Chinese officials ‘create 488 million bogus social media posts a year’

The Guardian reports: The Chinese government is fabricating almost 490m social media posts a year in order to distract the public from criticising or questioning its rule, according to a study.

China’s “Fifty Cent Party” – a legion of freelance online trolls so-named because they are believed to be paid 50 cents a post – has long been blamed for flooding the Chinese internet with pro-regime messages designed to defend and promote the ruling Communist party.

However, the study by Harvard University researchers (pdf) claims many of those comments are not posted by ordinary citizens, as previously thought, but by civil servants who double as online stooges.

An analysis of nearly 43,800 posts found that 99.3% were the work of government employees working for more than 200 agencies, including tax and social security and human resources bureaux. [Continue reading…]

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Beijing is setting the stage for war in the South China Sea

nine-dash-line

Steve Mollman writes: All any nation needs to go to war is a good provocation, and China is no exception. With its sweeping territorial claims, island-building, militarization, patriotic fervor, and prickly rhetoric, Beijing is setting itself up to be repeatedly provoked in the South China Sea. It might even be counting on it.

Consider the nation’s manmade, militarized island at Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly archipelago. Though it didn’t even exist a few years ago, and for decades ships from other nations could routinely sail by it without disturbance, now Beijing feels provoked if anyone goes near it — and sends out warnings or makes aggressive gestures in response.

This week the USS William P. Lawrence, a guided missile destroyer from the US Navy, conducted a “freedom of navigation” operation near the island. It deliberately sailed within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef. If the US recognized the reef as China’s territory to begin with — which it does not — that would be considered entering China’s territory.

The problem is China has claimed, outrageously, that nearly the entire sea is its own territory. Considering the fact that some $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes through the strategic waterway every year, that’s a problem not just for the US, but any number of countries participating in the global economy. The US Navy’s operation was a reminder to China that the sea is open waters, despite any impromptu islands that might have been constructed of late.

China bases its sea claim on a “nine-dash line” that it drew on a map after World War 2. Never mind that the line conflicts with international norms and overlapping claims by nearby nations, including the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia, nations whose coasts are much closer to the disputed sea than China’s. [Continue reading…]

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Tony Blair: The former prime minister for hire

The Guardian reports: hen Jonathan Powell, the gatekeeper to the corporate empire of Tony Blair, sat down to lunch with the former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Faisal Al Turki in June 2010 he could not have known how lucrative it would turn out to be for the former British prime minister.

As the high-profile mediator of the stuttering peace process in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Blair had to be careful not to mix business with pleasure. However, one of those lunching with Powell at the annual “global mediator’s retreat”, organised by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was looking to make a deal.

Nawaf Obaid, a security analyst who accompanied Prince Faisal, emailed Powell a week later, according to documents seen by the Guardian, with a suggestion to work with his brother Tarek’s company, PetroSaudi, which he “co-founded and co-owns with Prince Turki bin Abdullah, son of King Abdullah”.

“They have several projects that [they] are working [on] and I think it would [give] a very interesting perspective to see if we could establish a strategic partnership with former PM Tony Blair and yourself,” he wrote.

Tarek Obaid was a former banker who styled himself as an adviser to members of the Saudi royal family and a director of a joint venture with Malaysia’s multibillion-dollar development fund, 1MDB. This fund had put $300m through PetroSaudi and as the latter’s chief executive, Obaid was on the lookout for deals.

On paper PetroSaudi looked impressive: its chief investment officer was a former Goldman Sachs banker, Patrick Mahony. The chief operating officer was listed as Rick Haythornthwaite, a City insider who was also chairman of Network Rail and MasterCard.

Blair’s team sold the former prime minister as someone who could help “unlock situations which might otherwise be blocked by political factors” in places such as China and Africa. PetroSaudi was interested in Beijing’s appetite for oil and how Blair’s firm could help. [Continue reading…]

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These days, the worst multinational corporations have names you’ve never heard

Michael Hobbes describes how Joyce Chachengwa, a farmer in Zimbabwe, lost the land upon which she, her daughters and grandchildren depended, after a corporate takeover turning the land over to sugarcane for ethanol production. He writes: You know where I’m going with this, right? I’m about to tell you that the company behind all this is Monsanto, or Shell, or Coca-Cola. That your car is running on the ethanol this plant is producing. That the U.S. government is funding or facilitating or failing to prevent what is taking place here.

But none of that is true. The company responsible for all this is called Green Fuel. It is headquartered in Zimbabwe, it isn’t listed on any stock exchange, it doesn’t sell any products in the United States, and it has no Western investors.

And it is, increasingly, the rule rather than the exception. When you think of the worst abuses in poor countries — land grabs, sweatshops, cash-filled envelopes passed to politicians — you probably think they’re committed by companies based in rich ones: Nike in Indonesia, Shell in Nigeria, Dow in Bhopal, India.

These are the cases you’re most likely to hear about, but they are no longer representative of how these abuses actually take place — or who commits them. These days, the worst multinational corporations have names you’ve never heard. They come from places like China and South Africa and Russia. The countries where they are headquartered are unable to regulate them, and the countries where they operate are unwilling to.

For the last 10 years, I’ve worked at an NGO dedicated to preventing multinational corporations from violating human rights. Here’s why every actor in the West that could have prevented what happened in Chisumbanje — the media, the international agencies, my own NGO — is becoming increasingly powerless to do so. [Continue reading…]

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Panama Papers tie more of China’s elite to secret accounts

The New York Times reports: At least three of the seven people on the Chinese Communist Party’s most powerful committee, including President Xi Jinping, have relatives who have controlled secretive offshore companies, the organization that has publicized a trove of leaked documents about hidden wealth reported on Wednesday.

The disclosures by the organization, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, risked new embarrassment for the Chinese authorities, already unnerved and infuriated by the organization’s leaks of the documents, known as the Panama Papers.

Chinese government censors have moved aggressively since the first release of leaked documents on Sunday to purge any media’s mention of them in China, going so far as to block Internet searches and online discussions that involve the words “Panama Papers.” [Continue reading…]

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Saudi Arabia passes Russia as world’s third biggest military spender

The Washington Post reports: Global military spending reached almost $1.7 trillion in 2015, marking a year-on-year increase for the first time since 2011, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks arms expenditure around the world.

The United States remained far and away the top spender, which despite a dip from 2014, accounted for more than a third of total global spending. It was followed by China and then, perhaps surprisingly, Saudi Arabia, which supplanted Russia in third place. [Continue reading…]

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China wants to power the world through a global grid

Earth

Adam Minter writes: China’s State Grid Corporation, the world’s biggest power company, is on an impressive buying binge. As Bloomberg News reports, the company is “actively in bidding” for power assets in Australia, hoping to add them to a portfolio of Italian, Brazilian, and Filipino companies. The goal isn’t simply to invest, however. State Grid’s Chairman Liu Zhenya has a plan that he believes will stall global warming, put millions of people to work and bring about world peace by 2050.

The idea is to connect these and other power grids to a global grid that will draw electricity from windmills at the North Pole and vast solar arrays in Africa’s deserts, and then distribute the power to all corners of the world. Among other benefits, according to Liu, the system will produce “a community of common destiny for all mankind with blue skies and green land.”

It’s a crazy idea, of course. And if this so-called Global Energy Interconnection had been proposed by anyone other than the chairman of the world’s wealthiest power company, it wouldn’t deserve much consideration. But the $50 billion in cash generated by State Grid last year gives the company the deep pockets and political standing to put its priorities on the international energy agenda.

Last September, no less than Chinese President Xi Jinping publicly called for talks on establishing a global grid, while leading research organizations — including the Argonne National Laboratory and the Edison Electrical Institute — have participated in conferences looking at what would be needed to establish one. And whether or not it’s ever built, the technologies that underlie Liu’s big idea are already changing how power will be generated and transmitted in coming decades. [Continue reading…]

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Fund run by David Cameron’s father avoided paying tax in Britain

The Guardian reports: David Cameron’s father ran an offshore fund that avoided ever having to pay tax in Britain by hiring a small army of Bahamas residents – including a part-time bishop – to sign its paperwork.

Ian Cameron was a director of Blairmore Holdings Inc, an investment fund run from the Bahamas but named after the family’s ancestral home in Aberdeenshire, which managed tens of millions of pounds on behalf of wealthy families.

Clients included Isidore Kerman, an adviser to Robert Maxwell who once owned the West End restaurants Scott’s and J Sheekey, and Leopold Joseph, a private bank used by the Rolling Stones.

The fund was founded in the early 1980s with help from the prime minister’s late father and still exists today. The Guardian has confirmed that in 30 years Blairmore has never paid a penny of tax in the UK on its profits. [Continue reading…]

BBC News reports: China appears to be censoring social media posts on the Panama Papers document leak which has named several members of China’s elite, including President Xi Jinping’s brother-in-law.

Hundreds of posts on networks such as Sina Weibo and Wechat on the topic have been deleted since Monday morning. [Continue reading…]

Find out more about the Panama Papers.

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China’s rulers possessed by Maoist nostalgia and Leninist-style leadership

Xi-Jinping

Orville Schell writes: “As a liberal, I no longer feel I have a future in China,” a prominent Chinese think tank head in the process of moving abroad recently lamented in private. Such refrains are all too familiar these days as educated Chinese professionals express growing alarm over their country’s future. Indeed, not since the 1970s when Mao still reigned and the Cultural Revolution still raged has the Chinese leadership been so possessed by Maoist nostalgia and Leninist-style leadership.

As different leaders have come and gone, China specialists overseas have become accustomed to reading Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tea leaves as oscillating cycles of political “relaxation” and “tightening.” China has long been a one-party Leninist state with extensive censorship and perhaps the largest secret police establishment in the world. But what has been happening lately in Beijing under the leadership of Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping is no such simple fluctuation. It is a fundamental shift in ideological and organizational direction that is beginning to influence both China’s reform agenda and its foreign relations.

At the center of this retrograde trend is Xi’s enormously ambitious initiative to purge the Chinese Communist Party of what he calls “tigers and flies,” namely corrupt officials and businessmen both high and low. Since it began in 2012, the campaign has already netted more than 160 “tigers” whose rank is above or equivalent to that of the deputy provincial or deputy ministerial level, and more than 1,400 “flies,” all lower-level officials.1 But it has also morphed from an anticorruption drive into a broader neo-Maoist-style mass purge aimed at political rivals and others with differing ideological or political views.

To carry out this mass movement, the Party has mobilized its unique and extensive network of surveillance, security, and secret police in ways that have affected many areas of Chinese life. Media organizations dealing with news and information have been hit particularly hard. Pressured to conform to old Maoist models requiring them to serve as megaphones for the Party, editors and reporters have found themselves increasingly constrained by Central Propaganda Department diktats. Told what they can and cannot cover, they find that the limited freedom they had to report on events has been drastically curtailed. [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon reaches out to U.S. weapons manufacturers to find new ways to threaten Russia and China

Reuters reports: The Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office plans to reach out to U.S. industry in about a month for ways to put existing weapons technologies to new uses as the department scrambles to maintain its competitive edge over Russia and China.

“We’re looking for things we can put our hands on today, go test today,” said Will Roper, director of the SCO, or what he called the Pentagon’s “take risk” office, said.

This is the first time the office is broadly going out to industry for specific ideas on how to repurpose existing weapons, which could result in lucrative new contracts.

The secretive Pentagon office was set up in August 2012 at the behest of Defense Secretary Ash Carter, then the deputy defense secretary, who worried that the U.S. military was not ready for a return to great power competition after years of fighting extremist groups in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The office is now managing a nearly $1 billion dollar annual budget that is aimed at upsetting assumptions made by China and Russia about U.S. military capabilities. [Continue reading…]

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China blasts U.S. ‘rape and murder’ at UN Human Rights Council

Reuters reports: China strongly rejected U.S.-led criticism of its human rights record at the U.N. Human Rights Council on Thursday, saying the United States was hypocritical and guilty of crimes including the rape and murder of civilians.

“The U.S. is notorious for prison abuse at Guantanamo prison, its gun violence is rampant, racism is its deep-rooted malaise,” Chinese diplomat Fu Cong told the Council, using unusually blunt language.

“The United States conducts large-scale extra-territorial eavesdropping, uses drones to attack other countries’ innocent civilians, its troops on foreign soil commit rape and murder of local people. It conducts kidnapping overseas and uses black prisons.”

Fu was responding to a joint statement by the United States and 11 other countries, who criticised China’s crackdown on human rights and its detentions of lawyers and activists. [Continue reading…]

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China offers Afghanistan army expanded military aid

The Wall Street Journal reports: China has offered the Afghanistan army expanded military aid to combat the Taliban, according to the Afghan Defense Ministry, a move that reflects Beijing’s readiness to deepen its engagement with the war-torn country.

The offer was made during a rare, high-level visit at the end of February by a Chinese military delegation headed by General Fang Fenghui, chief of the Joint Staff Department of the People’s Liberation Army, Afghan officials said.

China has been wary of publicly supporting the Afghan military against the Taliban, as it nurtures relations with the militant group in an effort to be seen as a neutral party in the conflict and help the peace process. However, deteriorating security and the emergence of Islamic State has prompted China to take a more active role in Afghanistan.

The timing of General Fang’s recent trip was seen as a strong show of support for the Afghan government at a time when it is losing control over parts of the country following the withdrawal of most foreign troops in 2014. The Taliban now control nearly a third of the country, according to U.S. and allied officials. [Continue reading…]

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China set to surpass its climate targets as renewables soar

New Scientist reports: China is surging ahead in switching to renewables and away from coal in what its officials say will allow it to surpass its carbon emissions targets.

The country’s solar and wind energy capacity soared last year by 74 and 34 per cent respectively compared with 2014, according to figures issued by China’s National Bureau of Statistics yesterday.

Meanwhile, its consumption of coal – the dirtiest of the fossil fuels – dropped by 3.7 per cent, with imports down by a substantial 30 per cent.

The figures back up claims last month in Hong Kong by Xie Zhenhua, China’s lead negotiator at at the UN climate talks in Paris last December, that the country will “far surpass” its 2020 target to reduce carbon emissions per unit of national wealth (GDP) by 40 to 45 per cent from 2005 levels. [Continue reading…]

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Ideological forces and divisions growing across China

Taisu Zhang writes: From the early 1980s to the 2000s, democracy, the rule of law, and free market reform were the political lingua franca not merely of most Chinese intellectuals, but also of most business leaders, and even some officials, who paid at least regular lip service — and probably more than that — to these aspirational ideals. During this period, Chinese elites appeared to share the consensus that China should, in a word, Westernize. To a large extent, both the New Left and neo-Confucianism were intellectual backlashes against this consensus, driven partly by perceived incompatibilities between Western thought and Chinese socioeconomic and political realities; partly by frustration at (perceived) Western hostility and ideological discrimination towards China; and partly by the nationalist urges that came naturally with economic takeoff.

More recently, these movements have shown signs of convergence. Neo-Confucianism appears to be latching on to New Leftism, and not without reciprocity from the leftist camp. Several prominent scholars, particularly Sun Yat-sen University’s Gan Yang, now self-identify as both leftist and Confucian. The linchpin of that joint-identity is the strong nationalism shared by both ideological camps, which allows these scholars to argue that resources from “traditional culture” should play a prominent role in the crusade against Western liberalism — if not as a necessary component of national identity, then at least as an ideological alternative to Western intellectual hegemony.

Recent statistical studies suggest that these trends go well beyond the sheltered confines of China’s top universities and halls of power. An oft-quoted 2015 paper by Harvard and MIT researchers, for example, found that Chinese Internet users have largely coalesced around two poles: a “Leftist-Confucian” pole that advocates an expansive socialist state, limited civil rights, aggressive foreign policy, and some rehabilitation of traditional culture; and a “Western liberal” — or “rightist,” if one prefers that term — pole that supports free market principles, constitutional democracy, civil rights, international cooperation, and some hostility towards traditional culture. The high levels of homogeneity within these camps suggest, moreover, that ideological awareness and commitment is already quite deep, and deepening, across the board.

Liberal-leftist conflicts now seem to color and shape the online population’s consumption of almost any popular news item, ranging from major geopolitical issues–such as China’s newly assertive foreign policy in the South China Sea — to minor public scandals, such as a recent administrative conflict at Sun Yat-sen University, in which a junior faculty member accused Gan Yang of blocking his promotion path, and physically assaulted him.

Of course, there are other possible explanations for why these nationalist movements gained force. Some might argue that they simply took advantage of China’s growing social and economic problems over the past decade, in particular skyrocketing inequality. A more sympathetic take might be that they actually offer potential solutions to some of these problems – by promoting, for example, a group-oriented social morality that helps alleviate the urban economy’s apparent lack of social trust. Others might argue that they represent the kind of intellectual self-reflection and anxiety that comes naturally after societies reach a basic level of economic prosperity, and are therefore a kind of middle income nationalism.

Whatever its causes, the current ideological landscape likely has serious consequences for Chinese policymaking: ideological resurgence dramatically alters the social and political landscape in which the party-state operates. The sources of legitimacy are very different in a pragmatically materialist society than in an ideologically charged and polarized one. Whereas robust economic growth was the key to popular support in the former, it is probably insufficient, and perhaps not even necessary, in the latter. At the moment, it’s profoundly uncertain which side — liberals, leftists, or cultural conservatives — will eventually gain the upper hand in these ideological wars. If one side does emerge on top, the government may find itself forced, or at least strongly incentivized, to seek sociopolitical legitimacy via redistributionist policies, civil rights reform, or perhaps a full-scale swing towards some reconstructed notion of traditional cultural values. This could be either a curse or a blessing: it might force the party-state into uncomfortable ideological positions, but it could also provide alternative sources of social support in times of economic or geopolitical turmoil. [Continue reading…]

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How China’s downturn threatens one of the world’s greatest success stories

poverty

The Washington Post reports: Over the last 25 years, a period of remarkable economic growth spanning from China to South America spurred one of the world’s greatest — and oft-overlooked — modern achievements: a dramatic reduction in the number of extreme poor. More than one billion were pulled out of the most destitute conditions, and the pace of improvement inspired such optimism that two years ago the United Nations vowed to eliminate extreme poverty entirely by 2030.

But now, China’s downturn — and the related prospect of weaker growth across the world — is threatening to stall that progress, signaling a new era of dimmer prospects for the poorest of the poor. That is just one of the emerging challenges from a slowdown that has crippled some nations’ currencies and wiped hundreds of billions from stock markets globally.

Economists caution that the rise or fall of poverty in the coming years depends on a number of hard-to-predict factors, including technology, disease, corruption, war, and climate change. But they also say with growing confidence that the job of fighting poverty is getting harder, particularly in Africa, a continent that is home to half the world’s extreme poor and depends disproportionately on Chinese demand for raw materials. [Continue reading…]

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