The recently concluded 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party cemented Xi Jingping’s new status as the man in charge of China for the indefinite future. One indication of his new strength and status is that he is now often referred to in the press as “the great helmsman,” a title not used since Mao.
Xi’s opening address to the Party Congress began by describing the mess his predecessor had left him and how he cleaned it up. The balance of the speech focused on how he planned to ensure past problems did not recur, the two key elements of which are control and national security. Xi was clear that by control he meant the Chinese Communist Party should continue to “reform” itself (particularly by fighting corruption) so it can lead and control all aspects of life in China, from education and science to the economy and culture.
As for national security, Xi said China faces challenges abroad from “hegemonic, high-handed, and bullying acts,” including, inter alia, sanctions. Xi called for strengthening all aspects of the Party’s and government’s national security apparatus, particularly the military to deal with potential dangers from “choppy waters” and “dangerous storms” ahead.
Xi’s forecast of bad weather ahead for China was accurate, but misdirected. There will be tensions and stepped-up competition in China’s relations with the US and other democracies in Asia, the West and elsewhere — but these are conventional challenges susceptible to traditional forms of statecraft and bilateral or multilateral engagement. If China and Xi don’t go looking for a physical fight outside Mainland China, they are unlikely to find one coming at them.
The most serious (and predictable) long-term threat to China’s prosperity, security, and stability — of truly “dangerous storms” — comes from the cascading impacts of climate change on the natural world in and around China, not from other nations.
Xi has recognized in the past that climate change was a problem for China. For example, at the Party Congress in 2017 he noted the “harm mankind inflicts on nature will return to haunt us,” and said China had taken “a driving seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change.”
Xi’s past concern was well placed. The Chinese Meteorological Administration assesses that climate change is producing a pattern of extreme weather, from heat waves to extreme precipitation that floods inland regions. Flooding of a different kind is a growing problem along China’s long urbanized coastline. The World Bank reports China is one of two countries in Asia most vulnerable to permanent coastal flooding from sea level rise. A recent study of financial risks associated with climate change, for example, found that even if global temperatures increase by only 1.5 degrees Celsius, sea level rise by 2100 would inundate the seaports and airports of Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Shenzhen and displace millions of people.
The combination of inland flooding and heat waves will affect Chinese food production. The China Daily has reported climate change will challenge the country’s food production. A study of the subject assessed that at the high end of projected increases in global temperatures, Chinese food production could drop by around 9 percent by 2050, while a more moderate increase in global temperatures would decrease Chinese food production by some 4 percent.
China’s overall vulnerability to a range of consequences from climate change impacts led Swiss Re, a leader in the global reinsurance industry, to report that of the world’s major economies, China’s is the most at risk from shocks and disruptions from climate change.
Recent UN and IPCC reports are clear the world is on track for temperature increases beyond the Paris Agreement goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius, possibly up to or somewhat beyond 3 degrees Celsius. These warmer temperatures will produce impacts in China that will be increasingly obvious to the Chinese public, whether from flooded streets and subways in inland cities and coastal cities awash in seawater, to heat waves, droughts and rising food prices. Without bold action, China will face mounting economic costs and potential political dissatisfaction or unrest from cascading impacts of climate change, potentially undermining the very Party control and national security Xi prioritized in his opening speech to the 20th Party Congress.
Despite the growing likelihood that global temperatures will increase well beyond the Paris Agreement’s goals, Xi has been backing away from his 2017 pledge that China would be a leader internationally on climate change.
In August, China broke off bilateral climate talks with the US, and Xi subsequently did not reiterate his 2017 pledge of climate leadership at this year’s National Party Congress. Instead, he referred to the environment and “green development” goals in general terms, noted China would move “prudently” toward peak carbon emissions and carbon neutrality, and only used the term “climate change” once — and not in the context of taking leadership on the issue. Xi also noted China would continue to rely on coal for the time being but would work to make it a “cleaner” energy source.
Xi may have lowered his and China’ profile on climate change due to a concern with his domestic challenges. These include managing the economic and political consequences of his increasingly unpopular Zero Covid policy and a slow rolling crisis in the property sector. Ironically, however, ongoing climate change will increase infectious disease challenges in China (and globally), and wreak havoc with China’s property market, particularly in coastal cities.
Xi outlined ambitious goals domestically and internationally to spur China’s continued “rise” over the balance of the decade, but the cascading impacts of climate change on the natural world in the coming decades are likely to disrupt both Xi’s plans and China’s rise.
The COP-27 climate meetings in Egypt will indicate whether Xi’s backtracking on climate at the Party Congress was tactical, designed to enhance the focus on his Party control and national security themes, or if he has decided to make climate action a lower priority. Given China’s status as the world’s leading Green House Gas emitter, this matters. Without a sharp reduction in China’s emissions in the near term, the world — and China itself — will pay a high price, and the “great helmsman” will have to steer China through “dangerous storms” that he could have avoided.
Kenneth C. Brill is a retired career Foreign Service Officer who served as an ambassador in the Clinton and Bush Administrations and was the founding Director of the US National Counterproliferation Center within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.