Friday, 24 February 2017

Xi Jinping Doesn’t Want China To Rule The World, But He Wants More Consideration

There’s a lot being made about a speech China’s President Xi Jinping gave earlier this month—an important address at a noteworthy meeting on national security. According to at least one interpretation, Xi’s statements were worth a blazing headline: “Chinese president Xi Jinping has vowed to lead the “new world order.”

How unfortunate that’s how Xi’s words were rendered. Not for the first or fifth time, Xi’s meaning is being misconstrued--at least by people writing certain headlines.

As noted earlier in an exchange on Twitter, what the headline says is flat-out wrong. The phrase in Chinese cited in the article—“要引导国际社会共同塑造更加公正合理的国际新秩序” actually means that Beijing should work to guide [要引], not lead in the sense of take command and dictate or dominate. The Chinese language is full of terms which connote lead in an assertive way (militarily, for example, as in 指挥). Neither accounts of Xi’s speech nor the commentary cited in the article includes such statements.

To the credit of the writer of the article itself, he uses “guides” in his translation of what Xi purportedly said when he discusses the actual statements, though the tone of the piece as a whole is rendered as Beijing looking to take advantage of the United States, seeking to reshape global affairs. Graham Webster of Yale University’s Paul Tsai China Law Center does a nice job (perhaps off the original exchanges on Twitter) noting that there’s nothing in Xi’s speech to suggest China wants to subvert or suddenly restructure the existing international order.

There’s a lesson here. Nuance matters a great deal in official statements in China, and Chinese leaders (and officials generally) are nothing if not nuanced in the words they use. Words are actions in Chinese politics; cadres here at all levels read pronouncements with care and caution lest they stray from the established Party line. It does no one much good to hype what Xi and his comrades say (to be kind), simply to scare a readership or drive traffic to a website. The stakes are too high to be stupid.

But back to the meaning of what Xi said, because what Xi seems to be doing here (it does no one any good to be categorical either) in his address is actually quite significant, even if it’s not world-changing in the ways that some are portraying it.

Instead of re-subscribing to the dictum laid down by the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping that China should lay low until its capability was greater [韬光养晦,有所作为]—and the implication that Beijing should be careful about punching above its weight—Xi is signaling towards those here in China who’ve been arguing for a more assertive foreign policy that he’s leaning their way.

For some (particularly in at least parts of the Chinese military), a more emphatic approach means projecting strategic power beyond simply Asia, and doing that unilaterally. There are certainly different opinions in China’s armed forces on all sorts of issues, and Xi seems to be finally moving towards supporting those who want a more robust military posture—so long as they acknowledge the Party’s preeminence in making such decisions.

For others advising or making policy here, Xi’s words imply a China that will no longer free-ride on decisions made by other members of the G8 (for example, not opposing the invasion of Iraq but eager to criticize it afterwards, all the while reaping economic benefits from the war—transshipment fees collected on materials pausing at Chinese airports, oil price speculation). Xi expects that Beijing will be treated as a partner, instead of just another player; that China aspires to help mold the international order as it enters a new era. That was Xi at Davos and that’s Xi here.

No one can know at this stage how all that will play out; where Xi will end up after Beijing seeks to possibly move into policy space that Washington had been occupying previously and runs into opposition here and abroad, as well as the usual obstacles associated with global matters. And the Chinese political culture isn’t about equality but hierarchy, so there will be expectations by some here that what China wants to have happens, deserves to occur or else. In Chinese politics, leaning towards a view doesn't mean deciding that view wins at the end of the day. 

At this point at least, with his recent speeches, Xi seems to be telegraphing to Chinese officials—and others who are listening and reading with some care—that he’s very willing to move beyond even his predecessor in throwing over Deng’s concept of China being comfortable just to be in the same room, and making sure that Beijing is not only at the table, but being served. Xi isn’t interested in setting the building ablaze, and so those alleging otherwise need to stop crying fire when the only smoke to be seen is what they themselves are spreading. 

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Twain Rarely Meets Where China's Statistics Are Concerned

Today’s Financial Times tells readers that “growth in the cost of new housing in China slowed for the second time since contraction ended in 2015 even as prices remained substantially elevated from a year prior.”

From the standpoint of Beijing’s efforts to gain a firmer hand on the national housing market, that news sounds significant.

But is it accurate?

According to the Chinese leadership, no one really knows.

Earlier this month, a special symposium was held in Beijing, the title of which--“Opinions on Deepening Statistical Management System Reform to Improve the Authenticity of Statistical Data” [关于深化统计管理体制改革提高统计数据真实性的意见]—captures the core difficulty that officials here face in gathering and coordinating data, at lower levels as well as across bureaus and departments: that the statistics presented aren’t reliable. Authenticity, reliability, veracity—indeed, truthfulness itself—are all connotations of the term 真实性 [zhenshixing]. And they're features of what's gone missing when it comes to data in China.  

It’s worth noting that the conference was chaired by Politburo member and Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli [张高丽] and received front-page coverage in People’s Daily—clear indications that the statistical issue is a major challenge for Beijing in a way that it's not been before. In particular, Zhang cited Premier Li Keqiang’s previous plea “to ensure that the statistical data is true and reliable, to provide scientific support for decision-making and deployment for the country [坚持实事求是,确保统计数据真实可靠,为国家各项决策部署提供科学支撑].” 

In other words, China’s decision-makers aren’t able to make smart choices in a period of stagnating growth if they trust bad data, or mistrust reported information in general. A major challenge, according to Zhang, is that there’s dishonesty and a lack of accountability when it comes to figures reported to Beijing by local governments. That needs to be punished, Zhang argues—a strong signal that what’s passing for actual information is anything but.

This problem of getting good statistics isn’t new for China, as an excellent book by University of Toronto’s Tong Lam shows. What’s more recent though is the strange juxtaposition of well-founded skepticism about China’s figures by outside observers and, at the very same time, the propensity for some to rely on those figures without wondering whether they’re reliable enough to report in the first place. When Chinese leaders doubt the data, there seems ample reason for others to be skeptical.  

What could well be happening with these newest housing figures (at least on a macro-level, because the micro-level data in some cities is more convoluted even when it’s disaggregated) is that political pressure from Beijing prompted local officials to provide reports that aligned with the directives issued in recent months for cities to rein in housing prices—whatever it took.
It’s possible that Beijing’s policies are working to stop the steep price rises that marked many Chinese cities this past year. And the reports attesting to that success might be relying upon data that’s for once reliable. 

But it’s also entirely possible that the statistics that Beijing—and news reports are relying on—are confirming what more than a few government officials here already believe and are increasingly angry about: that figures lie, and that liars figure.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

There's something happening here/What it is ain't exactly clear

Something may be happening in Beijing. The question is what that might be.

The Australian Financial Review reported today that:

Australian Treasurer Scott Morrison has cancelled a trip to Beijing this week after China made a last-minute decision to postpone a meeting between the two countries' top economic officials. The Strategic Economic Dialogue, which was to have been attended by Mr Morrison and Trade Minister Steve Ciobo, was postponed by Chinese officials late on Friday. A spokesman for Mr Ciobo said the delay was "because of unanticipated leadership meetings within China".

It’s rare to have a high-level meeting with China cancelled, unless the reason is related to the state of ties between particular countries, and then the usual statement from Beijing is that it’s “currently not convenient” [合适 is usually one component of any such statement in diplomatic parlance here]. But it’s almost always the case that a meeting that was scheduled to be announced to take place goes awry because someone did something that the Chinese leadership took offense to. There’s no direct indication of that having happened here, because Chinese spokespersons usually say something about precisely what their superiors are annoyed about. They didn’t, apparently.

What may have occurred is that Chinese diplomats told their Australian counterparts in confidence why such a high-level meeting had been cancelled, and that officials in Canberra, eager to not set off alarm bells concerning the state of relations between China and Australia, chose to pass on what they were told. What they were told is that something’s come up that wasn’t scheduled, and changes have to be made.

Which is strange, because all leadership meetings in China are "anticipated". 

So is there something happening that's worth paying close attention to?

Perhaps there is. It’s almost impossible to know, beyond taking Chinese officials at their word--which isn’t a bad thing to do, though there are some observers of politics here who seem to believe that while China Daily represents leadership thinking, parsing the Party media is somehow a silly exercise. Assuming then that there are “unanticipated leadership meetings”, something important and at least somewhat unexpected has either happened in very recent days or is about to occur.

The scenarios are almost endless. 

There could be a change coming among China’s financial leadership, perhaps in the Ministry of Finance. The recently appointed head, Xiao Jie [肖捷] has taken a very low-profile in his job, so much so that it’s been relatively rare to see his name mentioned, leading to rumors about his health and political status. It would be enormously difficult to make progress on China-Australia ties on investment matters, for example, if there was a question about who held authority to conclude an agreement.

It may be that there is a major shakeup in the leadership to be announced, and that it involves members of the Politburo. Perhaps someone has decided to step down, or is being forced to do so (possibly because of corruption).

It could be that either of China’s retired leaders—Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao—has suddenly taken gravely ill. That development would require the attention of the Chinese leadership on very short notice.

And there’s also the outside possibility that there’s been a direct challenge to the present political leadership that needs to be confronted—that an emergency conclave is called for, and that’s what the “unanticipated leadership meetings” refers to.

Beyond the explanation from Beijing, this is all speculation, of course—not prediction, or even an assessment of probability across the scenarios mentioned above. The fact is, no one outside China’s inner circles can possibly be certain that the reason for a postponement is political, be it because of health or something potentially more sinister. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people, especially in Beijing, who have zero access to and even less understanding of politics here who will be eager, as before, to run with rumors about Chinese leaders, and it behooves all to be wary. In Chinese politics, the mundane matters, and often it's the mundane that matters more.

At the same time, the explanation that’s been given for a postponement of what were to be important talks is noteworthy, assuming it's accurate. Something may be happening here, even when something else isn’t going to be.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Pulling Back From Punishing, Pushing Politics Instead

The Chinese leadership appears to be taking a pause in its anticorruption crusade.

That’s the message of the speech delivered by President and Party chairman Xi Jinping in Beijing on February 13—an address at a seminar at the Central Party School, which “the Central Committee decided to hold [for] the purpose [of getting] provincial and ministerial-level leading cadres to more deeply understand the spirit of the decisions reached [at last October’s] plenary session.”

That's actually strong language, indicating that not every party cadre has been paying attention to what was decided sometime last year, most probably during the annual summer meetings in Beidaihe and secured during the plenary meeting in the autumn: That the anticorruption campaign, while essential, is to be gradually given lower priority. Reprisals for transgressions will become secondary to the rank-and-file recommitting themselves to the Party and its mission. The campaign won't be shut down, but perhaps left to lose momentum.

There are already clearer signs in recent months that the anticorruption campaign has been stumbling, instead of just making some people here unhappy. (There have always been complaints from local officials privately about being told by Beijing to stop doing X, without being assured that Y or Z would be acceptable.) Inspectors have had to return to some provinces to reiterate to local officials that they have a responsibility to keep on combatting graft at the grassroots. (Some places might be beyond repair, and because their economic prospects are so lousy, inspectors have simply given up.) Just last week, a ministry head and member of China’s State Council was demoted for “poor political performance” [履责不力], specifically because of “grave dereliction of duty, the failure to root out systemic corruption” [严重失职失责,所辖单位发生系统性腐败问题]—terms that are meant to convey to cadres that the crusade isn’t a cure-all, that high-level officials have to lend a hand to keep their jobs. And in recent days, State media has called attention to problems of corruption within the inspection teams themselves, asking, “How can one supervise the supervisors?” There’s been a decline in court prosecutions of party cadres accused of malfeasance (instead of cases being pursued within the party ranks) —a sign that using existing laws to combat official corruption hasn’t worked all that well. And some high-profiles cases have simply (and suddenly) been dropped in recent weeks.

So instead of doubling down on the crackdown, Beijing seems to think that it should stand pat in the anticorruption crusade, at least for the time being. 

Xi and his allies have an alternative—a new strategy that’s taking firmer shape, one that we’re likely to see in more detail in the coming days following the announcement of a pilot program for Beijing, Shanxi and Zhejiang (the latter two are Xi’s old stomping grounds). The purpose of this new experiment is “to uphold and strengthen the party's unified leadership of anticorruption work, improve the party and the state's self-supervision, [and] promote the national governance system and governance capacity modernization.”

In other words, “the work of anticorruption” will be reorganized and pursued differently in these three regions, to see if there are better ways to do that work. Retribution is being revisited; reform within reform--modifying the anti-graft effort--is to be the focus.

(Further evidence that the campaign is in at least partial recess can be found in the renewed attention to the anticorruption campaign given recently by media outlets meant to be read by foreigners, in an attempt to convince that audience that there's been no shift, no admission of problems.)

Xi and his allies are reminding cadres that they really need to watch themselves in a different way, instead of waiting for the next time a central inspection team swings through town, or hoping it will all be soon over. “Self-discipline” [自律]—as in Xi’s admonition in the speech above that “leading cadres, especially senior cadres, must strengthen self-discipline” [領導幹部特別是高級幹部必須加強自律]--is being emphasized. That warning has popped up at various times, but it has taken center-stage recently, especially in the commentaries published to supplement Xi’s statements. It’s a sharp signal to the Party rank-and-file (and to government officials generally) that there’s going to be more emphasis on ideological instruction, rather than prosecution.

And it’s part of Xi’s push to make sure that the Party, as he notes, is a political organization with a historical mission, not a place to pursue personal connections and profit. Talk about politics, Xi urges, for it’s “the fundamental guarantee for our party to build calcium and strengthen the body and keep fit and healthy.” [讲政治,是我们党补钙壮骨、强身健体的根本保证].

At the same time, party commentators have been at pains to assure officials that all this discussion of politics being the foundation of the Communist party isn’t the start of purges, that there’s no resemblance between campaigning to make the Communist party a more political party and the Cultural Revolution [讲政治不是老调重弹,更不是文革中搞的极左政治,而是有很强的现实针对性]. Clearly, some in the ranks have expressed anxiety about that prospect.

Still, if you’re Wang Qishan and his disciples and you’ve been running the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection under Xi, and the mission of your position has been brought into question, you have to wonder just what sort of future you’re facing. Perhaps this pause is just an interregnum, simply an intermission before this year’s Party Congress, and the campaign will move into the next act. Or maybe it’s also the sign that the show is coming to an end for some.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Maybe Trump Worries Xi, But Another Matter Is Of More Immediate Concern

People’s Daily has been very consistent in recent Sundays, gleefully excoriating various aspects of Western politics, especially the United States. From social divisions to how and the capitalist system at large is facing a grave crisis, commentators on page 5 of the Sunday edition have been blasting away at what they see as the failings of American and European polities.

Except this past Sunday, when the entire page was devoted to the problems in managing the Chinese Communist party.

The essays that appear aren’t especially path-breaking, focusing on the ways in which the Party needs to govern itself better than it has been. While that’s not a new concern, for a Sunday edition of the Party’s flagship newspaper, it’s a notable shift away from its recent assault on institutions outside China’s borders.

It’s possible that the word went out to go easy on Washington’s troubles, because the phone call that transpired between Presidents Xi and Trump went well. It’s common for People’s Daily to have two or more sets of essays ready to run on the weekend (particularly on a Sunday, per at least one source) in the event that something or another happens (or doesn’t). Maybe that’s what occurred this time around. And if that’s the case, it indicates that Xi’s effort to get People’s Daily to be more pliable to his particular political line, instead of reflecting the consensus of the leadership as a whole, may be finally taking firm hold.

But there’s at least one other explanation: That this shift appeared because Xi and his allies are increasingly anxious that their efforts to get cadres to conduct themselves properly are still falling far short.

One of the essays notes that “some Party organizations do not grasp…the relationship [between trusting in one’s self and the Party’s need for supervision]; that cadres trust themselves too much and there’s a lack of supervision, while some Party members also misunderstand…and don’t trust themselves at all, leaving the Party to wholly supervise.”

The result is, the author notes, “a reality which is not uncommon”, when either cadres are too cautious or they “risk derailing the train, or act like wild mustangs, as they behave in a self-destructive manner, and trample discipline” [一些党员干部就有可能成为脱轨的火车、脱缰的野马做出践踏法纪、自毁前程的举动].

None of that sounds very good.

If Party officials aren’t paying attention to rules and regulations, they’ll create their own local fiefdoms and corruption will continue.

If cadres are too timid to engage in needed reforms, governance and public policy will suffer—and so will Xi and those associated with him and his agenda.

That continues to be the major test for Xi—not a citizenry eager to exercise rights that don’t actually exist, but cadres whose attitudes and actions still aren’t quite aligning with Beijing’s. Putting that problem on the pages of People’s Daily in a place that had been devoted to other matters is another signal that it’s the challenge that trumps everything else.