sustainability is a collective decision

Netizens have joked that using a blow dryer or tanning may now infringe on national property rights.

Just recently, Heilongjiang Province promulgated laws governing the analysis of atmospheric resources and conservation (黑龙江省气候资源探测与保护条例). The key and controversial point, of course, is the decision that atmospheric resources, including wind energy, solar energy, precipitation, and ambient air are natural resources and as such belong to the country.

What does that mean?

According to Minister of Meteorology, Zheng Guoguang (郑国光) the laws do not mean that air has been privatized — “impossible!” he said — but rather that the research and development of energy resources will be centralized. The legislation seems to me a rather straight forward decision to institute state monopolies on the production and allocation of sustainable energy. It also anticipates state appropriation of sustainable energy technologies that are developed outside the context of national research and development, but within national borders.

Other countries have also begun to dispute the question of “wind rights”. Denmark, for example, compensates neighboring landowners for loss of property value due to the erection of wind turbines. More interestingly, the Danish government has adjudicated on disputes that (depending on placement) new wind turbines “take wind” from extant turbines.

Ron Rebenitschhas considered water laws (first in time, first in right) and oil right laws (compensatory unitization) as models for developing wind laws. In the former, the first user to develop a qualified use of water (i.e., irrigation) from a flowing stream develops certain rights to divert a defined quantity of water from the stream if it is available. Later users of water from that stream can still divert water from that stream, but only in quantities that do not affect the earlier users’ ability to divert the allocated quantity of water.

In contrast, when an oil well is drilled, the oil flows to the well from all directions, without regard for ownership of mineral rights. Thus adjacent mineral rights holders could theoretically have their oil drain to the nearby well, without recompense. Under unitization, the production of an oil field is then allocated proportionally to the surrounding mineral rights owners, in accordance with pre-determined impact.

Like the Danish and US American discussion, China’s nascent foray into wind rights discussion do not take international borders and sustained regional inequalities into account. Consider, for example, the Law of the Colorado River.

This thicket of deals, trade-offs, set-asides, subsidies and politically sanctioned thievery is nearly impenetrable to even the most seasonedand cynical observer. But from the Mexican side of the border,the law is devastatingly simple: The US retains 95 percent ofthe Colorado River’s water and Mexico gets what’s left over. Most years this is about 1.5 million acre feet, roughly the same amountthat Sonoran desert farmers were using to irrigate their beanand onion fields in 1922.

Likewise, in the Middle East, long-term sustainable economic development depends on access to clean and dependable supplies of freshwater. In turn, this access continues to depend upon region wide management agreements (Gleick, Yolles, and Hatami). More recently, US American Intelligence has predicted increasing risks of water conflicts worldwide. As in the Middle East, shared water resources are increasingly used to threaten neighboring states, while the over-pumping of groundwater supplies threatens the agricultural production, which accounts for 70% of freshwater usage.

All this to make a simple point.

In China, the rhetoric of a centralized state frames the discussion of sustainable resources, while in the Middle East and United States, we can speak of “water security” and thereby transform drinking water into weapons of war.  Thus, the development of sustainable energy sources is as potentially fraught as the development of other resources (oil and now water) because we are proposing to use the same, unsustainable models of production, distribution, and allocation.

cultural revolutionaries? bo xilai, mao zedong and populist politics in china

According to a politically savvy friend, if anyone has a chance to democratize China, it will be a leader like Bo Xilai because 1. he had the support of the people; 2. he had support within the Party; and, 3. he could have held power after the transition from a one party to a multi-party system.

The purpose of government is to distribute and justify the distribution of goods, which range from food and shelter through education opportunities and healthy living environments throughout society. Some societies use money as the primary tool to mediate the allocation of social goods, in China, however, political status — power with explicit connection to either the military or the police — is the primary social means of deciding who gets what and how it is delivered. This means that the closer one is to the Center, the more opportunities one will have to monopolize not only the allocation of social goods, but also what those social goods are and how they are produced. In short, opportunities to control and benefit from state monopolies over the means of production.

My friend explained that Chinese politics is a series of expanding circles. At the center are high officials, in the next circle their family and friends, and then lesser relatives, and then the families of friends of friends of family friends… The point, of course, is double.

First, with respect to those who have occupied the center, there are no compelling reasons to change the current structure of unequal distribution. What’s more, successfully changing the structure would entail creating political alliances that cut across all those circles in such a way as to first be able to dismantle the system and then maintain power in the new system.

Second, the one hundred surnames are so far from the center that direct appeals to the people constitute a political wild card, which can be wielded by anyone with a wide enough power base. This is frequently the case in local and regional level politics where national appointees navigate and negotiate unfamiliar terrains before they are sent to their next position. However, most national appointees do not become popular in their brief bureaucratic tenures and popular local leaders rarely convert their local appeal into national charisma.

Bo Xilai, however, was exceptional: he had widespread national appeal; he had deep support within and across the Party organization, including ties to the military and the police; and, he was savvy enough to navigate political upheavals. Indeed, he seemed particularly adept at outside-the-box responses to unexpected problems and it will be interesting to see if he is executed or ends up back at the center in ten years time.

On my friend’s reading, the insular structure of Chinese political interests  overdetermined the Cultural Revolutionary connection that linked Bo Xilai to Mao Zedong. Like Mao, Bo Xilai made highly symbolic gestures to help the people. In Chongqing, fore example, Bo set up neighborhood help systems for elderly residents whose family was working in other cities. A solitary elder could directly ring a bell that linked her to the neighborhood committee representative who would be responsible for coming to her aid. This gesture resonated across generations who have been separated as children have left home to work in other cities. Moreover, Mao and Bo’s willingness to upset high-ranking leaders when making these gestures further endeared them to the people.

Bo Xilai skated at the edge of central Party politics for many years before transmuting a minor appointment in a Dalian county into a springboard to national politics precisely because like Mao, he not only dazzled the people, but also impressed journalists and intellectuals, who in turn promoted his project. Not only journalists sang Bo’s praises, but recently closed leftist websites like Utopianet (乌有之乡) publicly supported the Chongqing Model in contrast to the Shenzhen Model, which remains a key symbol of the success of Reform and Opening.

Bo Xilai symbolized the possibility of an end to Party politics as usual and his “Sing Red, Attack the Black” campaign resonated across Chinese political classes in ways that nothing Xi Jinping or Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin have done. Today, there are efforts to disparage the Mao-Bo connection, but none have addressed the man’s capital C charisma. In fact, I’ve heard someone say, “I don’t care who he did or didn’t kill, Bo Xilai moved me. I only saw him once, but I felt like a crazy fan, who wanted a body autograph” and this comment goes straight to my point du jour.

Weber has warned us that charismatic leaders do not necessarily overturn unpopular regimes and establish democratic governments. Moreover, the rise and fall of populist leaders in Eastern Europe and Russia have demonstrated that its difficult to uproot the Party machine from national politics. Nevertheless, Bo Xilai’s popularity despite his acknowledged crimes not only hints at just how high levels of dissatisfaction with Chinese politics as usual are, but also alerts us to how much violence is necessary to maintain the status quo.