Argument

Tilting at Wind Turbines

Americans are fretting over China's green leap forward. They shouldn't be.

Washington may be cordially welcoming Chinese President Hu Jintao to town this week, but it does so against a backdrop of American anxiety about China's rise that has rarely been so intense. In addition to long-running fears about U.S. debt holdings and currency controls, American pundits and policymakers now fret about China's educational prowess, military technology, and geopolitical ambitions.

Among the newest worries is the fear that China is poised to beat the United States in what many have claimed is the premier technological competition of the early 21st century: the race to develop and manufacture the clean energy technologies that will power the post-fossil-fuel world. "I am more convinced than ever that when historians look back at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, they will say that the most important thing to happen was not the Great Recession, but China's Green Leap Forward," New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote last week. Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently devoted an entire speech, complete with frightening PowerPoint slides, to the Chinese juggernaut, declaring China's rapid clean energy advances a "Sputnik moment" and calling on the United States to respond.

These warnings are grossly overblown. China is not crushing the United States in a clean energy race. And this myth isn't merely wrong -- it is also dangerous. Unwarranted fears of a clean energy competition threaten to spur a protectionist wave in the United States while squelching cooperation between the two countries -- all of which will make it much tougher to develop the robust clean energy economy that the world needs.

The numbers, it's true, look scary. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, China led the world in clean energy investment last year at $51.1 billion, up 30 percent from 2009. The United States runs a trade deficit in clean energy products with China that, according to the AFL-CIO, cost U.S. workers 8,000 jobs in 2010. A team of Harvard University researchers reported in November that the Chinese government spent $11.8 billion on energy technology research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) in 2008, while the United States spent barely a third as much.

These figures, however, are misleading. Yes, China spent more money buying wind turbines and solar panels than any other country last year. But consumption does not necessarily translate into technological leadership -- if it did, the United States would have little to worry about in most product categories. Massive deployment of clean energy will give the Chinese government leverage with foreign firms (because Beijing will be able to demand concessions in exchange for market access) and provide opportunities for incremental innovation. But the cutting edge is, in most cases, far away: The Chinese innovation system still has enormous difficulty moving ideas from the laboratory to commercial application.

The AFL-CIO employment analysis, for its part, is extraordinarily narrow. Many clean energy products manufactured in China incorporate sophisticated materials and components made in the United States, which means that U.S. manufacturers can often benefit from their Chinese counterparts' gains. The Harvard report, while more careful, also paints only a partial picture. Much U.S. RD&D happens in the private sector, which means it doesn't register in the researchers' government-to-government comparison. The Chinese economy, by contrast, is dominated by government and state-owned enterprises; as a result, a much larger fraction of its spending shows up in the analysis. No one has good numbers that describe the full picture, but it's certainly too early to conclude that the United States is far behind.

But don't broader trends reinforce the doom-and-gloom message? According to Chu's speech, China has jumped from 15th to fifth in global patent rankings and from 14th to second in published research articles, while passing the United States as the leading source of global high-tech exports. But none of these statistics tells the full story.

As my colleague Adam Segal argues in his fascinating new book Advantage, Chinese patent numbers are inflated by perverse incentives: Universities and enterprises encourage people to file for patents even when they have little or no real intellectual property to protect. He also points out that Chinese scientific journals are rife with plagiarism and fraud. That's not unrelated to the impressive publication counts: When institutional pressures reward publication at all costs, the result is both high quantity and low quality.

The purported Chinese dominance in high-tech exports, meanwhile, is the product of statistical sleight of hand. Chu's figures describe the total value of Chinese exports. That gives China credit for the full price tag of every product it exports -- even if it's only responsible for its final assembly. (If China imported a Mercedes and painted it green, it would rack up tens of thousands of export dollars.) A careful analysis would focus instead on value added, which is what drives profits and wages. And on that score, the United States is still firmly in the lead.

The prophets of doom back up their figures with tales of woe. The sob story of the day is Evergreen Solar, a Massachusetts-based company that announced last week that it would shut down its solar module-manufacturing factory in the face of stiff competition from China. But lost in the noise was another report that Evergreen would boost investment in its U.S.-based R&D efforts.

Moreover, while the shutdown is clearly bad for employees at Evergreen's Devens, Mass., plant, it's not entirely clear that it's bad for U.S. manufacturing workers in general. U.S. firms and workers still dominate the most lucrative parts of the solar value chain, particularly the production of the ultrapure silicon that ultimately goes into solar panels. (In the long term, China might compete there too, but most observers believe that day is still a ways off.) By bringing down the price of those panels, Chinese firms expand the global market in ultrapure silicon, benefiting U.S. firms and workers in the process. The ultimate balance between jobs created and killed is difficult to pin down, but the net result is far murkier than it might seem.

The growing U.S. paranoia about Chinese clean energy comes at a real cost. Advocates might hope that highlighting Chinese strength will spur U.S. lawmakers to pass legislation boosting U.S. deployment of clean energy and investment in energy R&D. So far, it hasn't -- and the more likely result is much uglier.

Fears of China lead quickly to calls for protectionism, through steep barriers to clean energy imports or to Chinese investment in U.S. clean energy projects and firms; investment and imports are currently relatively small, but have great potential to grow. Such moves hurt support for Washington's efforts to open up foreign markets (including Chinese ones) to U.S. firms. They slow the flow of clean energy technology across borders, stifling innovation and delaying much-needed cuts in the cost of green technology. They starve capital-hungry U.S. firms of investment, while depriving U.S. consumers of access to cheaper sources of pollution-free power. At the same time, the Sputnik rhetoric is bound to sap lawmakers' enthusiasm for the sort of clean energy cooperation with China that President Barack Obama will push for during Hu's visit. This will hobble the development of cheaper sources of clean energy, delaying the much-needed expansion of clean energy markets and increasing costs for U.S. consumers.

To be sure, the United States has little reason to rest on its laurels. U.S. spending on energy R&D is pathetic relative to investment in other high-tech areas. Moreover, absent strong U.S. government policy to encourage deployment of more clean energy at home, opportunities to learn by doing in the United States will be few. U.S. policymakers should also be clear-eyed when facing real Chinese dangers: Beijing has used its big domestic market to pressure foreign firms to turn over their most prized technologies, something that will ultimately hurt the U.S. economy. And while China sometimes attracts U.S. firms because of genuine competitive advantage resulting from things like cheap labor and land, it also uses questionable -- and possibly illegal -- trade barriers and subsidies (such as its rules requiring local content in many clean energy projects). Washington should push back when Beijing goes too far.

But U.S. leaders must not lose sight of the bigger picture. Neither China nor the United States alone has the resources required to drive down the cost of clean energy to a point where markets for it will flourish. Shortsighted pursuit of victory in an imagined clean energy race will backfire, keeping costs high and public appetite for clean energy down. Without that demand, there will be no clean energy race to be won.

Feng Li/Getty Images

Argument

Suicide for a Cause

What's behind the Middle East's new trend of self-immolation?

On Dec. 17, 2010, a 26-year-old unemployed college graduate named Mohamed Bouazizi stood in front of a government office in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, poured gasoline over his body, and lit himself on fire. In doing so, he seems to have sparked a much broader flame that has spread throughout the country and much of North Africa.

Bouazizi has been credited as the "martyr who toppled the Tunisian government" and the political inspiration for a series of similar self-immolation attempts throughout the region. In the month that followed his now famous act, at least eight other individuals in Algeria, Mauritania, and Egypt have set themselves on fire.

Historically, self-immolation has often been seen as a political act, and the famous images of Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire to protest persecution in Vietnam stand out as particularly harrowing. The tactic has been used by political activists in China, India, the United States, the former Soviet Union, and a range of other countries.

It is thus no surprise that many commentators have been quick to attribute political motives to Bouazizi and those who followed him. For instance, though acknowledging that frustration and despair may have played a role in the Egyptian cases, Associated Press correspondent Hamza Hendawi declared that the immolations "are deeply symbolic means of protest in a region that has little or no tolerance for dissent."

However, although these acts may be imbued with symbolism after the fact, it is not yet clear that any of these individuals were primarily motivated by politics. They may have simply been suicidal. Unable to find work despite his college degree, Bouazizi had become a fruit and vegetable vendor to survive. When police confiscated his cart and all the food with it, insisting that he somehow find the money for a vendor's license before it would be returned, it seems to have pushed the desperate young man over the edge. Similarly, the other self-immolators throughout North Africa were reportedly struggling with a range of personal problems such as unemployment, homelessness, and depression.

If these suicidal acts were personal, not political, they would not be the first collection of self-immolations to fit that psychological profile. From 2005 to 2006, there were approximately 150 reported cases of women committing suicide by setting themselves on fire in the Herat province of Afghanistan. Subsequent studies by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission revealed that such self-immolations are severely underreported, increasingly common, and usually sparked by personal problems, including forced marriage, physical abuse, and sexual assault. Given the power of traditional gender norms in the Islamic world, it seems likely that the shame, dishonor, and desperation experienced by those violated women in Afghanistan may be similar to what was felt by these jobless, homeless, frustrated, and powerless men in North Africa.

There is another major reason to think that Bouazizi and those who followed were not staging political protests. There has been no evidence that any of them left videos, letters, manifestos, or suicide notes of any substance in which they claimed that their acts were calculated political statements and then articulated their grievances. Purely rational actors who are planning to sacrifice their lives for a cause should be expected to care about how their deaths are interpreted. These individuals left it completely up to chance.

A useful comparison can be made to suicide terrorists. A significant percentage of bombers make martyrdom videos for this precise reason: They want to make sure that their audience -- their friends, family members, and the public -- are convinced that their acts were politically and ideologically motivated, rather than some form of suicidal escape. Suicide bombers who do not speak out before their deaths usually know that they will be spoken for afterward by the terrorist organizations they leave behind that attest to their motives. If Bouazizi and the self-immolators were politically motivated, they would similarly have cared about their audience and not wanted to leave their public in the dark. The fact that they apparently did not put this forethought into their actions suggests that they were motivated more by desperation and suicidal compulsion, rather than political premeditation.

By setting himself on fire near a government building during a period of political turmoil, Bouazizi must have anticipated that his act would be interpreted as a sign of political protest. And those who followed him were also no doubt aware of how their actions would be interpreted in this climate. However, it is relatively common for depressed and suicidal people to try to latch on to something bigger and more significant than themselves in their last moments on Earth -- regardless of their primary agenda.  

Again, the parallel to suicide terrorists informs this issue. Growing evidence indicates that many suicide bombers were in fact clinically suicidal, and that no matter what they may have claimed, no matter what doctrine they may have spouted, it was actually personal psychological problems that led them to blow themselves up. Terrorist organizations exploit this psychological vulnerability for their own strategic reasons, but their pawns appear far less invested in the political consequences of their attacks.

For instance, in interviews conducted by Israeli researchers with failed Palestinian suicide bombers, they usually claim that they wanted to kill themselves for the cause because of their hatred for Israel and its treatment of their people. However, if you dig a little deeper, their true psychological motives surface: Suicide bombers are often consumed by clinical risk factors for conventional suicide such as depression, hopelessness, guilt, shame, and rage. I have conducted a series of studies on the life histories and underlying motives of suicide terrorists, and there is a consistent pattern of these individuals attempting to mask their psychological angst as self-sacrificial martyrdom. Furthermore, their attacks are often triggered by the same types of personal crises that cause people to kill themselves in New York, Paris, or Tokyo, including financial problems, divorce, unwanted pregnancies, inability to get married, poor health, physical disabilities, or the death of a loved one. Both self-immolators and suicide terrorists may indeed channel the political frustrations of a much larger population, but the primary difference between the very few who choose to kill themselves "for the cause" and the much greater majority who do not is usually the presence of classic suicidal traits.

Despite this evidence, both types of suicide are often interpreted as primarily constituting political acts. Perhaps this says as much about us, the public, as it does about the deceased. We see an increase in suicide bombings or an increase in people setting themselves on fire, and we put it in a broader political context because it is this context -- and not the personal psychological problems of the individuals involved -- that has the biggest effect on our lives. However, studies suggest that the apparent increase in these behaviors may have nothing to do with politics at all, that conventional suicide can spread via social contagion, and that a "copycat effect" may increase suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts, regardless of political developments.

In addition, it is possible that the behavioral change we are seeing is primarily in the method of suicide, more than in the total number of suicides themselves. The self-immolators who followed Bouazizi may be copying his modus operandi, but they may very well have found another way to kill themselves had he never appeared. What seems like a sudden spike in suicides in North Africa may mostly be a function of the media paying more attention than usual, due to the political turmoil in the region. Nine people setting themselves on fire in a month may seem like a trend, but in the United States, approximately 94 people commit suicide every day, and similar per capita rates of suicide are seen among some African countries.

Furthermore, though suicide by fire may seem inherently dramatic and symbolic, the Afghan women who chose this method did so simply because they thought it was more reliable than overdosing on pills.

This is not to say that there aren't some legitimate links between politics and suicide. A government is at least partially responsible for the mental health of its people. When citizens lose faith in their leaders, the inherent justice and fairness of the system, and their ability to overcome adversity, they lose hope, and hopelessness is one of the most common psychological causes of suicide. The motives for Bouazizi's suicide may have been personal, but it was Tunisia's political leaders who failed him and millions like him. Ultimately, that is the symbolic legacy of his act and why those leaders have been held accountable.

AFP/Getty Images