Monday 26 February 2018

In China, The Sky Is Falling--Apparently

Comrade Auntie Em, it turns out you’re right: It’s a twister/the sky is falling.

Xi Jinping is going to be President of China for life. With the proposed end of term-limits for the country’s State leader, all restraints have been removed. He’s a dictator like Putin. China is entering a dark period, and will not emerge until—well, until whenever and perhaps never. It’s all over but the shooting.

Well, that seems to be the sudden consensus among so many in the China Watching Tribe. And that’s interesting, since only a very few among those of us who labor in this colliery predicted that Xi would make this move. It’s understandable that Xi’s grab wasn’t forecast (and even better when some are courageous enough to come forward and say that they didn’t see it coming[1]). What’s bizarre is that there’s continued confidence in assessing what all this means for China—that what Xi’s proposing marks a turning point, that the future is going to be dreadful.[2]

One reason for this shock and consternation is that there’s a  set of assumptions which undergird this sort of thinking: The Establishment Narrative about China and Chinese politics.

That Narrative has been noted as a force in these pages before. Generally speaking, the Narrative assumes that China’s political development rests largely on economic openness and that there’s been important progress from Beijing in that regard overall; that Chinese politics is about elites struggling for and consolidating power (and seeking sex along the way); and that eventually China will have to travel the same development path as other States--with change occurring quietly, from the grassroots (cue the activists, human rights advocates, and, in recent years, the purportedly huge and soon-to-be hugely powerful feminist resistance movement).

Western governments and others have a role to play, the Narrative argues: They can invest in this view, intellectually and perhaps financially, and that will be a good thing. And at moments when China isn’t looking like undergoing change that these observers can believe in isn’t happening, patience is called for. People who argue otherwise just aren’t seeing the Big Picture.[3]

The Establishment Narrative should have been decapitated long ago, but like some zombie ideology it refuses to die. And thanks to Xi looking to extend his political tenure, some are starting to erect Establishment Narrative 2.0., an upgrade (of sorts) that modifies its predecessor only barely.

It’s similar to its predecessor, at least in some respects.

Chinese politics is still presented as a power game, little or nothing at all to do with policy, and it’s all in Beijing.

But now, this news: Xi has finally—finally--consolidated his power with this proposal. 

How precisely Xi managed to actually get the proposal to be voted on next month isn’t articulated; it’s just assumed. Perhaps it was all the “power” he already had. Because evidently, Xi’s not only The Next Helmsman but the Great Consolidator as well: Every time anyone looks, he’s either consolidated power, or he’s consolidating it, sometimes further. Just about anything Xi does is seen as furthering or consolidating his power—which really should make the whole notion pretty suspect, but doesn’t seem to be doing that.

In any event, Xi’s move to end term limits is seen as a power grab. He wants to be dictator; that the dictatorship of the Party just isn’t good enough. Yet one looks in vain for anything in Xi’s speeches or editorials from his allies and his advisers indicating that’s what he believes—that it’s power he’s after, and that’s his sole purpose. One would think that if it's all about power--that there are enemies out there looking to take it away--that Xi and his comrades would be good enough to tell us that by announcing the same to their fellow cadres in the usual Party media. That's not happened.

Another part of this upgraded Narrative is that Xi may well now be looking to use his Further Consolidated Power to finally push forward economic reforms.

But if those reforms look anything like what he’s been shoving at China thus far, there will be more emphasis on SOEs and State planning and centralizing decision-making in Beijing and away from provinces and localities here.

Perhaps the most striking component of Establishment Narrative 2.0 is the view that Xi’s proposal for an end to the President’s term limit signals that China has started its final descent into dictatorship, sucked into the ugly cyclone of Maoism. Xi Jinping is Mao Zedong 2.0, according to this view.

In fact, we’ve been here before: It’s not the first time that Xi’s leadership is confused with Mao’s. Nor is it new that many analysts believe that if Beijing isn’t engaging in liberal reform, then there’s no real reform happening in China and the winds in China are blowing backward.

But Xi is a reformer—just not the type many analysts would like him to be. He’s a reformer for conservatives and hardliners; a political centralizer; a Party savior to many; someone with enormous support in many parts of the Party and the State, and in Chinese society. 

And Xi’s version of reform appeals to those who thought that China--and the Communist Party in particular—was drifting instead of being driven. Xi, like the country he represents, carries all sorts of contradictions;[4] but that doesn't make him any less brilliant in his ability to read political tendencies and social trends and fashion those into Reform with Xi Characteristics.

In short, Xi doesn’t need Mao’s playbook. He’s got his own.

A lot of analysts don’t like what’s Xi’s been up to and that’s understandable. But whatever dismay some are feeling about his moves in recent days, it’s important to note that Xi didn’t scare up these political tempests in China so much as capitalised on them because he agrees.

What’s also interesting about the New Narrative emphasizing Xi As Dictator is that it ignores the other proposals Xi and his comrades have made to amend the State Constitution.[5] Many observers aren’t paying a lot of attention to those amendments, but authoritative Chinese commentators see them as crucial: Their view is that these proposals are about securing Xi’s vision, not vesting him with more power than he already has. (These commentators and the leaders that sponsor them know that there would have to be a transformation of Party regulations, not unwritten political rules, to make that happen.) That Chinese political writers are focusing on other amendments—some of which are a response to the demands of various departments and local governments--isn’t misdirection; these proposals are what Xi and his comrades see as critical to their future political plans. Xi sticking around is a means to the end--to bring about a Xi-Style Socialism for China. Some observers might not buy into that, but many Chinese officials clearly do. 

So, forget all the handwringing: Xi won this round, as he has so many others. 

At the same time, Xi and his allies are going to run into resistance they’re surely familiar with at the National People’s Congress meeting next month with the proposal to end the two terms limit along with the other submissions. Xi’s forces will almost certainly overcome opposition there and continue to deepen the reform they want. But that won’t mean that local and other officials who are looking for something other than conservative reform will go away quietly—or go away at all.

A Chinese aphorism has it right: “Though the wind may have fallen, the waves have not yet settled” [平浪未罄]. Struggles over policy and the direction of the nation will persist, and Xi and his policies will continue to be tested. If Xi is in this for the long haul, perhaps others need to be as well.

[1] Kudos to Jude Blanchette for that forthright admission, rare in these days. His forthcoming book on the legacy of Mao promises to shed more light on what some of us working and living here saw or suspected, and so many outside of China missed: conservative and hardline political tendencies that were a major part of the national landscape and now hold the whip-hand.

[2] Okay, maybe not so bizarre. Still, that many of the same analysts who clearly didn’t predict that Xi would make this move are also the ones sought out for their views after Xi did—well, that is at least a little strange.

[3] A picture, it needs to be mentioned, that’s confirmed almost daily by investors and those with a financial stake—sorry, some “commentators and experts on China”—on CNBC and like-minded media outlets. When some of the leading academic commentators on China have official positions on major Chinese corporations and may be distancing themselves from being seen as critical of Beijing, perhaps it’s not surprising that analysis and advocacy are getting muddled.

[4] One of those being that, if some of Xi’s propagandists are portraying him as “father of the nation”, surely they noticed that his daughter studied at Harvard and not at one of China’s many fine universities.   

[5] Some of that lack of attention has to do with the fixation with China’s social media that, for many, is a win-win where analysis is concerned. When cyberspace is full on anger and invective, that’s seen as a sign of protest and government weakness. When it gets scrubbed by authorities, that’s also an indication that leaders are frightened. Authority in China is evil—and you can tell because people mouth off or because when they do, they get shut down. Neither conclusion leaves much room for nuanced evaluation of what’s actually transpiring politically. 

Sunday 25 February 2018

The News That Xi Intends To Stay Isn't The Only News

There was an announcement here Sunday afternoon about, among other matters, a proposal by the Central Committee of China’s Communist Party that would remove the current two-term limit on the presidency and vice-presidency by changing China’s State Constitution.

That the Central Committee is going to be discussing the matter of extending the current political tenure of President Xi Jinping is very significant. There have been rumors of this possibility for some time now, and there were even some predictions that that’s what Xi and his allies were after. It’s very likely this amendment to the current Constitution will be approved and forwarded for ratification by the National People’s Congress when the latter convenes next month.

That’s all major news.

But why was the news announcement botched?

Usually, such an important announcement would be made on the CCTV main evening news at 7 pm [闻联]—possibly with some advance notice leaking out a half hour or so before broadcast. Not this time: the proposal about the term-limit being amended came in a Xinhua News Agency announcement in English a bit after 4 pm; then Phoenix News [风华]—Chinese-language media that operates as a semi-official platform for Beijing-- spread it about, along with the complete text of the announcement in Chinese shortly thereafter. It wasn’t until over an hour later that Xinhua put out their version--identical to the Phoenix announcement but late and clearly uncoordinated.

It all might have been simply a cock-up. With so many political matters in Beijing being rushed in recent days, an error might be understandable.

There are a number of possible explanations. 

It could have been caused by the preparations for the Party plenum—that is, because of a meeting of the very same Central Committee that authored the announcement that’s been squeezed in between the end of the Chinese New Year period and the “Two Sessions” (which includes the National People’s Congress) scheduled for the first week of March. There’s not a lot of coordination about these days in some political circles, because so much time and energy is being spent setting up for those major events.

Perhaps it’s also because while the holiday celebrations were supposed to be occurring, many officials appear to have been called to Beijing or their provincial capitals for consultations. After all, local policymakers and cadres have had little time off in the past half-year, given the Party Congress, its run-up and aftermath, and the pressure brought by Beijing to implement the various directives that had been decided upon. To get everyone to sit down and talk about and tentatively ratify major changes wouldn’t be easy, and just getting people focused on the discussions about the plenum in particular must have been like moving mountains.

Or it might be because the Party plenum was being presented in some circles as a conclave about economic planning, but now seems to have shifted rather abruptly to politics and ideology—and that change may have been a surprise to some delegates, because the general expectation as expressed in Party media was that the plenum would focus on handling local debt and financial risk. The official announcement from Xinhua focuses entirely on amendments to the State Constitution, and seems to indicate that’s what the plenum will be discussing. Confusion in some media quarters about what to say about what’s going to be said isn’t unreasonable.

But what if the bungled news announcement—because that’s what it was--is a sign of something more than just overwork and awkward coordination?

One doesn’t have to believe in elaborate conspiracies to posit the possibility that there may be some comrades who think amending the State Constitution isn’t the best idea—or should even be a priority right now. Perhaps the advance warning of those plans to outsiders—and the original English-language notice was about abolishing term limits and nothing else—was meant to disrupt a carefully-timed and tempered statement from Party Central, which after all was left scrambling to get the actual official announcement up. There’s also somewhat less supervision in China’s State media of news items when they’re presented in a foreign language, and it may well be that the way the announcement was made was a signal to audiences (especially those on social media here who tend to understand English far better than their elders) that not everyone is thrilled with the proposal to make their Chinese President a Putin.*

Policymakers and cadres here know what’s at stake.

For hardliners and conservatives, Xi sticking around is the strategy that would make China great again. The State Constitution isn’t the only obstacle to that goal, but they and Xi clearly see it as something that needs to be adapted to their ends. Anything that secures a longer tenure for their guy makes political sense.

But for others—reformers in various positions and places who think that there should be less centralization so that they can get on with innovation and economic growth in their own local way—the waiting game for a leader who understands and supports their views now threatens to be interminable. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that they got played by Xi: They were expecting a plenum focusing on their (primarily economic and financial) problems and they’ll have to reverse field quickly if they want to be heard. It's unlikely they were happy to discover that, and that's maybe why the news announcement went sideways.

Some of this is speculation. But what's happening with the initiative to amend isn’t a power struggle in China; it’s about priorities and about implementing different visions. Xi thinks he needs more time, and he’ll likely get at least Constitutional authorisation for that. But the bizarre nature of today’s announcement may well signal that those officials who have a different view from Xi understand that the clock is ticking for them as well.

*And the ongoing drumbeat about some journalists not toeing the Party line is probably relevant in this regard as well. See, for one recent example,

Tuesday 13 February 2018

Lu Wei And The Larger War Against Corruption In China

It took a year and a half, but finally we’ve been told why China’s high-profile former Internet czar Lu Wei [鲁炜] lost his job.

He’s a sleaze and he was getting dangerous.

That’s according to the official announcement that appeared Tuesday evening on Chinese Central Television, accusing Lu of doing everything wrong from Party conduct (“feigned compliance, sought to dupe central authorities” [阳奉阴违、欺骗中央]) to his conduct at parties (“frequented private clubs, vigorously engaged in self-promotion” [频繁出入私人会所,大搞特权]).

Read as a whole, it’s a damning list, one that, for example, charges Lu with abuse of power for personal gain, and receiving payments to accrue illicit wealth [以权谋私,收钱敛财]. Lu “engaged in intrigues without any sense of shame [以权谋色、毫无廉耻], the report alleges, using language often leveled at officials who sought to construct their own political fiefdom and ignore directives from the Party leadership. For his actions, Lu’s assets are being seized, and he’s being expelled from the Party and will almost certainly be jailed.

Shades of Bo Xilai, and of Zhou Yongkang

There’s likely to be all sorts of the usual commentary after-the-fact about what Lu did and why Beijing was particularly angry. We’ll be told that this is what Xi’s anticorruption campaign is about (it isn’t; it’s far more than just taking down "tigers"); that if the Party doesn’t stop graft, it’s legitimacy is called into question (it can’t stop graft, and legitimacy as it’s understood outside China is irrelevant inside China); and Lu’s case occurred because of the need to send a message to other high officials (as if they didn’t know that already). It’s very unlikely that any of that analysis—which never predicted any of this--will explain why it took so long to bring Lu to book.

And that’s the real question here: What took so long?

It’s rather strange.

Lu clearly did a lot of stupid things, convinced that he could get away with being a bore and, according to the report, stiff-arming inspection tours sent into his administrative patch to investigate his realm and apparently his leadership style.[1] The account just released appears to indicate that some in the Chinese leadership didn’t like Lu or his methods, and hadn’t for some time.

Plus, Lu didn't have a lot of friendly comrades in some provinces and places--more than a few provincial and local officials resented the various ways he and his people tried to exercise social control at the very moment Beijing was emphasizing innovation.

Surely if the central leadership wanted to move against Lu, they should have had the horses to do so.

But maybe they didn’t.

There’s no real way to know at this point. It could be that making a case against Lu took a year and a half because the scope of his malfeasance was so broad and deep. That seems to be what at least part of the account is saying, with its long list.

But it’s the other part of the report that should give even greater pause. That’s the one that says that Lu was nefarious because he could get away with it—and that it took this long to take Lu down because his political support was so strong. Maybe Lu is a terrible person, but he seems to have been a tremendous tactician to have lasted so long.

There’s another possibility here: That Lu wasn’t smart so much as the anticorruption forces have been divided as of late.

After all, there have been debates in recent months about just what Xi’s crusade against graft entails--and that’s happened before, usually leading to a pause in prosecutions (or at least public notice of them). Healthy as those reconsiderations may be for the anticorruption campaign as a whole, it’s likely that these discussions have slowed down investigators because they’re looking to Beijing for clarity about what sort of conduct should be condemned and what type tolerated, and who should be targeted.

For example, if the scale of corruption is important, then surely Lu and former Chongqing Party Secretary Sun Zhengcai are prime targets. How deep and wide the level of graft and misbehavior is seems to matter—that there’s some sort of a tripwire that really attracts Beijing’s attention. That could be one message.

At the same time, if taking advantage of public funds in any form is the focus, then lower-level officials need to be brought up on charges, which is also what’s been happening in recent days, with a gaggle of local government officials reprimanded for dining out, giving gifts and granting various favors.

In other words, there now seem to be two anticorruption campaigns being waged, instead of one. One track is about leaders, and so Lu and Sun get toppled and charged. The other track focuses on the daily graft that goes on in China’s localities.

Maybe Lu’s demise is a signal that a more coordinated anti-graft crusade is getting underway. But it’s more likely Beijing still can’t decide who the larger enemy is—officials such as Lu, or the culture of corruption that produces people like him and allows them to last so long.

[1] It’s likely that the next few weeks will see pro-Beijing publications in Hong Kong run selected stories about Lu and his salacious and outrageous conduct, to strengthen the case against him in the minds of midlevel officials and bureaucrats here.

Tuesday 6 February 2018

Not Yet Ready For Takeoff--Or Even Talking

Like most regional Communist Party newspapers in China, Nanjing Daily [南京日] winds down on the weekend, taking a pause from the usual heavy dose of local politics.

But this past Sunday, one of the articles there asked a rather pressing and impertinent question: If China’s aircraft carriers are supposed to be the vanguard of a new national naval doctrine, why is the fighter plane they carry obsolete?

Of course, the question wasn’t phrased that way: the query as posed was, “How Should Our Country Choose The Next Generation of Carrier-Based Aircraft?” [我国下一代舰载战斗机会如何选?]

But it amounts to the same thing—a critique, an interrogation of sorts, a bit of a broadside aimed at the high-profile aircraft carrier program, a question that someone is asking because it’s not been answered, and some think it ought to be.

The very appearance of such an essay (one that took up almost the entire page)[1] is noteworthy for a number of reasons.

First, there's Beijing admitting some unease with part of its military planning.

The article contends that the existing J-15 Shenyang fighter [-15 沈阳] “is a very excellent heavy multipurpose carrier aircraft, but it belongs to the 3rd generation of fighters after all, so the shortcomings are very obvious.” [它是一款非常优秀的重型双发多用途舰载机,但它毕竟属于第三代战斗机,不足之处也十分明显.]

That view is a striking departure from the widespread adulation that followed the J-15’s first operational takeoff as well as the praise that appeared in the Chinese media a few years ago.

Second, that the article appeared at all.

There are no secrets spilled: No documents, transcripts of deliberations, or interviews with the usual uniform or uniformed or uninformed experts appear. But the article did go into detail about foreign jet fighters (weapon systems, bomb and fuel loads, ejection and safety systems, and doctrine). By doing so, the piece gave careful readers a sense of what worries Chinese aircraft designers about the technical challenges they face and the military competition from other nations. Usually those topics are keep below the waterline.

Then there’s also the fact that the article originated in a non-military media outletChina Youth Daily [中国青年报].

China Youth Daily had been known for its strident approach on many policy matters[2], and it’s likely that the author was directed by Party officials to write about the inability of the defense establishment here to make a decision.

In cases like this one, the matter is deemed to be too sensitive for a military newspaper to speak of directly, as doing so would reflect badly on the current military establishment and the Party leadership they supposed to serve. So, notice of the indecision would be subcontracted to another outlet, to raise again an issue that, for some at least (probably naval officers), wasn’t getting much attention.

But even that attempt ran into trouble evidently, because it took over a week for the main news agency of Xinhua to reprint the piece and thus provide the imprimatur of central authorities. China’s main military newspaper, for its part, republished the original essay only a few days after Xinhua did so--probably because it was at that point that its editors believed that they could slipstream behind Beijing’s consent.

And that’s where the public discussion sat, until this past weekend when Nanjing Daily was able to--or perhaps instructed to--revisit the problem by putting the piece back into print.

So while some Chinese officials hadn’t wanted to disclose that there was a debate raging in the Navy about what planes it needs for its vaunted and expensive aircraft carriers, they seem to have been overruled. Those who want a decision are now more able to revisit the problem—or at least try to.

Given Nanjing’s high military profile, this city is as good a place as any in China to restart the conversation, and to see if a decision can be reached about just what the Navy needs and if the nation can produce that--or if China needs to once again go abroad to buy military technology.

And this is no small decision—which is perhaps why there’s been so much wobbling on the issue. The type of fighter aircraft chosen will reflect--or dictate—China’s military doctrine, whether its aircraft carriers are designed primarily as strike-forces or defense shields. Doctrine is driving some of these decisions, of course; but choices made well before—such as a massive investment in the carriers themselves—are pushing the discussion, and they involve politics.

For example, enabling Chinese civilian media to ask what aircraft might now be best is in itself a veiled criticism of previous decisions, because the expectation was that the jets presently based on carriers would surely have a longer shelf life. Why would Beijing buy Russian jets for itself unless as an interim measure to develop a domestic military manufacturing capability in the meantime? Or wasn’t that a wise decision after all—and, incidentally, who made it? The article and its broken voyage of publication reflect the sensitivity of the matter, and the reluctance to broach it.

There are larger issues at stake then—more than how best to equip an aircraft carrier or three. Perhaps China will be a major military threat to US and other interests in the region. Maybe China already is, or ends up being little more than a regional power trying to punch above its own weight.

Those are answers no one here or abroad actually yet know. That uncertainty will persist so long as Beijing remains undecided about whether it even wants to ask some of the necessary questions.

[1] The Sunday edition of Nanjing Daily carries fewer pages, though one of the sections focuses on Chinese military developments—in part because of the large number of military personnel and retired officers based here.

[2] Some observers outside China think that Global Times [环球时报] plays that role, but there’s often quite a difference between the English-language version they grab and the Chinese edition that everyone else here reads. Global Times is a far more complicated publication that many credit it for, especially on domestic issues in China. In the 1990s and into the following decade, China Youth Daily was known to many here as the newspaper run and read by China’s “angry youth” [], reflecting a hardline and uncompromising stance towards the United States in particular. For many readers, that’s still its attraction. Conservatives who want a more public hearing for their views will use the paper as a platform to raise matters they think aren’t receiving enough attention, to put pressure on officials to enter (or re-enter) into debate.