Category Archives: Politics & Society

Another Tragic Landslide

Rescue workers at the landslide site in Xinmo village, Maoxian county, Sichuan province, June 24, 2017It is a tragically familiar story. Heavy rains trigger a landslide in mountainous terrain leaving scores dead or missing presumed dead.

Its latest iteration is in Maoxian county in Sichuan, a three hours drive north of Chengdu. Fifteen are known to have died, but more than 120 are missing. The early-morning landslide buried 62 homes in Xinmo village, a tourist stop-off, blocked 2 kilometres of the river running through it and buried 1,600 meters of road, impeding rescue efforts.

Half the village was destroyed by the disaster. Only three people were rescued alive. According to state media, the village had been relocated to its present location in 1976 because its previous one was considered too landslide prone.

State media is full of exhortations from top leadership of all-out-rescue efforts and photographs as above of rescue workers in their readily recognisable orange kit and heavy earth moving machinery at the disaster site.

With it being the start of the flood season and the national weather observatory saying more heavy rain expected across the country in the next few days, national authorities have raised their geological disaster alert to the second highest.

Update: As of Monday, officials said 93 people were still unaccounted for. Fifteen residents thought to be missing were found to have been away from the area. The confirmed death toll was put at ten.

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China’s Domestic Counterterrorism May Fail Against Global Jihadis

‘RESTIVE’ IS THE adjective favoured in the popular prints to qualify Xinjiang. President Xi Jinping’s call for the far western autonomous region to be surrounded by a ‘great wall of iron’ suggests the presence of a greater threat.

As does Cheng Guoping, state commissioner for counterterrorism and security.

He says that the Uighur separatists that comprise the East Turkestan Independence Movement are the China’s ‘most prominent challenge to social stability economic development and national security’.

Xi and Cheng’s comments follow the most recent show of force in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi and other cities such as Kashgar, involving some 10,000 paramilitary police with accompanying armoured vehicles and attack helicopters.

China has been fighting a sporadic and low-level civil war with Uighur separatists for decades that on occasion erupts into deadly terrorist attacks across China. These attacks, usually involving a car bomb or knifings, have become more frequent, dispersed and indiscriminate since 2012, though the number, as far as can be determined, is small.

A May 2014 attack in Urumqi killed 43 and wounded 90. The province simmers with unrest as the now minority Muslim population bristles under what it considers to be culturally and religiously repressive government by ethnic Han Chinese.  Yet there is little on the surface to suggest that the local threat level has suddenly escalated to the degree these actions and Xi and Cheng’s comments would imply.

However, Beijing now sees external as well as internal threat. That is challenging its notions of how to deal with ‘terrorists’.

Three recent videos, purportedly made by the Islamic State group and an al-Qaeda affiliate, raise the spectre that China could import the radical Islamic extremism that it has so far avoided. Beijing has long used the bogeyman of radical connections between Xinjiang separatists outside and the Muslim Uighur minority within to exert repressive domestic control.

The 30-minute video that surfaced in February, in particular, gives some weight, at last, to those warnings. It shows Uighurs training in Iran and threatening that blood would ‘flow in rivers’ in China — although also in Russia and the United States.

There are well-documented reports of Uighurs having gone to Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq to fight for radical Islamic groups. The numbers of Chinese ones — 100-150 on the estimates we have seen — scarcely seem to justify the extraordinary reaction of authorities, although one of the Islamic State videos includes what is thought to be the first instance of Uighur-speakers declaring allegiance to Islamic State and its self-proclaimed caliphate.

One question is whether Beijing’s fears are overblown and its response proportionate; another is whether it can adapt a counterterrorism approach developed in response to domestic concerns to international terrorism.

China, unlike the United States and Russia, has little by way of a military footprint in West Asia thanks to its profession of non-interference in the affairs of other countries. It is not involved in either the US or Russian/Iranian-led actions against Islamic State in Syria or Iraq, the usual prerequisite of Islamic State acts of terror against a country.

A hostage taking and killing in 2015 is the sole known case involving targeting a Chinese citizen, although seven Chinese were among the 20 killed in a bomb attack on Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine and three Chinese citizens were among the 27 who died during an attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali’s capital, Bamako, both the same year.

However, China’s growing global footprint and expatriate labour force, and especially the expansion of ‘One Belt, One Road’ across Eurasia, makes it almost inevitable that it would eventually be unable to avoid coming into harm’s way from international jihad.

As we noted recently, China and Afghanistan share a short border through which the forces Beijing so fears could enter the country directly. China border-police controls are keeping it under close surveillance in the event that, as Islamic State loses territory in Syria and Iraq, the group falls back to being an insurgent guerrilla force and its leaders and others of global jihadist movements relocate to Central Asia and Afghanistan, far too close to China for Beijing’s liking.

However, the capacity of Islamic State to coordinate and stage large-scale attacks inside China will be limited. Furthermore, Beijing’s already-fierce repression in Xinjiang and tight censorship everywhere mitigates the caliphate’s strategy of inspiring lone wolves and affiliated terror groups through a radicalising narrative of domestic marginalisation of Muslim minorities.

This has had some success in Europe and the United States, but beyond the difficulty in having the message penetrate the Great Firewall, disaffected Muslim minorities do not exist in China in the widespread urban pockets they do in, say, France, Belgium and Germany.

Hitherto, China has dealt with the threat of domestic terrorism, which it considers one and the same as separatism and extremism, with a three-pronged strategy: enhancing regional economic growth; stronger internal security; and strict controls over ethnic and religious activities. All have been heavily applied in Xinjiang with the additional factor of ethnic Han inward migration.

Beijing’s likely response to the new external threat that it sees to its emerging core national interests will be to crack down even harder on the one place it knows there are a lot of Muslims. Already law regulates and constricts religious practices and public life in Xinjiang, such as growing beards, wearing the veil and fasting during Ramadan — all symbols, the authorities say of “Islamic extremism” (like in the US, ‘Muslim’ and ‘terrorist’ will quickly become conflated).

Since last year Xinjiang residents who have a passport are required to turn it into local police, to whom they must reapply for its return if they want to travel abroad. There were reports last year of another Muslim minority, Kazakhs living in border districts of Xinjiang, being told to give DNA samples and fingerprints when applying for travel documents. Uighurs who speak in favour of greater political freedoms risk imprisonment.

These measures are likely to be both more tightly enforced and extended, in the name of “maintaining social control” in the resource-rich western marches that give onto the key overland routes through Central Asia to the Middle East and Europe.

However, the One Belt, One Road dimension and the need to protect the growing numbers of Chinese citizens abroad is evolving Beijing’ security interests. Its responses will have to follow suit. It has been exchanging information on Islamic State with the United States, with which it also cooperates on technical matters to counter terrorism such as port security and anti-money laundering.  (Whether and how that will continue with the Trump administration remains to be seen.)

China has also been talking to Pakistan and the Afghan government about ways to promote stability in Afghanistan, and within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Regional Anti-Terrorism initiative. More controversially, it has also pushed for groups it considers to be terrorist to be added to international and national terrorist watch lists.

Beijing slowly recognises that many of the terrorism challenges that it faces have roots beyond its borders and thus will need it to participate in international counterterrorism efforts. However, its has so far shown that it prefers bilateral attempts to apply its three-pronged strategy with economic, policing and security aid to other countries, but that at best has to be done at arm’s length or get China involved in the internal affairs of countries in ways that run counter to its non-interference doctrine.

As it tries to figure that out, its instinctive reaction will still be to over-react at home by doing more of what it knows how.

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Another Little Bit Of Hong Kong Disappears With Xiao

TYCOON XIAO JIANHUA, the 46-years-old billionaire investor abducted from Hong Kong late last month, was the then 17-years-old chairman of Beijing University’s student union in 1989 and remained loyal to the Party in that tumultuous year. Subsequently, he was aligned with the Shanghai-based faction around Jiang Zemin, president from 1993-2003 and, as a nonagenarian, still casting a long shadow over the country’s elite politics. The allegiances helped Xiao deal his way from student leader to being one of China’s richest people through investments from insurance to coal mines.

However, like any good businessman, Xiao diversified his loyalties. He also built close business links with the family of President Xi Jinping, a position in which, perhaps dangerously, he would have learned much about the president’s family’s business enterprises.

The political rules of the anti-corruption operation have been unpredictable for tycoons for some time. Xiao was lifted by Chinese security agents from the tony Four Seasons hotel in Hong Kong, and, it seems certain, spirited across the border into mainland China and, in all likelihood, one of the unofficial detention centres being used to held businessman and officials who have fallen foul of the anti-corruption campaign.

Xiao is unlikely to be the only businessman with links to the Jiang faction to be helping authorities with their inquiries. Conspiracy theorists will be quick to draw links to the important party congress due later this year where Xi will be seeking to consolidate his power and aiming to put his stamp on the next generation of top leadership. Xiao’s disappearance will send a chill warning to others that this is no time to be playing party politics.

What makes Xiao’s case stand out, however, is that he was seized in Hong Kong, roughly a year on from when five booksellers mysteriously disappeared. Xiao had operated from the city for some years as a place close enough to the rest of China to let him run his mainland business interests while still offering the protection from Chinese security services of an independent legal system — or so he had supposed.

Bit by bit legal and civil rights protections are being eroded in Hong Kong as Beijing increasingly waits out the countdown to the end of 50 years of ‘one country, two systems’ by ignoring the second system and turning the city into just another corner of China of middling importance.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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