Monday 23 June 2014

700,000 votes, China, and Hong Kong.

So Occupy Central's unofficial referendum on the voting system to be used for future elections in Hong Kong is over, and the number of (unvetted, unobserved) votes are in - and it's quite a figure. If (and it is an "if", though probably not a big one) the figures are accurate, something like 15-20% of the eligible voters in Hong Kong voted in an unofficial poll that the Hong Kong government and their Beijing-based overlords have done everything in their power to disuade them from taking part in.

The take-away from this, just as in every other occasion when Beijing has attempted to put pressure on a free society, is that such acts are liable to back-fire by driving people to the other side. It is difficult to believe that so many Hong Kongers would have voted in this poll without all the free publicity that the (unloved, at least in Hong Kong) central government has gifted to Occupy Central, the intransigence of the latest white paper on Hong Kong being the most striking example of this.

I feel the Occupy Central organisers missed a trick, though, in not putting the central government-proposed system, but only "genuinely democratic" options on their ballot paper. Giving the voters the option to vote down the government's proposals would have made their message so much clearer.

[Picture: the leaders of the Occupy Central movement. Via Wiki]

Wednesday 18 June 2014

What remains of China's dissident movement?

This article about the "Nanfang Street Movement", a translated version of an article that originally appeared in Le Monde about a pro-democracy organisation operating in southern China, is worth a reading if only to sample the quixotic, fringe nature of modern-day opposition to the authoritarian Chinese government within mainland China. Indeed, the dissidents quoted in the article sound so idealistic and earnest for a post-Tiananmen, post-Charter 08 China as to be a little hard to credit, which is a pity because what they are saying is exactly the kind of thing that needs to be said in modern-day China, the kind of voice missing at events like today's London love-in :
It was raining the day three militants, accompanied by a fourth there to photograph the scene, unfurled a banner reading, "A party is not the same as a country. The Chinese Communist Party doesn't represent the people." In the center of the photo from that day, 23-year-old Jia Pin is holding up another message that reads, "Democracy, Liberty, Human Rights, Constitutional Government." At his side a follower carries an even more incendiary one that says, "Unelected parties are outlaws."
At least in my experience, these are not unrepresentative of the (unspoken except in safe circumstances) sentiments of a good portion of the Chinese people regarding their government, though it should also be said that a good portion also buys either largely or wholly into the government's message of their rule being solely benevolent. The poignant thing here is just how small the so-called "Nanfang Street Movement" actually is:
"there are only about 10 activists willing to demonstrate publicly," says Wu Kuiming, a lawyer in Guangzhou who defends members of the Nanfang Street Movement when they are arrested. "Quite a few people support the group, but very few are prepared to risk being arrested during a demonstration," says Wu.
The contrast with 25 years ago, when hundreds of thousands of people marched throughout China demanding reform, to today's dissidents, who would struggle to assemble enough people in one place to form a football team, couldn't be more striking.

It is hard not have a feeling of dread when reading this article, knowing that many of the people described in this article will eventually end up either in jail, in exile, or harassed to the point of quitting, because this is what has happened to every other attempt to organise dissident movements in China since 1989. For anyone who has been watching Chinese affairs for more than a few years, there is something nostalgic in reading dissidents putting their faith in the power of the internet, and in government promises of modernisation and reform - since this was exactly how dissidents like Liu Di spoke ten years ago.

Does this then necessarily mean that groups like the "Nanfang Street Movement" are doomed to the same over-all failure that has encompassed organisations like Charter 08? Perhaps not, though nothing short of an economic slow-down that no-one wants to see (but which may be programmed in to China's current development model) could conceivably create the opening for reform that they are looking for.

Thursday 12 June 2014

RIP "One Country, Two Systems"

Reading the PRC governments recently-released white paper, snappily titled "The Practice of the "One Country, Two Systems" Policy in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region", it is hard not to think that the promise by which the PRC achieved assumption of control over Hong Kong in 1997 of ensuring 50 years without change in Hong Kong's essentially liberal politico-economic system, is now something of a dead letter.

Why? Well, amid waffle about the help that the mainland gave Hong Kong during the SARS epidemic (an epidemic that spread to Hong Kong due to the failings of the PRC government), and the benefits that Hong Kong receives from the PRC governments efforts to prevent "foreign forces from interfering in Hong Kong's affairs" (which are?), the white paper dropped this bombshell:
As a unitary state, China's central government has comprehensive jurisdiction over all local administrative regions, including the HKSAR. The high degree of autonomy of HKSAR is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorization by the central leadership. The high degree of autonomy of the HKSAR is not full autonomy, nor a decentralized power. It is the power to run local affairs as authorized by the central leadership. The high degree of autonomy of HKSAR is subject to the level of the central leadership's authorization.

(my emphasis)
That is, the PRC government wishes to make it known that it does not consider the promise of 50 years without change to be a binding one, but that Hong Kong's autonomy could be removed by the central leadership before that. What could cause them to remove it? Well, the white paper further goes on to state that:

. . . the "two systems" under the "one country" are not on a par with each other. The fact that the mainland, the main body of the country, embraces socialism will not change. With that as the premise, and taking into account the history of Hong Kong and some other regions, capitalism is allowed to stay on a long-term basis. Therefore, a socialist system by the mainland is the prerequisite and guarantee for Hong Kong's practicing capitalism and maintaining its stability and prosperity. For Hong Kong to retain its capitalist system and enjoy a high degree of autonomy with "Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong" according to the Basic Law, it must fully respect the socialist system practiced on the mainland in keeping with the "one country" principle and, in particular, the political system and other systems and principles in practice.

(my emphasis)
This is pretty clearly a threat to the people of Hong Kong from the CCP: don't do anything that might threaten our death-grip on the mainland, otherwise we'll take away whatever freedoms you currently enjoy that are not granted to the rest of China. That this comes at the same time as Occupy Central is preparing demonstrations and unofficial referenda that may be embarrassing to the central government can hardly be a coincidence.

Some critics have attempted to make this out as merely a restatement of long-running government policy. It is nothing of the kind, as even CCP-apologist Lau Nai-keung has to concede, the PRC government has never actually stated anything like this before. Whilst many simply suspected that the PRC government would be willing to abrogate "One Country, Two Systems" if they felt it suited their interests, they have never gone so far as to actually say so.

So where does this leave us? Well, clearly the prospect of Taiwan ever willingly joining mainland China to form a single country under the "One Country, Two Systems" formula is deader than a Dodo for at least as long as the CCP remains in power. Who would ever trust the CCP not to simply withdraw their promise because they felt that people on Taiwan did not "fully respect" the mainland's political system?

"One Country, Two Systems" is an idea that can work, at least in theory, so long as the two systems are on a par with each other. To state openly that they are "not on a par with each other", is to state that one may over-ride the other, which is to state that there is no real guarantee of two systems coexisting.

Tuesday 10 June 2014

Taiwan's advantages are not imaginary.

Via MKL's facebook feed I read this piece on Tsai Yingwen's return to the top of the DPP, a shining example of Want China Times's commitment to talking down Taiwan's achievements over the past two decades:
Tsai doesn't have the firm will, determination and capability to address the sense of "Taiwanese superiority" felt by many in the pro-independence camp — a social psychological barrier that is hindering the DPP's transformation.

The sense of Taiwanese superiority refers to the belief that Taiwan's economic development, democratic politics and way of life are superior to that in mainland China.
 That Taiwan's economic development, way of life, and democratic politics are superior to those of mainland China is not merely a "belief". It is a clear, demonstrable fact, even judging by the most basic metrics.

According to the IMF Taiwan's per-capita income in 2013 was, in nominal terms, more than three times larger than that of mainland China (20,930 USD in Taiwan versus 6,747 USD in China). Clearly, Taiwan's economic development is superior.

According to the WHO in 2013 Taiwanese people had an overall life-expectancy more than six year longer than that of people across the straits in mainland China (80.3 in Taiwan versus 74.2 in China). Again, Taiwanese people appear to live lives that are at the very least much longer than those of mainland Chinese, reflecting a healthier and better-looked-after way of life.

Taiwan has experienced precisely zero deaths due to political disturbances and terrorism in the past year, yet the same can hardly be said of mainland China which has suffered repeated terrorist attacks, and had citizens killed in foreign rioting. In the past six years mainland China has suffered two large-scale uprisings (Tibet in 2008 and Xinjiang in 2009) and has engaged in repeated crackdowns against dissidents, sentencing people like Liu Xiaobo to jail merely for speaking their mind. No amount of bloviating about the occupation of government buildings by students during the Sunflower movement can hide the fact that Taiwan's democratic system is undoubtedly superior to mainland China's authoritarian "Market-Leninist" system.

The piece's main premise - that Taiwan succeeded only because of the US and now needs to "learn from" mainland China - founders on the rock that Taiwan has little to learn from the mainland except "how not to do it". As both Ma Yingjiu's KMT and Tsai Yingwen's DPP have at various time acknowledged, mainland China has much to learn from Taiwan, but the same is not true in the other direction. Indeed, the article does not identify anything concrete that Taiwanese people can learn from the mainland, instead talking only of Taiwan's "failure to see from an international perspective" - a "failure" that has far more to do with China blocking Taiwan's international relations at every turn.

Monday 9 June 2014

Taiwan and the US Department of Defense report

Flicking through the recently-released US Department of Defense's annual report on the Chinese military, there's quite a few things that stand out for those of us with an interest in Taiwanese affairs:
  • Despite various noises that have been made since the election of the Chinese Nationalist KMT government (which this analyst bizarrely describes as "less hardline-nationalist"), Taiwan remains, in the words of the DoD, "the focus and primary driver of China’s military investment". The KMT may have taken the sting out of the war of words, but force has not been taken off the table. As the report points out, Xi Jinping has been quite open in stating that the Taiwan issue "cannot be passed from generation to generation.”

  • The report points out that "China today probably could not enforce a full military blockade. However, its ability to do so will improve significantly over the next five to ten years." This is something that I think people who over-estimate the PRC's ability to use force against Taiwan at the present time (including, e.g., predicting a forced annexation of Taiwan in 2012) need to think about. China at the present moment is not capable of this level of coercion - but the day when it will be powerful enough to use military force to coerce Taiwan is approaching.

  • The above point is further reinforced by the US DoD's assessment that, whilst the PLA could probably carry out small-to-medium scale attacks on outlying islands with a reasonable chance of success, a full-scale invasion of Taiwan "would strain China’s armed forces and invite international intervention [making an invasion] a significant political and military risk". The report goes on to note that "China does not appear to be building the conventional amphibious lift required to support such a campaign" and that "The PLA Navy currently lacks the the amphibious lift capacity that a large-scale invasion of Taiwan would require", meaning that China is likely to remain incapable of launching an invasion of Taiwan with any degree of certainty of success at least in the near-term. However, the exact nature of the aircraft carriers now being built in China is not known.
Far from the panicked picture drawn elsewhere, it appears that, at least according to the US DoD, Taiwan is not under a significantly greater threat now than it has been over the past decade, though it may be within the next 5-10 years. Narratives that basically require support for one or the other political parties in Taiwan in order to rescue Taiwan from an immediate threat to Taiwanese democracy coming from its own elected government, with no supporting evidence of anything new, should be treated with suspicion.

Thursday 5 June 2014

"The War of The Running Dogs", and China's role in it.

Lately I've been reading Noel Barber's excellent (if definitely of its time) The War of The Running Dogs*, a book which tells the story of the Malayan Emergency in an engagingly Boys-own-like style. The book's succeeds by largely eschewing the dust-dry blow-by-blow account of technical and political happenings that so many histories of other counter-insurgency conflicts engage in, and instead dishes up gripping accounts of events demonstrative of the situation as a whole.

The conflict, which began 66 years ago next week, following the murder of three planters by communists in attacks marking the beginning of a wave of terrorist attacks aimed at destablising Malaya (as it was then known) in the run-up to its independence, and creating 'liberated zones' into which the British would not dare to go, was marked by many contradictions. The communist rebels were nominally fighting for an independence which was already promised, albeit without a fixed date, and had learned their jungle-warfare skills whilst fighting alongside the British against the Japanese during the Second World War. The British were fighting to keep control of a country which they were going to lose control of anyway, against rebels using British weapons which had mostly been air-dropped into Malaya during WW2. The communist leader, Chin Peng (陈平), who died only last year, had even been awarded the OBE for his role in fighting the Japanese.

For anyone interested in China, it is interesting to look at the ways in which the influence of China was felt throughout the conflict. In a war in which one side was largely ethnic-Chinese, and in many cases combatants on both sides were first-generation immigrants from mainland China, China was always likely to be a significant impact, but the coincidence of the struggle in Malaya with the titanic conflict inside China and along its borders between communists and non-communists during this time made China a major factor.

Whilst the idea (which Barber briefly examines) that the start of the conflict in Malaya was part of a co-ordinated effort by communists across Asia, is something we can safely set to one side as having no basis in fact, the conflict was definitely modeled on Mao's insurgency in China, with its emphasis on dominating the countryside and encircling the cities. Chin Peng certainly seems to have seen himself as a Mao-like figure, although he deviated from Mao's doctrine by not making political warfare at the same time and with the same intensity as he made guerrilla warfare, although this is largely the result of him having already tried the political route to power in the years between the war and the start of the guerrilla campaign with indifferent results.

With the end of the civil war in China in late 1949, officers from China's People's Liberation Army arrived at Chin Peng's headquarters. Barber points out that it was likely their influence that led Chin Peng to back off from his attacks on civilian targets that had served to antagonise the Malayan population in a change of policy that was announced in October 1951. This seems likely given the way it meshes with Mao's philosophy of trying to get ordinary people in the countryside onto the side of communists.

Another change prompted by the end of the Chinese civil war was the extension of British diplomatic recognition to the People's Republic of China in 1950 - a move that was seen in Malaya as a total betrayal at a time when the colonial administration there was fighting PRC-backed communists. We may reflect that, whilst the recognition was only a common-sense move given the communist victory, Britain does not seem to have derived any noticeable advantages from recognising the PRC decades before any other Western European state beyond better facilitating the administration of Hong Kong, least of all in Malaya. Perhaps this should be remembered the next time the advantages of "opening up" relations with an oppressive state are touted.

Finally, China was the last refuge for Chin Peng following his defeat in Malaya and the retreat of the Malayan communists across the border into Thailand, where they kept alive a vicious totalitarian-state-in-miniature which Chin controlled from Beijing. Chin Peng launched his second, much less successful campaign (not covered in Barber's book) from Thailand with a promise of financial support from the PRC personally delivered by Deng Xiaoping. Chin Peng's communists were riven by the Cultural Revolution in a fashion from which they never fully recovered, and eventually surrendered amid the global retreat of communism in 1989.

The net result of Chin's war against the British and their "running dogs" was an independent Malaysia that enjoyed a limited form of democracy hampered and defended by equal part by a security apparatus, that, as I found out when I visited there in 2009, remains in place despite its raison d'etre having largely disappeared.

*Barber claims that this was how Malayan communists themselves unofficially referred to the conflict (officially they called it "反英民族解放战争" - the Anti-British War of National Liberation), however searching around for various combinations of the terms "走狗" and "战争" I haven't found any Chinese language sources using this name. 

[Picture: A leaflet promising Malayan communists who surrender with a machine gun "a new life", and 1000 dollars. Via Wiki]

Wednesday 4 June 2014

Relevant meme

The day I forgot about Tiananmen.

Ten years ago today I sat in Bella Napoli near Xinjiekou in Nanjing chatting with a good friend of mine about something I'd seen that day. Between mouthfuls of the excellent seafood salad they serve there, I described how suddenly, for reasons not immediately apparent to anyone, police vans had showed up outside each of the gates of South East University, where I was studying Chinese, and the same appeared to be happening at other universities in the city.

He just leaned across the table and said "Guess what happened 15 years ago today?". Even then it took a little while to click - you see, whilst the 1989 massacre in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing is commonly mentioned in histories of the country, it is hardly kept present in the minds of people living in the People's Republic of China, even those who normally try to keep on top of events.

The defensive posture of the government is therefore a bit contradictory given their largely-successful efforts to keep the people of the country from even thinking about the massacre, in which perhaps as many as 3,000 people were killed. Probably very few of the Chinese-born students at South East University had even thought about the massacre that day in 2004, so to prepare for potential trouble in the fashion they did was to risk reminding them.

The response then, and perhaps more so now, speaks a of deep-seated fear amongst China's rulers that people will remember what happened, and call the communist party to account for it. If China really was as politically stable as it's leaders try to present it as being, if young people really were as forgetful as this preposterous article in Global Times presents them as being, they would not be busy trying to censor even oblique references to an event that happened 25 years previously, nor arresting foreign journalists for showing photographs of it, nor would they be "inviting" foreign students on compulsory trips announced on short notice to take them out of the capital on that day.

Instead, China continues to be a country in which the government at least behaves like its rule is insecure. Perhaps they're right about that.

Tuesday 3 June 2014

The UKIP opportunity.

The results of last month's European elections have caused quite a stir in the UK, since they are the first elections in more than 100 years in which neither the Conservatives nor the Labour party have won the greatest number of votes. As UKIP rose, it was generally believed that the Conservatives were the ones who would suffer most as UKIP's anti-EU, anti-immigration message would appeal most to their supporters, but then UKIP started to siphon off votes from the equally xenophobic base of the Labour party. As Steve Fisher, Associate Professor in Political Sociology and the Fellow and Tutor in Politics at Trinity College, University of Oxford, pointed out:
What seems to have happened is that between 2010 and 2012 UKIP took votes mainly from the Conservatives, but between 2012 and 2014 they have had more success in attracting Labour voters. The net effect is that the UKIP rise from 2010 to 2014 has been at similar expense to Labour and the Conservatives.

This is certainly a story that fits the main pattern of change in the general election vote intention opinion polls. The narrowing of the Labour lead over the past two years has been mainly due to a Labour fall and UKIP rise.
This of course isn't the whole story - it should be pointed out that one party's collapse in the
voting share at the EU elections seemed almost total, and seems very likely to be due to UKIP. It is that of the far-right extremist British National Party, which received 943,598 votes in 2009 but only 179,694 in 2014.

My personal take on this is, if the anti-EU, anti-immigrant section of each of the main parties, as well as the support base of the far-right BNP, choose to assemble themselves under one flag, then finally the main parties will be able to run against them without having to upset their own base. Moreoever, at the same time as UKIP has assembled an electoral machine that allows them to capitalise on anti-immigration and anti-EU sentiment in the UK, they have been losing the argument amongst the British people, who are steadily becoming more pro-EU and pro-immigration.

Monday 2 June 2014

Juan Carlos, the case for constitutional monarchy, and defending the indefensible.

At one of the banquets I attended whilst teaching at Nanjing University of Finance and Economics, one particularly boozy cadre asked me "why does Britain still have a queen?". Having been asked this question a few times, I shot back with the question "why doesn't China have a monarch, and wouldn't it be better off if it did?". His reaction was amazement that anyone would want to argue in favour of a monarchy, and much discussion of the Xinhai rebellion then ensued.

I was reminded of this discussion when I saw the news of King Juan Carlos's of Spain's abdication today. There's few arguments that can be made in favour of a monarchy, and no-one can really say that, beginning from a tabula rasa, you would rationally chose to have a country ruled by a head of state chosen by accident of birth. All the same, Juan Carlos's actions in the attempted 1981 coup make the best possible case that can possibly be made for this basically irrational way of running a country - he represented a non-political reservoir of power that could take action where no-one else could, and he acted decisively.

Personally, however, I have to admit that my own support for the monarchy in the UK comes mostly from the gut. I certainly believe that, given that we are where we are there is no point in changing now, and that there are economic and constitutional advantages to having a monarchy, but in the end my support comes from history and tradition.

Occasionally I get accused of not understanding the emotional commitment that some Chinese people have to the Communist Party. Believe me, I get it - but "getting it" and being able to excuse it are two different things.

Sunday 1 June 2014

"better than 40% of KMT supporters don't support the Party's core mission"

Whilst I think he highlights an important data-point, I don't entirely agree with Michael Turton's analysis of the out-come of a recent poll showing that only 52.3% of KMT supporters believe that both Taiwan and the Chinese mainland belong to "One China" here. Unifying Taiwan with the Chinese mainland is not really the KMT's "core mission". It has always been more of a unifying credo, an identity similar to the UK Labour Party's Clause 4, something which a core can rally around without necessarily believing it will be implemented any time soon or even ever.

Why do I think this? Well, asides from all the other reasons (like, for example, the fact it hasn't happened yet), if it was the "core mission", then it would be pretty strange for so many KMT supporters not to actually support it. The KMT vote is more the product of ancestry, belief in certain (fairly statist in places) economic policies, and networks of patronage that may stretch into some dark corners, than wholesale commitment to Chinese nationalist (small 'n') ideology and goals.