James Palmer writes: On 5 July 2009, residents of Xinjiang, China’s far western province, found the internet wasn’t working. It’s a regular frustration in remote areas, but it rapidly became apparent that this time it wasn’t coming back. The government had hit the kill switch on the entire province when a protest in the capital Ürümqi by young Uighur men (of the area’s indigenous Turkic population) turned into a riot against the Han Chinese, in which at least 197 people were killed.
The shutdown was intended to prevent similar uprisings by the Uighur, long subjected to religious and cultural repression, and to halt revenge attacks by Han. In that respect, it might have worked; officially, there was no fatal retaliation, but in retrospect the move came to be seen as an error.
Speaking anonymously, a Chinese security advisor described the blackout as ‘a serious mistake… now we are years behind where we could have been in tracking terrorists’. Young Uighur learnt to see the internet as hostile territory – a lesson reinforced by the arrest of Ilham Tohti, a popular professor of economics, on trumped-up charges of extremism linked to an Uighur-language website he administered. ‘We turn off our phones before we talk politics’, a tech-savvy Uighur acquaintance remarked.
The Uighur continued to consume digital media, but increasingly in off-line form, whether viewing discs full of Turkish TV series or jihadist propaganda passed on memory sticks. Where once Chinese media reports claimed that arrested Uighur had been visiting ‘separatist’ websites, now they noted drawers full of burnt DVDs and flash drives.
A series of brutal terrorist attacks early in 2014 reinforced the lesson for the Chinese authorities; by driving Uighur off-line they had thrown away valuable data. Last summer, the Public Security University in Beijing began recruiting overseas experts in data analysis, including, I’m told, former members of the Israeli security forces.
In Xinjiang, tightened control means less information, and the Chinese government has always had a fraught relationship with information – private and public. Today, an explosion in available data promises to open up sources of knowledge previously tightly locked away. To some, this seems a shift toward democracy. But technocrats within the government also see it as a way to create a more efficient form of authoritarianism. [Continue reading…]
Tony Karon writes: Those in Washington nostalgic for the heady days of empire will proclaim 2014 as the year the Cold War resumed: Russia annexed Crimea and backed a secessionist movement in eastern Ukraine after its ally in Kiev was overthrown by a western-backed rebellion. Nato sounded dire warnings and its members imposed sanctions on Russia as the rhetoric on both sides turned decidedly old-school. US leaders berated Russian expansionism, while in Moscow the talk was about resisting Nato’s steady encirclement.
But the renewed US-Russia standoff is nothing remotely like the Cold War.
Geopolitical contests between Washington and Moscow dominated international affairs for the second half of the 20th century. The current Nato-Russia standoff, by contrast, is a petty regional conflict with scant effect on the rest of the world. As the Nato-Russia dispute simmered, the world pretty much got on with its own business – messy and chaotic as that business often was.
Sure, Moscow ended the year in financial turmoil as its currency plummeted, but that was largely a result of the global oil price being cut in half in a matter of six months.
And the fact that Moscow turned not to the International Monetary Fund when it needed to prop up the rouble but instead to China was a sign of just how much the global balance of economic power has changed.
Curiously enough, Barack Obama ended 2014 by finally telling Americans that more than a half-century of US- Cuba policy had failed, resuming diplomatic ties and easing the embargo.
Mr Obama’s decision is historic in US domestic politics, but it simply brings America into line with the rest of the world. The move won universal praise in Latin America, where governments have long maintained normal relations with Cuba and pressed the US to follow suit. Far from the US “backyard” of yore, Latin America today does more business with China, which has broken ground on an epic construction project to open a new transcontinental canal through Nicaragua. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: The Chinese government appears to have blocked the ability of people in China to gain access to Google’s email service through third-party email clients, which many Chinese and foreigners had been relying on to use their Gmail accounts after an earlier blocking effort by officials, according to Internet analysts and users in China.
The blocking began last Friday and has ignited anger and frustration among many Internet users in China. Data from Google shows traffic to Gmail dropping to zero from Chinese servers.
The new step in blocking Gmail has consequences that go well beyond making it difficult for users to access personal emails. Some foreign companies use Gmail as their corporate email service, for example. Now, the companies will have to ensure that their employees have software known as VPNs, or virtual private networks, to access Gmail.
That software allows users to bypass the Chinese Internet censorship controls commonly known as the Great Firewall, but the authorities also attempt to inhibit the software.[Continue reading…]
The New York Times: Even before Americans began flocking to theaters on Christmas Eve to see “The Interview” — Sony Pictures’ comedy about a C.I.A. plot to kill the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un — Chinese film fans by the thousands were downloading mostly pirated versions of the movie on domestic video-sharing websites. By midday on Friday, more than 300,000 people had seen the film and the reviews, by and large, were favorable.
“Perfect, the greatest film in history, all hail Sony,” read one online comment. Said another, “Their ability to amuse is out of this galaxy,” referring to the film’s stars, Seth Rogen and James Franco.
In one sign of the enthusiasm for the film, whose theatrical release was initially held up after a hacking attack on the studio, “The Interview” scored an 8.0 rating on the Chinese Internet movie database Douban, with more than 10,000 people posting reviews. In their comments, some people acknowledged having not seen the film, but wanted to show their support for what many approvingly described as an act of subversion against North Korea. [Continue reading…]
Robert Foyle Hunwick writes: There’s a joke going around: “Santa Claus was descending into China from the sky. Due to the heavy smog, he fell to the ground, but no one dared help him up. While he was still lying in the snow, his bag was ransacked for presents, and his reindeer and sleigh taken away by the chengguan. Therefore, no Christmas this year.”
While some of the humor needs context—there are digs at China’s notorious bystander effect and much-despised urban-management officials, chengguan — the larger meaning is clear. Ironic jokes about Santa’s routine being disrupted with uniquely Chinese characteristics are a sure sign that, yes, they do know it’s Christmas time in communist China.
Retailers lead the way here: An annual spending season that once focused on Chinese New Year in the winter is now bloated and elongated, stretching from the invented Singles’ Day on November 11 through February, with Christmas as a kind of hump day. Even before December, shops, streets, and hotels begin filling with slightly off-kilter Yuletide scenes: performers in elf suits play traditional cymbals while a grinning plastic Santa Claus toots a saxophone outside his gingerbread cabin. Why the sax? Theorists point to everything from the instrument’s romantic associations with the avuncular Bill Clinton jamming on one in the 1990s, to the smooth alto-sax muzak that’s the preferred soundtrack of Santa’s typical dwelling, the shopping mall.
There’s no sign of Jesus, but in many big cities, you’re still more likely to see Father Christmas’s face than that of “Uncle” Xi Jinping, as state media has characterized the country’s president, presenting a homely, familial image that’s quite at odds with the repressive manner in which he’s coldly eliminated opponents. But Xi is not above the fray himself, visiting Santa’s official cabin in Rovaniemi, Finland in 2010.
The Western religious festival is so trendy, in fact, that it may be the second-most-celebrated festival in China after the Spring Festival among young Chinese, according to research conducted by the China Social Survey Institute (CSSI), which found that 15- to 45-year-olds are the most likely to observe it. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: When a retired Chinese general with impeccable Communist Party credentials recently wrote a scathing account of North Korea as a recalcitrant ally headed for collapse and unworthy of support, he exposed a roiling debate in China about how to deal with the country’s young leader, Kim Jong-un.
For decades China has stood by North Korea, and though at times the relationship has soured, it has rarely reached such a low point, Chinese analysts say. The fact that the commentary by Lt. Gen. Wang Hongguang, a former deputy commander of an important military region, was published in a state-run newspaper this month and then posted on an official People’s Liberation Army website attested to how much the relationship had deteriorated, the analysts say.
“China has cleaned up the D.P.R.K.’s mess too many times,” General Wang wrote in The Global Times, using the initials of North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “But it doesn’t have to do that in the future.”
Of the government in North Korea, he said: “If an administration isn’t supported by the people, ‘collapse’ is just a matter of time.” Moreover, North Korea had violated the spirit of the mutual defense treaty with China, he said, by failing to consult China on its nuclear weapons program, which has created instability in Northeast Asia. [Continue reading…]
BBC News reports: Poor treatment of workers in Chinese factories which make Apple products has been discovered by an undercover BBC Panorama investigation.
Filming on an iPhone 6 production line showed Apple’s promises to protect workers were routinely broken.
It found standards on workers’ hours, ID cards, dormitories, work meetings and juvenile workers were being breached at the Pegatron factories.
Apple said it strongly disagreed with the programme’s conclusions.
Exhausted workers were filmed falling asleep on their 12-hour shifts at the Pegatron factories on the outskirts of Shanghai.
One undercover reporter, working in a factory making parts for Apple computers, had to work 18 days in a row despite repeated requests for a day off. [Continue reading…]
Llewellyn King writes: In history, countries have sought to increase their territory by bribery, chicanery, coercion and outright force of arms. But while many have sought to dominate the seas, from the Greek city states to the mighty British Empire, none has ever, in effect, tried to take over an ocean or a sea as its own.
But that is what China is actively doing in the ocean south of the mainland: the South China Sea. Bit by bit, it is establishing hegemony over this most important sea where the littoral states — China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam — have territorial claims.
The importance of the South China Sea is hard to overestimate. Some of the most vital international sea lanes traverse it; it is one of the great fishing areas; and the ocean bed, near land, has large reserves of oil and gas. No wonder everyone wants a piece of it — and China wants all of it.
Historically China has laid claim to a majority of the sea and adheres to a map or line — known as the nine-dash map, the U-shape line or the nine-dotted line — that cedes most of the ocean area and all of the island land to it. The nine-dash map is a provocation at best and a blueprint for annexation at worst. [Continue reading…]
Joseph E. Stiglitz writes: When the history of 2014 is written, it will take note of a large fact that has received little attention: 2014 was the last year in which the United States could claim to be the world’s largest economic power. China enters 2015 in the top position, where it will likely remain for a very long time, if not forever. In doing so, it returns to the position it held through most of human history.
Comparing the gross domestic product of different economies is very difficult. Technical committees come up with estimates, based on the best judgments possible, of what are called “purchasing-power parities,” which enable the comparison of incomes in various countries. These shouldn’t be taken as precise numbers, but they do provide a good basis for assessing the relative size of different economies. Early in 2014, the body that conducts these international assessments — the World Bank’s International Comparison Program — came out with new numbers. (The complexity of the task is such that there have been only three reports in 20 years.) The latest assessment, released last spring, was more contentious and, in some ways, more momentous than those in previous years. It was more contentious precisely because it was more momentous: the new numbers showed that China would become the world’s largest economy far sooner than anyone had expected — it was on track to do so before the end of 2014.
The source of contention would surprise many Americans, and it says a lot about the differences between China and the U.S. — and about the dangers of projecting onto the Chinese some of our own attitudes. Americans want very much to be No. 1—we enjoy having that status. In contrast, China is not so eager. According to some reports, the Chinese participants even threatened to walk out of the technical discussions. For one thing, China did not want to stick its head above the parapet — being No. 1 comes with a cost. It means paying more to support international bodies such as the United Nations. It could bring pressure to take an enlightened leadership role on issues such as climate change. It might very well prompt ordinary Chinese to wonder if more of the country’s wealth should be spent on them. (The news about China’s change in status was in fact blacked out at home.) There was one more concern, and it was a big one: China understands full well America’s psychological preoccupation with being No. 1 — and was deeply worried about what our reaction would be when we no longer were. [Continue reading…]
Strictly speaking, Tim Cook is not an entrepreneur since he didn’t start Apple — he simply replaced the irreplaceable Steve Jobs. Since then, the company has increased in value by $350 billion.
Since Apple’s success has continued without Jobs, is this a reflection of the talent of the less charismatic Cook?
“Tim Cook has created as much value as Steve Jobs,” says a headline in Quartz above a photo of a triumphant Cook.
“How high can he go?” asks the caption.
Buried down in the report is a note of realism: “How much credit does a CEO deserve for the performance of his company?”
I guess Apple’s 98,000 employees deserve to share some of the credit alongside their new leader.
And then there are the people who actually make the products that Apple sells, but who don’t even get the honor or financials rewards of being Apple employees.
Apple doesn’t make anything. It simply designs products and unless those designs were transformed into physical devices by human hands and machines operated by people, the designs themselves would remain nothing more than wonderfully intricate dreams.
While Apple has come to embody the dream of American free market capitalism, the people who turned that dream into a reality aren’t American — they’re mostly Chinese — but from Apple and its admirers, they receive virtually no credit.
Joe Zhang writes: On a trip home late last year to the rural Chinese village of my childhood, I found my brother tying a military knife under his belt as he was leaving the house. I asked why he needed a knife, and he replied, “It is not as safe here as before.”
The peaceful and idyllic village I grew up in, like many of China’s rural towns, has been brought to ruins by the breakdown of traditional social norms that followed decades of failed policies and neglect by the state. Many of my contemporary fellow villagers would prefer to go back to the old days.
Nostalgia in China may sound strange to people whose image of the country’s recent history is colored by memories of Mao’s disastrous policies, which in the years following the Communist revolution in 1949 brought economic disaster, starvation and mass death. But my generation, which came of age after the Great Famine and at the end of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1970s, missed the worst of the misery. And in typical Chinese fashion, my elders preferred not to talk about the bad days.
My childhood came at a unique moment for China. We were still living traditional village lives, having left the horrors of Mao behind, but not yet in the thick of the capitalist frenzy. Families were strong, crime was unheard of and the landscape was pristine. We didn’t mind being poor — in my third and fourth years at primary school in the early-’70s, the whole school did not have textbooks — because we didn’t know what we were missing. We lived in peaceful, tight-knit communities.
But China’s traditional social fabric has become shredded — and the disintegration is most obvious in the countryside, where families are falling apart, crime is soaring and the environment is killing people. Many villagers who were happy to have the state retreat from their private lives in recent decades are now crying for government intervention. Something has to be done to rebuild China’s languishing village life. [Continue reading…]
Elizabeth Kolbert writes: On Tuesday evening, when Senate Democrats rejected efforts to force a vote approving the Keystone XL pipeline, they knew they were just delaying the inevitable. The measure was defeated by one vote, and several naysayers will no longer be around come January. The new, Republican-controlled Senate will take up the measure again — “This’ll be an early item on the agenda in the next Congress,” incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed on Tuesday night — and, the next time around, everyone knows, it will pass. In preparation for this eventuality, White House officials have begun hinting that President Barack Obama might be willing to trade approval of the pipeline for Republican acceptance of one of his favored policies.
If this is indeed the President’s plan, let’s hope he asks the right price. Otherwise, his claim to an environmental legacy will end up being what he traded away. As it happens, the Keystone vote came exactly one week after Obama and China’s President, Xi Jinping, announced that they had agreed on a plan to curb carbon emissions. Under the agreement, China, which is now the world’s largest greenhouse-gas emitter on an annual basis, would cap its emissions by 2030. For its part, the United States, which is still the world’s greatest emitter on a cumulative basis, would reduce its emissions by twenty-eight per cent by 2025. (This is against a 2005 baseline — U.S. emissions have already fallen about ten per cent since that year, owing, in part, to a substitution of natural gas for coal in electricity production.) Obama called the agreement “historic,” and rightly so. It marks the first time that China has officially acknowledged that its rapidly rising emissions need to stop rising, and it also offers a significantly more ambitious goal for the U.S. than it has previously been willing to commit to. Grist called the deal “a game changer,” while Vox labelled it a “BFD.” Many commentators noted that the odds of getting a meaningful global agreement on climate change at a summit scheduled for next year in Paris — odds that had seemed close to zero — suddenly looked a good deal better. The U.S.-China deal, as a Guardian editorial put it, “transforms the prospects” for the summit.
President Obama deserves a great deal of credit for the agreement, as does Secretary of State John Kerry, who conducted the behind-the-scenes negotiations. But, as many commentators have also noted, the deal doesn’t get the U.S. or China remotely near where they need to be if the world is to avoid disaster — which both countries, along with pretty much every other state in the world, have defined as warming of more than two degrees Celsius. Chris Hope, a policy researcher at Cambridge University, ran the terms of the agreement through what’s known as an “integrated assessment model.” He also included in his analysis a recent commitment by the European Union to cut its emissions by forty per cent before 2030. He found that even if all of the pledges made so far are fulfilled, there will be “less than a 1% chance of keeping the rise in global mean temperatures” below two degrees Celsius: “Most likely the rise will be about 3.8° C.” [Continue reading…]
Reuters reports: There is no trace of Shenzhen Lanhao Days Electronic Technology Co Ltd at its listed address in the beige and pink-tiled “Fragrant Villa” apartment complex in this southern Chinese city. The building’s managers say they’ve never heard of it.
But a Western intelligence report reviewed by Reuters says Shenzhen Lanhao is one of several companies in China that receives money from Iran through a Chinese bank. Such transfers help to finance international operations of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ elite Quds Force, the report said.
The Quds provides arms, aid and training for pro-Iranian militant groups in the Middle East, such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Shi’ite Muslim militias in Iraq. They have also armed and trained government forces in Syria’s civil war in violation of a U.N. arms embargo, U.S. and European officials say. [Continue reading…]
Reuters reports: China and the United States agreed on Wednesday to new limits on carbon emissions starting in 2025, but the pledge by the world’s two biggest polluters appears to be more politically significant than substantive.
As China’s President Xi Jinping agreed to a date for peak CO2 emissions for the first time and also promised to raise the share of zero-carbon energy to 20 percent of the country’s total, President Barack Obama said the United States would cut its own emissions by more than a quarter by 2025.
At its best, the announcement threw the political weight of the world’s two biggest economies behind a new global climate pact to be negotiated in Paris next year.
But the United States has already pledged to cut its carbon emissions by 17 percent by 2020 and it’s not clear if the new proposals will pass a Republican-dominated Congress. [Continue reading…]
Pankaj Mishra writes: Rarely has an acronym led such a charmed life as BRICS. Casually invented by former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. economist and Bloomberg View columnist Jim O’Neill to label emerging markets of promise, it actually brought together leaders from the disparate countries of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Last week in Brazil, they took a decisive step toward building institutions that could plausibly challenge the long geopolitical and economic ascendancy of the West.
The New Development Bank, headquartered in Shanghai, would finance infrastructure and development projects. This would be the biggest rival yet to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as the economic architecture designed by the U.S. in Bretton Woods in 1944.
There are good reasons why China is working hard to establish it. The BRICS countries contain more than 40 percent of the world’s population and account for a quarter of the world’s economy. China itself may shortly bypass the U.S. to become the world’s biggest economy (based on domestic purchasing power). Yet leadership of the World Bank and the IMF remains the exclusive preserve of the U.S. and western European countries.
The promised reforms to these institutions have not materialized; China now clearly wants to build its own global system with the help of the BRICS. A new “special relationship” with its closest economic partner in the West — Germany — and the recent establishment of Frankfurt as a clearinghouse for the renminbi is part of the same Chinese attempt to break the hegemony of the dollar as a payments and reserve currency. [Continue reading…]
Ma Jian writes: On 4 June 1989, when the Chinese Communist party (CCP) sent 200,000 soldiers in armoured tanks to suppress the peaceful pro-democracy protest in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, causing hundreds if not thousands of fatalities, it was unimaginable to me and most of my compatriots that, 25 years later, this barbaric regime would still be in power, and the massacre would be rendered a taboo. But despite the party’s most ardent efforts to wipe the episode from history, memories of the massacre refuse to be crushed. On the milestone 25th anniversary, Tiananmen is more important than ever.
The death toll of the Tiananmen Democracy Movement may pale in comparison with the millions who perished in the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. Its significance, however, lies not in the number of casualties but in the nobility of its aspirations and the power of its legacy. The CCP and its western apologists like to claim that China, with its vast population, long, unbroken history and cultural traditions, has no desire – or indeed need – for constitutional democracy, and is much better off following its own “exceptional” path of political dictatorship combined with a market economy. But Tiananmen showed the world that the Chinese people are no different from everyone else. When given the chance to express their views freely, they seized it and howled in unison their desire for democracy, freedom and human rights. Although their understanding of the concepts was elementary, they instinctively grasped, like the protesters in Place de la Bastille and Wenceslas Square before them, that these ideals formed the foundation of any civilised and humane nation. To claim that the Chinese are unsuited to, or not yet ready for, democracy and freedom is to view them as less than human beings. [Continue reading…]
Xinhua reports: A Chinese Internet information body on Monday said an investigation spanning several months has confirmed “the existence of snooping activities directed against China” as exposed by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden.
A report by China’s Internet Media Research Center said Chinese authorities have looked into the NSA’s secret surveillance program codenamed PRISM, which is revealed by British, U.S. and Hong Kong media based on documents leaked by Snowden.
“Subsequently, an investigation carried out by various Chinese government departments over several months confirmed the existence of snooping activities directed against China,” the report said. [Continue reading…]
Following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s state visit to Beijing this week, Minxin Pei writes: The fragility of the budding Sino-Russian partnership was on full display during Putin’s visit, the centerpiece of which was supposed to be the signing of a long-term agreement for China to purchase Russian natural gas.
At first, negotiations were deadlocked, with neither side willing to budge on prices. The Russians were insisting on setting a high price while the Chinese, sensing Russian weakness, were trying to bargain the rate down significantly. Disaster was averted at the last minute when both sides reached an opaque agreement that would enable Russia to export $400 billion worth of gas to China over 30 years, starting in 2018.
Although the price was not disclosed, Russian media reported that it will be around $350 per thousand cubic meters, roughly the average for Russian gas exports to Europe but lower than the price for gas exported to Germany and other rich Western European countries (which have to pay over $400 per thousand cubic meters).
If anything, the Sino-Russian gas deal epitomizes the nature of the ties between Moscow and Beijing. Their relationship is purely utilitarian and lacks enduring foundations of mutual interest and shared values.
Nations become strategic allies not simply because they share the same potential opponents. They need to have deep trust in each other. At a minimum, trust is easier to build when potential allies have no fear of each other. And such trust becomes unshakeable if they share the same values.
Unfortunately, none of these conditions applies to the Sino-Russian relationship. Russia fears China, which borders on Russia’s sparsely populated far eastern region, part of which was, in the eyes of the Chinese, stolen from China in the late 19th century. Many Russians worry that China will take over that land, either through migration or more sinister means. Unlike the West, which has facilitated China’s rise and has come to recognize it as a reality, the Russian elite has trouble accepting China, impoverished and impotent only a generation ago, as a great power. [Continue reading…]