Category Archives: Politics & Society

Tianjin Blasts: Shaking Up Environmental Disaster Denial

THE CITY OF Tianjin is facing an environmental disaster of unknown proportions following the double explosion at the Ruihai International Logistics warehouse on Wednesday. The presence of sodium cyanide, which combines with water to form deadly hydrogen cyanide gas, has been acknowledged along with calcium carbide, potassium nitrate and sodium nitrate — all industrial chemicals whose impact on the population of the northeastern port city may be felt through illness and shortened lives for generations to come.

For the leadership, failure to deal with the aftermath of this tragedy that has cost at least 112 lives with hundreds more injured could be just as toxic. At risk is public trust in the Party to look after the people.

Industrial accidents are commonplace in China, even in large cities. Yet the power of the second blast in particular and the amount of dramatic video footage seen on social media before the inevitable media clampdown puts this one into a class of its own.

By way of comparison, the Jilin chemical plant explosion in 2005, one of China’s worst comparable man-made disasters, killed six and the injuries were in the dozens. However, pollution of the Songhua River was severe. Harbin, 400 kilometers downstream, had to cut off the public water supply to avoid poisoning its residents. Environment agency minister Xie Zhenhua was eventually sacked.

The initial official response to Jilin was to cover it up. That has been the go-to response for authorities to any environmental disaster until the evidence can no longer be ignored. Officials did not admit to the Bohai Bay oil spill in 2011 until a month after it had happened.

A nationwide check ordered on dangerous chemicals and explosives following the Tianjin blasts and a blanket order to officials to enforce safety regulations seems like bolting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Even worse will be if authorities react in their customary way and pursue a carefully managed information blackout.

Signs are not encouraging. Social media accounts and websites are already being closed down; state media is starting to craft a narrative around the laxness of businesses and workers that officials will address.

Even in these early days a finger is being pointed at Ruihai for keeping inadequate records of what was on site, following inadequate storage procedures or turning a blind eye to what safety regulations there are. Regulations keeping public transport and housing at a specific distance from dangerous industrial sites were ignored or flouted by officials.

The first-responder firefighters were ill-informed, inadequately trained and equipped, or all three. Suggestions that attempts to put out an initial fire with water inadvertently caused the chemical reactions that produced the subsequent blasts seem well founded, though, again, this Bystander cautions against early judgments on limited information. Whatever the circumstances turn out to have been, firefighters have paid a heavy toll in human life.

Assurances by officials that air and water quality levels in Tianjin are safe have been met with incredulity by residents. The 3-kilometre evacuation zone imposed on Friday will have done nothing to diminish concerns, any more than the earlier shutting off sewers to stop discharge into Bohai Bay. Many residents already know the water they drink and the air their breathe are polluted enough.

China has long disregarded environmental and public health whenever untrammelled economic development was at risk. Pockets of populations with abnormally high cancer rates in some of the most polluted areas bear silent testimony to that. The Party has seen the delivery of ever higher living standards to the broad population as the basis of its claim to a monopoly on political power.

For most Chinese, higher living standards increasingly include quality of life, not merely the quantity of material well-being — simple things like clean air and water and neighbourhoods that don’t explode.

This Bystander would like to think that the legacy of the Tianjin disaster would be that it was the one that caused that penny to drop for the authorities. That is likely wishful thinking. Scapegoats will again be found; rescue efforts will be lionized; online critics will be silenced. The policy and institutional reforms needed to ensure there is no repeat will not be carried out with the same vigour.

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Beside The Seaside, Beyond The Grave

Mystery surrounds this year’s annual Beihaide meeting. Mystery surrounds every Beihaide meeting. It is a secretive, closed-door gathering of past and present senior officials who turn up at the salubrious Hebei seaside resort around August 10 each year.

There are unconfirmed reports that this year’s meeting was cancelled or that it was held early, ostensibly to accommodate preparations for President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington next month. Most likely it has been scaled back and downplayed in importance this year.

The traditional significance of the meeting is that it allows the leaders of the factions and interest groups within the Party informally to discuss policy in a way that both ensures collective buy-in and brokers the constraints on the actions of both the top leadership and those not supporting their policies.

Beihaide meetings can bring final consensus to thorny policy questions. The ending of the one-child policy followed a Beihaide meeting and, our man on the seashore assures us, a lot of the questions about the public face of dealing with the disgraced Bo Xilai were fixed there.

This year’s agenda, as far as anyone knows, was meant to include approval of the draft 13th five-year plan. That would already have been agreed in outline by the Politburo but the Beihaide meeting would set the tone for the priorities and pace of implementation that will be contained in the final draft to be presented to the Party Congress plenum in October for rubber-stamping.

Similarly, discussions would likely be held on how to deal with the economic slowdown, reforming state-owned enterprises (and their embedded vested interests), and how far  Xi’s crackdown on corruption should be allowed to run in the current economic circumstances.

However, most critically, Beihaide has provided an effective forum for former leaders to continue exerting power and influence long after they have retired from office. Former President Jiang Zemin would be a prime example, and one who the very pinnacle of official mouthpieces, the People’s Daily, obliquely suggested should stay retired from active politics.

It is an open secret that Xi has found Jiang an obstacle to his extension of control over every aspect of the party, government, and state. Xi is said to be annoyed that the excesses of Jiang’s drive for untrammeled economic growth when he was president are having to be cleaned up on his watch, from corruption and cronyism to environmental degradation. It is no accident that many of the biggest tigers snared by Xi’s anti-corruption campaign have connections to the Jiang faction.

Bringing down a former president would be a reach too far, even for Xi, who may also be betting that time will do the job for him. Jiang is 88, and indeed rumoured on more than one occasion to have died.

Much of the political turmoil that seems to be churning at the top of Chinese politics despite the official narrative of Xi’s consolidated grip on power may best be explained by Jiang trying to secure the legacy of his Shanghai faction come the day when he has to wield his influence not from beside the seaside but from beyond the grave.

The loyal Politburo members Jiang had left in place after he left office in 2002 were certainly an impediment to scaling back of the state-owned-enterprise-led model of infrastructure investment when Xi’s predecessors, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, first tried. Their influence has since waned and Xi has sought to diminish it further. The question is whether it will survive at all once Jiang is gone.

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China’s New National Security Law Emits An Icy Blast

CHINA HAS PASSED a National Security Law that sweeps a broad range of economic, political and social activities within its remit. The new legislation is far more all-encompassing than the counter-espionage law that it replaces. Pretty much anything Beijing wants to consider as a matter of national security it now has the legal footing to do so.

That can include ideology and culture, energy security, economic development, information, financial stability and just about everything in between. Civil rights campaigners have expressed disquiet about China’s growing crackdown on activism and dissent. Those concerns are only likely to be amplified by forthcoming counterterrorism and foreign NGOs legislation.

However, the greatest impact of the new law could be felt by companies. It requires that internet and information systems must be “secure and controllable” by the government. That makes foreign financial firms and IT companies extremely uncomfortable, but all foreign firms should be uneasy.

Much will depend on how discriminating China chooses to be in implementing the new National Security Law. Many ministries and agencies can make use of it to pursue policy objectives, including the promotion of domestic national champions. Some parts of government may use the new law aggressively, others sparingly.

The selectiveness of application can give foreign companies the impression that they risk having the law brought down on them seemingly randomly. That, in itself, will have a chilling effect.

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Zhou Yongkang Gets His Preordained Day In Court, Life Imprisonment

THE TIANJIN MUNICIPAL No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court has sentenced Zhou Yongkang to life imprisonment. The ruling follows the court’s conviction of the former head of the security apparatus on charges of bribery, abuse of power and disclosing state secrets.  The short trial was held behind closed doors on May 22nd, state media report.

Neither the verdict nor the sentence handed down on the most senior figure to be brought low by President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign comes as much of a surprise to this Bystander.

Zhou’s protege was the disgraced Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai, who challenged Xi for the leadership. Bo 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. The charges against both men were narrowly economic, not specifically political.

However, for all the new leadership’s embrace of rule by law, both cases look a lot like politics by other means.

Zhou is the highest ranking Party official ever to have been found guilty of corruption. His trial broke the Party’s unofficial rule that the highest level officials don’t get prosecuted whatever their crimes. The public message may be that no official is above the law, but the internal one will be that no official is above Xi’s ever-growing authority.

Recognition of that may well mean than Zhou is the last ‘big tiger’ that will be netted by Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. Plenty of flies to be swatted yet though, and also some small tigers if they stand in the way of Xi’s reform plans.

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China’s Edifice Complex

shanghai-skyline

IT WAS ONLY this year that the tallest building in the country was topped out. At 632 metres, Shanghai Tower, an office-cum-hotel development, reaches 140 metres — and 27 floors — further in to the sky than China’s existing height record holder, the Shanghai World Financial Center that was completed in 2008. Both can be seen in the photo above.

The Burj Khalifa in Dubai is the world record holder at 828 metres and 163 floors. But the Shanghai Tower’s place in the sun as China’s tallest building will be short lived. The Ping An Finance Center in Shenzhen is due to be completed next year, at 660 metres. The Suzhou Zhongan Center, a hotel, residential and office complex, is scheduled for completion in 2020, at 729 metres. Even that will be in the shadow of the proposed pair of Bionic Towers, in Shanghai and Hong Kong, if that project ever gets off the ground, so to speak. They are envisioned to be 1.3 kilometres tall and contain 300 floors.

For all the well advertised travails of the property market, China is seeing a continuing boom in skyscraper building. Twenty-two of the world’s 38 tallest buildings under construction are in China. There are four in Shenzhen, two each in Kunming, Nanning and Wuhan, and one each in Changsha, Chengdu, Dalian, Foshan, Guangzhou, Jinan, Taiyuan, Tianjin, Wuhu, Xiamen, Zhenjiang and Zhuhai. None of them will be less than 300 metres tall (the definition of a ‘supertall’ building; 600 metres-plus counts as ‘megatall’, 200 metres plus is merely ‘tall’).

Add in completed and topped-out buildings and China will have 67 buildings higher than 300 metres. That compares with 17 in the United States, where the tallest building under construction, in New York, is a mere 273 metres and 47 stories high. Europe has just six — five in Moscow and one in London, but none higher than 374 metres and 95 floors which will be the height of the tallest building now under construction in Moscow.

The number also stands in marked contrast to China of just 25 years ago. In 1990, there were only four tall buildings, with another 45 under construction. By 2000, there were 25 completed and the same number under construction. By 2010, it was 35 and 14 respectively. This year: 353 completed and 150 under construction.

Improved materials and construction technologies — China is a pioneer of tall prefabricated buildings — are behind the vertical building boom everywhere, along with growing pressure on urban land. Also, cities desire iconic towers designed by world-class architects to give physical expression to their rising economic weight.

China’s developers have overwhelmingly been building office and hotel towers. They are only now starting to put up residential tall buildings as has happened elsewhere in Asia, notably India and South Korea. China has, after all, moved more than 300 million people from the countryside to the cities in the past 20 years. The peak of that unprecedented migration may be passed, but the movement of people is not done.

The wildly ambitious and now stalled Sky City in Changsha in Hunan province was meant to include schools, a hospital, apartments, theatres, cinemas, shopping centres, and a ‘vertical farm’ able to feed the tower’s intended 30,000-plus residents. It may never get built and prove to be the poster child for vanity projects that become white elephants, but it may equally prove to be the model for the future.

The Xi-Li leadership is promoting urbanization as an engine that will move the economy towards more consumption and less reliance on investment and exports for growth. Improving city planning by limiting sprawl is a priority for the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s main economic development policymaker. That ambition may be crimped by the slowing economy or, conversely, made more urgent.

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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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