China Update: The "Reasonably Enlightened Autocrats" At Work

It’s almost a decade ago now, but who can forget perhaps the greatest New York Times op-ed of all time, penned by columnist Thomas Friedman in September 2009, with the headline “Our One-Party Democracy.”? In case you are struggling to remember back that far, recall that in the 2008 elections the Democrats had swept to control of all levers of power in Washington — the Presidency and both houses of Congress. And yet still, they didn’t seem to be getting anywhere on issues that Friedman saw as critical, particularly healthcare and “climate change.” All they could do was fight among themselves in the Congress. Oh, wouldn’t it just be so much better if instead of this messy democracy thing, we could have some “reasonably enlightened autocrats” like they have in, say, China, who could address our pressing problems by just promptly imposing the solutions that are so painfully obvious to our genius progressive elites?

[W]hen [one-party autocracy] is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can . . . have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar.

Yes, China and its “reasonably enlightened autocrats” were truly poised back then to seize “climate leadership” from the United States, and relegate us once again to the scrap heap of history. Indeed the phrase “climate leadership” — referring to the enlightened policies of China — became a recurring motif for the Times in the intervening years.

Perhaps it is time to check in for a little update.

For example, how is China doing in the fields of wind and solar power? Wikipedia helpfully provides a couple of reasonably up-to-date pieces on the status respectively of wind and solar power development in that country. Sure enough, China spent much of the past decade dramatically ramping up the expansion of wind and solar generation capacity. Wind:

In 2016, China added 19.3 GW of wind power generation capacity to reach a total capacity of 149 GW, . . . . Both China's installed capacity and new capacity in 2015 are the largest in the world by a wide margin, with the next largest market, the United States, adding 8.6 GW in 2015 and having an installed capacity of 74.4 GW.

And solar:

In 2017 China was the first country to pass 100 GW of cumulative installed PV capacity,  and by the end of 2018, it had 174 GW of cumulative installed solar capacity.  As of May 2018, China holds the record for largest operational solar project in its 1,547-MW project at Tengger.

Wow — sounds impressive! Can we put that in a little context please? After the big expansion push, how much of China’s power actually comes from the wind and sun?


[In 2016, China] generated 241 TWh of electricity, representing 4% of total national electricity consumption. . . .


Of the 6,412 TWh electricity produced in China in 2017, 118.2 TWh was generated by solar power, equivalent to 1.84% of total electricity production. . . .

Oof! Could it possible be more embarrassing? And by the way, since electricity production is only about 40% of total energy production, this less-than-6% of electricity from renewables represents barely more than 2% of total energy. And they haven’t gotten any farther with nuclear, which currently represents a big 3% of electricity production. That would put nuclear at barely above 1% of total energy production. Meanwhile, of course, they are massively expanding their coal generation capacity.

And just what else are the “reasonably enlightened autocrats” up to? Well, there is the so-called “social credit system,” currently in the process of implementation. Supposedly it is going to go live on May 1. But in the run-up to May Day, they have started to do pilot projects on some of the pieces. From the Guardian, March 1:

China has blocked millions of “discredited” travellers from buying plane or train tickets as part of the country’s controversial “social credit” system aimed at improving the behaviour of citizens. According to the National Public Credit Information Centre, Chinese courts banned would-be travellers from buying flights 17.5 million times by the end of 2018. Citizens placed on black lists for social credit offences were prevented from buying train tickets 5.5 million times. The report released last week said: “Once discredited, limited everywhere”.

The social credit system aims to incentivise “trustworthy” behaviour through penalties as well as rewards. According to a government document about the system dating from 2014, the aim is to “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.” Social credit offences range from not paying individual taxes or fines to spreading false information and taking drugs. More minor violations include using expired tickets, smoking on a train or not walking a dog on a leash.

I’ll give you another example of something that with 100% certainty can undermine your “social credit” and leave you trapped in your home town: expressing political dissent of any kind. Yes, there is nothing like the rule of the “reasonably enlightened autocrats.” And in case you don’t know, the Chinese “social credit” guys had been in the process of creating a “fatherland card” for Venezuela just before everything fell apart there. Looks like the Venezuelans may have gotten just a little lucky. The fatherland card was rather explicitly intended to deprive dissenters of things like jobs and food if they refused to toe the party line. How far away are those things in China itself?