Category Archives: Politics & Society

The Core Of The Matter

CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping (centre) and other Politburo Standing Committee members seen at the Sixth Plenum held in Beijing, October 24 to 27.THE SIXTH PARTY plenum just concluded puts General Secretary Xi Jinping (above, centre) at the core of the leadership.

All party members should ‘closely unite around the Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core’, said the the communique issued after the four-day behind-closed-doors meeting of the Party’s 400 top officials. Thereby, Xi enters a leadership pantheon comprising Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and the benchmark for all such Party leaders, Mao Zedong — though it was Deng who first articulated the term when designating Jiang as his successor in 1989.

Thus elevated, Xi has reinforced his authority over the party, potentially allowing him to extend his dominance for years to come. Another five years as General Secretary, along with his other two jobs as President and head of the People’s Liberation, now seems a given.

The Sixth Plenum decided that a Party Congress  — the quinquennial meeting of the Party’s top 2,000 members — would be held in the second half of next year. That is the forum for appointing the new top leadership for the next five years. Under current Party rules, all but Xi and Prime Minister Li Keqiang among the seven-strong Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of power, will have to retire on the grounds of age, opening the way for Xi to pack it with his proteges.

From the new appointees will come the leadership through which Xi will exert his power after his retirement, assuming he does not flout the convention of stepping aside after two five-year terms to stay in office as well as power.

Xi’s authority is far from absolute, which gives the plenum’s other important decisions — the adoption of strict rules of Party discipline that apply at all levels and revised codes of intra-party political life — their significance.

Xi has been steadily consolidating his power through his anti-corruption campaign and by centring the leadership’s decision making in areas such as military reform, security and the economy on central committees that he controls. This in part is because systemic corruption at the local level has frustrated his plans for ‘rebalancing’ the economy that he sees as essential for maintaining the Party’s ability to retain its monopoly grasp on political power.

However much power at the top concentrates in the general secretary, Xi cannot avoid the fact that China’s social stability depends on maintaining a delicate balance between the top-down authority of the central leadership and the bottom-up legitimacy of local governance.

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics & Society

The Disneyfication of Shanghai

Magic Castle at Disneyland ShanghaiTHERE AREN’T MANY places you could convene a crowd of 60,000 in China without police of any stripe in sight. Indeed, there may be only one — the new Disneyland in Shanghai (above).

Such was the appetite for Shanghai to land the theme park that Disney was able to negotiate self-policing rights. Chinese police authority stops at the exit to the new metro station outside the front gate. Thereafter it is the Disney security staff that you can see anywhere in the world there is a Disneyland.

Shanghai’s may turnout to the be world’s most-visited theme park. What does that say about whether American or Chinese culture is the most dominant?

Leave a comment

Filed under China-U.S., Politics & Society

Jobs’ Challenge To Slowing Growth

THE ECONOMY CONTINUES along its glide path to slower growth. Last year’s GDP growth target of ‘about 7%’ has been replaced by 6.5%-7% for this year. Announcing this to the National People’s Congress (NPC), Prime Minister Li Keqiang warned that the rebalancing of the economy towards consumption-driven growth faced challenges and tough times ahead.

One of those will be keeping unemployment ‘within 4%’ – of a workforce of more than 800 million that has been adding 12 million jobs a year for the past five years and faces an unusually high number of 15 million new graduates joining the workforce this year.  A detailed reading of the 13th Five-Year Plan, the economic development blueprint to 2020 due to be approved by the NPC, will provide some insight into how that will be done.

The official unemployment rate was 4.05% in the second half of last year.

Like any economy deindustrialising, China has to bear a heavy burden of workers left without jobs or the skills to get new ones. At least 3 million jobs, or 30% of the workforce, could go from heavy industry as a result of cutting surplus production capacity. The bulk of those redundancies will fall on the coal and steel industry. Human resources minister Yin Weimin says that 1.8 million jobs in those industries, an estimated 10-15% of the workforce, are at risk.

With that comes the possibility of social unrest and thus a threat to Party rule based on the premise of delivering ever higher living standards. The number of strikes and protests by workers, at more than 2,700 last year, was more than double 2014’s number, according to the China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based civic group.

The response has been carrot and stick — a crackdown on labour activists and non-governmental organization to snuff out any political nexus forming and financial measures such as the 100 billion yuan ($15.3 billion)  to be given to local authorities ‘solve the problem of worker placement’ under the umbrella an industrial enterprise restructuring fund.

The stick, though its use is well practiced, is not without hazard. Overzealous suppression of labour unrest could cause the Party itself to become a target of worker anger, and especially in provinces such as Guangdong, where local officials have traditionally held a relatively tolerant attitude towards labour relations but where several labour activists were arrested in January and put on trial as ‘foreign subversives’.

The only officially sanctioned trade union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), has recently reformed itself to stress its role as an instrument of Party and government and to straighten its top-down control over its local unions. This could have the unintended consequence of turning disgruntled workers more towards unofficial channels.

So far, though, labour disputes are overwhelmingly economic, not political, and a Party leadership that puts a premium on maintaining stability will want to keep it that way.

There are risks in the carrot, too. Local governments already have a debt time bomb ticking quietly under them. For all the help they will get from Beijing, they will face immense fiscal pressure as growth slows to pay for dealing with shuttered mines and mills and factories and workers demanding unpaid wages (a chronic problem, particularly in the construction industry), redundancy pay and social security.

The pressures will be particularly acute in those areas where heavy industry is concentrated, notably the rust-belt of the northeast, in the export factories in the Pearl River delta, and where the reforms of state-owned enterprises bite hardest, particularly the proposed rationalization of ‘zombie’ companies hitherto kept afloat by local governments seeking to avoid job losses.

If more and more workers see the Party failing to look after their interests, the overarching risk is that their acceptance of the social compact that underpins the Party’ monopoly on political power will erode, which is what the Party is most set on avoiding.

This Bystander recalls a far more drastic set of state-sector reforms and sharply decelerating growth in the late 1990s.  If there is a ray of hope for the top leadership, it is that the Party got through that when it had fewer carrots and less sophisticated capabilities with its sticks.

1 Comment

Filed under Economy, Politics & Society

Xi’s Jiang Dilemma

Jiang Zemin (L) and Xi Jinping seen at an undated National Day reception

LAST AUGUST, RUMOURS circulated that former but still-powerful President Jiang Zemin, then just turning 89, had been placed ‘under control’ — a measure to restrict his freedom of movement for a while.

Jiang (seen left above) slipped from public view and it was being said that this was a prelude to President Xi Jinping moving against the man who had been instrumental in elevating him to the top leadership positions, but whose desire to rule from retirement remains the greatest constraint on Xi’s political supremacy.

Jiang led the Party from 1989 to 2002, but has remained one of the most politically powerful actors since. Before retiring, he appointed acolytes to key positions and let them establish varying degrees of autonomy from the formal leadership, particularly in the security apparatus.

With Zhou Yongkang, as head of the security services, and Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, in place as vice-chairmen of the Central Military Commission, the Party agency that controls the PLA, Jiang had more sway over the military and the security services than the man who succeeded him as Party boss and president, Hu Jintao. And he had enough power in within the Party to promote Xi over Hu’s favoured successor, Li Keqaing, who had to settle for being prime minister.

Once in the top positions, however, Xi showed more determination that Hu to shake free of Jiang’s controlling hand. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign was directed against many associated with Jiang’s Shanghai faction. Zhou, like Xu and Guo, three of the biggest ‘big tigers’ snared, were purged and expelled from the Party. One way to view that is as a rooting out of the parallel power network Jiang had established and restoring the leadership’s centralised control.

Rumours are circulating again that Xi may now feel political secure enough to move against the biggest tiger of them all, Jiang himself. This, the word is, would not be another round of control, but a prosecution for corruption.

Xi’s frustration with what he perceives as Jiang’s hinderance of his political control and economic reforms (which Xi sees as critical to the Party’s success in the existential struggle in which he believes it is engaged, but which would financially disadvantage many members of Jiang’s ‘Shanghai’ faction) is well known.

This, rarely, bubbled into public view when an editorial in the People’s Daily referred to former leaders who prevented their successors “rolling up their sleeves and doing bold work” and sniped at leaders who, “being unhappy to retire … do everything they can to extend their power”. Most readers would have quickly parsed the list of ‘former leaders’ to one.

Darker minds talk about conspiracies by Jiang’s supporters to overthrow Xi. Meanwhile, newly published writings by Xi carry a similarly coded warning that even ‘super-emperors’ should not be spared from the anti-corruption campaign.

Prosecuting Jiang would carry enormous risks for Xi. For one, it would sweep away the unwritten promise of immunity for former Party leaders that has allowed a leadership succession every decade.

Xi might then feel he would have to hold onto power beyond the customary ten years. That and the vacuum created by ripping up the old political rules that delivered a steady escalator of professional advancement and personal enrichment could trigger a revolt in a Party where morale at many levels is already fragile.

However, Xi is also time boxed. At the 19th Party Congress next year, the new generation of leaders — Xi’s heirs — could be expected to be nailing down their promotions for the top jobs which are due to rotate in 2022. If Xi is to move openly against Jiang, he will need to have done so — successfully — before then.

The calculation, though, is finely balanced.

The purges and Xi’s reorganisation of the PLA have diminished Jiang’ s influence in the military. That will have choked off some of the ‘pay for promotion’ that has enriched the Shanghai faction, just as the anti-graft probes into the state oil industry have closed off another honeypot. But it persists in the Party, including in the Politburo — which makes the promotions at the next Party Congress so critical. Taking Jiang down now would cement Xi’s absolute grip on power from the Congress on.

However, it would also risk splitting the Party and perhaps fatally damage it at a time when a slowing economy makes it especially vulnerable to social unrest, particularly if the newly affluent middle class starts to feel the effects.

Xi may also reckon that he need not take the risk; that he has taken down enough of Jiang’s inner circle to have undercut Jiang from below, and that Jiang will finally give up the game knowing Xi has the evidence to charge him whenever he chooses.  And there is always the alternative of hoping that age and infirmity do the job for him.

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics & Society

Sidelining The Thinking Classes

IT IS NOT unknown for Chinese intellectuals to be seen on state television confessing to their alleged crimes. It is not unknown for hyphenated Chinese, Chinese-Americans in particular, to be seen doing the same.

It is exceedingly rare for a non-ethnically Chinese foreigner to be seen doing so. That makes the case of Peter Dahlin so exceptional.

The Swede had been detained since early January amid a crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists, before being expelled from the country today.

Dahlin founded Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, commonly known as China Action, a non-governmental organization that provides legal aid to people alleging human rights violations and assistance to uncertified lawyers in rural areas.

Authorities accuse China Action of receiving foreign funding to ‘instigate confrontations’ and to have ‘trained others to gather, fabricate and distort information about China’. They say they have ‘smashed an illegal organization that sponsored activities jeopardizing China’s national security’.

Well, they would, wouldn’t they, this Bystander is tempted to say.

However, beyond the particulars of this case, what are the general implications? Is this the sending of a chilling message — as seems to have been the case of the disappearing Hong Kong booksellers including Gui Minhai, who holds a Swedish passport and who was apparently detained in Thailand in what is seemingly an early example of the exercise of the new national security law that gives security forces international reach.

Or does it fit into a broader pattern of deterrence, and, if so, a pattern of what?

Certainly, there has been a crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists since last summer. Scores of Chinese lawyers and their staff have been detained for interrogation, leaving many facing political subversion charges that carry potential sentences of life imprisonment.

Giving this operation the veneer of rooting out a Western conspiracy against China provides popularly acceptable patriotic cover. And if it is on television, it must be true.

However, the crackdown goes wider than civil rights lawyers. Last year, more than 30 university officials were accused of taking bribes or other corruption. Their number included Zhou Wenbin, the high-profile head of Nanchang University who was sentenced last month to life imprisonment for taking bribes and embezzlement. At least seven other university presidents, including that of the Communication University of China in Beijing, have been removed from their posts in the sweep.

Visiting and Chinese scholars talk of an academic chill having descended. Indeed, it may be the worst time to be an open-minded academic since the anti-bourgeois liberalisation campaigns of the 1980s following strict new guidelines on criticism of Party and government.

The leadership’s centralization of power to protect the Party’s political monopoly has imposed, inevitably, severe constraints on civil society as it represents a possible alternative centre of political activity that could challenge the Party. Notions of human rights, judicial independence and multi-party democracy are seen as particular threats to the Party’s supremacy that need to be countered.

The effect is self-censorship within academia and the avoidance of controversial issues.

Top leadership believes the Party faces an existential struggle. The example of post-Communist eastern Europe has been noted. There, professors, writers, lawyers and journalists became politicians and the intellectual leadership of new political groupings.

This distrust of potential rival sources of power coincides with the emergence of the notion among the leadership that it no longer needs intellectuals to inform it and shape policy, a traditional role that political scientists within universities have played.

The increasing prominence of ministry-sponsored think thanks taking on that role is no coincidence. At the same time, the capability of the security apparatus to gather mass information — and of ‘big data’ to analyse it — provides a new potential alternative to critical independent scholars.

2 Comments

Filed under Politics & Society

China’s Pressing Need To Prevent Industrial Accidents

Landslide at industrial zone in Shenzhen, December 2015

The deadly landslide that engulfed part of the Hengtaiyu Industrial Park in Shenzhen was, on the basis of the early reports, a man-made disaster. It would appear that a mountain of mud composed of illegally dumped construction waste piled up over a quarry over the past two years became unstable. It then, in the parlance of civil engineers, ‘spilled over’.

A torrent of soil slammed into 33 industrial and dormitory buildings just before noon, and also ruptured the West-to-East natural gas pipeline causing an explosion. Some 900 people evacuated. Three are said to have been injured, but at least 91 were reported missing as of Monday morning, presumably buried under the mud that is estimated to cover more than 60,000 square meters to a depth of 6 meters (see photo above).

The attention the massive rescue effort is getting from the highest levels —  President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have sent urgent instructions to provincial and local authorities — indicates the political threat such disasters potentially hold — and underlines the shortcomings in the approach to hazard management.

Complaints by residents about illegal dumping went unheard or were ignored by Shenzhen officials. Shoddy building compounded the damage. The two factors exacerbate a view that untrammeled economic development has been at the expense of citizen well-being.

That is not a view that the Party can tolerate. In this case, local officials will, no doubt, be found to take the blame. In the longer-term, industrial safety legislation will have to be enforced to prevent industrial accidents taking the toll they currently do.

The Shenzhen landslide was just as much a man-made disaster as the series of massive blasts at a hazardous-materials warehouse in Tianjin that killed more than 100 people in August or the explosion that ripped through a chemical factory in Changzhou in Jiangsu Province earlier in the month. Or the fireball at a petrochemical factory in Rizhao in Shandong Province the previous month. Or the succession of accidents in China’s mines stretching back. At least 750 people have died in industrial accidents in the construction, manufacturing and mining sectors this year.

Employers will always push the boundaries of health and safety legislation — of which China has plenty. But it requires diligent local officials to enforce those rules. Of those, China is lacking.

The most effective industrial safety policy is a preventative health and safety culture.  Good practice on work safety standardization is more prevalent than it was a  decade ago, but it remains the exception rather than the rule. And it requires resources and political will at the local level to enforce it. We wish the extraordinary rescue effort in Shenzhen every success, but residents would have been better served by it not being necessary in the first place.

Sadly, we fear we will be saying the same after the next large industrial accident, and repeating it until the political attitude changes to one that says the Party best shows that it is looking after citizens by preventing preventable industrial accidents in the first place rather than by rushing to clean up the mess afterwards.

Leave a comment

Filed under Economy, Environment, Politics & Society

And The Greatest Of These Is Order

THE WORLD WIDE Web is increasingly having national boundaries drawn over it. At the second Global Internet Conference, a meeting of a couple of dozen countries convened by China in Wuzhen in Zhejiang province, President Xi Jinping laid out his notions of online national sovereignty along with a defence of online censorship.

“Freedom is what order is meant for,” Xi said, “and order is the guarantee of freedom”. And the greatest of these are order, this Bystander is tempted to add.

The right of a country to control the information flows across and within its borders, which is what cyber sovereignty means, is at odds with the way the internet has grown up as a free exchange of information (and thus ideas).

Russian Prime MinisterDmitry Medvedev, Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain, Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Massimov kept company with a host of executives from such US tech titans as Apple, Facebook, IBM, LinkedIn and Wikipedia were there to hear Xi’s message that “no country alone can claim the role of the sole universal regulator of the world-wide web”.

This all, though, fits squarely with the massive resources that are being directed towards internal security and with China’s creation of parallel institutions to circumvent what it sees as the Western-dominant existing ones.

3 Comments

Filed under Media, Politics & Society