As many of you know, this is a topic of great interest to me. Recently I've been lucky enough to participate in the dialogue on this issue at a higher level than usual. A few weeks ago I had an article published in the first issue of the Collegiate Energy Association Journal, and next week I will be participating in a debate on China's support of its clean energy sector for the Beijing Energy & Environmental Roundtable. Finally, my job at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has given me the opportunity to give a presentation and write a policy memo (both in Chinese... gulp) on how the current political environment in the US is affecting its actions toward China on energy and climate change. My audience will be some of the Chinese delegates who will be attending the upcoming climate summit in Cancun in a few weeks, so its pretty important that I know my stuff.
I'll have more on how the debate and presentation went next week, but first here's the text of the article I wrote for the CEA Journal (it was written last spring):
“Why Moving to China is the Patriotic Thing To Do”
By Daniel Enking
I recently had the privilege of sitting in on a strategic discussion on energy innovation in Massachusetts, led by Congressman Markey and Undersecretary of Energy Johnson. Hosted at Tufts University, the discussion brought together several dozen of New England’s leading cleantech professionals to voice their concerns and give their input on how the Department of Energy and Congress could better support this sector.
Several times during this discussion, the specter of Chinese competition was raised. Far from just Thomas Friedman’s rhetoric, there seems to be real concern that China is beating the US in the global “cleantech race.” As Congressman Markey pointed out however, the “brain state” can help America to win this cleantech race by creating and retaining human capital and encouraging homegrown innovation.
Afterward I was taking with a prominent member of the Boston cleantech community who was asking me what I plan to do after I graduate. “Well,” I said, “I’m planning to look for a job in the cleantech sector in China.” His response caught be by surprise, “Oh, really…” he said, in a tone that implied it might as well have been the 1960s and I had just told him I was going to go build rockets for the Soviet Union. It suddenly dawned on me that this had probably been the wrong thing to say after what I had just heard. “Well, yes…” I stammered, “but my motivations are patriotic at heart.”
In fact, this was not the first time my motives for planning to move to China had been questioned. A few weeks ago, in response to hearing what I was planning to do after graduation, one of my friends had asked me in an only semi-mocking tone, “Why do you hate America?” The truth is, I believe there are two false assumptions underlying these statements.
First, the cleantech “race” between China and the US is not a zero-sum game. In a recent white paper, “Joined at the Hip: The US-China clean energy relationship,” Bloomberg New Energy Finance makes the case that both countries have their own comparative advantages when it comes to developing, manufacturing and installing clean energy systems, and these advantages are necessarily complementary (this is not a new concept, by the way). While China may be able to drive down the cost of manufacturing, many of the technologies and component parts for solar panels and wind turbines were and are still being developed in the US.
Second, moving to China does not make me an un-patriotic American. Rather than just seeing an opportunity to personally profit from the cleantech boom in China, I see an opportunity to gain skills and experience by working in China that I can then use to help these two countries to cooperate more on clean energy in the future. As many people have recognized, the Sino-American relationship will probably be the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century, and energy is one of the most significant challenges we will face this century. But without a certain level of mutual understanding that can only be gleaned from cultural exchange, this relationship will not be able to flourish.
In the end, I believe I’m doing my country a great service by moving to China, and I hope that many other Chinese and American students see the same opportunity as I do. America may need to lead, but our energy challenges cannot be solved alone.