POLITICS: Activist Tobita Chow urges the U.S. and China to step back from ‘escalating tensions’

Colin Sullivan

July 29 2021

Tobita Chow is in many ways an environmentalist in new clothing. He’s a labor activist attempting to bridge climate action with international politics. He often finds himself in the middle of players who don’t trust each other and works to erase that gap. And that’s precisely why Preston-Werner Ventures decided to fund him, as the energetic director of the People's Action project Justice Is Global.

Chow is another one of our favorite humans, in other words, but he would prefer this story not focus on him. He wants it to focus on China.

On China and how faulty narratives have been getting in the way of cooperative action. That word “narrative” being an early clue into how Chow approached and authored a well-known report on how American misunderstanding (and a lot of bad storytelling) has pitted the United States against China within “a growing sense that they are in a zero-sum economic competition,” he said.

In turn, that narrative tends to chip away at the bilateral cooperation needed to find progress on climate change or other difficult topics. Chow cautioned that the dynamic between the world’s top two superpowers is pushing them toward scaled-up military investments, cyber warfare and general distrust that “bleeds into” how the countries approach clean energy industries.

“This is undermining the prospects for the kind of global cooperation we need” to go beyond the Paris climate accord, he said, from his office in Chicago. “It is going to threaten our ability to negotiate international climate agreements.”

‘A stark nationalistic binary’

Chow, in a pair of interviews, credited the long-standing tradition of community organizing in Chicago as having influenced his methods and focus on telling more accurate stories. He wants to figure out how to apply a local organizing ethic on an international stage and views the Covid-19 pandemic as a test case that reveals vulnerabilities in the U.S.-China relationship. That dynamic having not been helped by President Donald Trump’s trade war or racist, anti-Asian sentiment coming from right-wing media — or human rights abuses in China, for that matter.

Chow wants progressives to counter any drift toward nationalism in the United States, and do so aggressively. If China and the United States could act together on Covid-19 vaccines, for instance, even at this stage, that could show the way toward how they might better behave on climate, merging manufacturing capacity and research and development efforts into a helpful alliance.

“There are so many ways that the United States and China could be working together on global vaccination, and they’re not, and I think that is completely holding us back,” he said.

For Theresa Preston-Werner, co-founder of PWV, Chow’s take on how we tend to portray China is part of what drew her to him. She lauded him for “following the threads between several topics and their interconnections.” Seeing those interconnections helped her to believe in an emerging “climate is everything” thesis, as highlighted in this newsletter.

She funded him to perfect the hack, in other words. To approach the climate problem as well as labor (as well as “journalism”) from new angles. To flip narratives on their heads and see what’s underneath.

“I think Toby and his work are exactly what PWV looks for, an interdisciplinary thinker who understands the complexity in the world and all of the past and present linkages between economy, politics and culture,” she said.

She added: “We funded Tobi because he was the person who 1) had the clearest picture of how the global political economy worked and what the levers were and the enormous role that China played (which was not being worked on by anyone else in the United States, as far as we could find), and 2) he wanted to do the work as a job. Often times, I've found that great minds can understand things, but they're not ready to commit themselves to doing daily work. Tobi was.”

That work has led Chow to offer some of the most provocative work to date on how poor understanding of China has at times caused sour relations between the superpowers.

In a report released by Justice is Global this summer, Chow argued that dominant narratives about China and the United States paint “a stark nationalistic binary” that appears to fuel the notion that the countries are diametrically opposed in every way.

Chow blamed this binary reality for making it seem as if conflict is inevitable. This is caused, he said, by a false “good vs. evil” character split that encourages the notion that China can’t help but pose a threat to the United States.

This narrative largely flows from the United States and its elected leaders, he said, who often present American exceptionalism as the norm while treating the Chinese as if they’re dirty, backwards, collectivized, inferior and oppressed by a central autocracy. Add to that President Trump’s China-bashing and his tendency to pin the spread of Covid-19 on “the Wuhan flu,” and what we have is perhaps the most strained relationship between the nations in years.

His comments come as international climate watchers begin to eye an upcoming summit in Scotland with keen interest, as many parts of the world experience unprecedented heat waves that have taxed power grids and brought climate crisis concerns back into the mainstream.

Should the U.S. put climate before human rights abuses?

On the other side are documented human rights abuses in China. The Biden administration recently stopped importing solar power materials from China’s Xinjiang region, alleging forced labor and genocide against Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities. According to a report in the Washington Post, the region manufactures about 40 percent of the world’s polysilicon, which is a key component in solar panels.

The White House has prohibited U.S. companies from doing business with a handful of Xinjiang-based firms. President Biden has portrayed his decision as proof that the United States will not compromise on human rights just to work with China on climate — even as the president and his allies try to spearhead a number of clean energy measures through the tightly divided Senate.

For his part, Chow admits that the human rights side of the equation is “genuinely difficult” but worries that some U.S. politicians are taking advantage of the situation to press a protectionism they have always favored, in a bid to “uncouple our economic cooperation.”

At the same time, there’s plenty of blame to direct on bad actors in China, and that’s causing a tension between climate and human rights. In a recent Washington Post editorial, columnist Josh Rogin said, “China is testing our ability to honor both goals, by running its solar industry using forced labor linked to an ongoing genocide.”

“That simply can’t be tolerated or ignored,” Rogin wrote, late last month. “We can’t save the planet by increasing the suffering of the world’s most vulnerable people.”

Chow gets that point but hopes that Americans can take a deeper look. Life in China often resembles the United States, he said, calling the idea that China is controlled by a few central voices in the Communist Party a myth, for example. He argued that its citizens have many of the same concerns Americans do, namely expensive healthcare, exploitative private corporations and spotty government services.

The process of opening its economy in the 1980s and 90s led to “ a massively decentralized” system in China in which private corporate actors and provincial authorities were left in control.

Over-investment in the steel and coal industries, to cite two examples, was caused partly by a lack of coordination that flies in the face of the idea that China is dominated by a central power, Chow said.

“It’s still the case that political power has significantly decentralized,” he said.

“My concern is there are a lot of voices in [Washington, D.C.] who aren’t really interested in maintaining this narrow focus on human rights issues,” Chow added. “I want us to avoid any zero-sum competition between climate priorities and human rights. Let’s address both at once.”

Chow is concerned the emerging dynamic and convergence of threat narratives might hamper cooperation in China’s region in particular, suggesting that Japan, South Korea and the Philippines could get drawn into an arms race between China and the United States.

“We’re going in a very dangerous and toxic direction,” he said.

Foregrounding racial justice in environmentalism

When asked “why labor matters” with respect to climate, Chow referenced another narrative he finds counter-productive: namely, how environmental concerns and climate action have historically been presented by fossil-fuel interests as likely to hurt the economy and job creation.

“That very powerful framework has been used to tremendous effect” by conservative and centrist lawmakers opposed to regulation of carbon or governments subsidizing clean energy industries, Chow said.

But Chow sees progress lately, as the Biden administration and allies in Congress press for clean energy on the basis of new jobs that would benefit U.S. workers. The White House has sought to flip that narrative, in other words. Chow cited “a lack of trust, a lack of relationship-building in the past” on the part of environmentalists who may not have seen the point of working with organized labor.

“There’s been a legacy of climate organizers and environmentalists not reaching out,” he said, “but this has come a long way, and lately there have been good signs.”

Chow added that fossil-fuel industries have some of the best union contracts around, so that may have influenced the environmental movement to assume outreach would not have been welcomed with open arms. And then there’s the not-so-hidden truth about environmentalism: that is has often been driven “by a fairly narrow sector of society that tends to be fairly white, well-educated and affluent,” Chow said.

Still, he hopes that environmental justice movements and the focus on racial justice over the last year in the United States will help to break this reality down. He also cautioned against lumping the labor movement into a single entity, given the vast differences between trade workers, service-sector employees and their unions.

There are signs, moreover, that Biden has been true to his pledge to keep EJ groups at the table. According to an article this week in Climatewire, EJ groups have been pleased with advance guidance on a program called Justice40, which is intended to earmark 40 percent of the benefits from federal climate and infrastructure spending for disadvantaged communities.

Bigger picture, Chow said front-line communities around the world — meaning those more likely to be affected by localized industrial activity or ignored for the sake of so-called economic security — have to be made part of climate talks to deem them successful. An international treaty that excludes their voices and interests in both the global North and South will not go very far, he said, because economic development and job creation are “not just a source of injustice but bad economic policy.”

Chow described a difficult dynamic that complicates how developing nations engage in industrial policy, pointing to free trade agreements and rules at the World Trade Organization he’d like to see changed, in the name of rewriting global economic rules. His greatest challenge, looking ahead, is “figuring out the U.S.-China climate relationship and what progressives can do to push greater convergence.”

Chow, then, is looking to complete more work soon on how to change the rules of the global economy. It’s no small task.

“Clearly this is the greatest global challenge,” he said. “We are actually starting to research and develop a campaign on global climate justice.”

Stay tuned.

— Colin Sullivan

Sullivan is the former West Coast bureau chief and congressional editor for E&ENews. He’s based in D.C.