California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently posed with Chinese autocrats and business executives, with no mention of the multitude of concerns for human rights he purports to share when he’s in Sacramento. But he’s not the first California governor to be lured by the attraction of doing business with China.
Seventeen years ago, then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger overruled both common sense and whistle-blowing CalTrans engineers to deliver the multi-billion dollar, taxpayer-funded San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge project to a Chinese construction company. The resulting cost overruns were arguably more substantial than the quality control problems.
Ten years ago, then Gov. Jerry Brown, while pitching California products to Chinese consumers, credulously daydreamed of Chinese manufacturing investment in the Golden State. Four years later, after Donald Trump unceremoniously withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accords, Brown visited China again in early 2017 — in his final days as California governor — to declare that California-China collaboration had taken a “great leap forward.”
Now, Newsom has gone there, using his position as executive of the largest economy in the U.S. to meet President Xi Jinping in front of a bank of cameras and polish his statecraft credentials for what may be a future presidential run. Like Brown’s trips, Newsom’s was ostensibly about cooperation on climate change. But in making it, he gave the Chinese government a hefty benefit of doubt that it doesn’t deserve.
“Divorce is not an option,” the governor said last week in a statement. “The only way we can solve the climate crisis is to continue our long-standing cooperation with China.”
China is definitely cheating on us. Glad-handing with its state officials gives cover to a government that jails climate activists and breeds a culture of self-censorship that severely limits the activities of climate-focused non-governmental organizations.
Within China, there is no independent voice to hold the government to account. As such, in 2023 it has green-lighted roughly two new coal-fired power plants a week, and commands a globally dominant solar energy industry built on the back of forced labor. The economy it directs leads the world in carbon emissions, and those emissions are not expected to peak until the end of the decade. California, according to the Economic Policy Institute, lost more than 650,000 jobs to this economy dominated by state-owned enterprises between 2001 and 2018.
The Chinese Communist Party, the de facto Chinese state, is often reflected in Western media as a responsible environmental steward because of the country’s breakneck investment in green technologies. But it’s also the one that broke off climate negotiations with the U.S. for nearly a year because Rep. Nancy Pelosi dared to visit Taiwan.
While China isn’t an honest broker or a reliable partner, there’s no reason to doubt Newsom’s personal concern about accelerating climate change. California has set national benchmarks for climate progress under his watch.
Still, compartmentalizing concerns over Chinese trade and climate policy and human rights concerns — which trips like these do — is not helpful to California, to U.S. workers or to exploited populations in China. It distracts from other priorities.
The enthusiasm he poured into this visit should instead be spent on developing clean energy manufacturing industry here. Newsom could be pushing popular consumer programs, like California’s Clean Vehicle Rebate Project, to require the inclusion of American-made equipment, thereby giving domestic electric vehicle manufacturing a major boost.
California, for example, last year passed a law directing all schools in the state that receive federal funding for prepared meals to require in their bids and contracts that the agricultural food products purchased are grown, packed or processed domestically. Newsom could be proposing to direct state infrastructure projects to use American-made iron and steel, which is more cleanly produced than what is made in China by orders of magnitude.
Instead, he spent the week test-driving electric vehicles made by a heavily subsidized Chinese manufacturing conglomerate and burnishing his own political image. Whether or not the naivete he’s demonstrating is willful, his trip was misguided.
Scott Paul is president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing.