Danger of a Fragmented World

Prologue

I joined CISL in April 2021 to lead and build the newly established Sino-UK Centre for Sustainability Innovation. Creating something new within a 800-year-old prestigious university, both traditional and forward-looking at the same time, was never going to be easy, and inevitably there would be some resistance. Nevertheless, I was up for the opportunity/challenge(s) the moment I took the offer.

One thing I didn’t expect is how much the increasing geopolitics and rivalry, between China and the West, would effect my daily life and work since the start of Covid. Through a research paper [1] that surveyed British views of China in public opinion, parliament and the media, there are widespread negative views and deteriorating perceptions over a number of developments in China, which has constrained UK-China relations from developing in a more positive direction.

The most notorious one is probably the front cover of The Spectator magazine (10 July 2021) which featured ‘How China bought Cambridge’[2]. In response to this skewed and doubtful statement, ex-UK diplomat Prof. Tim Summers rightly made the following point in his article[3],

“this tells us more about the prevailing zeitgeist in the UK and the way that China is viewed in the media and by politicians.”

This is by no means a single incident. “Big Reads”, a Financial Time series offers almost daily in-depth analysis on a range of topics, covered China in 35 articles in 2020 (even more than Brexit!), and none of them framed China in a positive way, and only four were neutral.

Living in this broader context, while trying to facilitate UK-China collaboration on tackling the biggest crisis that humanity is facing, is like sailing into headwinds. I have the privilege of tapping into both narratives in both Chinese and English, having conversations with my family & friends and discussions with key partners & stakeholders in China, all of which enables me to gather first-hand information so that I can understand the nuances in these debates.

To be frank, I have no solution to this widespread bias, and often ask myself what can I do to counter-balance the negative views against China, and help my fellows in the UK to form nuanced and informative views before they pick a side. This article contains some reflections of my past 10 months journey at CISL.

‘Crisis’ in Chinese is actually a combination of two words, danger and opportunity. Ancient Chinese sages said: out of challenging situations can come opportunities. As Winston Churchill also said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. What we are facing today is not just a crisis, but an opportunity too. The existential threat of climate change could be the greatest opportunity of all time.

“Wei Ji” in traditional Chinese

China’s size and global influence means that its choices and investments inform and shape the life chances of billions. Its ability to plan long-range gives the country a huge opportunity and responsibility to play a leading role to achieve sustainable development and economic transformation. It is clear that the political direction in China has been set by President Xi, and transitioning the economy towards carbon neutrality is going to be a priority for everyone.

Going global on green tech — China is already bringing clean technologies to scale domestically. Now it’s going abroad and has invested substantially into UK energy and infrastructure including renewables. For example,

Clearly, financial services can accelerate the cleaner transition, supporting adaptation, mitigation and energy transition. Around half of all global assets under management are now pledged to meet climate change goals. The Glasgow Finance Alliance for Net Zero launched in 2021, and over 250 financial institutions, responsible for $80 trillion worth of assets, have made their own net zero commitments.

China’s financial service sector is worth (GBP 6 trillion) RMB 55 trillion, with the largest banking sector and largest insurance companies in the world. The assets of Chinese banks are around 17 times the size of the United Kingdom’s economy, which shows how important it is to work with China’s financial sector.

China too, is also a world leader in green finance. China is already the world’s largest investor in renewables, with ambitious plans to double wind and solar installed capacity by 2030. It’s also the second largest green bond market and the world’s largest green loan market. The Agriculture Bank of China launched the first international green bond issued by a Chinese bank on the London Stock Exchange (LSE) in 2015, and this has been followed by the likes of Shanghai Pudong Development Bank, which issued its own first green bond on the LSE in 2019 and raised $300m.

The list goes on, but I think I’ve made the point that China plays a huge role in achieving net zero by the middle of this century, and to ensure the rise of the temperature is limited to under 1.5 degrees. To achieve these lofty goals, as a mission-driven organisation, we need to engage with the difficult questions too, and only by asking the right questions, can we get meaningful answers. We also have the confidence to discuss and debate ideas with others who may not share all our values, and understand that the international system, in which China plays a vital role, needs to deliver for both humanity and nature.

Some people say the world is becoming more polarised, countries are playing geo-political games, and there are some unbridgeable values when fundamental human rights are being violated. But the challenge doesn’t lie in the divergence of our values, it exists in the lack of trust and respect. Confucius said 2000 years ago, “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others (己所不欲勿施于人)”, and similarly from the Bible, “Treat other people as they would like to be treated yourself.”

Facing the global challenge in our complex and interconnected world, is no longer a zero-sum game. Take COVID as an example, no country emerges from the pandemic until every country emerges from the challenge. The same principle applies to climate action. To paraphrase what English poet, John Donne, said more than 300 hundred years ago — no state is an island.

Reference:

[1] Summers, T., Chan, H.M., Gries, P. et al. Worsening British views of China in 2020: evidence from public opinion, parliament, and the media. Asia Eur J (2021).

[2] Ian Williams, How China Brought Cambridge, 2021 July https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/how-china-bought-cambridge

[3] Did China buy Cambridge? Pearls and Irritations, 2021 July

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Jie Zhou

Jie Zhou

Current student of MSt Sustainability Leadership@ Cambridge University (2020–2022)