Category Archives: Politics & Society

Zhou Anti-Graft Probe Tests Limits of Xi’s Power

IT COMES AS little surprise to this Bystander – or to most others – that former security chief Zhou Yongkang is under investigation. The announcement that Zhou is suspected of serious Party disciplinary violations – for which read, serious corruption – only formally confirms rumours that have been circulating for months – rumours that were informally confirmed by Zhou’s disappearance from public view since last October and investigations of his family and dozens of associates in the oil industry and security circles.

As tigers go, Zhou is the biggest to be brought down by an anti-corruption campaign since the time of the Gang of Four; he headed the Ministry of Public Security until his retirement in 2012, oversaw the state oil sector, and was a member of the Politburo standing committee.

By disgracing such a senior powerbroker, albeit one past the zenith of his political power, President Xi Jinping is sending a clear signal to both his political adversaries and to the public: his anti-corruption campaign will be wide-ranging and no mere exercise in frightening off political rivals, though it is certainly that, too. Zhou was a supporter of Bo Xilai, the former mayor of Chongqing who was given a life sentence last year for corruption and abuse of power after challenging Xi for the leadership. He also remained a powerful figure in the state oil industry, and thus an obstacle to Xi’s economic reforms.

Zhou’s investigation will also be seen as Xi signaling that he believes he has consolidated his power sufficiently that no official or politician is beyond the reach of his anti-corruption campaign. That is a message that will play well with most Chinese, who are at the sharp end of petty official corruption day-in, day-out. Yet popularity is one thing and political power another. Whether a Party investigation of Zhou turns into court proceedings will indicate how absolute Xi’s political control over the Party has become.

Party discipline means expulsion and house arrest without public prosecution. Zhou’s case indicates that Xi isn’t yet in a position to antagonize all the high-level power brokers and elders in the Party, notably former President Jiang Zemin, by initiating court proceedings that could lead to lengthy jail terms or the death penalty – and the lid being publicly pulled back on the multimillion dollar business enterprises of many of the ruling elite and their families. For now, suffice it to say that the long-standing understanding that serving or former Politburo standing committee members will not be incriminated in anti-graft probes clearly no longer holds.

That is a more startling message for the political elite than the one to lower level officials have had to swallow, that the days of flaunting their perks and privileges and expecting expensive gifts as a right of office are over. So far, according to statement’s by various judicial officials, 51,306 officials were investigated for corruption and related economic crimes in 2013, a twelfth more than in the previous year. That number included 20 ministerial- and vice ministerial-level officials, about half of whom can be considered associates of Zhou.

Xi advocates that corruption threatens the Party’s long-term viability. One common facet of industrializing countries that successfully move up the economic development ladder is that they reform and strengthen their institutions. In China, the Party remains the paramount institution, so reforming that is Xi’s priority. For now though he is emphasizing clean governance over the rule of law, by using top-down political power to set the Party on what he believes is the correct course. The fine line he has to walk is between cleaning up the Party and tearing it down in the process of tearing down his political opponents.

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Gauging Hong Kong

THE TURNOUT FOR Hong Kong’s annual July 1st rally in support of the territory’s continuing autonomy was the largest in a decade.

This year’s protest had added appeal as a way for Hong Kongers to show their distaste for Beijing’s recent white paper on the former British colony. This was read as foreshadowing tighter political control from Beijing and a less independent judiciary in a more-rapid-than-expected convergence of the two systems in the “one country, two systems” arrangements that now prevail.

Such proposals do not suggest that Beijing has a sure feel for Hong Kong’s political pulse. Hong Kong’s ultimate destiny is to be just another big city in southern China. Getting there will be bumpy unless Beijing demonstrates a more deft political touch.

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Xi Jinping’s High-Stakes Tiger Hunt

GEN. XU CAIHOU, one of the PLA’s most senior officers, is not the first “tiger” to be trapped by President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive. He joins Wang Yongchun, deputy head of state energy giant China National Petroleum Company (CNPC), and Jiang Jiemin, former head of the state asset regulator, in being newly expelled from the Communist Party for corruption and abuse of power — a fate also expected to befall former Politburo Standing Committee-member Zhou Yongkang, who once presided over the state’s security apparatus. Were Zhou to be put on trial for corruption he would be most senior leader to face such charges since the Communists took power in 1949, and a significant escalation from last year’s prosecution of former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai who was merely a Politburo member.

Nor is Xi’s anti-corruption drive the first to be undertaken by a new leader. His appears to have more legs to it it than those of his predecessors. There have by this Bystander’s best count been some 180,000 cases of actions against officials, military officers and state-sector corporate executives big (“tigers”) and small (“flies”).

Not only has Xi to consolidate his power and make his mark in the  faction-riddled internecine warfare of China’s internal politics, but he also is determined to clean up the image of the Party and to push ahead with economic reform. He believes the first is necessary if the Party is to retain the fast-evaporating trust of ordinary Chinese, on which the Party’s claim to monopoly rule hinges, and the second is necessary to deliver the continuing rise in living standards that are also an essential part of the bargain that allows no political competition to the Party.

There are lots of powerful people in the three most important and tightly interlocked strands of Chinese political life, the Party and the government, the military and the state-owned enterprises whose wealth is far from clean and who have a vested interest in retaining the economic status quo that has provided the opportunities for them to gather that wealth. Xi is both taking out highly symbolic kingpins as well as their underlings who are fast losing the political patronage that has hitherto protected them.

Xi needs to do this if he is to be serious about regenerating trust in the Party and pushing through economic reform. He has to create large breaches in the old guard through which he can drive the forces of change. But he faces three risks. First, he has broken the taboo against going after the families and wealth of the inner circle of China’s leadership; that may provoke a backlash against him. Second, there is a question of how much damage the Party’s reputation can sustain; how many bad apples can be thrown out before the whole crop is considered rotten? Third, he fails to put in place in the Party, government, the military and the state corporate sector systemic mechanisms to regularly detect and prevent corruption in the first place, backed up by an independent judiciary and a free press.

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This Day In History

This Bystander is reminded today not so much, as the former British prime minister Winston Churchill said, that history is written by the victors as that the victors get to choose whether it is written at all.

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Just How Good A Gas Deal Is Beijing Getting From Moscow?

THE KEY NUMBER we don’t know in China’s insert-your-own-very-large-number-here energy deal with Russia is the unit price state-owned China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) will be paying.  CNPC has finally signed the agreement to buy up to 38 billion cubic meters of natural gas a year from Gazprom for 30 years starting in 2018 (a new pipeline has to be built first). This Bystander hazards a safe guess that Beijing has got itself a very good deal.

The sale has always been necessary for Moscow to wean itself off its dependence on European markets for its energy sales, but merely convenient for Beijing, which has several sources other than Eastern Siberia from which it can meet its growing need for energy, especially cleaner energy than can be generated from its indigenous coal. After 10 years of negotiations between CNPC and Gazprom that have mainly been haggling over the formula that will determine the pricing, all that has changed is the situation in Ukraine. That has given a renewed sense of urgency to Russia’s need to secure non-European markets, while President Vladimir Putin’s two-day visit to China provides the platform from which to announce the deal with political benefits to both himself and his host. President Xi Jinping and CNPC’s chairman Zhou Jiping will have taken full advantage of that.

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Environmentalists’ Political Threat To China’s Communist Party

ENVIRONMENTAL PROTESTS ARE of even greater concern to the leadership of China’s Communist Party than the threat of domestic terrorism. For one, they are far more widespread. The violence that broke out on May 10th in Zhongtai, a township outside Hangzhou, at a demonstration against building a waste incinerator there, may have been untypically bloody, but such protests in themselves are far from uncommon. Tens of thousands occur every year across the country.

The annual numbers are rising at a marked rate as far as we can tell. Some like one last year against China National Petroleum Corp.’s plans to build a petrochemical plant in Kunming gain international attention, but most remain local affairs. Nor do most secure more than get a delay to the unwanted project. Last year’s cancellation of a proposed lithium battery factory in the Songjiang district of Shanghai following large-scale protests was an exception rather than the rule.

Nor can the authorities point at the finger of blame on outside agitators, as they can do with the recent knife and bomb attacks blamed on militants from Xinjiang — though this Bystander will not be surprised to see the 50-centers on social media and their equivalent official unofficial voices in the public prints doing just that with environmental protests. There is too large a slice of China’s middle class concerned about the environmental degradation that has come with economic development for authorities to crack down on them all. Surveys of public opinion suggest that three-fifths to three-quarters of the public want the government to do more to improve the environment, and particularly to lessen pollution.

There is nothing exclusively Chinese about demonstrations against development projects by those who don’t want them in their backyards regardless of the greater benefit to a broader society. Incinerating waste rather than burying it in landfills and using the energy created as an alternative to coal-burning power generation plants is net for net an environmental gain for Hangzhou and the rest of the eastern China seaboard. Zhongtai residents are more narrowly concerned that what would be Asia largest incineration plant will further pollute their air and contaminate their water.

For the leadership, the long-term threat is that environmental protests will be the kernel form which a political party could grow to challenge the Party’s monopoly on political power. That is one reason it has allowed so many environmental protests to proceed for as long as they remain relatively local and peaceful.  Indeed, thousands of residents have been protesting against the planned incineration plant in Zhongtai for the past couple of weeks.

What the leadership will not tolerate is attacks on symbols of national authority such as police. That puts it on a slippery slope. Throwing a dragnet over the Zhongtai in a search for 15 men suspected of involvement in Saturday’s violent clashes with riot police is meant to show that the leadership will tolerate only so much dissent — and that that has to remain local and disorganized.

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Lessons Of Kunming Station

THE SINGULARITY OF the knife attack at Kunming station makes this Bystander wary of extrapolating its impact on both the public and authorities — and in particular whether it represents an escalation of Uighur dissent against Beijing that will require an escalation of the authorities’ efforts to suppress it.

Twenty-nine people were reportedly killed and more than 130 wounded, 20 still critically so, when a group of masked assailants wielding long knives hacked at the crowd of train travelers on Saturday evening. Police shot dead four and took one suspected assailant, reportedly an injured woman, into custody. The remainder, said at the time to number five, fled. Authorities now say it was three and that they have all been captured.

The attack was blamed in short order on separatists from Xinjiang. No evidence has been offered so far to support that claim. Equally there is nothing to discount it.

Beijing has been fighting a low-level but increasingly violent insurgency in its natural-resources-rich western reaches for decades. The 8.4 million-strong Uighur minority in Xinjiang, mostly Turkic Sunni Muslims, though far from universally supportive of the tiny separatist groups, resents the growing Han dominance of the province. It feels its culture and economic prospects being increasingly diminished. Anti-Han riots in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, left some 200 dead in 2009, and ushered in another crack-down by Beijing as well as the installation of 40,000 riot-proof cameras on the streets of the city.

The Kunming station attack set several precedents, if it indeed was by Uighur separatists. First, the casualty toll was far greater than in previous attacks. Second, the attack was against the public rather than police or officials. Third, it took place in Kunming, capital of southwestern Yunnan and more than 1,000 miles from Xinjiang, though there was a suicide car bombing in Tiananmen Square late last year, said to have been carried out by Uighurs.

State media are being made to walk a fine line between reporting a deadly act of terror that has shocked China and keeping questions from being raised about why the authorities didn’t prevent it happening in the first place and why Uighurs are so resentful of Han Chinese. Staging the attack in the openness of a large railway station makes it more difficult for officials to control the information flow; the first pictures of the event were posted widely on social media, and bloody. The most gruesome have been taken down. Online comment has been curtailed.

The openness of the attack also makes it more difficult to control the public narrative about the event. Hitherto, the state narrative has portrayed ethnic-religious violence in the country as terrorism originating outside China. The finger has been readily pointed at places such as Pakistan, Turkey and, more recently, Syria. The point being made is that it is not home-grown. This has proved an effective tactic for making it more difficult for dissenting ethnic minorities within China to make common cause.

Early comments in state media about the attack being “China’s 9/11” have been toned down. Such remarks misunderstand both the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. and the one in Kunming station. Washington has, however, changed its description of the Kunming station attack from an act of violence to an act of terror. Beijing will welcome that as an aid to its portmanteau crack down on dissent — and to its continuing struggle with Washington over the issues of human rights. That may turn out to be the Kunming station attack’s most lasting impact.

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