After Obama Visit, Assessing U.S.-China Relations

While President Obama was on his recent diplomatic visit to China, journalist Orville Schell was also there, observing and reporting. A China expert at the Asia Society, Schell joins Fresh Air host Terry Gross for a conversation about the changing relations between the U.S. and China in light of Obama's visit — and how the fates of the US and China are connected. The protectionist policies of the past, he argues, are no longer viable.

Schell is the author of nine books on China. His work has appeared in several national publications, including The New Yorker, the China Quarterly, and The New York Times.

He is the Asia Society's Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations in New York and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also a Fellow at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University and a Senior Fellow at the Annenberg School of Communications at USC.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Orville Schell, was in China this week during President Obama's visit. Schell has witnessed immense changes in China over the decades. Now, he says, as governments across the West have become increasingly bogged down, trying to fix a broken economy, China is veritably humming with energy, money, plans, leadership and forward motion, while the West seems paralyzed. He warns that Americans need to understand how China has changed if we want to understand their impact on our economy and on climate change.

Schell has written nine books about China and used to cover China for the New Yorker. He's the former dean of the graduate school of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Now he directs the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York, where he's focused on issues of energy and global climate change. Yesterday he went to the NPR bureau in Beijing to record our interview.

Orville Schell, welcome back to FRESH AIR. What do you think was the most interesting outcome of the summit?

Mr. ORVILLE SCHELL (Asia Society): Well, I think perhaps the most interesting thing was that it was - it was a rather, I would say, flat summit. There was not a tremendous amount of sort of emotional heat from it. The city didn't get too disturbed. There was traffic, to be sure, because streets were closed down, but often when leaders come to China or when the Olympic Games happen or something of importance, the city goes into a kind of a paroxysm. You know, there are no kids in the street waving flags. It sort of came and went without making a tremendous disturbance, and I think one might say�

GROSS: What does that mean?

Mr. SCHELL: Yeah, well, that's - I think actually it means in a curious way that China is becoming something more of a normal country and not quite so much in awe of or not quite so willing to put itself out when big accounts from afar come into town. And I think that speaks of a level playing field and a new kind of equality the Chinese are beginning to feel when, you know, the biggest dog on the block comes in, and it's sort of business as usual. I think that's quite a big change.

GROSS: Since you're focusing on climate change and clean energy, let's talk about that. Why do you think it's really important that the United States and China work together in some way, reach some kind of agreements on climate change and clean energy?

Mr. SCHELL: Well, you know, China and the U.S. are both extremely well-endowed with coal, and about 70 percent of China's electrical power comes from coal; about 50 percent of ours does. And we are also the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world, and together the two countries emit, oh, 40-odd percent. That's a lot.

So what that means is that without the U.S. and China on board, some kind of a climate regime, there will be no remedy, and it doesn't really matter what anybody else does. And the reality of the matter is that even though Clinton signed the Kyoto protocols, Bush never allowed them to be ratified, and they wouldn't have been. The Congress never would have ratified them. So we're not in the game. And China is a developing country, and that means that they too are really not in the game in the sense that they had to set defined limits on their carbon emission. So you know, Copenhagen has�

GROSS: You're saying because they're considered a developing country, they did not have to set limits on carbon emissions?

Mr. SCHELL: That's right, and this is a huge division, and this is really what all of the arguments that are leading up to Copenhagen center around, the division between a developed country, the United States, Europe, etc., Japan, and developing countries, which have produced, historically, far less greenhouse gases than developed countries. And in the case of China, this is roughly one-quarter the amount that the Americans have produced historically, even though the population of China is much larger. It also means that the average Chinese produces more than four times less greenhouse gas per year than the average American.

So logically there should be a distinction because the Chinese have every right, as every developing country does, to live as well as Americans. But the distinction between these two kinds of obligations, where we and Europe are obliged to set absolute limits on our emissions while developing countries don't have to, is what has riled everybody up, and this is the problem in Congress.

Congress is saying, well, how can we have a solution without China setting absolute limits, defined limits, and why should we penalize ourselves and join a climate regime and let China run free when all our jobs and factories will go off to China and just compound our economic crisis? So this is the dilemma that we are now in.

GROSS: So the meeting in Copenhagen to start a new framework for a climate change agreement is going to happen in December because the Kyoto protocol expires in 2012. So what do you think the odds are that there will be some kind of agreement that China will also, like the U.S., have to respect certain limits on carbon emissions?

Mr. SCHELL: Well, you know, it's very interesting. A lot of environmentalists just heaved this sigh of great despair when Obama announced in Singapore that we simply couldn't meet our obligations in Copenhagen and there would probably be no treaty. But there is a kind of a curious thing that happened since then.

It's kind of a relaxation, and this argument that was going nowhere between developed and developing countries sort of just expired, and then people started talking in a very different way, and President Hu and President Obama did commit themselves not to sign the treaty, which I don't think they could ever agree on, but to coming up with some sort of arrangement with some agreed-upon limit.

So in a curious way we may find that even though the old framework collapsed, that this may start discussions in a different way, without the pressure of the deadline in December, and something may actually come out of them.

GROSS: So you're talking about some kind of bilateral agreement between China and the U.S., as opposed to a larger international framework like the one that's going to be started in Copenhagen.

Mr. SCHELL: Well, if the U.S. and China could come together with some major new breakthrough agreement, it would inspire every country in the world, and I think then, you know, Europe's already on board, Japan, Korea. They've all made very, very strong commitments, and so I think this would turn around rather rapidly.

But we are the two countries blocking the way, and the U.S. particularly, because the U.S. has no climate bill. The Senate won't pass it. And so Obama arrived here in China really with his hands tied behind his back. He didn't know what he could offer because he didn't have a bill.

So I think this too has made Obama feel a certain kind of weakness. He came here and he didn't have a Senate bill on climate change. He didn't have any money to give. He had really no remedies to offer. All he had was his very fine rhetoric. and I think China perceived that and felt that, and that's a very kind of new dynamic between China and the United States.

GROSS: So in China, President Hu and President Obama announced several new clean energy initiatives. There's a clean energy research center that will be jointly sponsored by the U.S. and China; U.S.-China electric vehicles initiative; a U.S.-China energy efficiency action plan. Do you think these things mean anything, or are they just kind of nice things to put on paper that won't amount to anything?

Mr. SCHELL: Well, you know, yesterday I went to a meeting between the Chinese and the American sides. Gary Locke, the secretary of commerce, Steve Chu, the secretary of energy, and their counterparts in the Ministry of Science and Technology here in China and other officials. And you know, it was sort of the prelude to all of these agreements that they signed.

There was a lot of, I think, interest, a lot of excitement, but the truth be told, when all was said and done, they sort of swept the floor and they picked up everything they possibly could and threw them into these various baskets that you've mentioned, on clean energy, on electric cars, on climate change, coal.

So they didn't put a lot of money into them. This new research institute that they agreed to undertake had already been agreed to, and they'd only put $15 million, and now they put $150 million from public and private sources, and each side would put in half. But you know, in the grand scheme of things, that's not much money at all.

So again, the U.S. is kind of crippled. Just as Obama wants to sort of take leadership, he hasn't got any money, and no one in the U.S. Congress is about to earmark any money for China, because China is perceived as the person with all the money. You know, they're loaning us money. They own almost a trillion dollars of our T-bills. So it's a very complicated, new sort of dynamic that we're trying to work out between these two countries, where we're trying to find sort of a new angle or repose, and it's difficult.

GROSS: You know, even if there was more money to put into these joint energy initiatives, do you think that the United States and China would really feel comfortable collaborating on clean car initiatives and things like that? Because the U.S. and China are very competitive in terms of business. So what are the odds that we'd want to share American business ideas and American new technology ideas with our competitor?

Mr. SCHELL: Well, one could ask that the other way too. Does China want to give away their business secrets to us? I mean, one of the things you just feel so powerfully when you're here is that this is now a two-way street. You go to these cities that you may never heard the names of, Dalian or Chengdu or Tianjin, and you go through these Silicon-Valley-like parks and start-ups and laboratories, and it's really stunning, and you realize that there's an awful lot going on here and that it isn't simply a question of China taking our technology and pirating it and stealing it.

They have a lot themselves, and it's going to be a very short while before we will have - we may be competitors, but the competition will be going both ways, and the truth is that I think if the United States cannot understand the terms of the game have changed and do that very quickly and try to seek some more collaborative relationship with China, we may miss the opportunity when the Chinese then find it no longer interesting to do so.

And it's quite an alarming thought, and I know it sounds very heretical, maybe, sitting back in America to hear someone say that, but that is the reality, and America is very slow to wake up to this new reality, because it's happened so rapidly. China's rise has happened suddenly, and our decline, I think, is -with this economic crisis - is now happening more precipitously.

GROSS: My guest is Orville Schell. He directs the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Orville Schell yesterday, when he was wrapping up his visit to Beijing. Schell has written nine books about China, is the former dean of the graduate school of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and now directs the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York.

Are there ways in which China is more advanced than the United States in terms of clean energy, transportation, infrastructure, power grids?

Mr. SCHELL: You know, I heard a statistic the other day that a couple years ago they had 700 miles of high-speed rail, and now they have 7,000 miles. Now, I may have those statistics slightly off, but that's a staggering figure. The United States really doesn't have one mile.

We have the corridor from Boston to New York to Washington, but that's not really high-speed rail. That's sort of faster-speed rail. So you see the infrastructure that's getting laid down, the new highways, the new airports, the new ports, the new railroad systems. It's extremely impressive, and I think, you know, it raises a question that is sort of frightening to contemplate for an American, and that's this: Does the Chinese system, this sort of autocratic form of capitalism, deliver better than democracy?

And as an ardent democrat, I contemplate the answer to that question with some trepidation, because I think, you know, we feel in America, and in fact I think it's more than a feeling, that in many ways our government is paralyzed, paralyzed by a lack of money, paralyzed in Congress, paralyzed by sort of vicious partisan politics, whereas China is able not only to gather information well but to form policy quickly and then, most importantly, to effect it. And you feel that everywhere you look in this country now, that they are on top of things, they're able to do things swiftly to meet the very high-speed demands of the situation, whereas I think we are kind of languishing in many respects, and I'd say climate change is a kind of a metaphor for how difficult it is for us to do things, and health care would be another.

GROSS: So you think China's moving more swiftly in developing clean energy and new infrastructure because it's got money and also because it's authoritarian, and it doesn't have to have these long, protracted votes that never happen, like in the United States? Yeah.

Mr. SCHELL: There is an element of truth to it, but there are other elements in this equation, and there's extraordinary energy. I went to a green-tech, U.S.-China green-tech summit for the last two days, and you hear these Chinese entrepreneurs. Every one of them is 30 or 40 years old. Electric car companies, you know, high-speed rail, all sorts of interesting new technologies, and these people are cooking. Now, the interesting question is: How did this come to pass?

GROSS: Yeah, can you answer that?

Mr. SCHELL: Well, I mean, I can - I have some ideas, but I don't think I can completely explain it. I mean, I think one thing that happened, the great paradox was that 1989 came along, and it was a disaster for China. The massacre in Tiananmen Square, the demonstrations, it was humiliating, and it was really, I think, even the Chinese leadership thought this might be the end of the line, and it certainly was for communist regimes elsewhere in the world. But it so shocked them that they realized they had to do something really, really severe, really bold in order to save the day, and Deng Xiao Ping did exactly that, and what he did was he managed to win the battle to re-open the economy in 1992.

The conservatives in the party didn't want that to happen, and he went down to Shanghai and then down to Shenzhen near Hong Kong, and he said we must learn from the West, from any society, we must have stock markets, we must go high-tech, and he said it's alright for people to make money. And that started this kind of revolution. And I think it never would have happened if China hadn't been sort of stunned and put into this sort of desperate straits by 1989.

And then, of course, you know, they had a very savage, brutal revolution under Chairman Mao, and when that ended, and when Deng Xiao Ping came along and sort of let them breathe again and said it's okay for you to exercise your ambitions and to make money and to look after yourselves as well as the commonweal, there was such an amount of pent-up energy and so much sort of desperate energy waiting to get out that people just put the bit in their teeth and they've been running with it ever since.

GROSS: China is still thought of, in spite of all the technological advances that China has made and the economic power that it has, China is still officially considered a developing country. And in the Kyoto protocol, China comes under the category of developing country. So when does that change? When does the title - I mean, it seems like China - parts of China certainly are developing. Parts of China really are, like, quite developed.

Mr. SCHELL: Yes, and there are many people who think we ought to invent a third category for a somewhat-developed country, because developing doesn't quite describe China. On the other hand, China's very loathe to abandon that status because there are a lot of special dispensations that come to a developing country.

And you remember back when Robert Zoellick of the World Bank proposed that the U.S. and China really ought to form a G-2, and you might think China would be flattered to be among the elect, the two top countries in the world, but no, they didn't want to do that at all. They don't want the responsibilities of a developed country, and they don't want to lose the perks that come from being a developing country, such as not having to set, you know, defined limits on their carbon emission that we've discussed.

GROSS: So is their status likely to change anytime soon, the status of developing country?

Mr. SCHELL: Well, I don't think China's going to willingly give up this status, curiously. I mean, you know, they spent all this last century trying to overcome their weakness, their backwardness, and you know, they were called China's sorrow, and now they've sort of overcome it, and we are willing to anoint them with the crown of G-2 status or developed-country status, and they say no, no, no, wait, we quite like it down here in the developing-country world where the burdens are lighter. So it is somewhat paradoxical.

GROSS: You're on your way, after Beijing, to a conference in Dubai that will be about energy. What are the people in Dubai going to be looking at, and who's going to that conference?

Mr. SCHELL: Well, this is the World Economic Forum, and one of the things that they are concerned about is how do you pay for all of these remedies. One of the most graphic problems that Asia is going to have to deal with is the melting of glaciers in the Himalayas and the Karakorum.

I mean, these ice fields are the largest masses of ice short of the two polar regions, north and south, and the melting of these glaciers has been precipitous because at higher altitudes there's a much more rapid elevation of temperature because of global warming, and as the glaciers melt, of course we will find profound effects being felt in every major river system of Asia.

So when you think of China, and you think of global climate change, and the Chinese leadership know this, you have to think of things like that, that you're altering fundamentally the sort of hydrology of a whole continent with 2.5 billion people living in it.

GROSS: Orville Schell, recorded from the NPR bureau in Beijing. We'll hear more of the interview in the second half of the show. Schell is the director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with more of our interview with Orville Schell about how China is changing and what that means for America and the world. Schell has written nine books about China, used to write about China for The New Yorker and is the former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He now directs the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. He was in China this week for President Obama's visit. Yesterday, he went to the NPR bureau in Beijing to record our interview.

Now I think it's interesting that your specialty now in terms of the projects you're working on in China have to do with climate change, global warming -that it's not about human rights. And I'm not saying that you're not interested in human rights, but what you're focusing on is global warming, climate change. When Obama was in China, his emphasis was on, you know, climate change, economic issues, not on human rights. He mentioned that he thought the Chinese president should meet with representatives of the Dalai Lama as soon as possible. He said some positive things about the free use of Twitter, but the emphasis was not on human rights. So is human rights kind of taking a backstage here because global warming has become so important?

Mr. SCHELL: Well, that's a very interesting question and I think in my own evolution an answer is suggested. You know, my children were at school here a couple of years ago and we took a little vacation trip up North to see some monasteries and Buddhist grottos and it turned out to be coal country.

We never saw the sky for a week, never saw the sun and I looked at this landscape that was so desecrated by the mining of coal. And it dawned on me, this was the problem. And if you look now at the problems that we as a world confront, I think you have to rank climate change right up there at the top.

This doesn't mean that I like people being put in jail or losing their rights and I still think this is extremely important. But if you look at where we really can not afford to waste a minute, I think you'd have to say that climate change begs all of us to make as herculean an effort as we possibly can before it's too late. And China is the heart of the matter and the United States is a close second.

GROSS: Well, since you've been going to China since 1975, tell us what you think the state of human rights is there now.

Mr. SCHELL: You know, it's - the state of human rights is not terrific but the Chinese fear, deeply, instability. And whether it was under the old sort of regime of Confucianism and the imperial system or under the newer system of sort of Leninist, one-party structure, it's always been a society that's emphasized control. And so this is the way they sort of manage in the universe and when things get tough they crack down.

So from the perspective of anybody who believes in freedom, it's sometimes a difficult country in which to live. But one can understand why they do it. One can understand that a country of 1.3 billion people, if you spill all those people out like marbles on a gym floor and let them roll in every which direction, you would have chaos and that is their most passionate fear.

So it isn't that it doesn't have a logic. And now the logic has results, has verifiable results, that look quite impressive to many and I think to many Chinese. A lot of - most Chinese that I talk to are quite pleased. They're very proud of their country. They see the accomplishments and they're a lot less, you know, in the thrall of America. There's an old expression, you know, that even the moon was rounder in the West in America. Well, you don't hear that so much anymore.

GROSS: I don't think most Americans know much about China's president. Tell us a little bit about him and where he fits in, in the history of Chinese leadership.

Mr. SCHELL: Well, President Hu Jintao is a curious man. He is probably the only leader from a country of consequence who's never given an interview to a foreign reporter. And on the last day of President Obama's visit, when he held his joint press conference with President Hu Jintao - who incidentally, here in China, they refer to as Hu Juche(ph) or Chairman Hu, meaning chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, not president. It isn't the top sort of position. Anyway, when they had their joint press conference they didn't take any questions. You know, that says something about the urge towards control. They just don't want a lot of crazy journalists jumping up and asking gotcha questions so they just don't do it. Well, that's a different system isn't it?

GROSS: Would you consider him any more or less authoritarian in terms of human rights than his predecessors - than his recent predecessors?

Mr. SCHELL: I think, you know, if you compare China today with the way it was 20 years ago, before 1989, it's much better organized and I think in many ways more controlling and in many ways sort of more tightly wound. And I don't think they're in any big hurry to relax these controls.

GROSS: Now as the former dean of the University of the California at Berkeley Journalism School and as someone who's now involved in the New Media Project, tell us what the Internet is like now in China and how much control the Chinese government is exerting over its use.

Mr. SCHELL: Well, it was interesting, when President Obama had his roundtable with students in Shanghai the first day after he arrived, they had big discussion with the Chinese government about whether it could be aired live on television and radio. And they finally decided no, but they would allow it to be aired over the Internet. And incidentally, when President Clinton was here and Jiang Zemin was the secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party, at the very last minute at their joint press conference, he did allow it to be aired live and he allowed questions. So that was, what, 1996 I think. So you can see there's a little retrograde motion there.

So the Internet is an area where, you know, I think it's sort of a Petri dish where we can see the efforts that control being injected into the Petri dish, to try to control the sort of natural spontaneous forces of the Internet. They need the Internet for business and even the party needs it to communicate with its people.

But they're actually spending a tremendous amount of money and effort to try to keep the Internet from being, you know, a kind of a wild animal that may eat them alive. They don't allow pornography and they don't allow a lot of other things which they find politically unpalatable. And again, it's because they fear the sort of errant effects of too much freedom of information, too much independence of organization and because of social stability.

GROSS: And do you get the sense that most Chinese people accept those limitations?

Mr. SCHELL: You know, I think as long as the Chinese Communist Party is delivering 10 percent growth rates people will accept a lot. Now some people don't and those people have a very tough life. They've made a basic wager. You know, they've in effect said that here's two doors: one's politics, one's economics. You open the economic door and go through, all good. You open the political door and go through it, be careful. So there's a tradeoff. But people have really gotten not just a lot of sort of an elevation of standard of living but I think, you know, not to be overlooked is the tremendous feeling of pride of accomplishment.

GROSS: Orville Schell, it's great to speak with you again. Thank you so much and I wish you good travels.

Mr. SCHELL: A great pleasure, Terry.

Orville Schell spoke to us from the NPR's bureau in Beijing. He's the director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York.

Coming up, we talk with photographer Judith Fox about taking pictures of her husband as he lost his memory to Alzheimer's. Those photos are collected in her book "I Still Do." This is FRESH AIR.

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