Tag Archives: PRC

Pulling out of TPP: the first major foreign policy error of the Trump administration

The Trump administration today pulled out of the 12-nation TPP talks. (123rf / art1980)

Keeping a promise from his 2016 campaign, US president Donald Trump formally pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership today, a 12-nation trade and investment agreement in the works for nearly a decade.

Though the move will win plaudits from both the populist right and the anti-trade left (including Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, the former Democratic presidential candidate) Trump’s move is the first major unforced foreign policy error of the Trump administration. TPP opposition brings together an ascendant protectionist coalition that includes many of Trump’s populist supporters, but also many rust-belt and leftist Democrats and many organized labor officials.

In junking the US role in the TPP, a death knell for the trade accord, Trump has now cleared the way for the People’s Republic of China to set the baseline for trade rules across the Asia-Pacific region, negating hopes from the previous Obama administration to ‘pivot’ the country’s strategic and economic orientation toward the fast-growing region and backtracking on a decades-long bipartisan consensus that the United States takes an open and, indeed, leading approach to the ideal of free trade.

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RELATED: One reason for Americans to support TPP?
Absolving US sins in Vietnam

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Though the general terms of global trade will continue to be governed by the World Trade Organization, regional trade deals allow for countries to deepen trade ties in ways that go beyond the standard WTO rules and to develop strategic alliances.

Trump railed against the TPP from the earliest months of his presidential campaign, arguing that it gave China an unfair advantage:

The TPP is horrible deal. It’s a deal that was designed for China to come in, as they always do, through the back door and totally take advantage of everyone.

But China was never a signatory to the TPP and, indeed, was never party to the 12-country talks that also included stalwart US allies like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Japan. The US national interest in negotiating and signing an agreement like the TPP would have been to create a trade paradigm in the region that seeks to help US interests in contrast to Chinese interests and, of course, to draw both traditional allies and new allies closer to the United States economically and strategically.

If anything, the TPP provided a framework to protect the United States from Chinese competition. To the extent that American manufacturing jobs have suffered as a result of international trade, and from trade with China, in particular, it has come from the decision in 2000 by a Republican Congress and Democratic president Bill Clinton to grant permanent normal trade relations to China (which had previously been subject to an annual congressional vote) and in 2001 to admit China to the WTO, lessening the ability of the United States to deploy protective tariffs against China.

Continue reading Pulling out of TPP: the first major foreign policy error of the Trump administration

Tsai rides green wave to landslide in transformational Taiwanese election

Tsai Ing-wen, the first woman to lead a country in the Chinese-speaking world, won a landslide victory in Taiwan's presidential election Saturday. (Facebook)
Tsai Ing-wen, the first woman to lead a country in the Chinese-speaking world, won a landslide victory in Taiwan’s presidential election Saturday. (Facebook)

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the last time Taiwan’s pro-independence party won the presidency, it was something of a disaster. taiwan

Sixteen years ago, opposition leader Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) ousted the ruling  Kuomintang (KMT, 中國國民黨), the first time since the Republic of China (ROC) separated from the mainland in 1949.

Chen’s election came not long after Taiwan’s transition in the 1990s from one-party rule under the Kuomintang to emerging democracy. From day one, Chen faced a recalcitrant and wounded Kuomintang determined to throw roadblocks in the new government’s path. If Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨) knew little about governing, the Kuomintang knew even less about serving as the loyal opposition.

Most of all, the Kuomintang still controlled Taiwan’s legislature, giving it the tools to frustrate Chen’s agenda.

Taiwan ultimately survived its first real test of democratic transition (and, perhaps most importantly, without causing hostilities with mainland China), but not without a few bruises.

Chen’s eight years in office weren’t without victories. Taiwan formally joined the World Trade Organization in 2002 and Chen’s administration handled the 2003 SARS epidemic adroitly. But Chen’s reelection campaign featured an assassination attempt (that the opposition claims was faked) and legal wrangling over the result in court after the election. Chen’s second term ended in a blaze of corruption charges, and he and his wife were convicted on bribery charges in 2009. Chen was released on medical parole only last January.

The DPP retreated to the opposition after the 2008 elections under the leadership of a soft-spoken policymaker, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who previously headed the Mainland Affairs Council in Chen’s first term from 2000 to 2004. A graduate of Cornell University and the London School of Economics, Tsai came to politics after a career as a law professor. Despite losing the 2012 presidential election, Tsai stayed on as the DPP’s leader, and she continued to rebrand the party in the post-Chen era, efforts that have now clearly paid off.

Channeling a wave of popular discontent with the Kuomintang’s growing efforts to tie Taiwan closer to mainland China, Tsai won a landslide victory today in Taiwan’s presidential election, as expected, giving the DPP a second chance to govern the country.taiwan16taiwan yuan

What’s more, the DPP (along with its allies in the ‘Pan-Green coalition’) for the first time in Taiwan’s history will control of the Legislative Yuan (立法院), giving Tsai an unfettered chance for political success.

From a global perspective, the DPP’s victory today, long expected, is important because it could create tensions with mainland China, where leaders have been ‘warning’ Tsai for months not to take a stridently anti-mainland tone to Cross-Strait relations, and state media reports on the Taiwanese election have ranged from patronizing to misogynist to downright insulting.

The DPP, in theoretical terms, still favors a formal declaration of independence from the mainland People’s Republic of China (PRC).

But even the more fiercely nationalist ‘deep green’ Chen never attempted a universal declaration during his administration, and no one expects Tsai, who is generally seen as a highly pragmatic and ‘light green’ leader, to do so.

In her victory speech, she emphasized that she will seek to maintain the status quo with Beijing, just as she has worked throughout the campaign to reassure both Beijing and Taiwan’s allies in Washington and elsewhere. But more radical members of her party, newly empowered with a legislative majority, could try to push Tsai into a more confrontational relationship with the PRC.

Tsai faces in PRC president Xi Jinping (习近平) a strong-willed adversary expected to hold office through 2022. Xi has consolidated more power than any mainland leader in decades, and he has consistently disregarded political reforms, instead cracking down on Internet censorship and undermining long-promised free elections in Hong Kong next year. Home rule advocates will be watching the dynamic between Taipei and Beijing more closely than anyone.

Practically, however, fresh tumbles in the Chinese stock markets and a looming sense of broader economic trouble in the wider PRC economy mean that Tsai will spend far more time worrying about Taiwan’s economy than about Cross-Strait strategy.  Last week, PRC premier Li Keqiang admitted that the government’s ‘bazooka’ strategy of ever more government stimulus wasn’t working to turn around the fundamental problems with the mainland economy.

Taiwan still has one of the world’s most impressive economies, but it’s linked more closely than ever to the mainland Chinese economy. Fully 27% of Taiwanese exports now go to mainland China and another 13% go to Hong Kong. But GDP growth slowed to just 1% in 2015, and Taiwan risks entering a recession this year if the wider Chinese economy collapses.

Continue reading Tsai rides green wave to landslide in transformational Taiwanese election

Ma-Xi meeting takes place with Kuomintang’s political woes looming

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Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou and Chinese president Xi Jinping shake hands before their historic meeting in Singapore (Kua Chee Siong / Straits Times)

As far as Taiwanese public opinion goes, the relatively pro-Chinese stand of president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has been a disaster, especially in his second term.taiwanChina Flag Icon

When he leaves office early next year, Ma will do so as one of the most unpopular Taiwanese leaders in memory, stirring a popular revolt last year among Taiwanese citizens who believe his government has been too quick to cozy up to Beijing. The student-led ‘Sunflower movement’ protests so rattled Ma’s government that he abandoned what he hoped would become one of his administration’s most important policy achievements — the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, which would have liberalized many service sectors between mainland China and Taiwan, including tourism, finance and communications. Though Ma concluded negotiations with Beijing over the CSSTA, the Taiwanese parliament still hasn’t ratified the agreement.

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RELATED: Taiwan watches battle of wills
between Beijing and Hong Kong

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Ma’s decision to meet with Chinese president Xi Jinping (习近平) today is not necessarily a popular decision back home — and its swift announcement earlier this week was a bombshell in the campaign for Taiwanese elections just nine weeks away.

With just months left in office, his ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT, 中國國民黨), is far behind in the presidential race. For the first time in Taiwan’s history, the Kuomintang and its allies that form the Pan-Blue Coalition could lose control of Taiwan’s parliament. The Kuomintang’s first presidential candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), the vice president of the Legislative Yuan (立法院), Taiwan’s unicameral legislature, sunk so low in polls since becoming the KMT presidential nominee in July that the party dumped her last month. Her replacement, Eric Chu (朱立倫), the party chairman and, since 2010, the mayor of New Taipei, is gaining little traction.

Neither Ma nor Xi are expected to announce any new policies or make any joint statements as a result of the meeting taking place today at Singapore’s Shangri-La Hotel, on ‘neutral’ ground. That’s not necessarily a problem, though, because the fact that the two are meeting on (relatively) equal — Ma as the head of the Kuomintang and Xi as the head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, 中国共产党) — is historic in its own right.

Given that so much of Ma’s unpopularity stems from his pro-China stand, his meeting today in Singapore may well doom the Kuomintang’s chances entirely in January’s general election. Indeed, the party’s low standing in public opinion may have made it eaiser for Ma to engage Xi. The near-certainty of losing power might have liberated Ma toward a historic meeting that will almost certainly have long-term benefits for better cross-straits relations.

In one sense, Ma’s position follows naturally from the force of economic gravity — 27% of Taiwan’s exports now go to China, and another 13% go to Hong Kong. Direct flights between Taipei and Beijing are now commonplace, trade continues to rise and mainland tourists are no longer a rare sight. Though Taiwan has the world’s 19th largest economy and incomes are far higher in Taiwan than on the mainland, China’s growing economic prowess (even as it may be headed into recession) is simply a matter of fact. Among the issues Ma expected to raise with Xi: a direct hotline between Taipei and Beijing, greater cooperation from Beijing in dealing with Taiwan’s murky international status and Xi’s change of heart in inviting Taiwan to join the Beijing-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank that Xi formed last year as a counterweight to US-dominated global financial institutions.

Xi, a ‘princeling’ whose father was a top Party official, is expected to head the mainland Chinese government through 2022, has more thoroughly dominated the CCP than any leader since perhaps Mao Zedong, waging a widespread campaign against corruption within the Party that has snared so many top officials that critics argue it functions as a purge of Xi’s internal rivals. Fresh off meetings to design China’s next five-year economic program, Xi’s government has been particularly aggressive, if not successful, about ameliorating economic headwinds, including failed efforts to stop a Chinese stock market crash over the summer. Two weeks ago, China formally ended its ‘one-child’ policy, and Xi’s government has worked with the United States to establish goals to reduce Chinese (and global) carbon emissions in the next two decades, plans that will take center stage at the international summit on climate change next month in Paris.

Nevertheless, the Chinese economy faces a difficult patch as its working population ages and it transitions from top-down growth built on internal improvements and an economy based on manufactured exports produced mainly along China’s dense eastern coast. Politically, Xi has gradually cracked down on dissent and tightened internal controls on Internet freedom. Nevertheless, he faces an angry Hong Kong population that has demanded a greater voice in choosing who will be eligible to stand for chief executive in 2017. Relations between Beijing and China’s western ethnic communities, such as the Uyghurs and the Tibetans, are still strained. The last thing Xi wants is a reversal of Beijing’s gains with Taiwan since 2008. It’s been Xi (and not Ma) who has resisted a meeting in the past; Xi’s accession to today’s meeting reflects that growing economic ties alone are not enough to secure those gains.

In local elections last year, the Kuomintang suffered defeats nationwide, including the Taipei mayoral elections, where an independent candidate, Dr. Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), a respected surgeon, easily took power with the support of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨). The losses were so severe that Taiwan’s prime minister stepped down. Those losses seem likely to multiply on January 16, when the DPP seems likely to win the presidency for just the second time in Taiwanese history.  Continue reading Ma-Xi meeting takes place with Kuomintang’s political woes looming

Kuomintang loses Taipei as premier resigns

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Forget Japan’s election in two weeks — the political earthquake in east Asia today come in the form of a new pro-independence mayor in Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan, also known as the Republic of China (ROC).taiwanChina Flag Icon

The result is a stinging defeat for the ruling Kuomintang (中國國民黨), and prime minister Jiang Yi-huah stepped down in response to the Kuomintang’s defeats in municipal elections held Saturday across the island of Taiwan. The scale of the ruling party’s defeat in the November 29 elections indicates that it will be hard-pressed to hold onto Taiwan’s presidency in 2016,  paving the way for a more stridently pro-independence president.

Following the local elections, the Kuomintang lost power in eight of the country’s 22 various city and county governments.

In Taipei, Dr. Ko Wen-je, a respected surgeon and an independent candidate supported by the opposition, pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨), easily won the capital’s mayoral election, ending 16 years of Kuomintang control.

Ko defeated Sean Lien, a financier, and, as the son of a former vice president, a scion of the Kuomintang elite. Lien was never the strongest candidate for Taipei’s mayoral election, and Ko headed the trauma hospital unit that saved Lien’s life four years ago. A surgeon team supervised by Ko successfully removed a bullet from Lien’s head after he was shot at a 2010 campaign rally.

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While Lien promised to bring international capital (including, presumably, from Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere in the PRC) to Taipei, Ko focused on social justice in a country that faces growing income inequality and rising housing prices, familiar concerns across the developed world.

The elections were something of a referendum on the Kuomintang’s push to create closer economic ties with the Chinese mainland. So while the results are a setback for Kuomintang and Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), they are even worse for the People’s Republic of China.

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RELATED: Taiwan watches battle of wills
between Beijing and Hong Kong

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Earlier this year, young Taiwanese students protested in full force to stop the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), which would have significantly liberalized trade in services with mainland China. Ma’s attempt to push the agreement through the Taiwanese legislature met with furious opposition, and the CSSTA hasn’t yet been passed into law, a significant victory for the self-proclaimed ‘sunflower student movement.’ Continue reading Kuomintang loses Taipei as premier resigns

Taiwan warily eyes battle of wills between Beijing and Hong Kong

Photo credit to Reuters / Toby Chang.

In Hong Kong, they may be protesting with umbrellas, but in Taiwan earlier this year, it was sunflowers.Hong Kong Flag IcontaiwanChina Flag Icon

As Beijing locks itself into what now seems like a needless showdown with the pro-democracy activists who have formed Hong Kong’s ‘Occupy Central with Peace and Love,’ among the chief incentives for proceeding with caution are mainland China’s relations with the Republic of China (ROC), the island of Taiwan, which split from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 in the aftermath of the Chinese civil war and which has maintained its de facto sovereignty ever since, to the annoyance of decades of Chinese leadership.

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RELATED: Hong Kong — one country, one-and-a-half systems?

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Even as Western commentators trot out tired comparisons to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown (at a time when Hong Kong’s British colonial governors were not prioritizing democratization in any form), the Hong Kong protests have a readier comparison to the ‘Sunflower Student’ movement in Taiwan earlier this spring, when another group of protesters demonstrated against closer ties between Taiwan and the PRC.

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In June 2013, Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and the ruling Kuomintang (中國國民黨) signed the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement with mainland China, which would liberalize trade in services between Beijing and Taipei, including, most controversially, tourism, finance and communications. When Ma (pictured above) tried to push the CSSTA through the Taiwanese legislature without as much political deliberation as promised, an already skeptical Taiwanese opposition howled, and CSSTA protesters occupied the Legislative Yuan (立法院) to stop Ma’s push to ratify the agreement. Today, Taiwan’s legislature still hasn’t approved the CSSTA.

Moreover, Ma came out in favor of the Hong Kong protests on Monday and reiterated earlier this week his opposition to reunification with mainland China:

“We fully understand and support Hong Kong people in their call for full universal suffrage,” Ma told a gathering of business leaders in Taipei.

“Developments in Hong Kong have drawn the close attention of the world in the past few days. Our government has also been very concerned,” he added. “We urge the mainland authorities to listen to the voice of Hong Kong people and use peaceful and cautious measures to handle these issues.”

Cross-Straits relations have crested and ebbed over the last 65 years, but today it’s indisputable that Taiwan and mainland China have more ties than ever. Since 2008, direct flights between Taiwan and China have greatly intertwined the two economies, and a deluge of Chinese investment has taken root in Taiwan.

While Hong Kong and Taiwan have very different histories and relationships with the PRC, they share many similarities, so it’s not surprising to see so many similarities between the two popular anti-Beijing movements that swept across both jurisdictions in 2014.

In the second half of the 20th century, Taiwan and Hong Kong both became magnets for defectors from the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党), and both Taiwan and Hong Kong became pockets of economic prosperity while mainland China languished under Mao Zedong (毛泽东) and his fearsome reign of socialism, rural famine and political terror. Throughout, both Hong Kong and Taiwan developed particular cultural identities, such that majorities in both places see themselves today as Hong Kongers and Taiwanese rather than Chinese.

Both Hong Kongers and Taiwanese also worry that Beijing is plotting to  bring Hong Kong and Taiwan more firmly within its grasp. If it’s outlandish to think that Beijing can accomplish that goal with military might, it’s not difficult to believe it can do so through economic and political coercion. That’s exactly the kind of insidious influence that motivates both the Occupy Central’s fight for Hong Kong’s democratic sovereignty and the Sunflower Student movement’s fight for Taiwan’s economic sovereignty. Continue reading Taiwan warily eyes battle of wills between Beijing and Hong Kong

Hong Kong: One country, one-and-a-half systems?

Downtown Hong Kong from Victoria Peak

Normally, an unofficially referendum conducted online isn’t worth paying much attention — just ask the residents of Venice who organized a deeply flawed, overwrought poll on Venetian independence that attracted just 135,000 participants after initially claiming 2.4 million.Hong Kong Flag IconChina Flag Icon

But it’s worth noting the ongoing online referendum that the Hong Kong-based ‘Occupy Central with Love and Peace’ has organized, because it’s one element of a larger struggle between democracy activists and Beijing that could have major repercussions — not only for Hong Kong, but for the future political development of Macau, the Chinese mainland and, possibly, Taiwan.

Occupy Central’s chief goal is to open the nominating process for the 2017 election of Hong Kong’s chief executive. Hong Kong’s Basic Law, promulgated prior to the 1997 handover to govern the Hong Kong special administrative region, provides for the eventual democratic election of a chief executive. It’s a development that dates back over two decades to the negotiations between the British and Chinese governments over the 1997 handover. Ten years ago, Chinese officials finally relented and committed to some form of universal suffrage for the 2017 race.

Trouble began brewing earlier this month, however, when Beijing released a provocative ‘white paper’ on Hong Kong that took an aggressive posture with respect to Hong Kong’s future:

Published by the State Council Information Office, the unprecedented white paper states that “many wrong views are currently rife in Hong Kong” with regard to the “one country, two systems” principle that governs the territory’s relationship with Beijing. Some residents are “confused or lopsided in their understanding” of the principle, it adds.

“The high degree of autonomy of the HKSAR (Hong Kong Special Administrative Region) is not full autonomy, nor a decentralized power,” said the paper. “It is the power to run local affairs as authorized by the central leadership.”

Local media have gone so far as to describe the white paper as an outright repudiation of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle that has guided China-Hong Kong relations since Deng Xiaoping (邓小平) coined the concept in the 1980s during the initial handover negotiations. Continue reading Hong Kong: One country, one-and-a-half systems?

What we know (and what we don’t) about China’s CCP ‘third plenum’ meeting

CHINA-BEIJING-18TH CPC CENTRAL COMMITTEE-THIRD PLENARY SESSION (CN)

The only certainty about the communiqué that resulted from the third plenum meeting of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党) is that you should trust no one who claims to have sometime certain to say about its meaning. China Flag Icon

But that hasn’t stopped a phalanx of Sinologists from Beijing to London and from Shanghai to New York from trying to divine the meaning of the communiqué and what it might behold for the next decade of Chinese economy planning under its new president and ‘paramount leader’ Xi Jinping (习近平), who’s also the general secretary of the CCP’s central committee.

So far, Xi has spent much of 2013 waging an anti-corruption campaign at all levels of the CCP and Chinese government, and emphasizing a less ostentatious style of governance (‘four dishes and a soup‘).  The most optimistic forecasters, both within and outside China, predicted that Xi and the party’s central committee, a group of the top 350 CCP officials, would move forward during the third plenum with a bold policy agenda that could give some policy substance to Xi’s ‘Chinese Dream’ rhetoric.  China’s state-controlled media even encouraged this line of thinking.

Perhaps Xi would finally end China’s one-child policy!

Perhaps Xi would announce the transition to an even more robust private sector!

Perhaps Xi would announce that the value of the renminbi would be determined by the market!

Perhaps Xi would stand on his head, pardon former Chongqing part boss Bo Xilai, sing a couple of ‘Cultural Revolution’ songs from the Mao era, lift the ‘Great Firewall,’ and establish a timetable for Tibetan independence!

No such luck — at least, so far as anyone can tell, though a more precise resolution will emerge in the days ahead.  While it’s hard to find two analysts who agree on exactly what the communiqué foretells, .  Xi is consolidating his power!  Xi’s been stymied by the technocrats! It’s a triumph for the state sector! It’s a triumph for the private sector!

Here’s a brief portion of the 3,500 word communiqué (5,000 Chinese characters):

The Plenum stressed that the successful practice of reform and opening up has provided important experiences for completely deepening reform, and must be persisted in for a long time. The most important matters are persisting in the leadership of the Party, implementing the Party’s basic line, not marching the old road of closedness and fossilization, not marching the evil road of changing banners and allegiances, persisting in marching the path of Socialism with Chinese characteristics, guaranteeing the correct direction of reform and opening up throughout; persisting in liberating thoughts, seeking truth from facts, progressing with the times, seeking truth and being pragmatic, starting from reality in everything, summarizing domestic successful methods, learning from beneficial foreign experience, and daring to move theoretical and practical innovation forward; persisting in putting people first, respecting the dominant role of the people, giving rein to the pioneering spirit of the masses, closely relying on the people to promote reform, stimulating people’s comprehensive development; persisting in correctly handling the relationship between reform, development and stability, we must be bold, our pace must be steady, we must strengthen the integration of top-level design and crossing the river by feeling the stones, both stimulate overall progress and focus breakthroughs, raise the scientific nature of policymaking, broadly concentrate consensus and form joint forces for reform.

Those words might well also serve as a guide to understanding the communiqué itself — ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones,’ indeed.  I’m not sure that Sir Humphrey Appleby could have improved on the document’s maddening vagueness.  The Wall Street Journal summarized the statement as follows:

The communiqué called for fewer investment restrictions, greater rights for farmers and a more transparent system for local and national government taxing and spending—all areas where economists say China badly needs reform. But in lieu of specific plans it ambiguously emphasized the need to “encourage, support and guide” the private sector, while at the same time reaffirming “the leading role of the state-owned economy.”

In a small acknowledgment of the clamor for better protection of individual rights, the communiqué noted the need to establish an independent judiciary. But again it reaffirmed the leading role of the party, which has the power to trump China’s constitution.

Here’s an even more useful WSJ post that provides eight different takes from economists on the communiqué’s meaning.  Perhaps the most helpful analysis comes from the BBC, which published the following word cloud of the communiqué and otherwise argued that the statement represents a stay-the-course commitment to economic reform:

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But vague has long been in vogue on the path of Chinese policymaking, especially economic policy.  Is it any less vague for China specialists to make vague calls for Xi to ‘deliver’?  What would that entail?  Looking back, even today, can you list with certainty the five top policy legacies will be for Hu Jintao (胡锦涛) and the Chinese leadership between 2002 and 2012?

Over the course of this week, we’ve watched US president Barack Obama apologize for the rollout and planning of one particular reform to one sector of the US economy.  Yes, health care is a relatively large sector of the economy and yes, the government is already an important player in that sector, in light of Medicaid programs for the poor, Medicare programs for the elderly, Social Security benefits for the disabled and a separate care system for veterans and those in the armed forces.  But it’s not clear if the Obama administration has any idea what will happen to the private health care insurance market over the next two months, let alone the next ten years.

Now imagine the task at hand for Xi Jinping and the Chinese government, who are expected to set a course not just for China’s health care sector, but for the entire economy, including a sizable public sector and a private sector that’s still very much linked to state power — in a country with 1.35 billion people, which is a population of about, oh, one billion more than in the United States.  It’s a country that has about 42 cities with a population equivalent to or greater than the size of Chicago. Continue reading What we know (and what we don’t) about China’s CCP ‘third plenum’ meeting

With the end of Bo Xilai’s trial, is Xi Jinping co-opting the ‘Chongqing model’?

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It’s been perhaps the most sensational rise and fall of a top Chinese official in a generation, but the corruption trial against former Chongqing party leader Bo Xilai (薄熙来) wrapped up this week with plenty of surprises, China Flag Iconeven if his guilty verdict for bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power, is all but assured.

On the final day of what has been a sensation hearing by Chinese standards, Bo accused a top aide of becoming romantically involved with his wife, capping five days of what has been a spirited defense by one of China’s most charismatic 21st century party leaders.  Far from showing remorse, Bo (pictured above) has vigorously denied the charges and defended his actions:

He said he never cared for money. “The long johns that I’m wearing now were bought by my mother in the 1960s,” Bo said, suggesting he did not approve of the lifestyle Gu had created for their son, Bo Guagua.  “I have been working like a machine. I really don’t have time to care about air tickets, hotel expenses and travel expenses,” Bo said. He added: “The country did not pick me because I am a good accountant.”

That Bo has been allowed to mount such a public (and political) defense is not surprising, given his status as one of the second-generation ‘princelings’ of the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党).  Even if Bo goes to prison for a decade or longer, the trial will have helped to cement his image as the leader of a ‘New Left’ movement within Chinese politics and society.

But what does that mean for the ‘Chongqing model’ that Bo championed as party secretary in Chongqing from 2007 to 2012?

The ‘Chongqing model’ is a vaguely neo-Maoist approach to governing China that involves a redoubling of state power and control, strengthening state-owned enterprises and aggressively attacking organized crime, while bringing back some truly unique vestiges of the era of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛泽东), such as encouraging the singing of revolutionary-era songs.  It’s often contrasted against the ‘Guangdong model’ — a leadership style that encourages private development to blossom instead of through state-sponsored economic policy and at least a passing respect for the rule of law and other institutional reforms.

You can place the two models on the familiar left-right ideological axis — the Chongqing model prioritizes equitable distribution among all classes, the Guangdong model prioritizes the highest economic growth possible.  In reality, however, the line between the two models is blurrier.  Though the ‘Guangdong model’ is associated with the relatively liberal former Guangdong party chair Wang Yang (汪洋), now a vice premier (though not a full member of the Politburo Standing Committee) in Xi’s government, it was Wang who served for two years as Chongqing party chair as Bo’s direct predecessor.  Realistically, the differences among China’s political elite remain smaller than their shared values.  Just as there’s little chance that China will return to the days of Mao-era socialist state planning, there’s also little evidence that economic liberalization and reform has led (or will lead in the future) to greater political freedom.

Over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal reported that Xi Jinping (习近平), who took power as Chinese president earlier this year after assuming leadership last November as the general secretary of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, is also lurching to the left in the first year of what is expected to be his ten-year stewardship of the People’s Republic of China: Continue reading With the end of Bo Xilai’s trial, is Xi Jinping co-opting the ‘Chongqing model’?

Don’t take the concept of the Nicaraguan Canal seriously until the Chinese government does

(11) View from Parque Historica

Over the past month, Nicaragua has been working to push forward with a plan to build a canal linking the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea — a dream that predated the actual construction of the Panamá Canal in 1914.Nicaragua

The original push in the United States for a canal through Central America started as the dream of U.S. senator John Tyler Morgan of Alabama, a former Confederate colonel during the U.S. civil war, who hoped that a canal through Nicaragua would restore the U.S. south to economic prominence, and he pushed throughout the 1880s for a Nicaraguan canal, in particular, long before Panamá, then itself the northernmost province of the Republic of Colombia, was a serious option, despite the fact that the engineer of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps, had failed in French-led efforts to build a canal through the isthmus of Panamá.

19th century Nicaraguan dreams turn to 20th century Panamanian realities

After the French disaster in Panamá — beset by corruption, disease and ultimately failure — Nicaragua seemed the clear favorite for U.S. interests in the construction of a Central American canal.  The story of how Wilson Nelson Cromwell (who helped found the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell) and Philippe Bunau-Varilla transformed public opinion, first within the administration of former U.S. president William McKinley and, thereafter, Theodore Roosevelt, and then in the U.S. Congress, to favor a Panamanian route as speedier and less costly is one of the most amazing stories in the history of congressional lobbying.  After all, Panamá already featured a French railway to facilitate construction, ports on either side of the isthmus, the remnants of the aborted French canal effort, and it would, after all, be much shorter than any Nicaraguan canal.

As debate in Congress ultimately turned into a battle of the routes, Bunau-Varilla and U.S. senator Mark Hanna, a top Republican powerbroker, had worked to convince skeptical colleagues that Nicaragua’s volcanic activity made it too unstable for a canal.  Incredulously, Hanna delivered a speech on the Senate floor purporting to show all of Nicaragua’s supposed active volcanoes would make the route more difficult.

But the tour de force turned out to be a stamp — as Matthew Parker writes in Panama Fever: The Epic Story of One of the Greatest Human Achievements of All Time:

Over the next few days Bunau-Varilla scoured the philatelists of the capital looking for a certain 1900 one-centavo Nicaraguan stamp, which he had come across the year before.  In the foreground of the stamp is pictured a busy wharf while in the background rises the magnificent bulk of Mount Momotombo.  In an artistic flourish the illustrator had added smoke to the top of the volcano, which was actually more than a hundred miles from the proposed Nicaragua canal.  Just before the vote, every senator was sent this ‘evidence’ of the dangers of the Nicaragua route.

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Ultimately, the vote favored Panamá over Nicaragua by just eight votes.  Roosevelt’s administration thereafter embarked on the self-interested cause of Panamanian independence from Colombia and, having helped deliver such independence in 1903, commenced building the Canal over the next decade, with U.S. doctors and engineers learning how to reduce yellow fever and malaria along the way through the reduction of mosquito populations.  Though the United States controlled the Canal through much of the 20th century, U.S. president Jimmy Carter formally agreed in a 1977 treaty to cede control of the Panamá Canal Zone back to Panamá.  Since that transition in 1999, Panamá has reaped much of the economic benefit of the Canal’s income, which has helped Panamá become one of Central America’s strongest economies, and the country is preparing for the completion of a project in 2014 to widen the Canal, thereby expanding Panamanian economic opportunities.

A Sandinista canal

Fast-forward nearly a century, and Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega hopes to succeed where over a century’s worth of futile dreams have failed — that is, with a little help from the Chinese.

Ortega came to power for the first time in 1979 when his Sandinista revolutionaries overthrew U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza, the last of a line of three Somoza family members that had controlled Nicaragua since the mid-1930s.  Somoza was no great loss for Nicaragua, but his overthrow came at a difficult time for the country, which was slowly recovering from an earthquake in 1975 that had essentially leveled Managua, the capital, hastening its long-term decline as the financial capital of Central America to the rising Panamá City.  Ortega came to power as part of a Sandinista junta, and though he slowly emerged as Nicaragua’s top leader as president from 1985 to 1990, his rise to power led to one of the most brutal proxy fights of the Cold War, with Ortega and the Sandinistas turning to the Soviet Union for support and the United States clandestinely arming and supporting the ‘Contras,’ plunging the tiny Central American country into a decade-long civil war.

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Ortega (pictured above) stepped down in 1990 after losing the presidential election, but as Nicaragua slowly recovered from the carnage of the 1980s, and as Nicaraguans suffered through a long line of democratically elected, if massively corrupt and mediocre presidents, Ortega retained a strong following, especially among the country’s poorest residents.  He returned to power in 2006 after winning a highly fragmented election under the old Sandinista banner (FSLN, Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional), having remade himself as a democratic socialist along the lines of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.  Ortega, who quickly consolidated the instruments of power, eliminated the hurdle of term limits and was overwhelmingly reelected in November 2011 under conditions that were tilted widely in favor of the Sandinistas.

But unlike in the 1980s, when Ortega seemed to be genuinely interested in eliminating corruption and establishing a new more just, socialist era for Nicaragua, Sandinista 2.0 has jettisoned the ideology for a state capitalist model that’s just as corrupt as the Somoza era ever was. Continue reading Don’t take the concept of the Nicaraguan Canal seriously until the Chinese government does

Remembering Medgar Evers and the fight for civil rights

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Exactly 50 years ago today — on June 12, 1963 — a young 37-year-old civil rights activist was brutally shot in the back in the driveway of his home in Jackson, Mississippi.USflag

That young activist, Medgar Evers, had spent his tragically truncated life as the field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a role in which he helped James Meredith break the segregation barrier in order to become the first black male to enroll in the University of Mississippi in 1962.

Evers today has entered the pantheon of American heroes.  His remains lie in Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C.  If you fly into Jackson today, you’ll fly into Mississippi’s largest airport, which is now named in honor of Evers.  But at the time, his murderer was twice freed after a jury, comprised solely of white men, refused to convict him — he was convicted only in 1994 on the basis of new evidence.

In the 50 years since Evers death, the United States has become a much more equal place — after all, it elected its first non-white president five years ago, and it’s had two black secretaries of state.  The world of white privilege and segregation that Evers — and Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders of the 1960s — fought to tear down is unrecognizable today.

But that doesn’t mean the cause for civil rights is over.  Within the United States alone, black Americans remain far behind, as a group, on terms of socioeconomic gains.  Immigrants to the United States, many of whom came to this country as young children, remain in painful legal limbo.  Gay and lesbian Americans struggle not just for the right to same-sex marriage, but the right to live, work and exist without prejudice.  A U.S. prison population in excess of seven million people (though that number is starting to decline), many of who are in prison for non-violent offenses, faces innumerable challenges to even their basic safety behind bars.  The revelations of the NSA and PRISM programs show that the U.S. government continues to push forward with new surveillance tools that, though they may enhance homeland security, innumerably reduce global privacy rights.

That highlights the fact that the lines between greater civil rights in the United States and greater civil rights globally has blurred.  In many ways, the work of Medgar Evers is now a broader, globalized struggle.  U.S. activists work alongside European, Asia, Arab and African activists to challenge inequality worldwide.

  • In Mauritania and elsewhere in the Sahel, the fight continues against the continued practice of human slavery.
  • In Turkey, the crackdown this week of protesters at Taksim Square by prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have highlighted the fact that the biggest threat isn’t creeping Islamism, but the more garden-variety illiberal disregard for basic civil rights like freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and deeper abuses of power that have hollowed out Turkey’s democracy.
  • Even as western Europe enters a world of same-sex marriage equality, many pockets of the world feature significant hurdles for gay and lesbian individuals — sub-Saharan Africa continues to treat gay activists with brutality and just yesterday, Russia passed a troublingly broad anti-gay law.
  • In Iran, moderate presidential candidate Hassan Rowhani has pushed for the loosening of political and cultural censorship and greater political freedoms within the framework of Iran’s existing Islamic republic.
  • In the People’s Republic of China, residents of Hong Kong marched last week on the occasion of the anniversary of the government crackdown on Tiananmen Square in 1989.
  • The Arab Spring protests of 2011 — from Bahrain to Tunisia to Egypt — have made political participation unavoidable throughout the Arab world, even if new majoritarian Islamist governments now face new civil rights challenges in finding a way to make Islamic democracy work without introducing new elements of religious, political and gender-based inequality.
  • A few hundred miles from the coast of Florida, Haitians continue to suffer from some of the worst poverty in the world, exacerbated by the tolls taken by the 2010 earthquake.

So as today’s more globalized fight for civil rights continues, it’s worth reflecting today to remember Evers and an entire generation of Americans who defined much of the content of what we think of as ‘civil rights’ in their fight for racial equality in the United States half a century ago.

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Bottom photo credit to Kevin Lees — Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, May 2012. 

Photo of the Day: Henry Kissinger meets Li Keqiang

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So this is pretty amazing.China Flag Icon

Henry Kissinger, the U.S. secretary of state and national security adviser who paved the way for U.S. president Richard M. Nixon’s historic visit in February 1972 and thereafter, the normalization of U.S.-Chinese relations, met with Li Keqiang (李克强), the new premier of the People’s Republic of China on Tuesday:

[Li] said China is willing to work with the US to develop an unprecedented type of relationship in order to allow both sides to benefit from bilateral cooperation and play their due roles in maintaining world peace.

Kissinger highlighted the vital importance of US-China relations in promoting world peace and development, suggesting that both sides should work on long-term planning and strengthen communication to foster ties.

It must have been quite a stunning chat, considering that the current ‘Fifth Generation’ of leadership is essentially four generations of Chinese governance removed from the generation that Kissinger and Nixon encountered — Chinese premier Zhao Enlai (周恩来) and Chinese Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong (毛泽东).  Like him or love him, Kissinger remains one of the top old-school Sinologists in the United States, writing at age 89 a new book, On China, just last year.  When Nixon visited China, Li was just 17 years old.  The change that China has seen in the ensuing 41 years is one of the most amazing transformations of any human society in such a short period of time.

More background here on Li from my seven-part series from November 2012 on the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党).  Li speaks fluent English; unlike many of his colleagues on the Standing Committee, he is a protégé of Hu Jintao (胡锦涛) and unlike Chinese president Xi Jinping (习近平), Li is not a princeling.  An economic reformer, Li served as the Party secretary of Henan province previously, and he’s emphasized since becoming premier that his chief tasks will be to roll back Chinese government spending in favor of private sector development, corruption and the massive size of Chinese government bureaucracy, and tackling the growing gap between China’s rich and poor.

History shows Italy’s likely center-left coalition will likely be short-lived and tenuous

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In the last days of Italy’s election campaign, it’s become somewhat conventional wisdom that although the broad centrosinistra (center-left) coalition headed by prime ministerial candidate Pier Luigi Bersani is still on target to win control of Italy’s lower house of parliament, the Camera dei Deputati (House of Deputies), it’s now a toss-up as to whether Bersani’s coalition will win enough of the 315 seats up for election to the upper house, the Senato (Senate), to form a stable government.Italy Flag Icon

The reason is based on some odd quirks of Italian electoral and constitutional law — the key point is that while elections to both the Camera dei Deputati and the Senato are conducted according to proportional representation, seats are awarded differently between the two.  The party or coalition that wins the largest proportion of the vote nationally will be guaranteed at least 54% of the seats in the Camera dei Deputati, but seats are awarded to the Senato only on a regional basis, so that the largest vote-winner in each of Italy’s 20 regions is guaranteed a majority of the region’s seats.  Given that Lombardy, Campania and Sicily, three of Italy’s four largest regions, are essentially tossups, the centrodestra could win those three regions and deny Bersani a senatorial majority.

For Bersani to control the lower house, but not the upper house, of Italy’s parliament is certainly somewhat of a nightmare for a campaign that led by double digits when the campaign began.

Thus the hand-wringing that Bersani will be forced to assemble a governing coalition that includes not only his electoral partner, the socialist Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL, Left Ecology Freedom), the party of the two-term regional president of Puglia, Nichi Vendola (pictured above, left, with Bersani, right), but also turn to other partners — practically, this means some sort of alliance, in the upper house at least, with the centrist coalition led by prime minister Mario Monti, Con Monti per l’Italia (with Monti for Italy).

If the senatorial balance were, however, incredibly close (say, one to three seats), Bersani might also turn to a tiny number of senators likely to be elected from the predominantly communist Rivoluzione Civile (Civil Revolution) coalition, though it remains to be seen whether they would back Bersani — Vendola would certainly find more common cause with them than with Monti and his allies.

Monti and Vendola have mutually ruled out serving together in the same coalition — although Bersani has already committed to many of the reforms that Monti began, Vendola has been much more critical of the Monti government’s efforts, whcih have included tax increases and tax and labor reform.

It doesn’t help that Vendola, who is openly gay and supports same-sex marriage in Italy, is at contretemps with the social conservative bent of Monti’s coalition.  Although Monti has expressly opposed same-sex marriage and adopt by same-sex couples, the coalition includes the Unione di Centro (UdC, Union of the Centre), comprised of former Christian Democrats and led by Pier Ferdinando Casini, who has very close ties to the Vatican, and Futuro e Libertà per l’Italia (FLI, Future and Freedom), a party formed by Gianfranco Fini, a moderate who once served as Silvio Berlusconi’s foreign minister.

There are no easy answers for Bersani, and on Monday, Wolfgang Münchau at The Financial Times predicted a re-run of the prior leftist government of former prime minister Romano Prodi, who came to office in April 2006 as the moderate head of a wide-ranging leftist coalition that included relatively moderate former Christian Democrats, more progressive social democrats and die-hard communists (including Fausto Bertinotti, who became the president of the Camera dei Deputati from 2006 to 2008).

That government fell in early 2008 over a vote of no confidence in the Senato, when senator-for-life and former Christian Democratic prime minister Giulio Andreotti scuttled an attempt to pass equal civil rights for same-sex partners.

So Münchau is right to predict that the chances of a full five-year — or even one-year — government are fairly slim in the event of an unwieldy coalition that would include not only Vendola and Bersani (difficult enough), but also Casini, Fini and Monti.

That will certainly cause even more hand-wringing and not just in Milan and Rome, but in Berlin, Brussels, London and Washington, too — without a stable government to assure investors, a new Italian financial crisis could once again endanger the future viability of the single currency.  That’s assuming that Italy, and the other troubled economies of the eurozone, finds a path out from the wilderness of increasing unemployment and low or declining GDP growth.  The reality is that the next government, whether led by Monti, Berlusconi or Bersani, will face a lot of incredibly difficult and painful choices for Italy’s future.

But the troubling precedents go beyond the most recent Prodi government — the Italian left has been long fragmented and disorganized since the end of the ‘first republic’ and the breakup of the former Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI, Italian Communist Party), which goes a long way in explaining how dysfunctional leftist governments have been in Italy.  Continue reading History shows Italy’s likely center-left coalition will likely be short-lived and tenuous

Happy Chinese New Year!

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It is now, of course, the Year of the Snake, as people of Chinese descent across the world today mark the Lunar New Year. China Flag Icon

But, for world politics, the Chinese new year will bring the formal inauguration in March of Xi Jinping (习近平) as the next president of the People’s Republic of China, completing the transition from Hu Jintao (胡锦涛) to Xi as China’s ‘paramount leader’ — Xi already became the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党) last November with the election of seven members (including five new members) of the Politburo Standing Committee of the CCP.

Furthermore, Li Keqiang (李克强) is set to succeed the popular, but now scandal-plagued Wen Jiabao (温家宝) as the premier of the PRC government at the opening of the 12th People’s National Congress in March.

Just last week, Xi drew a bright line against corruption in the wake of accusations that several of Wen’s family members had amassed fortunes largely due to Wen’s powerful position and in the aftermath of the most spectacular Chinese political scandal in two decades surrounding now-disgraced former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai (薄熙来).

In a widely covered speech, Xi pledged to go after ‘tigers and flies’ in his fight against corruption — meaning that his leadership would stand for corruption neither among the highest-ranking officials nor among rank-and-file bureaucrats.

It remains to be seen whether Xi has the will to carry through that fight, but he’s already drawing quite a stylistic contrast from the buttoned-down ‘China, Inc.’ image of his predecessor Hu.

Photo credit to Kevin Lees — Bellagio, Las Vegas, January 2013.

Fifth Generation: Who is Xi Jinping?

This is the seventh and final post in a series examining the Chinese leaders named to the Politburo Standing Committee during the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党) that concluded November 14.  Prior installments on Zhang Gaoli here, Zhang Dejiang here, Liu Yunshan here, Yu Zhengsheng here, Wang Qishan here and likely future premier Li Keqiang here

In many ways, there’s not much I can add to what the world’s press has already written about Xi Jinping (习近平) in the past 24 hours, who’s been the newest figure on the world scene since becoming the general secretary of the Party yesterday and, in a bit of a surprise, also the chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission.  He is expected to take over before March 2013 as China’s president, thereby fully succeeding Hu Jintao (胡锦涛).

There’s much we already know about Xi — starting with the fact that much of the world’s press and other policymakers find Xi leagues more expressive and relatable than Hu.

Xi is a ‘princeling’ — the son of Xi Zhongxun, a revolutionary hero, former vice premier and Politburo member, who was purged during the Cultural Revolution, but returned to help Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s to develop parts of Guangdong provide as special economic zones.  When Xi Zhongxun was purged from the leadership in the 1960s, however, and Xi Jinping was just 15 years old, he was sent off to a remote village in Shaanxi province in the center of China.

As Robert Lawrence Kuhn writes in How China’s Leaders Think, Xi Jinping’s time in the ‘wilderness,’ so to speak, has now become part of his mythology:

Xi Jinping spent the next six years in this harsh, poor rural area — chopping hay, reaping wheat and herding sheep as a member of a local work unit.  He lived in a cave house, as was the local custom.  But he adjusted well to his new life, impressing older colleagues with his enthusiasm to labor long and hard, and with his personal modesty.  He built a reputation for endurance by winning wrestling matches with farmers, and by carrying ‘a shoulder pole of twin 110-pound buckets of wheat for several miles across mountain paths without showing fatigue.’

Xi did not lose his love of studying, however: by night, he would read thick books in the dim light of kerosene lamps.  The locals liked to go to his cave to listen to his stories about history and the world beyond the mountains.  Everyone, old and young, enjoyed chatting with him.

I’m not sure whether this is just so much hagiography for the next ‘paramount leader’ of the world’s largest country, but there’s no doubt that the young Xi certainly made an impression, and Xi was soon off to Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, where he studied engineering.  Xi also holds a doctorate in law.

He spent much of his early career in Fujian, a province of nearly 37 million people on the Chinese coast just north of Guangdong province.

In 2002, Xi became the Party secretary of Zhejiang province, the province that lies immediately south of Shanghai, is home to 54 million people and is generally one of China’s most prosperous provinces, with double-digit growth rates during much of Xi’s tenure.  Kuhn reports that Xi was untainted by allegations of corruption and, indeed, had ‘zero tolerance’ for corruption and dishonesty — a fact that bodes well at a time when the Party’s been struck with corruption scandals that touch everyone from outgoing premier Wen Jiabao to the disgraced former Party secretary of Chongqing municipality, Bo Xilai.

Although Xi was appointed Party secretary of Shanghai municipality in 2007, he was appointed in the same year to the Politburo Standing Committee, and he quickly left the Shanghai position to assume the PRC vice presidency where, among other duties, he was responsible for overseeing the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

Notably, his wife is Peng Liyuan, who until very recently was more well-known in China than Xi.  Peng is a popular singer and entertainer with the People’s Liberation Army (she’s technically a major general).  Perhaps even more interesting, however, is that Xi’s first wife, Ke Lingling is the daughter of a former Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom, and Ke still lives there today (and not in China).

But there’s also much we don’t know about Xi, notably in the way he hopes to lead the People’s Republic of China over the next decade.   Continue reading Fifth Generation: Who is Xi Jinping?

Fifth Generation: Who is Li Keqiang?

This is the sixth in a series of posts examining the Chinese leaders named to the Politburo Standing Committee during the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党) that concluded November 14.  Prior installments on Zhang Gaoli here, Zhang Dejiang here, Liu Yunshan here, Yu Zhengsheng here and Wang Qishan here.

Unless something incredibly drastic happens in the coming months, Li Keqiang (李克强) seems likely to succeed Wen Jiabao (温家宝) as the premier of the government of the People’s Republic of China at the opening of the 12th People’s National Congress in March 2013. 

Along with China’s presumptive new ‘paramount leader,’ Xi Jinping (习近平), Li is one of just two of the previous nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee who remain on the committee after this week’s Congress, which concluded Wednesday.  In addition to Xi and Li, five new members joined the committee (although all are over age 64, hardly making them ‘new’).

After today, however, Li is essentially the second-most important government official in all of China, and he is expected to be a cautious reformer who’s keen on narrowing economic inequality in China and widening the social safety net.

Li, as noted, has been a member of the Politburo Standing Committee since 2007 and he’s been the PRC’s executive vice premier since 2007 as well.  He is also the youngest member, at age 57, on the committee.

He was a Party secretary in Liaoning, a province of 43 million people, that borders North Korea, from 2004 to 2007, spearheading a campaign to revitalize China’s northeast.

Previously, he served as the governor and the Party’s vice secretary of Henan province, China’s third most-populous province in the east-central heartland of the country with 94 million people, and one of the largest provincial economies in the country.  Although Henan province’s economy grew during Li’s tenure (indeed, with an emphasis on agricultural modernization that saw rural growth exceed already-high levels of province-wide growth), he also presided over a mini-scandal involving the contamination of blood that may have infected up to one million people with HIV.

A BBC profile notes that Li has attacked corruption that has plagued the Chinese government:

A US diplomatic cable released by whistle-blowing website Wikileaks described Mr Li as “engaging and well-informed”.

In a private conversation with the US ambassador in 2007, he called China’s economic figures “unreliable” and warned that official corruption was the biggest cause of public resentment, according to the leaked cables.

That puts him at odds with Wen, whose family allegedly holds over $2.7 million assets, as reported in the past weeks by The New York Times.  Hu’s speech kicking off the congress, too, emphasized the need to stem corruption in China’s official ranks.

Unlike many of the newly appointed members of the Politburo Standing Committee who are protégés of former president Jiang Zemin (江泽民), however, Li is more a protégé of outgoing current president Hu Jintao (胡锦涛), whom he encountered in the leadership of the Party’s youth league in the 1980s.  With Hu stepping back from active government, however, Li may have few natural allies with a relatively older and conservative group now comprising the Politburo Standing Committee.

Cheng Li, director of research and a senior fellow at the John L. Thornton China Center, surmises that although Li lacks Wen’s political charisma, he may well be central to many key policy issues over the next decade:

Based on his previous work and the populist policy agenda he shares with his mentor Hu Jintao, Li’s hot-button policy issues will include increasing employment, offering more affordable housing, providing basic health care, balancing regional development, and promoting innovation in clean energy technology.

Interestingly, Li’s wife, Cheng Hong, is a professor of English language and literature in Beijing, and Li himself is fluent in English, just as fellow Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Qishan.

Like Xi, he spent time during the Cultural Revolution working in rural China, on a farm, and like Xi, Li also has a doctorate — in Li’s case, in economics.