Friedman’s Fables
The New York Times reporter views China’s dismal environmental record through green-colored glasses.

Smog clouds the air at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.


Jillian Kay Melchior

Regardless, Friedman remained impressed with Beijing:

Of course, China will continue to grow with cheap, dirty coal, to arrest over-eager environmentalists and to strip African forests for wood and minerals. Have no doubt about that. But have no doubt either that, without declaring it, China is embarking on a new, parallel path of clean power deployment and innovation. It is the Sputnik of our day. We ignore it at our peril.

He also wrote:

Being in China right now 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. The Beijing leadership clearly understands that the E.T. — Energy Technology — revolution is both a necessity and an opportunity, and they do not intend to miss it.

We, by contrast, intend to fix Afghanistan. Have a nice day.

(This was D.C. last Monday. This was Anhui Province last Monday. Have a nice day.)

Nevertheless, Friedman even goes so far as to imagine Beijing is laughing at the United States:

China is having a good week in America. Yes it is. I’d even suggest that there is some high-fiving going on in Beijing. I mean, wouldn’t you if you saw America’s Democratic and Republican leaders conspiring to ensure that America cedes the next great global industry — E.T., energy technology — to China?

He also drafted a fake “Wiki-leaked” cable from the Chinese embassy:

Most of the Republicans just elected to Congress do not believe what their scientists tell them about man-made climate change. America’s politicians are mostly lawyers — not engineers or scientists like ours — so they’ll just say crazy things about science and nobody calls them on it. It’s good. It means they will not support any bill to spur clean energy innovation, which is central to our next five-year plan. And this ensures that our efforts to dominate the wind, solar, nuclear and electric car industries will not be challenged by America.

Actually, the U.S. is holding its own in the trade of renewable-energy products. In 2010, the same year Friedman fretted about Chinese domination of the green-energy market, the U.S. was a net exporter of solar products to China by more than $240 million.

Friedman seems especially concerned about China’s electric-vehicle production. In 2009 he wrote:

China Inc. just named its dream team of [16-state-owned] enterprises to move China off oil and into the next industrial growth engine: electric cars.
Not to worry. America today also has its own multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing moon shot: fixing Afghanistan.

A year later, Friedman had a huge projection about Chinese electric vehicles. He wrote

If we don’t get a serious energy bill out of this Congress, and Republicans retake the House and Senate, we may not have another shot until the next presidential term or until we get a “perfect storm” — a climate or energy crisis that is awful enough to finally end our debate on these issues but not so awful as to end the world. But, hey, by 2012, China should pretty much own the clean-tech industry and we’ll at least be able to get some good deals on electric cars.

Well, 2012 is now past, and I don’t recall seeing many Chinese electric cars during my American road trips. But I do seem to remember this article, in which a Chinese electric taxi malfunctioned and burst into flames, killing three.

As this week’s Airpocalypse showed, there’s even greater reason to doubt Friedman’s claims about China’s greenness. Maybe Friedman was already aware that his take sounded a bit inflated:

Some of my Chinese friends chide me for overidealizing China. I tell them: “Guilty as charged.” But have no illusions. I am not praising China because I want to emulate their system. I am praising it because I am worried about my system. In deliberately spotlighting China’s impressive growth engine, I am hoping to light a spark under America.

Friedman’s peculiar brand of American patriotism may be fervent, but it isn’t sure whether global competition should be a source of delight or despair. Perhaps Friedman’s flawed judgment derives from his love affair with China: Quite simply, smoke gets in your eyes.

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.