eyes on the U.S.

An Ordinary American And The Quagmire Of China's 'National Conditions'

Essay: There is something deeply revealing about the Chinese that the nation is so consumed by the 'regular guy' persona of US Ambassador Gary Locke.

American Ambassador Gary Locke meeting employees of a Chinese web services company in Beijing (PAS China)
American Ambassador Gary Locke meeting employees of a Chinese web services company in Beijing (PAS China)
Leung Man Tao

BEIJING - Since his arrival, Gary Locke, the Chinese-American U.S. ambassador to China, has been the subject of much discussion here. We know how he takes economy class for his plane trips, and queues up to buy his own coffee - and his financial assets are publicly declared.

The latest news about him is that Locke has taken his family for a mountain holiday in Guilin without body guards. This is simply unthinkable for the Chinese public. One Chinese netizen mocked him for his upcoming hiking travels: "Gary Locke, you keep going further and further on the wrong path!"

Rarely has a foreign ambassador raised so much concern and stimulated so much public conversation.

Many people like to contrast Locke with Chinese officials, praising him for being plain and frugal and free of the pomposity we might expect. But there are just as many suspicions about his motivation. They criticize him for putting on a show right from the first day of his arrival in Beijing, accusing him of participating in a "neo-colonialist conspiracy."

However, anybody with a little bit of knowledge about America would have understood that this has nothing to do with a show: it's really just very ordinary American behavior.

Of course, the US does not lack decadent and corrosive nouveaux riches or other so-called "white trash," nevertheless it stays essentially an ordinary country. In comparison with the gentlemen's clubs in England that require strict codes of entry, the wealthy people from New England enjoy a rather more relaxed atmosphere at their country clubs. In a country where even the candidate for the presidential election is proud of emphasizing how his father worked honestly as an ordinary man, an ambassador who carries his own backpack, holds his own umbrella, or queues up for his coffee is just normal.

So how then are such defining traits, or what we call "national conditions' suddenly transformed into a spectacle when they arrive here from across the Pacific? Because we too have our own national conditions. The premise of the argument that Locke is spreading "neo-colonialism" in China is indeed a precise manifestation of such Chinese conditions.

"National conditions' is diplomatic language that has long been part of the discourse in China. Whenever foreign politicians, or so-called "anti-Chinese media" and "traitors' criticize China, the standard response is always "China has different national conditions."

From here onward we can come to the conclusion that Chinese officials have never carried their own bags nor held their own umbrellas, and hence they are not to behave in the same style as the Americans. Nevertheless, if one amplifies the scope of this "national conditions' concept to take into account public opinion about China's real social, economic and political situation today, one would come, quite probably, to a very different conclusion.

Or put it this way: if the American style of Ambassador Locke is inconsistent with Chinese national conditions, does that also mean that the widespread Chinese netizens' praise of him doesn't correspond to Chinese national conditions either?

Since the national conditions are the reality of a country, it ought to also include people's perception and judgment of the reality of this country.

Reality is indeed usually different from idealism. People tend to always feel that they are at the worst of the times. Every society is full of people who believe that the community within which he or she lives is not perfect. They criticize it so that things are changed, and thus human beings make progress.

One can always use cultural relativism to fend off external criticism. But this is bound to deny any aspirations of idealism and choke off all internal discontent. The supposed realism of national conditions precludes any elements of idealism. It's like telling people "This is as good as an ideal society ever gets. Take it or leave it." If someone wants a better society, it must be because he's got foreign ideas.

Since the Chinese Communist Party took over power 63 years ago, China's biggest ideological turning point took place exactly around the dualism of "Reality vs. Idealism."

We once held high idealism and ignored reality. We believed that under our feet was a sheet of white paper that would allow us to realize our desires. Nowadays we highlight realism (or pragmatism) and ignore idealism. We even sublimate realism into idealism and advocate embracing reality as if embracing idealism.

In recent years, many academics have loved the theory of a "Chinese model" so much that they've nearly managed to turn reality into idealism. It's like saying that we have gone through so much trial and error that we have achieved an ideal world that nobody else had ever imagined before.

The best public opinion example demonstrating this is that famous editorial piece from the Global Times in which the author proclaims that "it is impossible to eliminate China's corruption through a crackdown or reform…this is an issue rooted in the overall social development level…therefore one should accept a moderate degree of corruption."

We used to be against corruption because we believed society shouldn't be corrupt. Today we are supposed to comply with national conditions; not only should we admit the existence of corruption, but we are also supposed to accept it. Don't make efforts to raise reality to the heights of our ideals, but rather drag idealism back to the quagmire of reality. Is that also some sort of unique Chinese national condition?

Read the original article in Chinese.

Photo - PAS China

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport


Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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