Category Archives: Politics & Society

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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VAT And China’s Other Taxing Problems

CHINA STARTED TO replace its Business Tax with a value-added tax (VAT) in 2012 when a pilot scheme was launched in Shanghai. VAT has since been steadily expanded, both geographically and sectorally.

Earlier this month, following an executive meeting of the State Council, chaired by Prime Minister Li Keqiang, plans were announced for streamlining the administration of VAT and acknowledging that it has become a universal national tax.

The service sector first saw the tax in May last year when it was applied to property, financial and consumer services sectors. At the same time, VAT was extended fully nationwide.

Authorities say that between then and June, the switch to VAT has saved businesses 85 billion yuan ($12.8 billion) in taxes, providing an important boost to the ‘rebalancing’ of the economy towards consumption. Total tax savings since the pilot scheme started is put at 1.6 trillion yuan.

In July, the four VAT brackets (17%, 13%, 11% and 6%) were reduced to three with the elimination of the 13% bracket. Agricultural products, tap water, publications and several other ‘13%’ goods were moved down to the 11% bracket, though that still leaves more VAT tiers than the international average.

The new plans foresee digitization of the tax system, simplifying procedures for tax filing and switching from physical to electronic versions of the invoices-cum-receipts (fapiao) that serve as legal proof of purchase for goods and services. Fapiao are a key component of enforced compliance with China’s tax law as they compel companies to pay tax in advance on future sales.

The VAT fapiao is also used for tax deduction purposes within VAT, so digitising the whole process should streamline the accounting.

The tax is still referred to as “the VAT reform pilot program” though that status as a pilot looks like ending de jure as well as de facto; the State Council executive meeting also indicated that more detailed national VAT legislation would be forthcoming.

There is more work to be done on standardising it as a national tax. There are still inconsistencies between sectors in the rates applied to the same goods and services. Also, some tax payers are not able to make full VAT deductions. A further issue to address is compliance costs for taxpayers with multiple business locations.

One major issue that a national VAT does not address is how the tax take is shared at the provincial level. (Germany and Japan, for example, use allocation rules based on population and aggregate consumption, respectively.)

However, China has a bigger problem of fiscal redistribution to tackle. The country has the largest share of local government spending in the world, largely because public services and the social safety net (health, education, welfare, etc.) are centrally mandated but delivered and paid for at the local level. Many federal countries decentralise their social insurance system, but China is a rarity in having both its public pension system and unemployment insurance managed at the local level.

Yet, since the fiscal reforms of 1994, provinces and municipalities have negligible revenue raising powers of their own. Further, although 60% of taxes are collected by local government, those taxes are handed over to central government with some to be returned via revenue-sharing and other transfer schemes through rules that are still not completely transparent.

Transfers from the central government were supposed fully to finance local-government deficits since provinces and municipalities were barred from issuing debt.  In practice, however, local governments were given increasingly large unfunded mandates. Because of the prohibition on issuing debt, they resorted to selling land and using off-budget special-purpose vehicles to borrow and spend on infrastructure, starting the infamous local-government debt bomb ticking.

Local governments debt had reached the equivalent of around 40% of GDP by 2015.

A fiscal reform plan was announced in 2016 to address the misalignment, but it will take a comprehensive imposition of taxes such a market-value-based property tax, local surcharges to personal income tax and maybe even an additional provincial-level VAT — though that is difficult technically to administer; few if any countries have pulled it off.

It will also mean converting the pilot scheme for issuing and trading municipal debt started in 2014 when back door borrowing through special-purpose vehicles was banned, into a national muni-bond market. That, in turn, will require broader financial-system reforms.

Those are proceeding at a cautious, measured pace. Short-term stability and state-centric control is the current leadership’s instinctive approach. That may change after the forthcoming Party congress, but, more likely, it will not. In that context, streamlining VAT to puts greater taxation capacity in Beijing’s hands makes political as well as economic sense.

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China’s Press On Academic Freedom

Cambridge University Press, a leading academic publisher whose China Quarterly is one of the leading English-language social science journals devoted to China has reversed its decision to comply with the demands of China’s censors to block sensitive content.

The university press had initially removed some 300 China Quarterly articles on politically sensitive topics from its website in China on the instruction of the media regulator on penalty of not being allowed to publish at all in China.  The press changed its mind following protests, including a petition published by academics from around the world, condemning restrictions on academic freedom of thought.

It was a dilemma that many foreign businesses have faced: the choice between being shut out of the Chinese market for refusing to comply with authorities’ controls of markets or suffer reputational risk outside China by knuckling under. In information markets, the reputational risk of complying with controls on freedom of expression is potentially a higher cost for an academic institution that it would be for a commercial technology or media company. Online content providers,

Chinese and foreign, have been a particular focus of the censors’ attention this year, as online content, previously more laxly regulated than offline media, has been brought under the same control regime as traditional print and broadcast media.

Tech groups and media companies have bowed to government demands to close down hundreds of mobile video platforms and promised to work more closely with state media. Under the new cyber security law that came into force on June 1, only those online content creators who have been issued with a media licence are permitted to upload videos featuring news or political commentary.

This has reinforced Chinese firms’ pre-emptive self-censorship, and more foreign firms to accept specific demands.

Beijing has to tread a careful line with foreign academic publishers. While censoring politically sensitive material is one thing — and social scientists in Chinese universities, once an important source of policy advice to government, have come under greater freedom of expression constraints since President Xi Jinping took over in 2012 — it is another cutting off the country’s scientists and technologists from the latest foreign academic research in those fields.

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China Systematically Cracks Down On The Internet

IT IS EASY to assume that the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC)’s investigations into three of the country’s leading social media platforms are just a tightening of censorship typically to be expected ahead of the forthcoming Party congress.

Tencent Holdings’ messaging app WeChat, Sina’s Twitter-like service Weibo, and Baidu’s communication forum Tieba face complaints that they have allowed their users to spread terror-related material, rumours and obscenities, breaches of the law that “endangered national security, public security and social order”.

But there is a more systematic effort to control information in play.

The new cybersecurity law that took effect on June 1 and of which the social media platforms have fallen foul as it makes online platforms responsible for the content they carry, is the third piece of recent legislation codifying China’s doctrine of cyber-sovereignty.  The National Security Law and the Anti-Terrorism Law, both passed in 2015, are the other two.

Collectively they form the basis of Beijing’s intended state control of the internet, which, in turn, is part of the greater crackdown on incipient dissent.

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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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