Missing the forest for the tree
Posted by ampontan on Thursday, September 13, 2012
AS I write, the world is wondering what in the world has happened to Xi Jinping, China’s vice-president and soon-to-be president (perhaps next year) and head of the Communist Party, perhaps as soon as the CCP gets around to scheduling its party congress. Mr. Xi hasn’t been seen in public for a fortnight and has skipped several meetings with foreign leaders. That’s prompted speculation reminiscent of the photo analysis of the relative positions of Soviet officials reviewing parades in Red Square during a previous age. Rumors have ranged from a pulled muscle caused by swimming to a heart attack, the failure of an assassination attempt by staged automobile accident, and most recently, a stroke. Hong Kong’s iSun Affairs website says he’s just busy with work.
Some media-designated cognoscenti think it’s only that the Chinese love to keep secrets:
The party simply “does not think that the public has a right to know about the affairs of leading personnel unless the message is carefully controlled and positive,” said Harvard University China expert Anthony Saich.
The self-appointed cognoscenti think everyone else should chill:
“I think people are getting themselves excessively excited by this,” former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said yesterday in an interview with Bloomberg Television from the Chinese city of Tianjin, where he was attending a World Economic Forum gathering. “I think people frankly need to take a long, strong, hot cup of tea and just calm down a bit.”
“I’ve been following Chinese politics for about 30 years,” said Rudd, a Mandarin-speaker who served as a diplomat in Beijing in the 1980’s.
No, he doesn’t know what’s going on either.
The Associated Press thinks this is typical behavior for a health-related problem:
If Xi’s absence is indeed health-related, he would join some of his forebears among the ruling elite who suddenly vanished for health reasons with no explanation. The party barred all discussion about the frequent absences of Politburo Standing Committee member Huang Ju, who died of illness in 2007. And then-Premier Li Peng also disappeared for several weeks in 1993 after what was believed to have been a heart attack.
But Bloomberg thinks it’s atypical:
China’s silence on Vice President Xi Jinping’s 12-day absence from public view contrasts with past rebuttals of speculation about top officials and is escalating concern over the nation’s leadership succession.
The official Xinhua News Agency took less than a day in July 2011 to deny former President Jiang Zemin had died. Earlier this year, Xinhua published accounts of China’s top security official within days of a Financial Times report that he was under investigation. By comparison, state media haven’t reported on Xi for a week, or mentioned that he canceled meetings with foreign officials on Sept. 5
The AP presents an on-call academic to say the silence is an echo of the past:
Richard Rigby, a former Australian diplomat and China expert at the Australian National University, said the Communist Party has become more sensitive to public opinion on certain issues, such as nationalism and social unrest. “But when it comes to the leadership, the old conspiratorial instincts of an underground party come to the fore,” he said.
But Bloomberg presents another to say they’re a part of the 21st century:
“In a relatively closed system, Chinese society is driven by rumors and conspiracy theories and the government does recognize the need to release some explanation,” said John Lee, an adjunct associate professor at the University of Sydney and author of the book “Will China Fail?” “The fact that you have not had a definitive explanation from state media suggests that there is internal disagreement as to how to release the truth, whatever that may be.”
They still haven’t made up their minds on the story they want to tell. Japan’s quasi-public network NHK has an international news broadcast that’s carried in China. Last night they reported on Chinese opposition to the government’s purchase of the Senkaku islets from their owners. The story then segued into a segment about the speculation over Mr. Xi’s whereabouts, but the only people in China to see it were the censors. The screen suddenly went black and the sound was cut off.
That something serious is happening is obvious. But whatever the truth may be, whether it’s a slipped disc from dancing with his celebrity wife or recovering from 12 hours of surgery after a shootout in the Politburo chambers, the danger is that people are missing the forest by focusing on one tree. More important than what is happening with Mr. Xi is what is happening with the country. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, who usually writes about the global economy and finance, presents an expert of his own:
We all know by now about the simmering leadership crisis in China. The Bo Xilai affair has lifted the lid on a hornet’s nest. I had not realised quite how serious the situation has become until listening to China expert Cheng Li here at the Ambrosetti forum of the world policy elites on Lake Como…Nor had anybody else in the room at Villa d’Este. There were audible gasps.
The rifts within the upper echelons of Chinese Communist Party are worse than they were during the build-up to Tiananmen Square, he said, and risks spiralling into “revolution”. Dr Cheng — a Shanghai native — is research director of the Brookings Institution in Washington and a director of the National Committee on US-China Relations. He argues that China’s economic hard-landing is intertwined with a leadership crisis as the ten-year power approaches this autumn. The two are feeding on each other. “You cannot forecast the Chinese economy unless you have a sophisticated view of the political landscape and the current succession crisis,” he said.
Dr Cheng said fears of a disintegrating political model are now eating in economic confidence. “This legitimacy crisis is worse than in 1989, and may be the worst in the history of the Communist Party. People are afraid that it could lead to revolution if it is not handled well.”
One reason people are smelling revolution in the air is that Chinese leaders treat their country as the mobsters used to treat Las Vegas casinos: As a cover for skimming the profits.
The worry is that the transition could go badly awry as 70pc of top cadres and the military are replaced, the biggest changeover since the party came to power in the late 1940s. “That is what is causing capital flight. All the top officials are trying to get their money out of the country,” he said.
Dr Cheng grew up during the Cultural Revolution. That makes one very sensitive to the risks of sudden lurches in the Chinese ruling system, not always for the better. He said the scandal around Bo Xilai and the party machine in Chongqing – and the fight-back by Mao nostalgics – is a symptom of a much broader crisis. The word in Beijing is that Bo Xilai alone has squirreled away $1.3 billion, but there are other even worse cases. Mr Cheng said a former railway minister – known as Mr 4pc — had amassed $2.8 billion. “This level of corruption is unprecedented in the history of China and unparalled in the world,” he said.
But not even mandarins can fool all the people all the time, and all the natives in China are getting so restless they’ve become explosive. The 19 September issue of the biweekly Sapio in Japan contains a report on that restlessness. Here are the highlights.
* There are an average of 500 public disturbances a day in China, and up to 180,000 a year. They aren’t reported unless they’re very big, many people are injured, or are directed at Japanese corporations.
* When the author of the report arrived at the Shanghai Airport in May, a sit-in was underway complaining about runway noise. One of the many signs read, “What is this country’s government doing?” One thing the police weren’t doing was to stop it, which is a change from their past practice.
* On 23 May prosecutors, a committee to prevent party corruption, police, and officials from the foreign ministry and those supervising international financial institutes formed a study group to stop corruption. They were supposed to come up with solutions, but only identified the means employed — skillful book cooking and money laundering, Hong Kong subsidiaries, and paper companies in the Virgin Islands.
Public dissatisfaction is growing, and there was a sharp increase in disturbances last year.
* In May 2011, students demonstrated in support of livestock herders in inner Mongolia protested mining operations whose discharges had caused serious pollution and killed livestock. It involved several thousand students and several deaths.
* In the same month, down south in Fuzhou, there were three synchronized explosions at government buildings. The perpetrator also died, leading the government to declare that it was a suicide bombing. The events occurred around nine in the morning and were reported by the Xinhua news agency, but the report was scrubbed from their website by 1:00 p.m. Though an effort was made to characterize the bomber as a terrorist, the Chinese Internet viewed him as a hero. People were sympathetic to his case because he was victimized by authorities and had no means of redress.
* In June, there were more bombings in Dezhou, Zhengzhou, and Laiyang at Public Security bureaus (national police) and other government institutions.
* The heavy rains this July caused extensive flooding in Beijing, but not the part of town where government officials live and work. The drainage was excellent there. That led to violent demonstrations in August.
* Also this year, there was a pitched battle in Caishi in the Xicheng district of Beijing between gangsters and local residents. The mob tried to evict residents for a new building development, but the residents didn’t want to move. The gang started up bulldozers and cranes to tear down the homes on the site with the people still inside. They fought back with iron bars.
Most remarkable is that the district is the location for many government, party, and military offices, and should have plenty of security.
* A report from a different source describes how the residents of Qidong took to the streets after the denial of their formal application for a protest a few months ago. They were concerned that the construction of a paper mill would result in water pollution. They rolled police cars, broke into government buildings, and dragged Mayor Sun Jianhua into the street, where he was stripped and made to wear a protest shirt.
And then there’s the shadow banking:
Private-lending victims nationwide filed more than 600,000 lawsuits valued at 110 billion yuan in 2011, an increase of 38 percent from the previous year. In the first half of 2012, the number of filings rose 25 percent to 376,000, according to People’s Court, a newspaper run by China’s Supreme Court.
The loans include off-balance sheet financial engineering conducted by legitimate institutions.
Imagine the news coverage in the West if this was happening in their part of the world. China is beginning to look as if it is in a pre-revolutionary state, but the media is more interested in playing Where’s Xi Jinpin.
If the Red Tongs sitting atop the money machine want to keep the funds flowing, they’ll have to find some way to distract the other 1.2999 billion people in the country. Here’s one way:
That’s the front page of Xianyang Today, which doesn’t seem to like Japanese flags either. The headline reads: In Illegal Island Purchase, You’re to Blame for Consequences.
They found their solution when the Japanese government finalized the deal to purchase the Senkaku Islets from the private owners. Here’s another one:
That’s the front page of a newspaper in Shenyang with the statement from China’s Foreign Ministry surrounded by 56 blood red fingerprints. The text near the bottom says: “The days when the Chinese people let themselves be bullied are gone forever.”
And there are a lot more where that came from.
There are curious aspects to this development. There were scattered demonstrations in a few Chinese cities when the Japanese purchase was announced, and the Chinese government called for “rational expressions of patriotism”.
The conventional wisdom is that they’re afraid anti-Japanese demonstrations will quickly morph into anti-government demonstrations.
But how can they expect rational displays of patriotism when the state-controlled media deliberately whips the 1.2999 billion into a frenzy with front page pictures of fists and bloody fingerprints? Of course there’s more.
* The People’s Liberation Army newspaper declared in an editorial, “This is not the China of the first Sino-Japanese War, nor the China that Japan later invaded. It is the most naked challenge to Chinese sovereignty since the Second World War…Japan should not be playing with fire.”
* State-run TV broadcast the military’s amphibious landing and combat training exercise on “an uninhabited island” in the Jinan Military Region.
The state-operated China Daily is the country’s largest English-language newspaper. They have a reputation as being slightly more liberal than the rest of the media. Some excerpts from one article in China’s liberal voice make it clear they’ve got more than the Senkakus on their mind:
Islands Stolen by Japan
Japan took the Liu Chiu Islands, which Japan calls Okinawa, by force from China in 1874, when the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was at war with several countries. The Diaoyu Islands, though, remained under the administration of Taiwan. Following China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War in 1894-95, the Qing government ceded Taiwan, including its subsidiary islands, to Japan.
Other than the fact that the Qing Dynasty was fighting the Europeans, everything in this article is a deliberate falsehood. In fact, the government’s official position is that the 1943 Cairo Declaration limited Japan’s territory to only the four islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Shikoku, and Kyushu. But China was jobbed!
As stated above, it’s perfectly logical to conclude that the Diaoyu Islands, being part of the Taiwan territories, have been returned to China.
So where do the claims to the contrary come from?
In part from an illegal treaty the United States and Japan signed in San Francisco in 1951 in the absence of China, one of the victors in the war. Article 3 of the treaty wrongly assigned the Diaoyu Islands and other islets to the Liu Chiu Islands, which was then under the US’ control.
This is what people mean when they say the Chinese Communist Party has tried to legitimize itself with the public by promising to make everyone else in the world pay for what they did to the country for the past century and a half.
Given the rampant rightist tendency seen in Japanese politics and the potential dangers Japan poses to its neighbours and the region at large, there is an imperative need to set the record straight.
Once they set the record straight, the China Daily started saber rattling:
The Chinese military said yesterday it “reserves the right” to take action on the Diaoyu Islands (known in Japan as Senkaku Islands) after the Japanese government ignored warnings from Beijing and “purchased” three of the islands, which belong to China.
Two China Marine Surveillance patrol ships reached waters around the islands, in the East China Sea, after Beijing announced on Monday territorial coordinates for waters off the islands. Beijing also announced plans to implement normal surveillance and monitoring of the islands.
Here’s what that could mean:
Given China’s territorial definition, through the coordinates, entry into waters around the islands by the Japanese Coast Guard or Japan’s Self-Defence Force troops will be regarded as an intrusion into China’s territorial waters, said Feng Wei, a specialist on Japanese studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.
“And it is the duty and obligation of Chinese government vessels, and even warships, to guard China’s territorial sovereignty,” Feng said.
There was more today. Notice the use of qualifiers and quotation marks:
Beijing on Wednesday urged Tokyo to immediately cancel its “purchase” of the Diaoyu Islands as senior diplomats from both countries met.
“China will never acknowledge Japan’s illegal grab and so-called actual control of the Diaoyu Islands,” Luo Zhaohui, director of the Foreign Ministry’s department of Asian affairs, told Shinsuke Sugiyama, director-general of the Asian and Oceania Affairs Bureau of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, during their meeting in Beijing.
Japanese Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said on Wednesday that the purchase of the islands from “private owners” was completed on Tuesday, a move that sparked protests and countermeasures from Beijing.
They have experts of their own:
Liu Jiangyong, an expert on Japanese studies, said Japan’s farcical “purchase” is aimed at extending its reach and projecting an image of so-called actual control over the islands in a bid to mislead the international community that it “owns” the islands.
They know all about political cartoons too. Here’s one from today’s edition:
Kevin Rudd thinks we should take a long strong hot cup of tea and everything will be tickety-boo. Were he paying closer attention, he might be heading to the liquor cabinet instead for a few stiff drinks:
Beijing Evening News Says “Nuke Japan”
Japan’s purchase of three of the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands has pushed anti-Japanese rhetoric in China to a fever pitch. Yesterday on Weibo, the Beijing Evening News posted a link to an article comparing weaponry for a potential (conflict) with Japan, claiming that China should use the atomic bomb. Chatter mounted around this post before all mention of “advocating war” was deleted. (It is unclear whether Beijing Evening News or Sina deleted the material.)
Meanwhile, the Japanese political establishment is calm but firm. No one wants to be seen as behaving like Kan Naoto in the fall of 2010 when the first Senkakus crisis arose.
Prime Minister Noda has made it clear where he stands, and he is likely to be reelected as Democratic Party president this month.
The next prime minister might well come from the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, however. The top three candidates are former President Abe Shinzo, former Defense Minister Ishiba Shigeru, and current Secretary-General Ishihara Nobuteru. Everyone knows that Mr. Abe is unlikely to bend over for China. Here’s what Mr. Ishiba said when asked about the government’s purchase of the islets:
“The government’s purchase was proper, but the status quo is not a “peaceful and stable” possession (a reference to Mr. Noda’s statement). We should build docks there, and a base for environmental studies and the utilization of maritime resources. The Coast Guard also needs to be involved.”
A pier and heliport would be of use in any event to facilitate the rescue of fishermen in trouble.
The weakest of the three is Ishihara Nobuteru, the son of Tokyo Metro District Gov. Ishihara Shintaro. Though he’s conservative, he isn’t as Pat Buchanan-ish as his father. He’s thought to be the choice of the Old Guard, perhaps because he’d be a good boy and follow their instructions.
But Mr. Ishihara isn’t making a convincing case for himself in the LDP presidential campaign. He has a tendency to say peculiar things. The most recent peculiarity arose at a news conference when he said he thought the Chinese wouldn’t invade the Senkakus because “they’re not inhabited”.
There is little point in Western government officials, think tankers, and editorialists helpfully suggesting from the sidelines that everyone should stay calm. Too many people aren’t interested in staying calm.