunately, to expect a lot from U.S., China or even U.S. or even Sino-European cooperation. And it is because of some problematic kind of policy support measures that that Beijing employed to support the growth of the solar and wind industries, some examples of forced technology transfer and IP violations, things like that that are problematic practices and that contributed to a lot of the the tensions, indeed basically were the original justification for the trade war initiated by the Trump administration against China.  

So there’s a lot of aspects of China’s approach that I think had some really negative effects, whatever, apart from their positive effects on that, the growth in renewable energy capacity installed worldwide. And I think it kind of comes back to this fundamental question of, what can we ask of cooperation between countries, especially on clean technology, clean energy development versus competition? My argument is that I think we’re at the stage where we have a lot of the technological pieces of the puzzle to decarbonization in place and solar PV, whether it’s made in China or elsewhere, is a big part of that. But it’s not all of it. We still have a lot of tech that has to be developed and certainly that has to be deployed, and it’s going to require some significant additional investment, including from governments.  

And that’s really where I see the role of competition coming into play. To the extent that you can create a virtuous kind of cycle where Beijing, Washington, Brussels, Berlin are all putting money into this sector and into trying to solve the remaining technological questions around decarbonization, that’s probably going to give us the best chance of solving all of those all of those problems.  

But I think to your point and the premise of your original question, the policy measures and the approach that Beijing took to developing its renewables industry are not necessarily replicable or are they necessarily desirable to see applied elsewhere. And I think ideally we would want to see the next generation of technology be developed cheaply. And its advantage is so clear that you really wouldn’t need much in the way of policy support.  

HSU: Yeah, and certainly I think the world has a lot to thank China for in driving down those costs of these key technologies that are ultimately going to help us get to these decarbonization goals.  

So I have one last question for you and the conclusion of your book. You talk about two main lessons for how to bolster cooperation with China and areas of common concern. We’ve talked about the first one, which is the ring-fencing approach, and that certainly has we tried that from the U.S. perspective. I remember when former Secretary Kerry was appointed as a special envoy, he specifically said we’re going to try to work with China in isolation on the climate issue and try to drown out the other geopolitical noise. And clearly, as you mentioned, that hasn’t necessarily been really effective. But the second point that you make is allowing non-state actors, businesses, universities and subnational actors to lead the way in terms of cooperation. And obviously, I’m biased towards this particular approach because I research it as well. But I was hoping that you could expand on the second point and provide some concrete recommendations for those who are out there hoping to still collaborate with Chinese counterparts in an increasingly tense time and the relationship where we’ve seen China close off.  

And for researchers like myself, I’m used to going to China multiple times a year and attending conferences where their Chinese counterparts, and we basically have not had any of that for the last three years. So if you could speak to how you see this subnational and non-state actor cooperation happening. And then any advice or recommendations for those of us who are trying to continue those engagements or reengage with Chinese counterparts?  

MOORE: Absolutely. And in the book, we’ve talked a lot about climate change, specifically for good reason. It’s definitely the crux of the whole picture when it comes to trying to situate China in terms of a key solution or a key actor in solving these shared global challenges. But I do try to touch on some others in the book, if for no other reason, than to sort of contextualize climate a little bit.  

And so I do talk a little bit about what I see as the need for developing rules and norms around emerging technologies like AI, artificial intelligence. The one that I actually focus most intently in on the book in is advanced forms of biotechnology, gene editing, synthetic biology. And it’s actually in that kind of emerging technology space where the role of these subnational and non-state actors is kind of most evident and important, if for no other reason than that national governments can’t keep up with the sheer pace of technological progress. And that means that as a practical matter, a lot of the work of trying to ensure responsible use and development of these technologies falls to universities, industry associations, individual companies, even individual researchers and labs in a lot of cases. So I think that’s particularly important in that space.  

That being said, there’s definitely a huge role for subnational, non-state actors in the climate policy area as well. I think the thing that I would say, especially in that arena, though, and I do try to sort of harp on this a little bit in the book, is that the subnational and non-state sector is not a substitute for national action or international agreements, things like that. So in many ways it’s sort of trying to pave the way for that ultimate goal. But I think there is a lot of a lot of potential for subnational cooperation in areas like building codes, urban planning, things that have significant impact on emissions, in some cases, electric, city grid reform and policy. I think in terms of concrete recommendations, I say in the book that [these are things that] national governments need to get better at. And here my audience is more thinking more about democracies than China per se. But they need to get much better at engaging and coordinating with subnational actors.  

When I was at the State Department, we hosted the first ever U.S.-China subnational summit on climate change, essentially. And it just involved a lot of things that we had never done before as the State Department trying to work with a lot of local leaders and the mayor of Wichita, Kansas. I think it’s probably the first time the city of Wichita and the U.S. Department of State have had an interaction. And so it’s just kind of getting that experience, figuring out what those channels look like and just sort of how to reconcile that. The high diplomacy and presidential summits that the State Department is used to organizing and trying to translate it more as to how can local government officials from the U.S., China, other countries get in a room and have a productive discussion about joint actions to combat climate change? There are a lot of operational and practical questions to sort through there, and governments need to get much better at doing that and investing a lot more resources in engaging better with subnational players.  

HSU: Yeah, I certainly agree with you. And we saw during the Trump administration how those subnational interactions were really a way to keep that relationship between the U.S. and China on climate alive. And you had former California Governor Jerry Brown, who actually went to China and visited with President Xi Jinping to talk about cooperation on climate change. And so that was really critical.  

Well, thank you so much, Scott, for this really great conversation on your book. Again, I’m going to give you a plug. China’s Next Act by Scott Moore. It’s a really great read. I loved the perspective that you provided from your own personal experiences. I thought that added a lot of rich context and color to it. And really thanks so much for this great conversation.  

MOORE: Thank you.  

DEITEL: Perfect. Thank you both so much for sharing your thoughts and insights with us and our audience today. I’d also like to thank the National Committee staff behind the scenes who made today’s interview possible. We hope to those who tuned in all the way to the end, I found the interview both interesting and informative and that you will join us for future National Committee programming. Thank you all again, and have a great day.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.