China in climate driver’s seat after Trump rejects Paris

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Protesters gather outside the White House in Washington D.C. after President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the Unites States from the Paris climate change accord.
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

James Miller, Queen’s University, Ontario

With President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate change accords, it’s now clear to the world that action on climate change will rest increasingly in the hands of China, not America or the European Union.

Given the global nature of the climate crisis, the decisions that China’s leaders make over the next decade will have a profound impact around the world. Shockingly, as sea levels rise, the fate of America’s coastal cities, from Palm Beach to Boston, will increasingly be determined in Beijing, not Washington, D.C. One can only imagine Trump sitting like King Canute on a lawn chair at Mar-A-Lago as it slowly disappears beneath the sea.

Since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, global trade liberalization has made China the factory of the world, bringing wealth to corporate America and lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But as China rode the trade winds of globalization to become the world’s second largest economy, its coal-fired power stations and lower environmental standards combined to produce searing smog that now reduces life expectancy by up to 5.5 years in the country’s industrial north. The rapid increase in fossil fuels also propelled China to become the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases, the chief cause of global warming.

China morphing into clean energy champ

The good news is that China is in the midst of engineering a massive transition to an “ecological civilization,” one that transcends Western industrial modernity and emphasizes clean energy, sustainable cities and circular economies. China’s 13th five-year plan (2015-2020) envisions bringing the country’s installed solar capacity to 140 gigawatts to help cut greenhouse gas emissions. Its plan for rapid urbanization is also being accompanied by the development of over 200 new eco-cities that are already functioning as test labs for urban planners.

China’s economic rise and its environmental challenges are also being accompanied by an equally important third factor: the increasing significance of China’s traditional culture and religion in its social and political discourse. Most significant here is the positioning of Confucius as the patriarch par excellence of Chinese culture, and a bulwark against liberal Western values.

A Chinese migrant worker listens to radio on his tricycle cart parked next to a Beijing billboard promoting environmental protection. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Confucian values emphasize filial piety, deference to authority and the priority of family relationships over the individual. President Xi Jinping has deftly deployed these values in his anti-corruption drive. As China assumes the leadership of the global environmental movement, the question that arises now is how future climate change language and policy will be increasingly shaped by Chinese, not Western, values.

Over 2,000 years ago, China’s rulers embarked on two spectacular engineering projects. The better known of the two is the Great Wall, a vast and costly fortification against the barbarians of the north.

Walls or water? China opting for water

The second, lesser known, is the Dujiangyan irrigation system in Sichuan province, a UNESCO world heritage site. Still in use today, it uses a system of weirs and levees to regulate the spring floods along the Min river and provide water to over 5,300 square kilometres of land, producing some of China’s most fertile agricultural land. When I interviewed local officials during my fieldwork in China, they lauded it as a marvel of Daoist engineering for harnessing nature’s power instead of working against it.

The choice between walls and water is an apt metaphor for the decisions facing world leaders today. Trump campaigned on a wall with Mexico. President Xi, meantime, has strengthened China’s great firewall, which limits the choices and freedoms of Chinese citizens. While China’s leaders feared America’s power, it was only natural that they should seek to limit its influence.

But in the end, as China’s rulers discovered, walls ultimately crumble, while the power of water is eternal. The Dujiangyan irrigation system continues to this day and is an essential component in China’s food security system. As China’s Daoist philosophers wrote more than 2,000 years ago: “Nothing in the world is as soft and weak as water. But when attacking the hard and strong nothing can conquer so easily.” In the end, nature wins.

The ConversationJames Miller is the author of China’s Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future (New York: Columbia University Press)

James Miller, Professor of Chinese Religions, Queen’s University, Ontario

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Late Night Live on ABC Radio National

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Daoism: China’s green religion

From ABC Radio National

With the US shrinking from the Paris Agreement, all eyes are on China to become the world leader on climate change. How China balances economic growth with environmental responsibility, could change the environmental trajectory of the entire planet.

Academic James Miller argues there is just one stumbling block: Western ideas on how to save the planet don’t resonate deeply in China. But he says, that the ancient Chinese religion of Daosim might fill the gap.

Listen to the broadcast (10 minutes).


Daoism, Ecology and Undisciplining the University

On October 14, 2016, I made a presentation at Harvard Divinity School on Daoism and Ecology. The context for this presentation was conference on Religion, Ecology, and our Planetary Future, organized by Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions. This conferenced marked the twentieth anniversary of a series of conferences on world religions and ecology that was organized in the 1990s by Mary Evelyn Tucker, and which led to the formation of the Harvard Forum on Religion and Ecology, now translated to the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology.

In this ten-minute talk I reflect on my experience of studying Daoism and Ecology, and attempt to link this to a broader conversation on how the disciplinary structures of the university underpin modes of knowledge production that are antithetical to an ecologically flourishing future. The future of religion and ecology thus entails the ushering in of new modes of thought spanning the sciences and humanitities, and requires an accompanying undsciplining of the university.

Learn more about my “outside-in” philosophy of education.

Sinology from the Perspective of Sustainability

In this talk, which came at the end of a conference on methods for studying Chinese religions, I discuss the idea that conventional sinological approaches to the study of religion operate from within a binary perspective of tradition and modernity. In contrast, I ask what the study of religion might look like if studied from the future framework of sustainability.

This talk was part of a conference held at Groningen University, funded by the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange and the KNAW.

Rule by Merit: Is China’s political system superior to western democracy?

LRCv23n07-Sep-2015-cover-CMYK-180x252A review of The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy by Daniel Bell

Literary Review of Canada September 2015

It was a typical Beijing scene. I was in a private room in a restaurant having dinner with a handful of academics, the head of a Daoist temple, a rich young businessman, a senior official in the central government, plus the usual coterie of wives, protegés and assistants. The 15-year Maotai was flowing and the boisterous priest was making frequent and extravagant toasts around the table. I had just finished reading The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy and my head was buzzing not with the smooth and potent spirit but Daniel Bell’s compelling argument in favour of political meritocracy, the notion that power should be distributed according to ability and virtue rather than on the basis of democratic elections.

For a Torontonian who survived the Rob Ford years, it was not hard to be convinced that democracy may not be the best way to distribute political power. The only way the city made any progress during those dark ages was thanks to the unelected, meritocratically promoted civil servants who tried to make the best out of the circumstances. The city’s ongoing transit fiasco, not to mention Vancouver’s failed referendum, also provide compelling evidence that the democratic process inhibits rational policies that should advance the social and economic well-being of the general public. Add to that federal tax and spending policies that favour the wealthy and the elderly over the poor and the young, and the program for political meritocracy that Bell lays out should come as a welcome relief. A Canadian political philosopher who has spent many years teaching in China, Bell uses his intimate knowledge of the country to argue that political meritocracy is better than liberal democracy, not only in terms of its ability to deliver social and economic benefits, but also in terms of its underlying fairness.

In so doing, he attacks the sacred cow of western liberal democracies, namely, that democracy must intrinsically be, if not the best, then at least, in Winston Churchill’s famous terms, the least bad  system of government. Bell argues not just that the China model, which he defines as democracy at the bottom, experimentation in the middle and meritocracy at the top, is overall quite successful in terms of results. He even dares to suggest that political meritocracy is, on its own merits, a rational, fair and viable alternative to liberal democracy. Now is the time, he believes, to have a debate about the merits of liberal democracy and the merits of the broadly Confucian model that China is in the process of enacting. But Bell knows from bitter experience how difficult it is to raise the question of democracy’s flaws and at the same time praise China’s successes. In careful, clear and measured prose, he works hard to overcome prejudice, defuse emotions and discuss the pros and cons in the cool language of political philosophy. This, perhaps, is the book’s greatest contribution.

Of course, Bell readily admits that the China model has its flaws in practice, but not substantially more so than democracy in countries such as America or Canada. Democracies distribute power to those with superior wealth, looks, charisma, political cunning or rhetorical flair. Is there any really good reason why a televised leaders’ debate or the ability to perform well in a parliamentary question period should be a mark of political talent? Why should the administrative talents of unprepossessing civil servants ultimately be subject to the class of people who are able to charm and captivate the public with their catchphrases, one liners and sound bites? Is it truly democratic when the uneducated poor are bamboozled by carefully crafted messaging into voting against their own social, political and economic interests? When liberal democracy becomes a vehicle largely for the legitimation of the interests of the rich and powerful, as it arguably has become in the United States, and to a lesser extent in many other western countries, then surely it is more than flawed; it is deeply immoral. When hypocrisy is so deeply entrenched in the democratic process, surely it is no wonder that The Daily Show takes over from the New York Times as the leading form of political discourse.

Here lies the crucial point: the solution to China’s problems lies not in swapping one flawed political system for another but rather in making sure that practical, successful meritocracy is ever more deeply embedded within China’s government. It is simply unrealistic to expect that China’s Communist Party will voluntarily move to a multiparty liberal democracy. Given the often appalling outcomes of recent democratic revolutions or military impositions of democracy across the world, it would risk a disaster of epic proportions if China were to undergo a similar revolution. With the well-being of a fifth of the world’s population at stake, not to mention the impact on global finance, trade and economics, no one can afford the risk of Chinese turmoil. But it is not unrealistic to expect that China should enact administrative reforms to promote worthy cadres and improve the process of political decision making. In fact, it is already doing so. China’s cadres must now pass a whole series of exams, performance reviews, peer assessments and other mechanisms designed to reward competence and talent rather than patronage, class or privilege. At the same time, it must also be noted that China is experimenting with democratic reform on local levels and within the party, and it is not yet clear which reform process will be effective in weeding out corruption.

A tug at my arm interrupted my intellectual reverie. The priest had come over to offer a toast. I stood up, and together we shouted “gan bei,” drained our glasses and displayed their emptiness for all the table to see, a time-honoured tradition of male bonding through the performance of alcoholic prowess. The women sat across from us and smiled demurely. The assistants and protegés were starting to wonder when they would be able to leave the table and steer their staggering patrons home. And then I realized that it did not matter to me whether or not people in the West should accept Bell’s arguments, or even read his book. What really mattered was whether political meritocracy could truly be embedded in China and overcome the powerful, patriarchal and homoerotic networks of political, cultural and economic interest, such as the one that was being performed around the dining table that night. Perhaps the litmus test of political systems should be which most quickly achieves equality of political power between men and women. I could be persuaded to ditch liberal democracy for Confucian political meritocracy if I could be convinced that meritocracy could truly achieve gender equality. But the practical reality of Confucian culture has been to promote patriarchy and meritocracy in equal measure for more than 2,000 years, and there are few signs that this perverse alignment is about to end.

As for Bell’s pro-meritocratic arguments, will they be influential? In the West, only those willing to contemplate the potential flaws of our own political system will pay The China Model much attention. But its distinctive perspective deserves to be injected into China’s internal debates. If it is, Bell will have achieved a rare feat—to span the chasm of misunderstanding that so often bedevils relations between China and the West.







人民网北京7月10日电 (记者 熊旭)哲学是理解中国文化的钥匙。为促进世界各国优秀青年对中华传统文化和当代中国的了解和理解,增进中外青年之间的沟通,在孔子学院总部孔子新汉学计划青年领袖项目的支持下,2015年7月9-22日,北京师范大学哲学学院将举办第一届京师哲学暑期学堂,主题为“中国思想与现代文明”。7月10日,暑期学堂在北京师范大学顺利举办开学典礼。27名来自德国、法国、芬兰、荷兰、加拿大、美国、西班牙、意大利、英国的中华文化爱好者和8名国内对传统文化有兴趣有研究的学生共同开启一次“哲学味儿”十足的中华文化学术之旅。北京师范大学副校长周作宇教授、国家汉办(孔子学院总部)汉学研究工作处处长周卉女士、北京师范大学哲学学院院长吴向东教授等出席了典礼。

本届京师哲学暑期学堂由来自5个国家6所高校的著名专家学者担任授课教师,组成纯英文教学授课团队,包括加拿大女王大学著名汉学家James Miller教授,美国洛杉矶罗耀拉大学亚太研究主任Robin Wang教授,荷兰阿姆斯特丹大学著名政治哲学家Robin Celikates教授,中国人民大学温海明教授,北京师范大学廖申白教授、李绍猛副教授、王小伟博士。


京师哲学暑期学堂将以突出交流、增进互动、谋求发展为目标,积极帮助国外青年学员亲近和感悟中国文化,增进对当代中国发展的理解,积极培养有志于从事汉学研究或中外交流的青年领袖。北京师范大学哲学学院是我国哲学教育与科研的重镇之一,在儒学研究、道教研究、易经研究等多方面建树颇丰,不仅具体承办意大利马切拉塔大学孔子学院,而且编辑和发行在国际学界颇有声誉的全英文版《中国哲学前沿》期刊(Frontiers of Philosophy in China),在推动中国哲学研究走向世界方面做出了卓有成效的贡献。哲学学院以其深厚国学传统和扎实学术功底来组织这届暑期学堂,有利于让更多外国朋友了解中国文化、喜爱中国文化,让更多不同文化背景的人士在这里交流对话、碰撞出思想火花。



james miller 00301083677_bdf1d56d

1月1日上午,由公共经济研究会中国乡村文明研究中心、中国人民大学乡村建设中心等单位主办,国家行政学院、中美后现代发展研究院等单位协办的第三届中国乡村文明发展论坛在北京国家行政学院会议中心盛大举行。本次论坛以 “乡村文化复兴开启文化为王新时代”为主题,来自世界各地的专家学者、地方领导、村支书、农民代表等共400多人参加了开幕式。 (More…)

Turning Students into Citizens, Religious Studies Edition

In last week’s column here on RD, Ivan Strenski argued strongly against American Academy of Religion President Laurie Zoloth’s call for religious studies to be “interrupted” by a focus on climate change, writing that “asking a religious studies professor to do something about climate change is absurd, or at the very least, peripheral.” He goes on to pose an important question for all branches of academy study: “Must every discipline have some significant contribution to make to every social problem we face?”

Of course climate change is not just any ordinary problem. Indeed as Evan Berry, quoting Mike Hulme, notes in his rejoinder to Strenski, climate change is “not so much a discrete problem to be solved as it is a condition under which human beings will have to make choices.” The question then becomes, what is the responsibility of higher education to prepare students to make responsible choices under this unprecedented condition?

In short, climate change is a game-changer for the whole of higher education. Laurie Zoloth realizes this, but Ivan Strenski does not.

Strenski advocates a model of higher education rooted in the disciplines of the 19th century. In this model the goal of a religion department is principally to train scholars of religion and not to engage in social activism. The same would be true for economics or physics departments: to train more economists and physicists. From this perspective disciplinary education is an end in itself and does not need to be oriented instrumentally towards some social goal.

But as universities have become providers of education for the masses of advanced societies, the narrow goal of disciplinary education is no longer fit for purpose. The academy does not need thousands of economists or physicists to keep these disciplines going; we need only a small number of brilliant minds. And yet the academy, because of its conservative disciplinary nature, insists on training legions of economists, religionists and physicists. If graduates of these programs find themselves able to enter the workforce or engage in responsible democratic citizenship, they do so in spite of their disciplinary education, not because of it.

In short the 19th century model of disciplinary education risks a staggering waste of talent at a time of global crisis. No wonder many people are wondering whether it is worth it to invest tens of thousands of dollars and four years of their lives majoring in the traditional disciplines.

In 2050 the world’s population will reach 9-10 billion, and much of its economy will be driven by hyper-dense, increasingly multi-ethnic, environmentally challenged megacities of up to 100 million people. No current economic system, scientific thought, cultural value system or political philosophy on its own has relevance for this new world. The key problems of the 21st century demand holistic thinking, multidisciplinary education and cross-cultural communications. These problems include:

  • How do we develop the economy for a world of 9-10 billion people in 2050 without destroying the ecosystems and environments that make life possible?
  • How do we discover the appropriate place for cultural differences in a multipolar, hypermodern world without resorting to fundamentalism, separatism, and ethnic violence?
  • How do we foster meaningful human relations and quality of life in a world transformed by science and technology?

The current disciplinary education model risks failing to prepare the next generation for the world that they will actually live in. For universities to safeguard the status quo is to risk their social legitimacy, and to risk disastrous consequences for the West’s future prosperity, not to mention humanity as a whole.

From this perspective, AAR President Zoloth’s demand for scholars of religion to imagine how their discipline can contribute to forming responsible citizens in a time of climate crisis is a master stroke. It immediately gives purpose and relevance to the thousands of students who are majoring in religious studies. It asks them to consider how their studies of Buddhism or Christianity will help them negotiate a world whose climate is changing rapidly and without precedent. It asks them to make a creative leap across disciplinary boundaries. It asks them to apply their knowledge to the problems of the real world.

Surely it is far more important that thousands of young people can think critically about the nexus of religious worldviews, values and politics that shapes the diversity of the world’s responses to climate change, rather than the religious ideas of Medieval Chinese Daoism (which is how I began my academic career)!

Ivan Strenski is right that the discipline of religion needs scholars who are purely focussed on the academic problems of religion. But this is not what the vast majority of undergraduates needs; it is not what our society needs; and it is not what the planet needs.

If ever there was a time when our disciplines should serve the future needs of our students, and not the other way around, it is now. While I sympathize with Ivan Strenski’s call for academic departments to advance pure academic knowledge about their fields, now is not the time to prioritize this function of higher education. Laurie Zoloth’s call for radical interdisciplinary social engagement is timely, urgent, and a model for other disciplines to follow if our universities are to prepare students for the world of 2050 and beyond.

First published in Religion Dispatches, December 15, 2014.

Will Canada Ever End its Demonization of China?

The demonization of China – as shown by refusal to accept Confucius Institutes – is a toxic flaw that runs deep in Canadian history and culture.

Protestors supporting the China-based Confucius Institute protest in front of the Toronto District School Board on Oct. 1, 2014. CARLOS OSORIO / TORONTO STAR


As Premier Kathleen Wynne returns from China and as Prime Minister Stephen Harper visits Beijing for the APEC summit, the partnership and goodwill between China and Canada that brought Confucius Institutes to Toronto schoolchildren lies in ruins.

The reason is simple: China, and Chinese people, have long been demonized in the Canadian imagination. Only recently Torontonians were appalled by a Toronto Sun cartoon of Olivia Chow with exaggerated Chinese features in a Mao suit. The subtext was clear: Chinese people look different from “real” Canadians, and their politics are not to be trusted.

It is time to end this racist demonization once and for all.

China and Chinese people are part of the fabric of the world, and part of the fabric of our own city.

Of course, no country is perfect. America launched the second Gulf War on a false pretext, and brought about 100,000 or more civilian deaths. But Canadians view America as a flawed big brother whose power we must respect and whose flaws we must, from time to time, accept. It would be absurd to imagine that we should boycott the American Fulbright scholarship program as a result of America’s foreign policy.

China, too, has its flaws and its differences. It thinks about religion in a very different way from Canada, because it has for two millennia been a multi-religious country and has struggled to contain and manage the powerful religious forces that have toppled dynasties and caused widespread social unrest.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the ending of the Taiping rebellion, a religious movement led by a charismatic prophet who declared himself the younger brother of Jesus and set about establishing the kingdom of heaven on earth. The Taiping rebellion was eventually put down with French and British help, and a death toll estimated at 20 to 30 million. Imagine, within the space of a generation, the population of Canada wiped out by war resulting from a quasi-Christian ideology.

This is by no way to excuse or condone China’s current policies. It is to say that China’s decisions, just like America’s, emerge from a particular history and a particular perspective. They deserve understanding and challenging. But they do not deserve demonization.

By demonization I mean the belief that a way of thinking or acting is so beyond the pale that we cannot touch it. China’s Confucius Institutes have become so demonized that North American partner institutions feel they must dissociate themselves from them lest they somehow contaminate the minds of our young people with Chinese ideas.

Often the touchstone issue is China’s treatment of religion.

The Chinese state’s policies towards religion are difficult for Canadians to understand and accept. Our religious institutions are largely docile, declining in authority and generally encourage people to respect Canadian values. Our civic institutions and our state education system follow the studied agnosticism of tolerance and multiculturalism.

But in China religion is a growing, powerful and dynamic force that is frequently at odds with the values and norms of the state. More Christians go to church in China than in the whole of Europe. Nowadays there are more Christians in China than members of the Communist Party. Religion is problematic social issue that intersects with issues of culture, politics and identity in ways that are hard for us to fathom in Canada.

China’s Confucius Institutes provide money and personnel to enable people across the world to learn Chinese and to learn about the Chinese world. Their astonishing success proves that Canadians have an immense hunger to learn about China.

But the demonization of China is a shameful, toxic flaw that runs deep in Canadian history and culture. It prevents rational discussion about Chinese culture, religion and politics. It prevents sensible engagement with the Confucius Institute program. It shamefully hinders the engagement of Chinese Canadians in our civic life, for who would dare subject themselves to the same treatment that Olivia Chow received?

In the end the only victims will be our children who will simply learn to repeat the same flaws and failures of their parents.

James Miller is a Professor of Chinese Religions at Queen’s University in Kingston. @james_miller

Published in The Star Online, November 5, 2014.

China’s Green Religion? Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future

The monumental task that China faces in the 21st century is to create a way of development that does not destroy the ecological foundations for the life and livelihood of its 1.4 billion citizens. This requires a creative leap beyond the Enlightenment mentality and the Western model of industrialization. Can China’s cultural traditions, its religious values, ideals and ways of life, play a role in building a sustainable China?

The following video was recorded at the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute on November 19, 2014.