Xi Sets Out What He Is Thinking

Screengrab from a live television broadcast of Xi Jinping presenting his work report to the 19th Party Congress in Beijing, October 18, 2017

MAO TRANSFORMED CHINA. Deng Xiaoping transformed China.

Xi Jinping?

Xi has placed his marker at the 19th Party Congress — ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era’. Significantly, state media are starting to report it appended to his name: ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’. Xi’s formal induction into the pantheon of Party ideology alongside Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory cannot be far behind.

Xi Jinping Thought comprises 14 bullets points that, in short, reiterate that the Party leads everything. However, the sense of marking an epoch is as palpable as it is deliberate.

Xi portrays his China as one that will have become a global leader with international influence, a modern economy, advanced culture and world-class armed forces.

This future will come in two 15-year phases, 2020-2035 and 2035-2050.

The first phase will focus on turning fast growth into high-quality development, the deliverance of a ‘moderately prosperous society’. The second will turn China, by then likely the world’s largest economy, into Beautiful China, some nirvana-like flowering of a great modern socialist country-cum-superpower, and to do so, conveniently, in time for the 2049 centenary of the revolution that brought Mao and the Party to power. (Poverty is to be eradicated by the centenary of the Party’s founding, 2021.)

The first phase involves moving ahead with the rebalancing of the economy towards consumption-led growth that has been haltingly underway for some time. The financial system will become more market-based, and state-owned enterprises will be turned into world-class, globally competitive firm. China will become more open to foreign investors. Rule by law will be enhanced. Greater environmental protections introduced. The modernization of the PLA will be completed by 2035, giving China a world-class military, for which read on par with or better than the United States’.

Diplomatically, China will pursue global development in partnership with other countries, though it will create an alternative (and Beijing-led) global order architecture to be the framework for that. Alongside that, it will seek to strengthen its cultural soft power. Meanwhile, internally the anti-corruption campaign will continue to ensure the Party does not rot from the inside. And loyalty to the party and central leadership group must be absolute.

If this sounds like a political laundry list drawn up by a committee that is because, at heart, it is. Nor does it contain any new initiatives. Though delivered by Xi as his ‘work report’ and bearing his indelible stamp, the three and a half hour speech and its underlying text is the result of a year of consensus building involving thousands of officials.

Its purpose is to show the Party’s rank and file the signposts to the long-term actions expected from them by the leadership in all policy areas. That leadership, though, is now firmly Xi’s. The next question is how long he will feel he needs to exercise it.

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Xi Jinping: Two Eyes To The Future

xi-jinping

Xi Jinping

THE CRITICAL 19th Party Congress is due to get underway on October 18. A three-day preparatory meeting of the Party’s top leadership wrapped up today in Beijing.

It is commonly held that President Xi Jinping will emerge from the forthcoming Party congress with an even greater grip on power.  That may well be true; Xi will certainly be reappointed to the Party’s top post, general secretary, and might well be able to prevent Politburo Standing Committee promotions that indicate a designated successor in five years time — suggesting that Xi might stay beyond the now customary two terms.

An extension for Prime Minister Li Keqiang is less likely, with Hu Chunhua, Party boss in Guangdong (a post Xi’s father once held), being lined up to succeed him.

However, Xi’s enhanced power will not be as absolute as the personality cult building up around him might suggest. He will still have to horse trade with nodes of power and influence within the Party that have been diminished but not extinguished by his anti-corruption campaign.

The outcome of those compromises will offer a measure of the willingness of China’s elite to accept another five years of Xi’s tightening and highly personalised political control.

Little of that horse trading will be on public view at the Party Congress. Instead, there will be much play given to the ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ and the ‘Chinese dream’, two somewhat ill-defined distillations of Xi’s “four identifications” that he believes all Chinese should make (with the motherland, the Chinese race, Chinese culture and the Chinese socialist road).

Part of that, also likely to be prominently presented is China-centric alternatives to the US-dominated Western international order, if not couched in quite such confrontational terms. Ambitious attempts to redraw the global geostrategic map, such as Xi’s pet ‘One Belt One Road’ project, will be presented not in terms of Chinese assertiveness and expansionism on the global stage but ‘win-win’ partnership and cooperation. China will also be presented as the rational counterpoint to US President Donald Trump that the world needs now, with Xi himself as its embodiment.

Meanwhile, much of the backroom dealing will already have been done.

Xi’s goals are twofold. First, he will wish to drive forward his self-appointed mission of reinventing both party and country so that the Party retains its monopolistic grip on power, which history suggests is at risk as China becomes richer.

Five years ago, managed economic reform was at the forefront of Xi’s agenda, but has been thwarted by vested interests, which have had to be systematically removed, mostly through the anti-corruption purge. Economic reform needs to be restarted, and before the country’s debt problem causes political problems. He still does not have the control over the economy that he does over the state security apparatus, military and, increasingly, the Party.

Second, he will want to put in place people who can carry forward that mission if and when he is gone, and to make sure they do not suffer the purges that Xi has used to decimate his rivals.

We use the verb deliberately. Roughly one in ten officials have been warned, put on probation, demoted or expelled from the Party since the crackdown started. According to Central Commission for Discipline Inspection figures published earlier this month, 1.34 million township-level and 648,000 Party members and officials in rural areas have been punished in the five years of the campaign, as well as more than 70,000 officials at or above the county-head level. More than 35,000 officials have been prosecuted.

That is a lot of ‘flies’, but several ‘tigers’ were tamed, too, including Sun Zhengcai, a Politburo member seen as a potential successor to Xi, and Wu Aiying, 65,  justice minister from 2005 until this February past and one of only a handful of senior female officials in China. The flies represent, as this Bystander noted before Xi ascended to power, how he is driven by a sense of a loss of the Party’s traditional moral values of honesty, dignity and self-respect; the tigers reveal his political ruthlessness.

This crackdown consolidated Xi’s control but also broke the implicit post-Mao pact that effectively banned large-scale purges within the elite. Xi’s followers no longer have that self-preservation guarantee, either. Xi needs to gather more power to himself now to protect them, and thus his legacy, in the future.

There are risks. The anti-corruption campaign has had a chilling effect on officialdom and morale is low. The security apparatus and military can be kept onside through expanded missions, new toys and reorganisations that elevate Xi loyalists. But the civil administration is a different matter.

Xi will need China’s massive administrative apparatus to implement his economic reforms. Their disciplined enthusiasm for doing so will be critical, especially as they will no longer be able to skim off their piece of economic progress. The anti-corruption campaign appears to have eased back on the Communist Youth League, the faction that draws heavily from cadres and government officials.

Xi’s leadership is likely to be more openly challenged within ruling circles should the economy run into serious problems, perhaps as a result of the debt crisis being mishandled or from an external shock, such as a trade war with the United States, although the state security apparatus would likely prevent either from triggering social unrest. Similarly, failures connected with his signature international projects, notably One Belt One Road, could undermine him domestically.

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IMF Again Warns China Off Growth For Growth’s Sake

THE IMF’S NEWLY published World Economic Outlook projects a 0.1 percentage point increase in GDP growth this year over last, to 6.8%. That is an upward revision of 0.1 percentage point to its July forecast, based on policy easing and stimulus to domestic demand earlier in the year.

However, the Fund sees the glide path of managed slowing growth resuming next year, with GDP growth forecast at 6.5% in 2018 (again up 0.1 percentage point from July’s forecast, and up 0.2 percentage points from its April forecast) and thereafter slowing further to 5.8% by 2022.

By that point, the IMF expects China to be growing more slowly than the emerging and developing Asia average, forecast at 6.3%. That would a phenomenon not seen since China started its double-digit growth spurt.

That, in its way, would be a mark of success for the rebalancing of the economy towards being more consumption-driven and less dependent for growth on infrastructure investment and exports. The IMF is projecting that China’s current account balance will have shrunk to $28.8 billion by 2022, against $196.4 billion last year, and almost one-tenth of the level it was a decade ago. As a percentage of GDP, the effect will be even more dramatic: a projected 0.2% in 2022 against 4.7% in 2009.

All neat projections, but realizing them is not without risk, most notably in managing debt:

Over the medium term, dealing with financial sector challenges will be essential. Minimizing the risk of a sharp slowdown in China will require the Chinese authorities to intensify their efforts to rein in the credit expansion.

The conundrum is that 6%-plus growth is necessary for China to have met its target of doubling real GDP between 2010 and 2020. To make sure it does, Beijing will be in no hurry to withdraw its stimulus.

However, as this Bystander and others have noted before, delay comes at the cost of further increases in debt, making the issue more difficult to resolve through the necessary measures of tighter supervision, reined-in expansion of credit and writes down of the underlying stock of bad assets.

This, in turn, would slow rebalancing and reduce the policy space available to respond in case of an abrupt shock to the system, internal or external.

Such shocks are not difficult to imagine, and are detailed by the Fund:

a funding shock in the short-term interbank market or the funding market for wealth-management products; the imposition of trade barriers by trading partners; or a return of capital outflow pressures because of a faster-than-expected normalisation of US interest rates.

The political dimension to this, unaddressed by the IMF, not surprisingly given its sensitivity, is whether President Xi Jinping will emerge from next week’s Party Congress in a sufficiently strong position to be able deemphasize near-term growth targets and implement more reforms that would enhance the sustainability of growth. Without doing so, he will be unable achieve his long-term goal of maintaining the Party’s monopoly grip on power while transforming China’s economy to its next phase of development.

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China Cracks Down On Cryptocurrencies

THE DEFAULT POSITION of Chinese authorities is that if it exists, it should be regulated. Cryptocurrencies are a prime example.

BTTChina (BTTC), one of the three leading bitcoin exchanges in China and, by extension, one of the largest in the world, says it is to cease trading on September 30 because of regulatory pressure being brought to bear on it. Earlier this week, the National Internet Finance Association, a self-regulatory industry body that the People’s Bank of China set up in 2015-16, warned that there was no legal basis for exchanges trading cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and litecoin and that they were a source of speculative risk for investors and also a conduit for illegal activities such as drug trafficking and money laundering.

Shanghai-based BTTC has read the writing on the wall for domestic cryptocurrency exchanges. So have investors; bitcoin fell by 20% against the US dollar in the latter half of the week.

Word in the industry is that an outright ban on most or all activity one bitcoin exchanges will be instituted shortly. Huobi and OKcoin are the other two leading bitcoin exchanges in China. Both are reported to have received administrative guidance to shut by the end of the month, though both have said they have received no official instruction to do so. (Update: Huobi and Okcoin  have reportedly been given a month’s extension as they have not been heavily involved in ICOs; but authorities expect them to cease trading by October 30.)

If instituted a ban would follow the proscription of initial coin offerings (ICOs), an unregulated means of raising funds increasingly favoured by high-tech startups. These raised 2.6 billion yuan ($398 million) in China in the first six months of 2017 across 65 offerings, which accounted for 20% of the global total. China is the first country to ban ICOs.

A working party of the central government’s office overseeing internet financial risk has been underway for several months, but Chinese regulators are not alone in their concerns about bitcoin exchanges. Their counterparts in Hong Kong, Singapore, the United States and the United Kingdom have expressed similar misgivings in recent months.

The changing mood in China has had a chilling effect on bitcoin. The cryptocurrency reached an all-time high of $5,013 on September 1 but fell below $3,000 this week on the latest reports of the authorities’ crackdown.

The internet financial risk working group says that whereas China accounted for 90% of bitcoin trading volumes two years ago, its share of the now $100-billion-a-year market has fallen to 30%. Trading volumes in Japan and South Korea have been on the rise.

An outright ban on trading in China would hit bitcoin, though not as hard as it would have in the recent past. Bitcoin is still the dominant cryptocurrency though its market share of total transactions is being eroded as Chinese have become less enamoured with it.

However, the setback might equally provide time for the development of an indigenous cryptocurrency. At the same time the central bank is cracking down on the bitcoin exchanges, it is encouraging research into the blockchain technology that underpins virtual currencies.

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China Rushes To Ready Its Second Carrier For Party Congress

China's first indigenous aircraft carrier, codenamed the 002, seen at its mooring dock in Dalian in 2017 being fitted out.

CHINA SHIPBUILDING INDUSTRY Corp. (CSIC) and Dalian Shipbuilding Industry Corp. (DSIC) are rushing to complete the construction of China’s first indigenous aircraft carrier (seen above at her mooring dock in Dalian earlier this year) so the start of her sea trials can be trumpeted at the forthcoming Party congress. A stronger, more outward looking China is expected to be one of the themes of the meeting.

Outfitting work and system debugging of the 70,000-tonne Type 001A carrier, modelled on the Liaoning, a converted Soviet era carrier bought from Ukraine that is now in PLA-Navy service, are almost complete ahead of schedule, according to a defence ministry spokesman, and the power-systems tests have been completed.

DSIC’s chairman, Liu Zheng, told a company Party meeting last month that the shipbuilder would “greet the 19th CPC National Congress by delivering key achievements on a special product in this special time”.

The timetable for the mooring trials is being telescoped so the carrier can set out to sea in time for the Party congress. Sea trials, which will test propulsion and communications systems under operational conditions, are the final phase before a vessel is handed over the navy to be commissioned into service.

From an April launch to September sea trials would be the blink of an eye in terms of aircraft carrier production, but a signal of the symbolic important Beijing places on its first home-built carrier.

Meanwhile, the first of the successor generation of carriers, the Type 002, is under construction in Shanghai yards.

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China Makes A Show Of Force Near The Korean Peninsula

HQ-16A medium-range air-defense missiles being loaded onto their launch trucks during a combat training exercise at a military range near Bohai Bay in early September, 2017. (Photo credit: He Miao, chinamil.com.cn/)

AN ARTILLERY UNIT from the PLA’s new 81st Group Army has conducted a live-fire anti-missile drill in recent days near Bohai Bay, so close to the border with North Korea. HQ-16A medium-range air-defence missiles (Red Flag 16s, seen above being loaded onto their truck launchers for the exercise) were successfully fired and took out their targets, military media say. The drill, held in ‘early September’, was a combat-readiness test against a surprise attack.

The HQ-16A has a maximum range of 40 kilometres and can take out a ballistic missile flying at either a very low or high altitude at a range of 3.5-18 kilometres. Such missiles are only likely to come from one place, and similarly the message from Beijing is being sent in the opposite, despite the defence ministry issuing a statement saying that the drill was routine annual training and did not target any specific country.

On September 5, at the same site, the PLA-Air Force, also live fired HQ-6s (seen below), a short-range air-defence missile intended to counter close range missiles, including those launched at sea, or aircraft flying at low-to-medium altitudes.

An HQ-6 air-defense missile being live-fired by the PLA Air Force fires at simulated sea and aerial targets during an exercise near Bohai Bay on September 5, 2017. (Photo credit: Li Ming and Xie Biao, chinamil.com)

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North Korea’s Double Dilemma For China

IT IS GETTING ugly on the Korean peninsula, and it was not looking all that pretty to begin with.

However exactly powerful a nuclear bomb North Korea tested over the weekend and whatever the white metallic thing was that the country’s leader Kim Jong-un was photographed posing with — and standing far too close to if it was truly a missile nose cone fitting nuclear device —  it is clear that it is too late to stop Pyongyang ‘nuclearising’.

That poses a what-to-do dilemma for US President Donald Trump, who had said that he would not let Pyongyang get this far with its missile programme. It poses an even bigger one for China, which the Western powers, at least, are blaming for not being tough enough on its ally, while from Beijing’s point of view, it is being asked to take all the risk of dealing with Pyongyang while the United States would get most of the benefit.

As this Bystander has noted before, Washington may overestimate Beijing’s sway over Pyongyang. This weekend’s nuclear test marked the third occasion on which North Korea had upstaged President Xi Jinping at a moment when he wanted to project a particular, and strong face of China to the world.

This weekend was meant to be about Xi presenting the BRICS, with China in the vanguard, as the progressive alternative to an increasingly protectionist West. He will not have appreciated Kim hogging the limelight. That Kim feels confident enough to do that to his only ally, again, implies that North Korea is no dutiful vassal state.

That is not to say that Beijing can do nothing more. It can. It remains North Korea’s primary source of oil and could choke that off, just as it has cut off other trade. It has so far resisted the United States’ pressure to impose such a sanction. It fears that doing so could cause a collapse of the regime that would send millions of refugees flooding across the border into northeastern China and, the far bigger concern, trigger a sudden regime collapse in North Korea that would leave US or US-allied troops hard against its border.

Beijing has in the past cut off oil supplies to North Korea on two occasions. Both times Pyongyang returned to the negotiating table in short order, if only for a while.

There are at least two reasons that Beijing will be reluctant to do so again. First, it does not want to be seen at home or abroad to be knuckling under US pressure. Trump has repeatedly lambasted Beijing for not doing more on sanctions (and when it did, then slapped sanctions on some Chinese companies and has subsequently threatened a trade boycott of any country that trades with North Korea, hardly the thank-you that would encourage further co-operation on this front).

Second, it still does not want to cause a sudden shock that would trigger an economic collapse in North Korea. Instead, it will take incremental back-door steps to cut back oil supplies.

There are signs of this already happening. State-owned China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) stopped shipping diesel and gasoline to North Korea in May and June. Ostensibly, this was a corporate decision made on the basis of uncertainty over getting paid. However, such as decision would not have been taken without the express consent of the Party committee within CNPC, and that consent, in turn, would not have been given without express consent and more likely direction from higher up.

Last year, China shipped more than 96,000 tonnes of gasoline and nearly 45,000 tonnes of diesel, worth a combined $64 million, to North Korea. Most of it came from CNPC, but this Bystander would hazard that more and more of China’s other energy companies will discover they have misgivings about trading with Pyongyang and slowly but steadily the oil supply will be choked off.

The statement from the foreign ministry condemning the weekend’s bomb test offers further signs of Beijing’s hardening position towards Pyongyang. While it still called for a resolution to the situation through dialogue, its language was far harsher towards North Korea than in the statements that had followed the five previous nuclear tests.

Denuclearising the peninsula is probably less of a concern for Beijing than Washington, though Beijing would be more than happy for North Korea not to have an independent nuclear deterrent, and especially if its absence bought a removal of the THAAD missile defence system from South Korea as well.

Its priority is to have as much stability on the peninsula as there can be. South Korea response to Pyongyang’s nuclear test (live-fire missile exercises), the planned deployment of a US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in near waters and a Seoul-Washington agreement in principle to increase the 500-kilogramme permissible payload on South Korea missiles will all destabilise the peninsula more than stabilise it, not to mention discomfort Beijing.

In this environment, Beijing has two sets of relationships to manage, one with Pyongyang and the other with Washington. Both have highly unpredictable players on the other side. Beijing’s preferred option is to work through the United Nations to mitigate the volatility and to put the United States on the track of recognising that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions can no longer be contained, only managed.

The UN Security Council met today, and its member countries will be working on a new set of tougher sanctions expected to be presented for a vote at the beginning of next week. There is still a gulf to bridge between the Chinese and US positions. Meanwhile, China will be applying its own economic squeeze on North Korea to get Kim back to any sort of negotiating table before he provokes the United States into taking actions that will trigger the regime chaos that Beijing so fears.

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