Yanzhong Huang discusses his new book, Toxic Politics: China’s Environmental Health Crisis and Its Challenge to the Chinese State. Environmental degradation in China has taken a heavy toll not only on public health, but also on Chinese society, the economy, and the legitimacy of the party-state. Toxic Politics connects the limited success of China's pollution control to pathologies inherent in the institutional structure of the Chinese party-state, revealing a political system that is remarkably resilient, but fundamentally flawed.
The CFR Fellows’ Book Launch series highlights new books by CFR fellows.
HAASS: Well, thank you so much. And let me wish everyone, I guess it's good afternoon technically, wherever you are. Good morning, good afternoon, good evening. Today, we're fortunate enough to have an event with one of our senior fellows, who I'll introduce in a second. And it's one of my favorite events because it's associated with the launch of his book, the fellow is Yanzhong Huang. He is a senior fellow in global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. He's also a professor at Seton Hall. He is one of the real authorities in this country or any country, for that matter, on China, on health policy in China and on global health governance, and he's been an active, prolific part of the team at the Council on Foreign Relations, writing, assessing prescribing about the current COVID-19 crisis and what ought to be done. But today, we're going to talk about, I hope, that's not backwards or not, if it is, I can't help you. Toxic Politics, the subtitle of Yanzhong's book is China's Environmental Health Crisis and Its Challenge to the Chinese State. So as you can tell, it basically looks at things environmental, it looks at things health, it looks at things economic, and it looks at things political, and it attempts, it succeeds at drawing the connections between and among this work, which is why I think this is such a valuable book. So often we have in this academic world of our siloed studies and as I have been known to point out, universities have departments, but the world doesn't. And this is a book that I think does us all the favor of connecting things that in reality, are connected. So congratulations, Yanzhong. And thanks for being with us today, what we're going to do is the two of us are going to have a conversation for some time. And then I will turn it over to you, our members and others to ask the questions. And we will finish at 59 minutes and 59 seconds after the hour. Because we have the principle of being punctual. And while we do not live up always to all of our principles, we try to live up to that one, as it's more in our control. So again, welcome, sir. Congratulations. And as I said, I'm not just flattering you I think it's a truly important book.
HUANG: Well, thank you—
HAASS: Good, now you're thinking.
HUANG: For that very generous introduction. Actually, I benefited a lot from your feedback in the writing of this book. And in fact, I was reading this title actually the title, I think, also, in part, you help me to finalize that title. And I also like to thank everyone today who is participating in today's book talk and in fact, many of you in one way or the other help the book writing process. So that is a big thank you.
HAASS: Well, first let's walk through it. Let's walk our listeners and viewers through this. Let's start out with things environmental. Just what is the state of China's environmental situation and how and why did it get as severe as it's gotten? Why don’t you say a little bit about how it evolved and why it evolved that way?
HUANG: Well, well, the situation today actually is, I would say mixed. On the one hand, you've seen some very encouraging progress being made. Pollution control, if you look at the PM2.5 you know, that is the most harmful type of air pollution, you know, it's essentially if the fine particles in the air are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. If you look at the concentration of PM2.5, again, the most harmful type of air pollution beginning in 2013, and through 2018, we have seen actually a significant reduction of the pollution level, thanks to a government campaign, a sort of a blue sky campaign that managed to reduce the use of PM2.5 concentration level by 46%. But in the meantime, if you look at the recent data, it seems not so encouraging. We have the data from the non-governmental organization that suggested that the pollution, especially in the wake of COVID in China, has actually returned or exceeded the level one year before, that was in 2019. And if you look at the steel production and coal production consumption level, this is an important source of pollution in China, they have also had the peak in like 2013, 2014, then we have actually seen you know, the increase since 2017. And that continued through today.
HAASS: Why don't you explain to us because I'm not an expert, I would hazard that maybe most others aren't either. How does China go about making the tradeoffs between things like economic growth and pollution? How is the decision making carried out? And if there's been changes, and have there been times when one or the other dominated that consideration?
HUANG: What this dilemma between the economic growth and environmental protection, I think, has become an issue, you know, since the Mao era, when Chairman Mao’s campaign against nature have caused a lot of the devastating impact on the economy, on the society, on nature. But the problem was not really until the post-Mao era when, you know, you have rapid industrialization and modernization and that interacts with this government reliance on the performance based legitimacy that is the government basically justify its rule on the ability to deliver economic growth and an ability to fulfill concrete goals. So that the least this dilemma becomes exacerbated in the post-Mao era. And that is why we have seen suddenly, like in 2013, this smog and pollution become headlines in the Chinese media.
Now, after that, you know, then you have seen the Chinese government try to tackle pollution. So there's a slight shift in the government agenda, especially under President Xi Jinping, and we see so-called Two Mountains theory, basically a golden mountain or silver mountain, why that's no better than the green mountain. So, he started to show his commitment on pollution control, that actually led to this reduction of air pollution, and to a lesser extent of water pollution in China. But now, we have seen this thing again, return, right, because by especially, actually since 2018, this strong urge to promote, stimulate economic growth, then after the COVID, you know, they want to just make up the loss incurred by the outbreak, so that is why I've seen that the Premier Li Keqiang talk about the so-called story economy, essentially encouraging people, you know, to set up this curbside, you know, shops, which was considered a potential contributor to the environmental pollution. So that, again, we assume this dilemma between pollution and economic growth. So, I would say China is still lurking between, you know, these two trends, environmental protection, then environmental degradation.
HAASS: Let's look at pre-COVID Chinese health. So, you have a lot of your book was essentially written or more than that, was written before COVID. And, as I understood, it's been a few months since I read it now, but there was, essentially, you are making the case that the degradation of the environment, in the name of economic growth and so forth, had exacted a serious price in public health. Why don't you say something about that?
HUANG: Well, the problem here is that the environmental degradation is not just having this harmful impact on people's health, you know, we know that like, as early as 2015, 1.8 million Chinese people died of pollution that makes China the country that is most adversely affected by pollution in terms of impact on health. But the pollution's impact is not just confined to human health, it has also its impact felt in the economy, the society and even in the polity. I mean, political legitimacy. Like there was a study by the World Bank that suggested that China lost 10% of its GDP to pollution. Now, that was actually based on the impact of caused by premature death. But I actually included in the book the impact also on the non-fatal units, actually, the percentage become even larger, it's as high as like, 18% of China's GDP, you know, so it's a big impact on China's economy.
HAASS: To say that the, just so I understand, that the impact on health of environmental degradation, you think, basically, your calculation showed that it was causing nearly I think, was two million deaths a year, plus a lot of sickness and basically, subtracting somewhere from a tenth to a fifth of China's economy?
HUANG: Yeah. So the different models being used to estimate the impact on the economy. And we used this as a model that was derived from Tom Shellings, you know, that measures the value (inaudible), you know, basically not just talking about the direct impact on GDP, but also how people value intangible things, and that, in fact, how people value health also changes longitudinally, because you could say, 20 years ago, you know, people only value their life, you know, like, $280,000, but now they value this statistical view as high as $1 million. So that keeps changing. And even the Chinese leaders recognize that this is one of the contradictions by the Chinese development, is that the people's expectations are now changed.
HAASS: Just so I understand that, as is already painfully obvious, I am not an expert. So, was it that the Chinese leadership, for a long time didn't understand the connection between what they were doing to the environment and public health? Or was it they understood it, but essentially, it wasn't a priority for them?
HUANG: Well, that is true. In fact, just look at PM2.5. Right. It wasn't until 2010, you know, that was not even included in the Chinese measurement of air quality. You might recall that in 2008 in the Beijing Olympic Games when the U.S. athletes arrived in Beijing wearing the masks, that was considered an insult to the Chinese people, because they believe— the Chinese people still had a poor understanding of what PM2.5 and how dangerous the air was. So the U.S. athletics team had to apologize for wearing masks, so that just shows how poorly the Chinese leaders and policymakers understood the harmful effects of pollution. But again, even with this authoritarian regime it still has not prevented them from getting exposed to this new concept, you know, including PM2.5 sustainable development and according to the Chinese official media, President Xi Jinping when he was the party secretary in Zhejiang province, he learned about these new terms like sustainable development, the human development you know, so, that is actually why he started proposing that concept called Two Mountains theory and this is when he was in Zhejiang. So in 2012, when he became formally the top Chinese leader you know, he started to basically incorporate this concept decision making process.
HAASS: In this, there's all those stories about how I think it was the U.S. Embassy would put out the daily measure of air pollution, essentially, was the Chinese leadership in some ways caught unprepared for the political traction of environmental issues?
HUANG: When the U.S. Mission in Beijing installed that rooftop device to measure the PM2.5 level, you know, the initial purpose was just to inform the embassy staff and also the expatriates in Beijing about the pollution level in Beijing. But when they started to broadcast it using Twitter accounts, many Chinese people also learned about it through Twitter, they learn how serious the problem was, which is placed in sharp contrast with the official level of the air quality. So they started to ask the government to include the PM2.5 in the monitoring of the air quality, but the Chinese, initially, the Chinese government, thought that it was interference of the Chinese internal affairs, even launched privately complaints to the embassy officials, saying this could cause trouble to us, including the social political stability, but the embassy officials didn't budge and eventually, it helped China to democratize its pollution data so that is, I think, a very good example of how the U.S.-China engagement actually could produce positive results.
HAASS: Interesting. Want to talk about COVID in two phases if I can, I can't resist the temptation to raise it with you. One is the early phases, so roughly December, January, December of last year, January of this year, we just published as you know, we being the Council on Foreign Relations, we sponsored a taskforce that just published a study of the pandemic, both the current one and preparing for the next one. And it was quite critical of China's behavior early on. Was there anything about that behavior which surprised you? I mean, you can describe it yourself. But essentially, it was a little bit of shoot the messenger when bad news was happening, rather than reacting to the bad news, they were reacting to those who were putting out the bad news. Not cooperating fully with the WHO, not cooperating with U.S. and other governments. Was there anything about that that was out of character? Or is this exactly what you what you would have expected and predicted?
HUANG: Well, if we compare the initial handling of the COVID outbreak with the 2002 SARS outbreak, we did see this strong parallel between the two in terms of the denial, lack of transparency, the inaction. But we have indeed seen some progress on some other fronts, for example, the sharing of the scientific data, including the genomic sequencing of the virus. The Chinese scientists were able to sequence the virus in a very short period of time. And when they shared with the international scientific community including the WHO around January 10, that was, compared to SARS, I think they've made very good progress in the sharing of the information. The problem is that this pattern, right, of lack of response, that cover up, continued to be seen, even in the COVID outbreak, we know that the first onset of the COVID symptoms occurred as early as December 1, maybe even earlier. But the government has not taken any decisive action until late January. If you also look at the local government response, you know, they were already health care workers being infected in early January, and the local government officials knew that, but they keep that information away from the public and even keep that from Beijing until I believe January 16, January 17. That delayed Beijing's sharing of the information with the WHO. So like in January 14, WHO is still saying, we are not sure this is a human to human transmitted virus, even though at that time, the local—this has already become an open secret at the local level in the frontline hospitals.
HAASS: And just out of curiosity, why would they have done that? Was it just to—I guess I don't understand. Wouldn't it have been in the government's interest to say this is very dangerous, people should act accordingly? Why was there the delayed willingness to basically admit or acknowledge that this was a virus that could have human to human transmission?
HUANG: Well, I think institutional reasons play a more prominent role here in that, we know that in China with that the government officials, local government officials, they are only accountable to their immediate superiors, so they want to look good in the eyes of their superiors as underlings. They don't want to look bad by reporting bad news. So if you report something that turn out to be like a false alarm, that really makes you look bad. And it may also have implications for social political stability. There's local—there's fear, then chaos, an immediate threat to social political stability, which is sort of like a buzzword in China's officialdom. So they got to be very careful not to allow this kind of transparency, information sharing communication, to cause trouble to the local, social political stability. I think that is one of the main reasons, but they, of course, you also have other reasons, but like the two meetings in Wuhan and in Hubei province, the two most important political meetings at the local level, during that period. They want to make sure everything looks good, right, and nothing bad happens, so that also explains those cover up of the actual infection level in the localities.
HAASS: Right now, after that, shall we say, rather poor start the first month to two months, one now looks at China, economic growth is resumed at a pretty robust rate, the number of infections seems way down. Number of deaths seems quite modest compared to other societies. One, can we trust the statistics right now, do you think? And two, is basically the general perception that China has put the worst behind it? And right now, it seems to be economically reviving, that it seems to have the health challenge pretty much not entirely, but pretty much under control. Is that basically accurate?
HUANG: Well if you look at the current data, since we don't have the actual information on the number of symptomatic carriers, so it's very hard to say how many people in China are infected, but there is no denying that China is considered one of the safest of places in terms of the threat of COVID. The recent (inaudible), they found more than 130 symptomatic carriers, well, those are people who have tested positive, you know, but we don't know to what extent they pose a significant threat to people's health because most of those cases seem to be fine. They are not that contagious, they usually do not cause severe symptoms leading to hospitalization. So we don't know the exact level of infection in the country but it seems that the situation is pretty much under control. That said, even with all those government measures, even with all the progress and success, we don't know whether that means we're going to see the same thing happen again. 14 years ago, actually 17 years ago, made the prediction, right, if we don't tackle the root cause of the problem—I'm talking about political institutional cause of the problem—we're going to have the same tragedy happening again. Now you go to COVID. And now, if you look at the government official narrative on the outbreak that it's all they talk about learning the lessons, but this part, the political institutional aspect of the lesson learning has not been touched upon, in my opinion.
HAASS: I was going to circle to that. Let me ask you one or two questions more before we get to that, and then I'll open it up to our members. There's recently been all sorts of announcements about China's continued construction of coal plants. Obviously, that will have environmental consequences. Help me understand—is it again that economic considerations triumph over all else, they're basically saying, we realize this will have some health and other consequences but that's the price we have to pay, more important we keep employment up, productivity up—what's going on here?
HUANG: Well in 2020, we found out that they issued more permits to those coal power fired power plants, then in 2018 and 2019, respectively. But that problem could be traced to even earlier. There's this strong urge for economic development. And even though the government is showing commitment in pollution control, it has delegated that authority to approve those coal fired power plants to the local level. So the local level has a strong incentive to prove, to stimulate economic growth. So we have seen actually, since 2017, 2018, they're starting to promote those coal fired power plants, even though it is important source of the pollution in China, given that even today, 58% of the Chinese energy, the consumption comes from coal.
HAASS: So that suggests again, that whatever the environmental or public health costs are, China's willing to pay them, and if it were otherwise, Xi Jinping doesn't always have—let's put this gently—he doesn't always give local authorities that degree of discretion. So this suggests to me he's consciously giving them that discretion, because he doesn't want to make potentially some politically awkward tradeoffs.
HUANG: Well that's exactly the issue that the authoritarian system even under President Xi. This political power has been so centralized, that led to what we call the bandwagon policy. And it seems that everybody is gung-ho about his favored policy agenda. But in the meantime, the implementation level still is that the local governments played a primary role in deciding what to implement and how to implement. This is what is called the selective implementation or implementation bias, that is here in the future of the Chinese politics.
HAASS: So let me ask then a big general political question and then I'll stop. Which is, so much of the American debate right now about China, is about the challenge or threat posed by China, the technology challenge in lots of areas, military challenge, Belt and Road, ideological challenge, you name it. Yet, one of the possible conclusions a reader might draw from your book is that we are exaggerating China's strength or at a minimum, underestimating China's weaknesses. Some of its brittleness. Is that fair, and why don't you say something about that? Because I think this might be interesting, given the context of our conversation in the United States about China.
HUANG: Yeah, that is true, especially after the COVID outbreak, even though China and the United States might disagree to what extent China pose a threat to the United States. They all seem to agree on that China's rise is inevitable. China has the political system that has the advantage to tackle the so-called big things, both sides seem to agree. Although on the U.S. side, it seems that this poses a big threat to the liberal democracy. I think that if this book can tell us something, it's that, first of all, we take a Chinese rise as a given. We failed to recognize these mounting internal challenges China now is facing, including like environmental health challenges. And secondary, I believe we also overestimated the Chinese capability in the policy process. If you look at the public policy process, including the pollution control, the policymaking remains no different from what it was 30 or 40 years ago, still driven by political instinct, impromptu decision making, no real evidence based or so-called scientific decision making, although that was promoted by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s.
But you know that pattern of impromptu, non-participatory policymaking remains unchanged. And secondary, if you look at this policy implementation is still no different from the Mao-era, this mobilization approach or top down approach, no public participation. And that they might be able to achieve short term goals, they might even be able to incorporate high technologies to get the job done in more efficient manner. But that won't address the long-term goals, that is if we want the policy to be sustainable. And sometimes even those well-intentioned policies can lead to unintentional, undesirable consequences. We saw that in China's pollution control, for example. You're (inaudible) in 2017, the Chinese leaders want to convert those coal fired furnaces to clean tech energy. They want to only convert 1.8 million furnaces, but to the local governments were so enthusiastic about carrying out that policy that more than 2.3 million furnaces were actually converted. But China didn't have that much gas to supply. So a lot of people end up starving in the shivering winter cold. So that's just an example of how this model, the so-called China model won't provide a long term solution to the country's mounting challenges.
HAASS: Interesting, one counter historical question, if the United States had performed much better on COVID, essentially, we had performed as well as some of the Asian countries, would that have had political ramifications in China? Would people have basically held up China and compared it with the United States? And unlike now, where a lot of people in China are saying, we've done better, therefore, it shows the superiority of our approach? If we had done a lot better ourselves both absolutely, and relatively, could that have had real political, essentially, did we lose an opportunity to potentially shake things up in China?
HUANG: Well, absolutely. I think one of the reasons why the government touted the so-called China model, the superiority of the Chinese political system is, first of all, because of the success to contain the spread in China. And secondary because the failure of the U.S. to stem the spread of the virus. So if the United States was able to actually manage, to contain the spread of the virus, even with the Chinese approach—although I think that is not feasible—but it would not cost the U.S. so much soft power internationally, and especially for liberal minded Chinese people, Chinese intellectuals, really, they're very disappointed by what the United States experienced. And some of them turned more nationalistic and even more anti-American. I think, really, it's the failure of the U.S. on the foreign policy front as well.
HAASS: Okay, I will resist the temptation to fill up the available time with questions. Not because I don't have questions, but because I want to give others a chance. So Carrie, let me hand the back to you. And you take it from here.
STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions). We will take our first question from Joan Kaufman.
Q: Thank you very much, Yanzhong, for a great book talk. And I wanted to ask, you focused a lot on air pollution, but I wanted to raise the issue also of water and soil pollution, which are really substantial in China. And ask you, you know I think that this has the potential to lead to higher rates of cancer, and other birth defects over the long term from the very, very substantial toxic runoff, plastics, leather mining industry and all this in rural China over a very, very long period of time. And I wanted to ask if you could just say a little bit about that, and the potential long-term impacts that might come from, you know, from the early life exposures and long term exposures in terms of the healthcare system. Seems like a sleeping time bomb, and something that has really been underestimated in terms of China's health care costs and other potential impacts. So that's my question. Thank you.
HUANG: Thank you, Joan. Good to see you. I think basically the three major environmental health hazards: the air pollution, water pollution and soil contamination. I'm glad that you brought to my attention the issue of water and soil pollution. We know that the water pollution remains a daunting challenge in China. In 2012, they said more than 70% of Chinese people feel threatened by water pollution. The soil pollution is another challenge. The 2014 national survey revealed that 7% of the soil in China is contaminated with cadmium and one fifth of China's farmland soil is severely polluted with toxic chemicals. And according to a more recent report by the Chinese scientists said that 36,000 hectares of farmland contains “excessive levels” of heavy metals that lead to the contamination of 12 million tons of grains each year. So this is a huge problem that China has to tackle. The water and soil contamination that you correctly pointed out contribute to this rise of as many as 351 so-called cancer villages, this is essentially the cancer clusters where the cancer rates are unusually high.
But there's another issue that is connected to the water and soil pollution, it’s the food safety issue. There's a Chinese saying, for the emperor, the people are everything, and for the people, food is everything. And I remember when I grew up in the Chinese countryside, eastern China, my biggest dream was to have a bowl of rice every day. At that time, food safety was not a concern at all, but today, while hundreds of millions of people are being lifted out of poverty, many people could have access to a sufficient amount of food that food safety has become a major concern. In fact, there was a study suggest that more than 28% of the rice samples—according to the Minister of Agriculture—more than 28% of the rice samples were laced with levels of lead that exceeded the national safety standards, and 10% of them had excessive cadmium. Now that China has expanded its efforts to pollution control, I think they're going to have to shift their attention more to these two issues.
HAASS: Great. Thank you, Yanzhong. Carrie, let's get another question in.
STAFF: We will take our next question from Ken Morse.
Q: Thank you very much for this very honest approach. You mentioned the strong requirement—sorry, this is Ken Morse from Boston—the strong requirement for local decision making about power plants and they don't take into account the externalities of pollution. But what about the impact on the rest of the world? Maple trees in in Japan and the west coast of the U.S. (inaudible) and about 98% of the mercury in the air over Los Angeles is coming from China. And it seems you didn't mention corruption either. It's pretty easy to pay off a regulator.
HUANG: Yeah, thank you Ken. Exactly, corruption is another factor that contribute to this rampant pollution at the local level. There was, I remember one Chinese scholar saying that these local government officials did not have strong incentives to tackle the pollution because, I mean, the local polluters have no incentives to tackle the pollution, because the price they have to pay these local regulators is much smaller than the cost of fixing the pollution. But you're right, I think we, the United States, should also be concerned because the impact of the pollution, it's not going to be confined within Chinese borders. My first and well, this is for two reasons. First, through atmospheric transmission by the pollution from China could contribute to environmental degradation in the United States, we already know that it contributes to 65% of the ozone increasing west of the United States. And secondary, we know a lot of the pollution produced in China actually came from the export sector in China. Now we are considering, in a way, we are outsourcing not just the exports to China, we are also outsourcing the pollution to the country. Now we're considering relocating some of the industries back to the United States, there is a likelihood that some of this pollution will be also returned to the United States. And so you may have noticed that recent Pew survey in March found that China's impact on the global environment tops America's list of concerns for China.
HAASS: Okay, Carrie, let's get another.
STAFF: We will take our next question from Tom Bollyky.
Q: Let me start by congratulating you, Yanzhong, for a great achievement on this book. I'm really excited about it. I think it's an important piece of work. I wanted to ask a two-part question. The first is, I was struck by the conversation you had with Richard beforehand about the strengths of the Chinese political system in the end stage in mobilizing response to the pandemic, but its weakness in responding to matters, like environmental safety and food safety. You write a lot about China, but you also study emerging economies generally, and I was wondering if you see a broader pattern there of political determinants and how they break out across the different health challenges. Second, I was going to ask you, just about where you see, coming out of this pandemic, when we eventually do hopefully sooner than later, where you see China's role in global health generally moving. Will they remain invested, will that investment broaden as a result of this pandemic?
HUANG: Thank you, Tom. This book also benefited a lot from your support as the director of the Global Health Program. Your support has been very, very important to the successful completion of this book.
So let me, since you have two questions, let me briefly just talk about China's COVID response and its response to its environmental health crisis. Well, there's two different kinds of problems, right? The environmental health issue is a slow disaster. COVID is a more acute outbreak. And you actually could see this parallel between the two. First, you ignore the problem, you deny the problem. Then once the leaders realize this is a big issue, they're facing crises, they're starting to undertake decisive action, and actually the decisive action turned out to be successful in certain areas.
But I want to point out even with China's COVID control efforts this record is not entirely as rosy as was portrayed by the Chinese government. We know again like its approach to pollution control, this is essentially a campaign style approach. It has its own shortcomings. Human rights issues notwithstanding, the draconian measures have dampened the economic growth. Even though China's economic growth has continued—is still considered one of the highest—but the first three quarters of the Chinese GDP growth was only 0.7%. It also serves only short-term goals. Even though it tries to institutionalize those campaigns, we saw what was happening in Tsingtao, in (inaudible), in Beijing, and Wuhan, they have tried to institutionalize those campaigns by fostering that model, right. Once you find even one case, you started taking mass testing measures, sealing off a list of partial cities, they are doing all these quarantine and isolation things, but you also encourage the perverse bureaucratic incentives in the policy implementation because the focus in terms of policymaking, was that top down approach. When the top leaders say we want zero infections, the local leaders have no choice but to rely on this cookie cutter approach, that draconian approach, even though from the cost benefit perspective, that may not be necessary.
Secondary, let me briefly talk about China's role in global health. I think, you are an expert, you know how China has been trying to first of all showcase the success of the Chinese approach to COVID. They usually promote that so-called vaccine diplomacy. Prioritize the vaccine supply to certain countries and initially opted out of the WHO COVAX pillar, like the United States has been doing. But now they have joined the COVAX mechanism and I think they are likely going to announce the successful development of vaccine next month, the earliest, you know, but no later than the end of this year. So I expect China to play a much bigger role in the global health now that the United States is still not interested in playing its own leadership role.
HAASS: Will they allow the WHO to become stronger and more independent, or is China's idea of playing a larger role in global health, but China in some ways comes to dominate the World Health Organization?
HUANG: Well, that is the problem, right? The reason that the Trump administration decided to terminate its relationship with the WHO because according to him, the WHO has become China-dominated or China centric. My study of this issue found increasing Chinese leverage over the WHO, but it's probably an overstatement to say that the WHO is dominated by China. But of course, now that the U.S. is no longer a member of the WHO, that essentially means that actually enabled China to play a much bigger role in terms of influencing the WHO agenda, and including WHO leadership.
HAASS: So there was just one other question quickly here. Is there any sign that China's done any evidence whatsoever, a kind of after action report, where there's been any quiet self-criticism or any reform of decision making in the health area as a result of what happened in the first six weeks?
HUANG: That is a good question, but depends on when you ask that question. Like in early February, there seemed to be a lot of lessons learned. There was like even those people who initially favored the government approach, they were very frustrated. They are talking about how the political system has been a contributor to the problems. I sense that kind of self-reflection happening not just among the elite Chinese decision makers, but also among the public. But then I think the death of Dr. Li Wenliang sort of is the watershed. That way you suddenly have so many Chinese—they say that the night that he died, there were like 800 million Weibo messages…that morning, Dr. Li. So that I believe really raised like a red flag so the government decided to impose more social control, more crackdown on the social media. In the meantime, that also gave them the incentive to reshape the narrative. Talk about the government's role in handling the crisis. So now, if you look at, actually read the government report on China's or the white paper on China's role in the pandemic, that initial six weeks, that how they mishandled the crisis is like completely eliminated from that narrative. They could, certainly they have all these research papers, the discussions, consultants going on in terms how to fix the so-called loopholes in the public health infrastructure. But in the meantime, I haven't heard any serious reflection of what went wrong in the political institutions that caused the problem.
HAASS: Well, they'll never admit they went wrong, but it'll be interesting to see if they institute changes, which reflect an internal recognition that they didn't get it right, we can watch and see. Carrie, we've got time for one more question, particularly if I quiet down so let's take another question.
STAFF: We will take our next question from Frances Beinecke.
Q: Thank you very much for this presentation and I look forward to reading the book. I wonder if you would comment on how much President Xi Jinping, his commitment to ecological civilization actually influences China's investments in the Belt and Road initiative, and its appetite for natural resources worldwide. My own sense is, you know, it's a great public commitment to make, but China has a voracious appetite for the resources of our oceans, our forests, that it's investing heavily in a port development, heavy industry, carbon intensive transportation systems and that ecological principle for the ecological civilization that he talks eloquently about actually isn't followed through on in the way China conducts itself globally, in the environmental arena. Could you just comment on that, please?
HUANG: Thank you, Frances. President Xi is an advocate of stronger pollution control. We've seen by all those campaigns, his action plans, the movements toward better environmental protection. And more recently, you have heard about how he announced within the United Nations that China will achieve that goal of being carbon neutral by 2060. So I think that he's committed to pollution control. He is committed to protecting the environment. He is committed to fulfilling the climate change goals. But in the meantime, the question is how sustainable his policy agenda is, because this entire thing, unlike the United States, is not a like a bottom up approach, it's essentially top down, it's mobilization and it also hinges upon essentially how determined he is in sticking to that agenda, because if the leadership attention goes away, then that the signal he sends will no longer be coherent, then the local implementers will have more leeway and more incentive to choose what they're going to do at the local level. And so, I think in order for that agenda to be sustainable, China still needs to be like the United States, not just needs to strengthen the pollution control, the institutions, they also need to enlarge, institutionalize the public participation in that process. They need to emphasize the role of law. That is critical because in the United States, even though you have an administration who wants to change or relax these environmental regulations, simply because of an independent judiciary system, you could have the people to sue the government, to challenge the government decisions. In fact, we found that 87% of those cases actually the Trump administration didn’t win, in terms of environmental regulation.
HAASS: Yanzhong we've got two minutes left. So I got a quick lightning round for you, two quick questions. Do you have any thoughts you want to share about the origin of COVID-19? We've seen all the speculation and the rest. Are you persuaded? Or do you still have doubts about the origins of it in Wuhan?
HUANG: Thank you, Richard. I think the issue of the origins of the outbreak have been too much politicized. Not just in China, but also in the United States. In the beginning, I mean, until like, mid-February, I think it was a scientific issue. In fact, even in China, nobody seems to deny that Wuhan was the COVID ground zero and the United States didn't accuse China for causing the outbreak. But then around mid-February, you suddenly have, like, Dr. Zhong Nanshan—he’s sort of like China's Dr. Anthony Fauci figure—he talked about that the virus may not necessarily have originated in China. That was immediately picked up by the Chinese ministry spokesperson, who started to sort of spread other conspiracy theories that this virus might be even originating from the United States. So I still believe that the consensus of the scientific community, that this is more like a naturally occurring outbreak, although I won't rule out and easily, that possibility that it could be a lab escape.
HAASS: Well, is there any last question or is there any chance your book gets published in China, and if you will, a helpful critic, or is this seen as simply, if you will, toxic politics, and it could never be published in Mandarin?
HUANG: Well, look at the title of the book, I think we're maybe waiting to translate into Chinese they may no longer have that meaning. That sounds so fancy, but I hope you know that the Chinese leaders could read the book as someone trying to provide constructive criticism to improve their work, and not think that it’s trying to be like another example of China bashing.
HAASS: Well, I would be 100% confident the leadership and experts will read it. I am skeptical it will be published, certainly with its current title or its current form. The good news, it's published here. And I really do urge people to read it. It is a synthesis again, of worlds of environment and health, economy, and politics that normally are not dealt with comprehensively. I learned a lot. It's an important book. So congratulations again, on having written it, here it is, I really urge people to buy it. Then if you buy it, you have the added option of reading it. But as all authors would say, most important, go out there and stimulate the economy, support this author. And in this case, you'll be well rewarded with a really thoughtful and extraordinarily well researched and documented and well written book. So again, congratulations and thank you for doing it and thanks for being with us today.