Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Beijing’s Proposal To Block VPNs Reflects The Usual Uncertainties—And A Sign Of Something Else

There’s no reason to think that by this time next year, accessing many foreign websites from China will be almost impossible.

There’s every reason to think that by this time next year, accessing many foreign websites from China will be almost impossible.

No one can be sure: China’s leadership haven’t made a final decision about what to do with the use of VPNs to access overseas websites.

Plus, there’s no new law or updated public regulation that clearly indicates a specific directive about VPNs or what further controls entail precisely.

That should be expected, because it reflects how decision-making here in China operates.

For example, there are questions about which agency will be responsible for issuing a ban, how it will be implemented, and by whom.

It may turn out to be the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology [中华人民共和国工业和信息化部]. That continuity would make sense, as MIIT has become proficient in recent years at expanding its policy portfolio and fighting off attempts by other agencies to restrict its mandate. This shift to greater control is something that some MIIT officials have been urging for some time now, and the idea for a ban might have originated from them.

Or it could turn out to be China’s Ministry of Public Security [中华人民共和国公安部] that takes greater command, and is the propellant behind this proposal. Officials there are on the long road back from political perdition, anxious to prove their loyalty to President Xi Jinping and his allies after years when local disobedience and a warlord culture flourished there. But they’d be up against the entrenched interests of MIIT, and that’s a battle that some there may prefer to avoid because they’re still struggling to make amends.

It’s also possible that the decision and supervision of a new regulation ends up being the purview of the Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs [国家互联网信息办公室]. Nominally, they’re in charge of overseeing China’s Internet. It’s difficult to see, however, how that body would cope with the existing supervisory bodies of the various provincial and local telecom carriers, and whether it has the staffing to coordinate the sort of control that’s being speculated about. The Central Leading Group does hold the whip-hand where the power to issue directives is concerned; but they need State bureaucrats to put any changes into practice, and so may prefer to have others implement a ban.

There’s also the matter of the administrative responsibility of China’s municipalities and provinces. For example, local authorities will surely look modify some plans to block VPNs in innovation zones where access to sources outside China is crucial, especially given the massive investments that have been made in building these complexes—at the behest of Beijing.

Not knowing what’s exactly happening with a proposed VPN ban reflects a government that’s not only selective at best with its plans but one that also not always entirely connected to itself. Indeed, when official representatives did finally start speaking publicly about the possibility of VPNs being blocked here in recent days, there was confusion.

One State media outlet denied that all VPNs would be outlawed, only those that were not officially registered or part of a recognized institution. The implication was that individual VPNs would be illegal and blocked, while business VPNs might be allowed to continue to function.

But Reuters quoted a Chinese telecom carrier as having received a notice to begin to block VPN services last week (not February 2018, as indicated in a number of stories). That report sounded like the measures might be local; possibly restricted to small carriers for now; and perhaps even an experiment to see how far Beijing could press both carriers and their customers.

In any event, there’s been no official announcement from central government authorities—and that’s significant because it’s a sign of a lack of consensus here about how to proceed, as well as a clear caution to those thinking that this is a done deal.

And of course, there are political fights going on.

For example, there are those in China who will be pleased about a ban on VPNs: hardliners who think that China is under siege; that foreigners and foreign businesses do far more harm than good here (or can be further undermined as competitors by a ban); and those who believe that Chinese society could use some “self-strengthening” [洋務運動] and see putting up more barriers as one way to secure greater autarky. Even some local officials confess to being anxious about possible protests that they see as encouraged by overseas websites, and so some authorities lean towards tighter supervision.

But others worry about the implications for universities and research, as well as for their own personal and family prospects. Professors and graduate students want access to the work done by others, for their own publications as well as other motives (including identifying overseas fellowships). Privately, some parents say that they use VPNs to access the websites of private schools and foreign universities to explore options for their child, and these people view the fact they have to use them as another indication of Beijing’s outmoded approach to modern education. Many parents in fact applaud the domestic campaign against online pornography and fraud, but still want the option to explore online without government restriction.[1]

So while hardliners want greater walls for China, others wonder why the Great Wall isn’t great enough.

The proposal to ban VPNs—if that’s what it turns out to be—or continue with the status quo is clearly worrisome to many here. It may well be that someone working in China’s bureaucracy or at a telecom carrier saw a directive and leaked notice of that order—to gather support for tighter controls, or to muster opposition from others in the government to oppose it.[2]

Forget the assumption that this is Xi acting personally, or that “the Communist Party” or “the Chinese government” is behind this bid to ban VPNs. No one has ultimate authority here, and it’s divided decision-making anyway. Officials disagree in China all the time, and factions are about policy differences far more than local origin. There are plenty of State memorials here in China extolling unity, but political monoliths are a myth in practice. The indecision and uncertainty we’re seeing about what to do about VPNs is both normal and further evidence of discord at the top.

Which brings us to the 19th Party Congress.

The leading storyline about the upcoming 19th Party Congress says that Xi is looking to grab more power, to extend his political rule. But that narrative misses what such meetings have been about historically—a clash of visions about China’s direction. That the VPN proposal has surfaced now—on the eve of the annual Beidaihe [北戴河] meeting of senior officials where disagreements get aired--is a further signal that the Party Congress will be contentious. Indeed, it’s likely to be a political showdown between Xi and his allies who are looking to tighten the illiberal order they’ve built, and those who think that there are better paths to reform than just more restrictions.

Who gets to block whom and how politically at the Party Congress--that’s the larger story worth focusing on.

[1] The overseas media’s focus on the effect a VPN ban would have on expats or foreign enterprises in China is misplaced, given that the largest impact by far would be on Chinese citizens.

[2] It is important to note that nearly all of the original reports about a banning of VPNs were sourced to individuals speaking off the record, not to the institutions in China who would be responsible for implementing such a directive. None of those sources could be identified—for good reason—but it’s not apparent who they were, where they worked, what positions they occupied, or their own views on the matter. There have been instances where Chinese sources for stories were not actually working in the bureaucracy, and people (including news assistants) may have been passing on information to reporters based on conversations that couldn’t be immediately confirmed. Overseas Chinese websites are notorious for sometimes running rumors as reliable information, and the odd foreign journalist in China writing a story based on something a dissident or a disaffected exile posted online. That doesn’t appear to be the case here, because there seems to be collateral from institutions within China. But we may still be witnessing a proposal, a pilot program, not an actual policy.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

And Another One Bites The Dust—Except The Dust Hasn’t Settled

Various new reports indicate that Chongqing party chief Sun Zhengcai [孫政才] has been placed under investigation by central authorities here in China. Xinhua and other news outlets confirmed his removal, and his replacement by Guizhou Party secretary Chen Miner [陈敏尔].

And that’s all anyone outside of the inner leadership circles of the Communist party knows right now.

However, that’s not stopped some from claiming that Sun was a potential successor to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and that Xi removed him because Sun was seen as a possible threat.

Or maybe it’s that Xi is consolidating power (again and still—a canard that’s apparently never going away). Sun is one of those political dominoes apparently, whose disappearance is a sign that Xi plans to remain at least through next term and possibly beyond. That’s one interpretation—maybe the leading one for many at this point.

Then again, some have stated, perhaps this is all part of a larger struggle between political factions, and that Sun’s removal is a blow against—wait for it—“liberal factions” of the Communist party (whatever they are, given that there’s been no mention of them previously and little evidence that anything of the sort exists these days).

The straight reporting on this development has been revealing, especially because at least one newspaper broke the story before the official announcement.

It’s the speculation that’s rather grating.

After all, if Sun’s removal was predictable, why wasn’t it predicted? No one did so. That should say something about how much of what passes for analysis is actually just conjecture. Taking down Sun was surprising, if only because nobody said to watch out for it. Why? Because no one saw it coming, even though many are saying that it’s all about That Well-Known Struggle For Power In China.

Then there are the rumors about possible corruption charges against Sun. But they remain just that—rumors. While charges of graft might be added on to Sun’s charge-sheet later, previous announcements of high-ranking officials being removed usually feature an accompanying mention of their malfeasance. But not with Sun, at least thus far.

Anyway, how precisely does taking down Sun help Xi?

That’s not discussed. The supposition—and that’s all it is, at best—is that anyone who gets politically decapitated these days is because Xi’s in charge, and the victim is someone he doesn’t like, and needs to disappear. That’s bizarre, because China has something called a collective leadership--albeit with Xi at the core. Party rules and regulations render any change in upper ranks an arduous process that can’t be made by a single individual. But that isn’t mentioned, perhaps because it’s just easier to single out Xi, even though he doesn't get to make personnel decisions unilaterally.

It is probably worth noting that there’s an assumption where this case is being made: That Xi’s in command, but he’s trying to consolidate power further, because that’s why Sun was removed. That’s some magic Xi’s engaged in, winning fights while he’s still fighting.

Isn't it possible that Sun was dismissed not because of Xi’s wishes, but in spite of them? That Sun was an ally (which is what many media outlets outside China mooted before) and his removal does harm to Xi, rather than assist him to—there it is again—consolidate power? In that case, Xi’s not strengthening his position, but seeing it weakened.

Given the lack of actual inside information, that conclusion is just as likely an explanation as the alternatives that have been presented. Indeed, just about any scenario is possible at this point.

So here’s another one.

Sun was topped because he turned out to be ill-suited to the task he was assigned. 

Chongqing isn’t an easy place to govern (ask Bo Xilaijust not the BBC about Bo Xilai) at any time, and Sun was being asked to go in and straighten up the municipality (not just any city) after his predecessor had taken it in the wrong direction.

Party media hadn’t been shy about highlighting various shortcomings in Chongqing for some months now. (Praise, when it did appear, was faint, and tended to focus on minor projects.) When leading Party media calls attention to problems in a given location, it’s a sign that there’s a consensus in the leadership here that governance isn’t proceeding the way Beijing wants it to.

Fixing Chongqing was Sun’s remit, and he appears to have failed at it.

That may not be sexy or headline-grabbing or fit into The Establishment Narrative of leaders who spend all their time looking to take down others simply because they want more power. But given what Party media has indicated, it makes more sense than the notion that it's just Xi being Xi, when that cannot be.

Still, it's a scenario, a hypothesis--and is here labeled as such.

Where the removal of Sun Zhengcai leaves Xi Jinping and his comrades isn’t clear. More indicators may appear—actual pieces of evidence--in the coming days. Until then, anything else is just dirt. 

Monday, 10 July 2017

The Air Up There Isn't The Air Down Here

In recent years, many commentators here have advocated “injecting clearer gas” [风清气] into Chinese politics, purging bad elements “for the purpose of building a cleaner political ecology” [正的政治生态] in the Communist party. That’s become a metaphor in some circles for fighting corruption by getting rid of the stench of sleaze that’s permeated Party ranks, replacing it with a cleaner environment for cadres to operate in, and residents to relate to.

The language used is, as ever, crucial.  Unlike past anticorruption campaigns, the idea isn’t just to remove people but to switch the atmosphere in which politics takes place. That way, the cadres that replace those removed would have to behave otherwise, because they’d be operating in a different environment, in which it’s easier for honest officials to breathe, and dishonest ones would suffocate.

It’s smart thinking, and typical of the debates that mark the Communist party under Xi Jinping. Call it resistance or reluctance, opposition or openness, rectification or restructuring—there are differences under discussion among senior leaders and their advisors about what sort of reform is required for the Party to be able to govern more effectively. The arguments are ongoing, and how and to what end they are resolved will help shape China’s political system.

The problem is that, for at least some local officials, the sort of talk that happens in Beijing-- while crucial for the long term--doesn’t address the small challenges they confront every day here. Many of the problems governments face on the ground here lack easy solutions and have little direct link to ideological matters or grand policy.

Such as the appearance of “black gas” [黑气].

That’s the name for illegal--or at least unregulated and uncertified--propane gas that’s increasingly being delivered to small restaurants in Jiangsu. These establishments, which are often unregulated and uncertified themselves, aren’t large enough to merit delivery from state-operated suppliers, but instead must rely on middlemen who buy half a dozen small canisters which are drained and then refilled, sometimes more than once during a given day.

There’s a local social context here.

Restaurants that have a larger footprint are often the targets of flying squads of inspectors who check for health and safety conditions, because that’s where large families dine out, as well as well-connected business people and officials; their owners depend on reliable delivery from established firms, and have secure schedules.  

Smaller eating establishments, on the other hand, continue to flourish in many cities and districts, townships and counties as migrants have relocated and taken their appetites and often their cuisine with them. These types of restaurants tend to be clustered around apartment complexes that are rented by workers and their families who have neither the time nor the inclination to cook for themselves as they might have done in their home counties. As the service economy in provincial cities and suburbs has proliferated and is increasingly staffed by non-natives (property sales representatives, office staff, installers and repair people), these dining places have a built-in demand for those wanting to eat in, or (increasingly) order for delivery. Getting cooking gas in a timely manner matters greatly to these small restaurants: They lack the place to store the bigger canisters, and larger suppliers simply won’t cater to them when they can get higher fees and more reliable demand from larger establishments.

In short, commercial pressures create situations that outpace the capacity of local authorities to supervise these operations. And there’s little incentive to do so diligently, when these smaller restaurants add services and revenue to the economy. Shutting them down for various violations makes little sense, especially when the immediate result of such action is sometimes local anger.[1]

At the same time, the dearth of oversight can turn unsafe, as happened in Nanjing recently when a canister of bad propane ignited and critically injured 2 people, hurt another 10, and caused the evacuation of damaged properties nearby. Later the same day, local authorities started posting warnings in the neighborhood of the explosion, advising owners and patrons to be aware of the dangers of “black gas”, which, while cheaper and capable of almost immediate delivery, skirts safety regulations because they fall outside the existing scope of city supervision.

Local officials don’t want to be seen as negligent, but they also prefer to avoid being perceived as harming the economy. There’s no real payoff for them (literally and otherwise) in pushing more regular regulation, especially when they lack the staff to do so.

What’s left are campaigns—small-scale safety crusades where inspectors appear to enforce the rules that do exist, as well as remind businesses and customers to take care.

But they know, as every resident here does, that matters will go right back to what they were, once the uniforms depart.

How ideological construction or new anticorruption policies help local officials solve these sorts of challenges isn’t at all clear to many, especially outside of Beijing. It’s not all hot air, but for some at least, it probably seems that way.

[1] Or frustration for nearby residents who have to stomach cooking fumes, higher noise levels, and waste problems when illegal establishments aren’t closed.  

Friday, 7 July 2017

Talk About Pests

Local governance isn’t easy here.

There are flies.

And then there are flies.

In the first instance, the “flies” [苍蝇] are the lower local ranks of the Communist Party, particularly officials in the countryside, engaged in corruption—that is, “flies”, as opposed to “tigers” (political elites here in China).

There’s been renewed attention to local corruption here lately, particularly its spillover. A commentary in Nanjing Daily on Tuesday noted that “some village cadres are not only corrupt, but also arrogant” [一些村干部不仅贪腐,而且相当嚣张]. They exploit farmers, loot poverty alleviation funds, cheat on official expenses, and act less like “village officials than village tyrants” [村官变成村霸]. The author argues that while they may be “small officials, but their greed is gigantic.” [小官巨贪] and “although the power of local village officials is not large, the lack of effective supervision will breed a more serious corruption problem, causing adverse effects among villagers.” Residents who see authorities unable to address low-level graft end up with less trust in local government and in the Party generally, the commentary argues.

One reason for the hubris of village officials, the commentary claims, is that there’s still no clear way to hold them accountable.

For example, there are over 3,000 village party secretaries and directors in Jiangsu; so there aren’t enough investigators in the province’s Commission for Discipline Inspection to inspect their activity. (Left unsaid but surely implied is that investigators have more than enough work in the upper ranks of provincial government here. There’s ample evidence of that locally in recent days.)

At the grassroots level, whistleblowers [举报人] are often retaliated against by local officials. Many villages are run by clans that have dominated for generations, the commentary notes, and have intimidated those who wish to bring about change. There’s an atmosphere of fear for those who want to improve their locality but lack political protection. Everyone in China knows about payback.

Efforts to make village finances more transparent and thereby expose local corruption haven’t shooed away many “flies” either. When records that might indicate graft are released to residents, the essay argues, the accounting is often too complex for many villagers to understand, or the bookkeeping is incomplete at best, rendering inspection useless.

We've been here before. What’s different is that this commentary thinks that “flies” can be swatted and shouldn’t be ignored for the sake of caging tigers—that there are weapons available.

For example, using “Big Data” to supervise village officials, instead of rural residents. Efforts would be made to collect, collate and compare government subsidies (such as poverty alleviation funds) with actual local expenditures, and use those results as one of the main means to evaluate cadre performance, “so that the village officials have no place to hide” [从而让村官贪腐无处遁形]. Discrepancies in these figures would mean no political promotions until inspectors conducted their own investigations, and heavier punishment for those caught cheating than exist currently.

The commentary also argues for greater coordination between government bureaus and Party departments about who gets appointed and elevated in rank. Often, village officials are promoted just because a case couldn't be made about their malfeasance until later in their careers; the warning signs were already there but not shared with the responsible departments. Bad cadres end up getting ahead because not everyone knew they were bad from the beginning, in part because information isn’t shared across agencies and levels. Cooperation can help to crush “flies”.

And those other “flies” mentioned above?

Those would be somewhat different—according to a cartoon and brief discussion on the same editorial page about those “flies”, in this case, 蝇扰--the sorts of flying insects that buzz about, irritate, bite, and can spread disease.

While the commentary on the same page focuses on corruption, the picture and caption are about rumors [谣言]--stories flying around on the hot winds of summer, about fresh food not being so fresh, fruit being dyed or injected with artificial substances, and other purported hazards. According to the caption, such “lies” [掰谎] need to be thoroughly swatted down because they’re an injustice [冤情] to the industry and the consumer, and hazardous in themselves. The State shouldn't let them swarm, and officials need to do something about that.

At the very least, the latter type of fly diverts attention from more crucial tasks of local governance.

And who’s supposed to do the whacking anyway? Is it the authorities, or should it be residents? Both of these editorial forays insist that the response should be top-down, rather than bottom-up. 

Perhaps that's right: Officials should do the clean-up work, not the public. Let swatting, not dialogue, be the solution.

Then again, maybe that’s the reason that one sees so many flies about these days.