Tag Archives: Li Keqiang

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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Trump Hands Beijing Clear Skies For Global Climate Leadership

Air pollution at sunset, Shanghai, China, 2008

THE UNITED STATES’ withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, newly announced by US President Donald Trump, formally opens space for Chinese and European leadership on the issue that has been expanding ever since candidate Trump denounced climate change as a Chinese hoax designed to weaken US industry.

Having committed on the campaign trail to withdrawing the United States from the deal within 100 days of taking office, Trump now says he will make good on that promise and seek renegotiation of the accord on terms that are not as “draconian” for the United States.

The United States accounts for more than 15% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, a share exceeded only by China. Its withdrawal from an agreement that depends on the largest polluters making some of the deepest cuts to emissions inevitably weakens the accord’s chances of success.

During a trip to Germany, Prime Minister Li Keqiang reiterated ahead of Trump’s announcement Beijing’s commitment to the accord. China and the European Union are expected to issue a joint statement to bolster it  in the light of Trump’s abandonment (Update: they did). They are likely to reaffirm their joint commitment to cut back on fossil fuels, develop new green technologies and raise $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poorer countries cut their emissions.

Beijing’s position on climate change has swung through 180 degrees. Once considering international efforts to get it to limit carbon emissions to be an unwanted interference in its internal affairs, China has since become a strong proponent of efforts to halt global warming — and to develop global leadership in climate mitigation technologies.

Li will be familiar with the smog-choked skies above Beijing and a host of other cities (the picture above is of Shanghai). And also with the increasing popular unease at environmental degradation. He made a point of saying that the Paris accord was in China’s self-interest.  Certainly climate change constitutes not just a health challenge to authorities but also an economic and political threat to the Party.

However, it also offers Beijing a tremendous geopolitical opportunity. By not just rejecting the Paris accord but reneging on commitments, Trump hands China an opening to take on global leadership on what may well prove to be the defining issue of the century. Such an offer will not be refused.

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Li Lays Out China’s Economic Goals For The Year

CHINA HAS SET its growth target for this year at ‘around 6.5%’, prime minister Li Keqiang told the annual session of parliament. That is down from 2016’s goal of 6.5%-7% and the outcome of 6.7%.

The glide path to slower but more sustainable growth continues. However, it will be a more cautious approach this year ahead of an important party plenum later this year at which the scope of President Xi Jinping’s second term and eventually succession will be set.

China also faces a more uncertain external environment economy than any time since the 2008 global financial crisis, while the stimulus that staved off deflation last year has left the debt crisis still to be dealt with. While China is perfectly able to deal with that on a macro level, signs of local stress are increasingly apparent.  The finance ministry has again just warned of the ‘the hidden-debt risks of local governments’, especially in the rust belt in the Northeast.

Li’s signalled that the leadership considered 6.5% growth a floor, though if there is any suggestion of social or political instability (and especially instability within the political elites), that floor will, no doubt, be lowered.

Last year, 726,000 workers were shifted out of rust-belt industries; this year another 500,000 will follow, according to the labour minister. China created more than 13 million new jobs last year, according to the official figures, but a further half a million redundant iron and steel workers and coal miners is a lot to absorb, and especially in places where few new industries are flourishing.

Removing excess capacity from heavy industry has proved more difficult than planned as has killing off ‘zombie’ state-owned enterprises.

Rebalancing the economy has also progressed more slowly than Xi laid out when he assumed the leadership four years ago; one reason is that he has repeatedly turned to old-school stimulus whenever the economy looked to be slowing too rapidly.

The government will have work to do to reduce last year’s fiscal deficit of 3.8% of GDP to the wished-for 3.0% (which was also last year’s target).

Li set another ‘about’ target, of ‘about 12%’ for broadest measure of money supply (M2). While that is less than 2016’s target 13%, it is still above end-2016  money supply growth of 11.3%. More monetary policy tightening is likely, barring severe adverse external headwinds.

The military budget will again be restricted to a 7% increase (1.3% of GDP), even though US President Donald Trump has promised a 10% hike in the United States’ defence budget. The United States spends 3.3% of its GDP on defence.

Beijing’s holding fast after decades of double-digit growth will increase the already sizeable spending gap, $600-plus billion a year against $140 billion a year, though off-budget procurement could add a further $50 billion to China’s number and the modernisation of the PLA will continue.

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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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China’s Crashing Stocks And Creaking Politics

THERE WAS A time when even financial markets in China were believed to be responsive to firm instruction and Party discipline. Yet China has become much more market driven in many spheres than it once was, even, incongruously, as President Xi Jinping has sought to exert greater control over every aspect of the body politic.

The trouble with markets, as has been seen in the Shanghai and Shenzhen exchanges in recent weeks, is that they have a mind of their own. Stock markets, in particular, can express it in stark and cantankerous ways.

July’s attempt to prop up stock prices that had started to blow off a lot of excessive froth — by cajoling 21 securities firms to hold stocks — was brushed aside like a mistress’s hair from a jacket; so, too, was the more recent directive to the country’s massive pension funds to act as the buyer of last resort.

This was not markets just thumbing their nose at any old government intervention. This was a direct challenge to the proposition that the Party leadership could be trusted to stop the stock markets fall. By extension, it could also be trusted to keep the real economy from slowing too quickly even while making the transition from the old model of infrastructure investment- and export-led growth to one driven by domestic consumption.

That transformation is a Herculean task of macroeconomic management demanding extensive structural reforms, although a task that both Japan and South Korea have earlier undertaken, if not on the scale required in China. It is one, though, that challenges many vested interests that profited richly from the old ways and stood to lose much from the reforms needed.

One thing that this recent stock market crash has inadvertently advertised is how deep and widespread are the pockets of opposition to reform — a contrast the the narrative of inevitability and Xi’s expanding control portrayed in state media.

The arguments of what countermeasures to take against falling stocks, the currency, and slowing growth have become a proxy battle for the bigger one over reform. Xi has championed reform as necessary to ensure the Party can continue to deliver economic wellbeing for China’s population and thus retain its mandate to rule.

He, correctly in the view of this Bystander and many other outside observers, believes that the old growth model is unsustainable if China is to continue to develop as a wealthy economy. If there turns out to be any substance to the gossip the Prime Minister Li Keqiang is to be a scapegoat for the slowing economy and stock market fall — then that would indicate deep divisions over the path to rebalancing on a scale that would rattle global markets.

The precipitousness of that path, which we have frequently referred to here as a glide path to slower growth, is what is now so concerning. We have always regarded its trajectory as being the object of the leadership’s management, but equally have cautioned that it would not, inevitably, be as smooth as the leadership would like.

There are many potential bumps: property bubble, equities bubble, shadow banking crisis, and local government debt bomb. All remain manageable, but the stock market’s fall raises the risk of a credit crunch.

What is now at stake is trust in the government’s capacity to manage the markets and the economy more broadly.

Ever since Deng Xiaoping started to open up the economy at the end of the 1970s, the government has been able to marshal the capital needed to direct the economy and absorb the external shocks to distorted markets. The assumption that that will continue to be the case is now being tested.

The banking system as a closed conduit of state-disposed capital is under stress. The Catch 22 is that it has to be if the financial system is to be opened — as, in turn, it has to be if rebalancing is to be successful.

All of which brings this Bystander back to a fundamental question: can China do something that no other developing economy has ever achieved, liberalise its financial system without doing the same with its politics.

Last October we said:

The trick for Xi remains to align the political realities he faces with the underlying structural slowing of economic growth, but without getting too close to the feared hard landing of the economy that would undermine his political position. As we have noted before, every mini-stimulus ratchets up a notch the difficulty of introducing the policies needed for rebalancing because they don’t address the underlying causes of unsustainable booms and the vested interests that benefit from them. And that needs a political solution before it can get an economic one.

That remains the case.

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China Tilts Kazakhstan Away From Russia

china-kazakhstan-li-keqiang-karim-massimov at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, March 27, 2015.

Prime Minister Li Keqiang (R) greets Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Massimov at the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, March 27, 2015. (Photo credit: Xinhua/Zhang Duo)

CHINA HAS NOW signed $40 billion-worth of deals with Kazakhstan in the course of barely four months. The latest tranche ($23.6 billion) was agreed during last week’s visit by Kazakhstan Prime Minister Karim Massimov, reciprocating his counterpart Li Keqiang’s trip to Astana in December. On that occasion, $18 billion in joint ventures was inked.

The two men also met at the World Economic Forum in Davos in Switzerland in January. Despite being a member of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, Kazakhstan is intent on deepening its strategic relations with China, if nothing else as a counterbalance to Russia, the region’s longstanding power, and to the West, which has become more of a presence in Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

For its part, Beijing will welcome the security of a trade-tied neighbour on its at times troubled far western marches as much as it does Kazakhstan’s exports of oil, natural gas and uranium. The Central Asian country also offers a prospective market for China’s growing defense industry while being a key leg of the new Silk Road westward overland trade corridor Beijing wants to develop, and which was so prominently touted at the annual Boao conference just concluded.

Kazakhstan is already the largest recipient of Chinese foreign direct investment among the post-Soviet Central Asia republics. Loans-for-oil-deals between the two countries date back to 2009. Beijing will use the investment funds it makes available via the Silk Road Fund, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and its proposed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to cement that position.

Kazakhstan has its own ‘Bright Road’ project to boost economic development through infrastructure projects. The spillover from Russia’s sanctions-slowed economy has made that need more urgent. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development downgraded its forecast for Kazakhstan’s GDP growth this year to 1.5% from the 5.1% it forecast as recently as last September. 2014’s estimated GDP growth was 4.3% down from 6% in 2013.

One-fifth of Kazakhstan’s $84 billion–year of exports now goes to China, twice the share that goes to Russia. The relative positions reverse on the import account: Russia being the source of 36% of Kazakhstan’s $44 billion a year of imports; China of 18%. That gap looks set to narrow. A regular goods rail service between Lianyungang and Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, started last month with the first westbound load carrying Chinese cars, electronics and household goods.

Beijing has the trade and investment clout to exploit Russia’s moment of vulnerability and so expand its influence and market power across the region at Moscow — and the West’s — expense.

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China’s Economy Continues Its Intended Slowdown

THE SLOWING OF China’s economy alarms financial markets more than it does China’s policymakers. First-quarter GDP growth, at 7.4%, represented the second slowest three months of growth since the global financial crisis. But the economy is on a long-term deceleration as authorities seek to rebalance it from investment and export-led growth to domestic consumption. Growth, remember, hasn’t topped 8% since the first quarter of 2012.

Although the official growth target for the year is 7.5%, China’s leaders are lowering public expectations about the need for that to be hit exactly. Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s comments at the Boao Forum last week about “about 7.5%” growth being the target were just the latest in a series softening the number.

How much softer is permissible will depend on unemployment staying sufficiently low. That is an indicator being carefully monitored as it has political as well as economic ramifications. Policymakers are also watching closely for signs of worsening trouble in the banking and property sectors.

In the first quarter, fixed-asset investment was up 17.6% year-on-year, a tad down on the 17.9% growth in the first two months of the year. Retail sales grew 12.2% year on year in March, exceeding January-February’s 11.8%, though the first two months of the year, which contained New Year, will have been hit by the curbs on lavish displays of official consumption as part of the anti corruption drive. The statistics bureau is suggesting growth in overall consumption was likely down in the first quarter.

The leadership looks committed to slowing the economy to a long-term sustainable growth rate, and, if to a lesser extent, to the reforms necessary to get it there. It can always fall back on accelerating infrastructure investment later this year if growth softens too much too fast.

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