Category Archives: Politics & Society

China’s Environment And The Slowly Expanding Pockets Of Dissent

OFFICIALS IN THE southern Chinese town of Luoding in Guangdong province have cancelled plans to build an incinerator plant following mass protests this week. This volte-face followed more citizen concern about an explosion earlier in the week at a PX petrochemicals plant in Fujian that triggered some of China’s biggest environmental protests in 2007. The week also brought news that the environment ministry on March 30 had vetoed the construction of the $3.75 billion Xiaonanhai hydroelectric dam on the middle reaches of the Yangtze River 40 kilometres upstream of Chongqing.

The proposed dam threatened scores of species of endangered freshwater fish. Its cancellation marks a rare victory for Chinese environmental campaigners over the country’s powerful state-owned dam-building industry.

Environmental issues are highly sensitive for the Party. They are increasingly becoming the locus of social activism and dissent, and constitute the largest class of ‘mass incidents’ involving more than 10,000 people. As such, they are a potential source of that most feared threat to the political status quo, instability. Worse from the authorities point of view, environmental non-government organizations are a seed that could grow into political movements able to challenge the Party’s institutional monopoly of political power.

Beijing is managing this dissent by tolerating it in limited areas, and increasingly allowing spontaneous (i.e., no coordinated collective action) small-scale local activism. It has controlled labour unrest in much the same way. Worker incidents are not allowed to be coordinated by preexisting groups. They have to be specific to an individual enterprise. And they can’t have a life beyond the resolution of the specific incident, i.e. they can’t spawn a lasting organisation. The same blueprint is being applied to environmental protests.

The continuing clampdown on academia and on the media, including social media, which is a potentially powerful way to ‘organise without an organisation’, indicates that this tolerance will not be extended to any bigger thinking dissent or organisation against central government. Ideology remains inviolate.

There is to be no joining of the dots between economic development, environmental degradation and social inequalities. Witness the quick censorship of the online documentary about air pollution, Under the Dome, produced by Chai Jing, a former TV presenter and CCTV investigative journalist, once it had gone viral on social media. Such an approach acts as a social safety valve, allowing a build-up of pressure to be blown off and the system to return to its pre-existing stable state.

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The Case Of Zhou Yongkang And Politics By Other Means

THE FATE OF Zhou Yongkang, former head of the security apparatus and the most senior figure to be brought low by President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, neatly underscores the difference between rule of law and rule by law. The 72-year old Zhou faces charges of bribery, abuse of power and the intentional disclosure of state secrets, a formal indictment that, for all the putative improvements to the judicial system, will lead to a guilty verdict as surely as night follows day.

However, Zhou, a former Politburo member, is far from alone among senior Party figures that have enriched themselves and friends and families by dint of their position. The investigation and criminal charges against him are politics by other means.

Zhou’s protege was the disgraced Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai. Bo challenged Xi for the leadership and is now in prison following his wife’s murder of British businessman Neil Heywood and a slew of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power convictions.

Scores of Zhou acolytes in Sichuan province and in the oil industry, a powerful vested interest that poses obstacles to Xi’s economic reforms, have also been investigated and in many cases prosecuted. Before becoming security chief Zhou was a senior official at state-owned oil giant China National Petroleum Corp. and Party boss in the southwestern province.

The charges against Zhou are narrowly economic, not specifically political, even though the Supreme Court’s annual work report to last month’s National Peoples Congress accused both Zhou and Bo of “trampling on the rule of law, violating the party’s unity, [and] engaging in unauthorized political activities”. Narrowing the scope makes it easier for Beijing to stage an ‘open’ trial and keep the focus on the anti-corruption campaign rather than subject itself to the risks of airing the Party’s dirty laundry in public.

Zhou’s case will be heard in a court in Tianjin, in accordance with a practice of trying senior party officials in cities where the accused has no power base and local court officials can be relied upon to rule by law.

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China Kicks Schools Football Up A Notch

A Song Dynasty painting by Su Hanchen, depicting Chinese children playing cuju.

A Song Dynasty painting by Su Hanchen, depicting Chinese children playing cuju.

ONE AREA IN which China is not an emerging power but wishes it was, is football. As our man among the muddied oafs has noted before, China quietly harbours ambitions of staging a FIFA World Cup.

However, for now, the national team, still recovering from the corruption and match-fixing scandals that beset the professional game in the not so distant past, does not match up to that expectation. Despite its unexpected success in reaching the quarter-finals of the recent Asian Championships, it currently still ranks joint 83rd in the FIFA World rankings (though the women’s national team ranks 16th).

President Xi Jinxing is a fan of the sport, which China claims to have invented (see picture above). Xi also understands the statements about national soft power that sporting success can make. So there is a state plan.

The State Council has issued a 50-point development plan. One of the central points is to switch responsibility for developing the sport to the China Football Association from the General Administration of Sport. That may restore some of the authority the association lost after the corruption scandals.

Another is to boost the game in schools. One immediate impact of this is the creation of a school football leading group. It comprises the education ministry and five other government departments, including the National Development and Reform Commission, which suggests it will have some clout.

The education ministry says it is increasing the number of primary and secondary schools designated as football academies to 20,000 by 2017 from 5,000 now. This will mean they get new facilities including pitches, which across China have been swallowed up for property development in recent years. Thirty counties will trial promoting the development of young players and raising the popularity of the game among schoolchildren.

Last November, education minister Yuan Guiren said that football would become a compulsory part of physical education classes in all schools and that 6,000 school coaches would be trained this year. Seven volumes of instructional text books are in preparation, according to the People’s Daily. The goal is for there to be 50,000 schools specialising in football by 2025. In 2016, football will become an option in the national university entrance examinations in an attempt to overcome parental reluctance to let their children swap studying time for chasing a ball around a pitch.

With Qatar cementing its hold on the 2022 World Cup, the next likely opportunity for China to host the tournament for the first time is 2034. Would China have a team suitably good enough by then? Never discount the power of Party discipline, but as the U.S. has shown, two decades is the bare minimum for raising a generation of footballers good enough to compete with the world’s best.

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An Architect For A Rich China

RATHER LIKE FINANCIALLY threadbare English nobility marrying American new money in the 19th century China’s Communist Party is embracing the country’s new self-made wealth. Five of the country’s ten richest people will attend the National People’s Congress — China’s parliament — which convenes for its annual showpiece plenary on Thursday. Thirty-six of the country’s 100 richest people will be involved in either the NPC or the meeting of the top political advisory committee that precedes it.

The incongruity is not as pronounced as it might first seem. The trend of the Party co-opting new wealth — and the nascent political interest it represents — is not new, even if it has not been given the same degree of public attention before. Nor are the newly rich necessarily popularly reviled. Many citizens see them as aspiration-worthy models of self-made success, and stark contrasts to the beneficiaries of the corruption and cronyism that has long flourished in the creases where state-owned businesses, government officials and Party elites converge.

Many of these new multibillionaires have made their fortunes in areas such as the internet, e-commerce and telecoms where there were not state vested interests in the first place. As well as having them on the inside of the tent rather than outside it, the new leadership may well find them useful role models in support of President Xi Jinping’s ‘four comprehensives,’ a collection of objectives being bundled up as an ideological foundation for Xi’s vision of the ‘Chinese dream’ — and his contribution to the Party’s theoretical canon.

The quartet of building a moderately prosperous society, deepening (economic) reform, rule by law, and strict party discipline provide plenty of echoes — as does the presence of glorious wealth at the NPC — of Deng Xiaoping’s economic liberalisation of China. That is no accident. Xi continues to establish himself as the country’s paramount leader and take on the Deng-like mantle of being the architect of the country’s future prosperity.

Deng helped a handful of Chinese get rich first, and they they helped a second, if still privileged wave to do so on the back of three decades of helter-skelter growth founded on infrastructure investment and cheap export manufacturing. Xi has to scale that to the mass of Chinese citizens in a more equitable way if the Party is to maintain the legitimacy of its political monopoly. That in turn means making economic growth sustainable by rebalancing the economy on the fulcrum of domestic demand while avoiding the pitfalls of its debt legacy from the old model.

More of his blueprint, in the form of the new five-year plan, will be revealed in more detail over the coming weeks, starting with Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s ‘work report’ to the NPC, which will likely enshrine a new GDP growth target of ‘around 7%’, to replace the existing ’around 7.5%’.

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China Takes Small Steps In Limited Local Judicial Reform

CHINA HAS INAUGURATED its first two circuit courts, one in Shenyang and the other in Shenzen, to spread the workload of the Supreme Court. This echo of Imperial China is one of the early pilot schemes as judicial reform kicks off in one-third of the country’s 33 provinces.

The most intriguing aspect of the proposed reforms is President Xi Jinping’s gamble on increasing the independence and professionalism of the judiciary, which has hitherto been an extension of the Party’s legal arm. But trusted courts are one of the essential requirements if the Party is not to corrode from the inside.

As this Bystander has noted before this first step in judicial reform will only effectively apply at local and municipal levels. The Party will retain its sway over national and provincial courts through the Central Politics and Law Commission, the Party body that oversees the legal system in its broadest sense — from police to prosecutors, judges, internal security, surveillance and prison administration.

Nor should anyone be under any illusion that judicial independence even at local level heralds the introduction of the rule of law. Xi is pursuing rule by law, altogether a different thing. No legal proceedings on which the Party has a national interest will be left to the vicissitudes of independent judges. Judges will be expected to declare their loyalty to the Party, and to take preemptive action in cases of threats to state security.

Where judicial reform will make an impact is that local judges will no longer be appointed and funded by local officials but by provincial or national authorities. That should break the commonly cosy relationship between local officials and local courts. It would then be more difficult for corrupt local officials to remain immune from accountability, a widespread popular grievance.

Not only would that give Xi’s anti-corruption drive some mass support but it will also provide some ‘flies’ whose squashing would warn a new set of ‘tigers’ now Xi is pushing his anti-corruption drive against police and security officials including Zhou Yongkang, the former and much feared head of the country’s security apparatus and the most senior official to date brought down by Xi’s anti-corruption drive.

More independent local courts would also provide a safety valve for the social unrest that has been escalating to the Party’s concern, without the reforms going nearly far enough to satisfy legal activists. It could also create courts that are more robust in their handling of commercial disputes, which would be to the benefit of foreign businesses operating in China and which have long felt local courts to be stacked against them.

As with all reform, it will proceed slowly; what is starting now is the first pilot schemes. The target date for broad based implementation of judicial reform is 2020. The goal is to reinforce the Party’s legitimacy to maintain its monopoly on political power by showing it can govern cleanly and fairly.

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Zhou To Face Trial Shows Xi’s Firming Grip

ZHOU YONGKANG, THE former and much feared head of China’s security apparatus who has not been seen in public since October last year, is under arrest while he is investigated by state prosecutors on charges of corruption, adultery and leaking the country and Party’s secrets, state media has said. He has also been expelled from the Party.

Zhou, a member of the Politburo before he retired two years ago and an ally of the disgraced former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, is the most senior official brought down by President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive, and the biggest loser in the power struggle around Xi’s ascent as China’s paramount leader. Zhou’s fate has been a matter of speculation for some time as he has been under Party investigation for more than a year, but the timing of the announcement of criminal proceedings suggests authorities believe they now have sufficient evidence for a trial, and that Xi feels confident enough with his grip on power to proceed with such a sensitive case in public.

However, the inclusion of leaking state secrets among the charges may provide the excuse to keep any trial itself closed. Bo’s open trial did not go as well as a propaganda exercise as authorities would have liked: Bo’s public image, though diminished, survived.

As well as his control over the vast domestic security sector, Zhou held sway over the oil industry and Sichuan province. Many of his loyalists and recipients of his patronage are also under investigation as his clique is dismantled. The question now for its head is the likely sentence he faces. This Bystander believes Zhou’s would be more severe than Bo’s life imprisonment, so likely a suspended death sentence. Senior officials may no longer be untouchable but they remain unexecutable.

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Beijing Drains The Energy Out Of Hong Kong’s Protests

BEIJING HAS GOT its Occupy Central protesters to where it wants them. The energy is draining out of the broad body of protest against Beijing’s insistence that it will select the slate of candidates from which Hongkongers can elect their new chief executive in 2017. The remaining rump, however radicalized it becomes, can be marginalized.

Beijing knows how to crack down on such dissenters. Widespread popular discontent with government is an altogether trickier and more threatening proposition for the Party.

Fears that Beijing might send in the tanks to break up the protest camps in a deadly echo of 1989 in another place have proved unfounded. But the iron grip of the authorities, exercised through a mix of police force and private court injunctions, has been steadily and unsparingly tightened.

The streets of Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok have largely been cleared to allow daily commerce to flourish unhindered once more now popular sympathy for the demonstrators has ebbed. Beijing has also skillfully separated the student and civil activist wings of the protests.

The surviving student leaders threatening a hunger strike can be bought off with face-saving ceremonial concessions without authorities needing to cede anything of substance, not that any political concessions were ever likely. In the equally unlikely event that face-saving is rejected and the hunger strike produces a martyr, it shifts the focus of the protest, and the blame from Beijing’s handling of the situation to Hong Kong’s, and offers Beijing the opportunity of some housecleaning of Hong Kong officials should it so choose or need.

Enabling legislation still has to go through the Legislative Council so there will be more possible points of conflict before 2017 that could require some sacrificial official lambs, and especially. If international business confidence in Hong Kong is at risk.

However, the longest shadow of the Hong Kong protests falls over Taiwan. Last weekend’s local elections on the island underlined the extent of popular concern that Taiwan was rushing too quickly towards potential reunification.

Events in Hong Kong will have done little to encourage many in Taiwan that there is any need to hurry or that the political umbrella Beijing wants to put over the growing cross-Strait economic ties is even desirable.

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