The G20 Summit and Hangzhou, China

The G20 Summit and Hangzhou, China  —by Jinny Batterson

On September 4 and 5, 2016, representatives and heads of state from nineteen countries plus the European Union and several other international institutions met in Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China to work together to advance the global economy via a “G20 Summit.”  The “G20,” representing the world’s largest economies, became more visible after the 2008 global financial crisis, though the group had existed at the level of national finance ministers for a decade by then.  Member nations are Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus the European Union. This year’s meeting, the 11th for heads of state, was the first G20 summit to be held in China, and the host country put on quite a show in welcome. 

Much U.S. and British press coverage has focused on whether interactions among some of the heads of state attending the meeting were indicative of heightening global tensions—a glitch in U.S. President Obama’s stairway use at his airport arrival on Saturday evening;  a “staring contest” between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin; the positioning of recently selected U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May at the edge of the official group photo at the conference’s conclusion.

Some news coverage of the summit included features about the host city.  Hangzhou, a rapidly growing urban area of nine million people, has worked for a generation or so to reinvent itself as a technology hub, an outcome that advertisements on state-run Chinese television were touting a decade ago.  The one time I’ve visited Hangzhou so far was in late autumn 2010. Then I rented a small, windowless room in a modestly priced tourist hotel close to Hangzhou’s scenic West Lake. I spent as little time in the hotel as possible, preferring to wander the surrounding business districts and nearby parks. Hangzhou was not immune to the air pollution that has often accompanied Chinese modernity. My first day in the city was smoggy enough to make my eyes water. The second day, the wind shifted and the air cleared. On later walks, I saw shiny racks of rental bicycles on several downtown corners. Then I did a double take, nudging husband Jim.

“Is that a Maserati dealership?”

“Looks like it. Maybe the proletariat shops next door, at the Ferrari showroom,” he deadpanned.

“While the old wealth heads down the block to check out the Rolls Royces,”   I shot back. 

High on the wealth list is Jack Ma, a 50-something Hangzhou entrepreneur whose net worth is listed at over $20 billion in U.S. dollar equivalents. Mr. Ma founded Internet marketing giant Alibaba in 1999 and has overseen its subsequent growth. Alibaba’s glass, metal, and garden campus-style headquarters in central Hangzhou would not look out of place in California’s Silicon Valley.   

Hangzhou has attempted to merge modernity with Chinese tradition. It currently has the largest fleet of rental bicycles of any city—over 84,000 of them. Each year, tens of thousands of domestic and foreign tourists visit park areas around West Lake, viewing their combinations of natural areas, bridges, streams, pagodas, and temples. For the opening evening gala of this year’s G20 summit, Chinese director Zhang Yimou, who previously staged the opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, erected a stage just below the surface of the lake. He produced an hour-long gala of both Chinese and Western music, anchored by a symphony orchestra, and complete with dances, vocal performances, swirling fountains, and, of course, fireworks.   

Chinese authorities have become increasingly sensitive to domestic and international complaints about pollution. For the period around the summit, they enacted stringent air quality measures, shuttering or moving highly polluting enterprises, restricting vehicle access, closing some open air markets. From the videos I saw, their efforts were successful.

Much of the actual work of both this summit and its predecessors has been conducted by representatives of the member states and international institutions. The official communique issued at the meeting’s conclusion is couched in diplomatic language and generally short on specific policies, but points toward a maturing relationship among members. Among the 48 provisions are:

(6) … Openness—We will work harder to build an open world economy, reject protectionism, promote global trade and investment…;  (7) …(W)e will refrain from competitive devaluations and we will not target our exchange rates for competitive purposes…;   (10) …(I)n the long run, innovation is a key driver for both individual countries and the global economy as a whole…;   (21) …(I)n order to support environmentally sustainable growth globally, it is necessary to scale up green financing. 

During the course of the meeting, Presidents Obama and Xi signed agreements to the Paris Climate Accords, a substantial step, since our two countries combined account for 38% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, implementing the provisions of the G20 communique and the climate accords will require good faith on the part of member states, lots of work and adaptations by officials at all levels as the global economy continues to evolve, and, above all, political will and political pressure by citizens in the global economy. 

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