Of the adjectives commonly associated with Washington policymakers, “childish” inevitably ranks among the most frequently used. This month’s congressional hearing on the Solyndra scandal is a perfect example of why. Listening to Energy Secretary Steven Chu and members of Congress citing China as justification for the deeply troubled federal clean energy loan program, we are reminded of parents admonishing recalcitrant children that just because someone else jumps off a bridge, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to follow suit.
Defending the loan program before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Mr. Chu said admiringly, “Countries like China are playing to win in the solar industry. China has invested aggressively to support its companies, and in recent years, China has seen its market share in solar cell and solar module production grow significantly, to roughly half the market today.”
Concurring with Mr. Chu’s assessment, ranking member Rep. Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, and committee member Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, also spoke glowingly of the Chinese government’s financial support of its clean energy industry. This reasoning (or lack thereof) is reminiscent of President Obama’s initiative to shift billions in federal spending to high-speed rail projects because, as he said in his State of the Union address in January, “China is building faster trains.”
Sino-envy as justification for federal policies is unprincipled and unjustified because it fails to explain why we do not emulate China in other areas. Why, for example, should we not attempt to boost American exports by undervaluing our currency by as much as 25 percent to 40 percent, as many members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have accused China of doing? (Never mind our Federal Reserve’s “quantitative easing.”)
Similarly, why should we not impose ham-handed censorship of the Internet, as the Chinese government does? (Never mind the Federal Communication Commission’s move to regulate the Web under the guise of so-called “net neutrality” rules.)
Or why not follow China’s lead in suppressing religious freedom, and allowing only state-sanctioned churches to exist? (Never mind the Department of Health and Human Services’ new regulations requiring Catholic institutions to provide contraceptives and morning-after pills in their health care plans, in violation of church teachings.)
Or how about some less-troublesome examples, like seeking a competitive advantage by gutting our environmental protections, as China has done? Or allowing income inequality to skyrocket to the point where the top 10 percent are earning 23 times as much as the poorest 10 percent, according to official Chinese government statistics that would make Occupy Wall Street rioters blanch? How about permitting manufacturing under sweatshop conditions and conducting brutal crackdowns on labor unions, prompting American groups like the AFL-CIO to call for trade sanctions constantly against China? Or hacking into the computer systems of other countries’ financial, manufacturing and technology firms to gain a competitive advantage, as the Chinese government has widely been accused of supporting?
With neo-Malthusians wringing their hands about “sustainable development” in the face of population growth, why do we not consider China’s one-child-per-family policy? And, with all of the partisan bickering in Washington over important initiatives like clean energy and high-speed rail, wouldn’t it be far more efficient to do as the Chinese do and simply lock up the political opposition?
The point is, proponents of government subsidies of clean energy and high-speed rail have justified these programs using conclusory statements that China is doing the same, while failing to articulate any principles as to when we should follow China’s lead and when we should not. Given the ideological bent of most of these proponents, certainly they would not suggest that we hold China up as a model for most other policies.
In the absence of any such principled distinctions, not only are comparisons to what China is doing unpersuasive, they also cause America’s demands for Chinese reforms in these other policy areas to ring hollow. Why would the Chinese bow to our objections to their currency manipulation, computer hacking, environmental degradation, labor exploitation, human rights abuses and suppression of political and religious liberty when we cite them as exemplars in other areas?
Whether clean energy and high-speed rail are deserving of government investment, the arguments must rely on the underlying merits of these programs. Policymaking through red-colored glasses (with a constellation of yellow stars) is unprincipled, unjustified and undermines our credibility in the Sino-American relationship.
Eric Wang is a government attorney in Washington.