Friday, 30 September 2016

President Xi Jinping's Anti-Corruption Drive

      As we near the 4th anniversary of President Xi Jinping's anti corruption drive, the question that is increasingly being asked is how is this drive faring and is there an end in sight? In the past many Chinese leaders have instituted similar such anti-corruption drives, but most have spluttered out after a few months. Not many Chinese leaders before President Xi Jinping have dared to touch high ranking Chinese Communist Party [CCP] leaders, popularly referred to as "tigers," on corruption charges; although none before him have had any compunction in throwing out inconvenient rivals on trumped up charges of being "anti-party". If the past is any guide, then Xi Jinping's drive should have faded away by now. But on the contrary, it is still very much in evidence.
     If we look at the figures, the CCP's Disciplinary Inspection Commission has investigated upwards  of 500,000 lower level officials, popularly known as "flies", of whom about 120,000 have received sentences and reprimands. In each of the years from 2012 to 2014, the percentage of those caught committing economic crimes and official corruption have steadily gone up by an average of ten percent. As of September 2016, about 127 civilian "tigers"[Vice Minister and above] and 86 military "tigers" [Maj-Gen and above] have been incarcerated. Of the high level "tigers", the most prominent were the former member of the Politburo Standing Committee Zhou Yongkang, Politburo members Bo Xilai, Gen. Xu Caihou, Gen. Guo Boxiong and the former Director of the CCP Central General Office, Ling Jihua.
    It would have been unthinkable in the past for such high level officials to be incarcerated. Some have attributed Xi's drive to his desire to attain absolute power in China, some think that this has been a neat way to get rid of his political rivals; as also to gain popularity with the Chinese people. It comes as no surprise therefore that some foreigners think the after Chairman Mao, Xi Jinping is the most powerful Chinese leader to emerge. Be that as it may, Xi's anti corruption drive ably piloted by his closest Politburo colleague, Wang Qishan shows no sign of abating. It is now said that this is now the new "normal" in China.
   But Xi Jinping's anti corruption drive has unwittingly had its deleterious effects on the administration of China. Few officials are prepared to take any major initiatives for fear of being labeled as corrupt. In such an atmosphere of "fear"; decision making has considerably slowed down, although it would be uncharitable to assert that some kind of an administrative "paralysis" has set in. In such circumstances, what should the leadership do? Four administrative measures are emphasized.
  Firstly, while tightening decision making and maintaining tighter administrative control; the scope for discretion with Chinese cadres should be sharply reduced. Secondly, the time has come to reduce the "gap" between the salaries of cadres and those of the private sector employees. Thirdly, as the new emerging elites in Chinese political and economic firmament often have close links and blood ties with past CCP elites, it is necessary to proceed cautiously lest the entire administrative structure comes under severe strain. And lastly, Xi Jinping needs to have some kind of an "amnesty" scheme, whereby those charged with lesser misdemeanors are able to atone for their crimes.
    All these measure suggested are neither novel, nor unique. Most Asian States face similar problems. It remains to be seen that as China approaches the 19th Party Congress of the CCP, whether there will be any let-up in Xi Jinping's anti corruption drive. After all, he would need the support of his CCP colleagues to "elect" cadres of his choice in the governance of China.       

Friday, 23 September 2016

What Do the Chinese and Indian Peoples Think of Each Other?

        A recent poll conducted in India by the PEW Research Centre [Spring 2016] and published recently indicates that only about 31% of the respondents polled had a favorable impression of China. Earlier a similar poll conducted by PEW in China in July 2014, indicated that of the respondents polled only about 30% had a favorable opinion of India. In other words, ordinary people in both countries do not have a very high opinion of each other. What are the reasons for this? Is it because of a lack of contact and ignorance of each other? Let us examine two important parameters that indicate how close the contacts are between the two peoples. These are tourism and the number of students studying in each other's country. These two parameters would give us the empirical evidence that we need to form an opinion.
       There are approximately 120m Chinese tourists travelling abroad every year and according to the World Travel and Tourism Council [WTTC], they spend nearly US$215 billion during their travels abroad. It is estimated that this figure may go up to US$ 420 b by 2020. And yet how many of these Chinese tourists come to India? The figure for 2015 was about 200,000; certainly up from the abysmally low figure of 21,152 in 2003. This total represents just about 2.5% of the total number of tourists, about 7 million that come to India; although it must be admitted that even Maldives receives more Chinese tourists than India does. China Travel Service [CTS] has about 122 offices throughout China and out of the 125 tour packaged offered, only two include India and even these are accompanied by severe deterrent warnings of what to expect in India.
    There is no doubt that much of the work has to be done on the Indian side. A Tourist Office has been opened in Beijing and Ministry of Tourism web-site is now accessible in Mandarin. Many of the existing misconceptions in the minds of the Chinese tourists about India need to be dispelled. But the low priority given to operationalizing the Buddhist circuit in India, has considerably hampered rapid development. New hotels and better travel connections are needed for the Buddhist circuit. Similarly, the air line connections between the two countries are very few, as compared with the air connections that other Asian countries have with China. Through traffic to third countries is also hampered due to the absence of long range aircraft. China Air Lines has been offering connections to the US and Canada through Beijing and Shanghai, but the scope is still limited. Travelers from China to India continue to have complaints about the inordinate delay in granting visas, but with the PM’s intervention, the introduction of e-visas had considerably shortened the time taken.
    Another reason why contacts are limited can be seen in the number of students studying in each other’s country. Last year there were only 13,578 Indian students in China, as compared to only 578 about a decade ago. Almost 80% of the Indian students in China are taking undergrad courses in clinical medicine in various institutes in China. Indians are going in greater numbers as the university accommodation is good, tuition fee is low and classes are taught in English. But here again the problem remains that there is still no mutual recognition of academic degrees and this in turn limits the openings for future employment.
    From the Chinese side, the number of students studying in India is again very low. Only about 2000 Chinese students are in India, as compared to the 304,040 Chinese students studying in the US! Most Chinese students  in India are undergoing language training courses. Also Indian Universities do not figure in the top 100 Universities in the world, whereas there are 3 Chinese Universities in the top one hundred. Naturally Chinese students would prefer to go where they consider they can receive the best education and thereby enhance their employment prospects. The main complaint here also is that there are inordinate delays in granting visas on subjects for study. On the Indian side, a much more robust approach would have to be undertaken to attract Chinese students. What we need to remember is that friendships made at the student level are likely to last a life time.
    There is no doubt that India and China are two rising powers of Asia, but as is obvious from the above both remain quite oblivious of each other. In the vacuum thus created, past impressions tend to remain, with no new narrative in position. Much work needs to be done, on both sides, to correct the rather poor impression that seems to be prevalent.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Aung San Suu Kyi's Visit to the US-- Was it a Resounding Sucess?

    After having paid a highly successful visit to China a few months ago, where she was received with unprecedented courtesy, Aung San Suu Kyi [ASSK] headed to Washington to complete the second leg of her important foreign policy initiatives. The importance of the visit lies in the fact that her unstated strategic objective was to try and "balance" China's over-reaching influence with that of the US and others such as Japan. How far was she successful in achieving her aims?
   There is no doubt that President Obama considers the opening to Myanmar as one of his key foreign policy successes during his term of office. In the last few waning months of his Administration the President, it therefore follows, would do all in his power to make ASSK's visit a resounding success. Fortunately, Myanmar is not an issue in the ongoing debate between the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. President Obama not only received her personally in the Oval Office, but more importantly announced that the remaining sanctions against Myanmar would be lifted soon. However for all the bon homie witnessed, the harsh reality of the presence of Chinese power just across the northern Myanmar borders could not be over looked.
  Whilst the "carrot" was being shown to ASSK by the Chinese leadership during her visit to Beijing, the "stick" was never far behind. And the "stick" is the powerful United Wa State Army [UWSA], Myanmar's ethnic armed force that controls a large slice of real estate along the Sino-Myanmar border areas. UWSA is an off spring of the old Burma Communist Party and which was supported by the Chinese till 1978. The Chinese have reportedly supplied UWSA with considerable lethal weaponry, that includes Chinese FN-6 portable air defence systems that have been used by Syrian rebels so effectively. It is this that makes the Myanmar army reluctant to take on the Wa army.
   ASSK's initiative to hold peace talks with Myanmar's ethnic rebels has not proceeded well so far. Although  China sent its special envoy for Asia, Sun Guoxiang to attend the peace talks; yet rumors abound that the UWSA delegation walked out of the peace talks largely at China's behest since they had been designated as "observers". Perhaps the Chinese wished to demonstrate that while ASSK may bask in the diplomatic success of her visit to Washington; China remains the most important player in Myanmar. The Chinese leadership is aware of its past high handed attitude that lead to the cancellation of the Myitsone dam project by the previous military led government of Myanmar. It has moved swiftly to correct this unfavorable image.
    The harsh reality is that the US may "pivot" to Asia, but China is there just across the Sino-Myanmar border and that ground realities cannot change. The West and particularly the US would have to do much more, in case they wish to wean away Myanmar from the close embrace of China. Meanwhile, all eyes remain pivoted on what the new US administration does, once it assumes office in January 2017.  

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Mao of China--A Portrait.

     Yesterday the 9th September 2016 was the 40th anniversary of Mao Zedung's death. Strangely even after a lapse of 40 years, Mao remains a very controversial figure both inside as well as outside China. Was he the 'revolutionary hero' who founded the People's Republic on 1st October 1949 with the famous, stirring words that "the Chinese people have stood up" that reverberate throughout China even today; or was he a mass murderer who presided over the great famine during which reportedly 45 million lives were lost?  Mao unleashed the so-called Cultural Revolution in 1966, where nearly 2 million people lost their lives and several, including the father of the present Chinese leader Xi Jinping, were severely incarcerated. Many leading Chinese political families were devastated and destroyed. How do the present, modern generation of Chinese people evaluate Mao today?
     During my time in China [1972-74], I never had the fortune of meeting Mao personally, but his presence was everywhere. Large portraits of Mao dotted nearly every building, parks, railway stations and most Chinese pinned a picture of Mao on their collar lapels. Most air journeys on Chinese planes would begin with a revolutionary song sung in praise of Mao by the airhostess. Similar songs would blare out on loud speakers on railway trains, leaving or entering railway stations. It was compulsory for our Chinese staff members to take every Friday afternoon off from work to go to their assigned park and sing revolutionary songs in praise of Mao; as also to recite his "thoughts" from the little red book that almost every Chinese citizen seemed to carry. No one was allowed to be absent from such sessions. Even personal Chinese staff were not exempt. Mao seemed to be everywhere.
     According to Chinese press reports there is a spike in the number of Mao sympathizers who visited his mausoleum yesterday, where he lies buried at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Global Times [GT] reports that about 2.5 million people have taken part in an on-line flower campaign to pay tribute to Mao and that the social network app "we chat" is largely filled with praise for the late Chinese Chairman. However, not all Chinese are obsessed with what Mao achieved. After Mao's death even the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] was constrained to point out that Mao's rule "inflicted grave disorder, damage and retrogression". This assessment maybe partly due to the fact that it were the leading personnel of the CCP, that suffered the greatest under Mao's Cultural Revolution. Very few Chinese leaders of the pre-Cultural Revolution era, including Deng Xiaoping, survived from his attention!
   Frank Dikotter, a noted Dutch historian, has written a trilogy of books outlining the horrors of Mao's rule. Dikotter has described Mao as one of the greatest "criminals" of the 20th Century--a description that would certainly be contested by others.
   Todays China is very different from Mao's China. It is alleged that the present Chinese leader Xi Jinping, in order to consolidate his power, has adopted many of the same methods that Mao followed. The crack down on the press, the campaign against corruption, removal of opponents, consolidation of power in one office--all have the hallmark of Mao. And yet despite all this, the number of visitors to Mao's birth place at Shaoshan continue to increase every year. It seems that the nostalgia for Mao and his contribution to making China one of the great powers of today remains as strong as ever, despite the alleged horrors of his rule!    

Monday, 5 September 2016

Did the Chinese snub President Obama at Hangzhou G-20 Summit?

       When President Obama landed at Hangzhou airport for the G-20 Summit there was a snafu at the airport which led many in the US press to speculate that the Chinese authorities had deliberately snubbed him. But the President himself was quick of the mark by remarking that "I wouldn't over crank the significance of it". Quite so; for one has only to look at the whole range of the relationship to understand the depth, the extent and how closely the two countries are intertwined. Neither the US and certainly not the Chinese can afford a rupture over so petty a matter.
   This being the last visit by President Obama to China before he retires from office in January 2017, it would be useful to take a careful look at where Sino-US relations stand at present.
    Both the US and China are permanent members of the UN Security Council. Both are also members of several multi-lateral organizations. Therefore meetings at the apex level between the two leaders, besides frequent bilateral visits, are no longer a rare sight. In the first term of his presidency, Obama met his then-counterpart, Chinese President Hu Jintao about 12 times. A similar cycle and frequency of visits is maintained with the present Chinese President Xi Jinping. There is no doubt that the greater frequency of top level meetings is related in large part to the expanded opportunities that are available on the sidelines of multilateral meetings. These days it is clear that the frequency of meetings is also directly proportional to the importance of the relationship.

      Besides these meetings at the apex level there is annual high level Strategic and Economic Dialogue [S&ED] that is normally conducted at the Secretary of State/State Councilor level. Seven such meetings have been held so far. In 2011 the two countries inaugurated a Strategic Security Dialogue [SSD] under the S&ED format that was to be co-chaired by the US Deputy Secretary of State and the Chinese Vice- Foreign Minister, and including the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and a Deputy Chief of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff. A first ever ‘informal round’ of the SSD was held in 2013. Other high-profile dialogues include the US-China Consultation on People-to-People Exchange [CPE], established in 2010, and three dialogues established before President Obama took office: the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade [JCCT], the Ten-Year Framework on Energy and Environment Cooperation, and the Joint Committee on Environmental Cooperation. In 2011 the two countries set up the US-China Governor’s Forum that was intended to ‘deepen’ relations at the provincial level. A further initiative was to set up a Mayor’s Forum to examine the ‘best practices’ at the City Mayor/Party Secretary Level.[ii]  Similar arrangements have been constituted at Cabinet level and there are 91 bilateral mechanisms where almost every issue affecting the two countries is discussed, besides international issues of mutual interest. There is even a group that even discusses South Asian issues pertaining to India and Pakistan.
     In 1979 the total Sino-US trade was only a paltry US$2 billion but by the year 2015, the total Sino-US trade had reached the astronomical figure of nearly US$600 billion. China has presently overtaken  Canada to become the largest trading partner of the US. The trade deficit is huge; with the US amounting to US$ 386.5billion in favor of China. In recent years, nevertheless China has become one of the fastest-growing US export markets and the importance of this market is expected to grow even further, given the pace of China’s economic growth. As Chinese living standards continue to improve and a sizable middle class emerges, so will US-China trade grow exponentially. China is also the largest foreign state holding US Treasury Securities, estimated at US$3.1trillion.
    In 2015 the number of Chinese students in the US reached a figure of 304,040, constituting 31.1% of the total number of foreign students in the US. In 2015 the number of Chinese tourists to the US reached a figure of 2.56million and was expected to go up to 2.97 million in 2016. Conversely the number of US tourists to China in 2015 reached a figure of 2.1million. The total number in 2016 both ways is expected to cross 5 million.[China Daily, 17 March 2016] 
    The Obama-Xi meeting touched upon co-operation in Afghanistan, cyber security, military relations, coast guard agreement, counter terrorism and a host of other global development issues. The US needs Chinese help in thwarting North Korean belligerence as well as over the Iran nuclear issue. But the key of how to handle the SCS dispute issue remains a thorn, with both sides trying to fathom each others future intentions. There is no doubt that with so much at stake, both sides would be anxious to find a modus vivendi. Both realize that confrontation is not the preferred option.
    Thus as President Obama leaves office in a few months time the Sino-US relationship remains central and the most important one presently in the world. Future US Presidents cannot but take cognizance of this most essential fact in determining future policy. It would be wise for other Asian states also to take due note.      

[i] CRS Report No. R 41108, dated 1 August 2013. ‘US-China Relations: An Overview of Policy Issues’ by Susan Lawrence []
[ii] Op. Cit.