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20.11.03

Fuel For China-Bashers

China Set To Act On Fuel Economy

The Chinese government is preparing to impose minimum fuel economy standards on new cars for the first time, and the rules will be significantly more stringent than those in the United States, according to Chinese experts involved in drafting them.

The new standards are intended both to save energy and to force automakers to introduce the latest hybrid engines and other technology in China, in hopes of easing the nation's swiftly rising dependence on oil imports from volatile countries in the Middle East.

... Some popular vehicles now built in China by Western automakers, including the Chevrolet Blazer, do not measure up to the standards the government has drafted, and may have to be modified to get better gas mileage before the first phase of the new rules becomes effective in July 2005.

The Chinese initiative comes at a time when Congress is close to completing work on a major energy bill that would make no significant changes in America's fuel economy rules for vehicles. The Chinese standards, in general, call for new cars, vans and sport utility vehicles to get as much as two miles a gallon of fuel more in 2005 than the average required in the United States, and about five miles more in 2008.


I can think of at least three ways that this fact will be adopted into American political discourse. The most common will be its use by environmentalists -- "even China has better fuel efficiency standards than we do!" Granted, Chinese officials deny that environmental protection was a rationale for the change, but fuel efficiency improvements should help the environment just as much regardless of why they were implemented. Fixed bureaucratic rules are like that -- they have a sort of life of their own independent of the reason they were implemented and are maintained, unlike rules or habits of action or policymaking, which are sensitive to motivation.

I can also see this fact being brought up by some anti-environmentalists -- "environmental regulations are oppressive and unjust, as demonstrated by the fact that Red China likes them." This is a parallel construction to the Nazi fallacy ("The Nazis did X, therefore X is bad," an argument I've seen most often with respect to gun control).

What will be most interesting, I think, is how this fact is incorporated into considerations of US-China trade. Environmentalists are optimistic that the lure of the Chinese market plus the new regulations will spur American car makers into developing more fuel-efficient models. This may be the case. But the pessimist in me wonders if there won't be a second line of attack by American car makers: they may lean on the US government to pressure China into reducing its regulations. This kind of cronyism is par for the course in trade negotiations, and may be cheaper for Detroit than the R&D necessary to make more fuel-efficient cars. The US government could frame China's regulations as unfair to American companies, and hold out prizes like Most Favored Nation status and membership in the WTO as enticements. Beyond its effects on car sales, this strategy would have the added benefit of reducing the pressure on the US to raise its standards, something many in our government don't want to do.

Even if the US isn't successful in getting China to change its policy, opposing the standards would play well at home. The effect on the American automobile industry fits nicely into the ritual China-bashing that goes on before elections.

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