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A hit TV series in China skewers cranky old parents

Economist - Thu, 03/21/2019 - 16:41

IT IS NO mean feat to be one of the top-ten trending hashtags on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, for 20 consecutive days and counting. “All is Well”, a show on provincial television which premiered on March 1st, has done just that. The show tells the story of a fictional Chinese family torn by internal conflict. The female protagonist, Su Mingyu, is barely on speaking terms with her widowed father and one of her two brothers. The father is a nagging crank who expects his two adult sons to bankroll his lavish tastes. This leads to constant bickering between the brothers, neither of whom wants to be called unfilial.

Episodes of “All is Well” have been streamed more than 390m times. That exceeds the online viewership of the next most popular television series by 278m. From “The Simpsons” to “Game of Thrones”, dramas about bickering families are common in many countries. But in China, the Communist Party prefers entertainment to be unchallenging. So the questioning of blind attachment to traditional values in “All is Well” is causing a stir. Viewers are transfixed by its rare portrayal of middle-class life, warts and all.

Many Chinese can relate to the Su family’s troubles. The daughter holds a grudge against her father (the two are pictured), and especially against her late mother, for having mistreated her while...

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China’s strong-arm approach to drug addiction does not work

Economist - Thu, 03/21/2019 - 16:41

A LITTLE OVER 20 years ago, when he was still a teenager, Lin Guangpeng tried heroin that his friends had brought to a party near his home in the south-western province of Yunnan. Soon addicted, Mr Lin—not his real name—spent many of the subsequent years behind bars, including several long stretches in detention centres for drug users. He says wardens in these “compulsory isolation detoxification” facilities put him to work in prison factories. Such places are meant to heal your body, he says (inmates are pictured exercising). But they “damage your soul”.

China is tough on drugs. Many traffickers are among the thousands of people executed annually. Sometimes they are paraded beforehand at public sentencing rallies. Attendees at these grim spectacles include busloads of schoolchildren. Drug users may be punished on the spot by police. Many are locked up in centres like the ones where Mr Lin was sent, often for stretches of two to three years without trial. In 2017 about 320,000 people spent time in such camps, says China’s anti-narcotics agency. That is about 36,000 fewer than in 2016 but about 120,000 more than in 2012.

After their release from these facilities, former inmates still suffer harassment by the police. Mr Lin’s latest incarceration (for two years) ended in 2018. He is sober, thoughtful and keen not to fall...

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China’s leaders should study James Bond films

Economist - Thu, 03/21/2019 - 16:41

BY THE TIME Chinese censors finally allowed a James Bond film to be shown in a mainland cinema, in 2007, the franchise was more than four decades old. Only thanks to rampant piracy were Chinese familiar with the British spy, commonly referred to by his codename, Ling ling qi. Chinese leaders would do well to study a plot device beloved in the early films: the moment when a ruthless genius explains his plans for world domination to a captive Bond, believing him moments from death. With the reliability of a well-tuned Aston Martin, the bragging turns out to be ill-timed. Within moments Bond is free, the villain’s lair ablaze and his schemes thwarted. Today in the real world, China faces unusual resistance to its bid for a front seat as a global power. Surprisingly often, China’s woes stem from what film critics might term Bond-villain blunders, involving premature admissions of ambition.

Take the ongoing campaign by American officials to scold allies into shunning Chinese high-technology for 5G mobile-telecommunications networks. The secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, says that America may refuse to share intelligence with governments that install kit from such tech giants as Huawei, a firm that Mr Pompeo accuses of having “deep connections” to Chinese spy services. Allies grumble that...

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China says it wants more “independent” think-tanks

Economist - Thu, 03/14/2019 - 16:43

FRUSTRATED BY the quality of the advice he was receiving, the first Song emperor of China had an idea. The tenth-century ruler, it is said, promised that officials would not be executed for disagreeing with him. President Xi Jinping appears to be testing a less flamboyant remedy to a similar problem. To ensure a supply of diverse opinions, even as public debates face strict controls, Mr Xi is encouraging a boom in “think-tanks with Chinese characteristics”.

State-funded think-tanks, many of them serving individual ministries or Communist Party bodies, have long existed in China. But recent years have seen a flourishing of think-tanks that eschew direct state sponsorship. Some are privately funded foundations, or attached to universities. Others register as private consulting firms, bringing both flexibility and vulnerability.

The boom throws up puzzles. In the West, measuring clout is easy. When a Democrat wins the White House, a flotilla of progressive wonks bobs across Washington from places like the Brookings Institution to join the government. When a Republican is elected, conservative wonks who share the winner’s politics take their turn— hard-edged partisan think-tanks have hit the jackpot under President Donald Trump. In Europe, think-tanks send staff into government as special advisers and work to shape public...

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In China, scandal engulfs a big seller of traditional medicine

Economist - Thu, 03/14/2019 - 16:43

THE FAKE advertisement was uncommonly cruel. Zhou Erli, a farmer from Inner Mongolia, first noticed it gaining popularity online when his four-year-old daughter, sick with cancer, was in intensive care. His girl was smiling in a photograph being circulated by Quanjian, a big health-products company. The ad claimed she had fully returned to health after taking the firm’s miraculous herbal remedies.

In fact, says Mr Zhou, bosses at Quanjian had told him to take his daughter off her chemotherapy treatment at a state-run children’s hospital in Beijing. They had offered what they assured him was a potent new cure: a drink made of jujube powder and gromwell-root oil. He had spent 5,000 yuan ($800) on it. But his daughter’s cancer had spread. In 2015, after the ad appeared, Mr Zhou filed a lawsuit alleging that the company had duped him, but the court dismissed his case for lack of evidence. Little Zhou Yang died a few months later.

Her story might have ended there, had it not been taken up by a popular online myth-busting forum, Dingxiang Doctor. In late December, in an article that went viral, the website took aim at Quanjian, which it said had been taking in billions of yuan from annual sales. It had investments in football and equestrian clubs, cosmetics, banking, insurance and hotels. The article said the firm had earned...

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China’s north-east is the home of bawdy song-and-dance

Economist - Thu, 03/14/2019 - 16:43

“CUT! THAT was dead awful. Deliver with more passion!” roars He Xiaoying at a group of adolescent girls who had been rehearsing a comedy routine. Ms He is the eponymous head of a boarding school in the north-eastern city of Changchun, in China’s rust belt. Her mission is to train young people in the art of errenzhuan, or “two-person turn”, a traditional form of comic song-and-dance that often involves raunchy gags. The children also study subjects that are more academic, but these take a back seat.

There are at least a dozen such schools in the three provinces of the north-east where errenzhuan originated. Ms He’s 80-odd students, most from poor backgrounds, dream of appearing on national television, or, failing that, at a well-known theatre. In a region plagued by unemployment, some people see a promising future in comedy.

Errenzhuan requires arduous training. It involves duets, typically between a man and a woman, that are often delivered in seven- or ten-character rhyming lines. The dance is usually in folk style, as is the performers’ dress (though modern touches are permissible). In the north-east, where errenzhuan has many fans, some proudly call it the world’s hardest form of comedy.

It is certainly among the...

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China recruits Westerners to sell its “democracy”

Economist - Thu, 03/07/2019 - 16:49

THE ANNUAL sitting of the National People’s Congress, China’s well-fed eunuch of a parliament, poses several tests for foreign reporters. Though its committees may suggest tweaks to new laws, and some play a diplomatic role engaging with foreign legislators, meetings of its 3,000 or so delegates are mostly very dull. Indeed, the congress has never voted down a proposal from Communist Party chiefs. There is the puzzle of whether to join a yearly propaganda show in which foreign journalists are given plum seats at leaders’ press conferences and urged to pre-submit questions that few will be invited to ask—allowing state media to show domestic audiences the world’s press, hands aloft and clamouring to join this simulacrum of representative democracy.

There is the security that grips Beijing during the “two sessions”, the simultaneous gatherings of the legislature and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body stuffed with business bosses, academics, sports stars, religious leaders and other grandees. Notably, cyber-police disrupt the online services, known as VPNs, that offer a route past the Great Firewall of censorship. For foreign reporters, the sessions’ great drama often involves guessing whether they will be able to use the internet to file their stories about the government’s accountability.

...

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As anniversaries loom, China is snooping on Tibetans

Economist - Thu, 03/07/2019 - 16:49

FOUR BURLY policemen man a makeshift checkpoint outside Hongya, a hillside village in the western province of Qinghai on the edge of the Tibetan plateau. One of them says would-be visitors to Hongya must have their identity documents photographed and names noted down. Hongya is the birthplace of the 14th, and current, Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader who is reviled by China’s government. His former home is maintained as a shrine by relatives; Tibetan pilgrims occasionally venture there. But for now, at least, Hongya is closed to unauthorised outsiders.

Security is often tight around Hongya. But the authorities across the plateau, including Tibet and vast Tibetan-inhabited areas of other provinces, are on heightened alert during what officials sometimes call the “sensitive month” of March. It is a time of year studded with anniversaries that officials fear could trigger protests by Tibetans. One is March 14th, the date in 2008 when anti-Chinese riots erupted in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, prompting plateau-wide unrest and a fierce clampdown.

But it is events 60 years ago that are most bitterly remembered by many Tibetans: the crushing of an uprising in Lhasa against Chinese rule that broke out on March 10th 1959 and intensified after the Dalai Lama fled to India a week later. Little suggests that another...

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China’s prime minister frets about the country’s economy

Economist - Thu, 03/07/2019 - 16:49

CHINA’S RUBBER-STAMP parliament can seem unchanging from one year to the next. Shortly past 9am on March 5th—the same date and time as always—Li Keqiang, the prime minister, rose in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People to deliver his annual work report (after delegates had sung the national anthem, accompanied by a military band—pictured). His speech took, as ever, nearly two hours. He reviewed the government’s targets last year for growth, investment, employment and more, all of which it had reached. He also announced another series of targets that, as sure as stiff-backed soldiers hoist up the country’s flag in Tiananmen Square every morning, China will achieve again. Mr Li closed with a customary rousing pledge to bring about the “Chinese dream of national rejuvenation”. Delegates, having made a good show of listening raptly throughout, dutifully applauded (see Chaguan).

Yet despite all the familiar pomp and well-worn phrases, there were enough new policies and numbers in Mr Li’s speech to highlight the economic uncertainty now facing many in China, including the government itself. The report, which marked the start of the legislature’s annual ten-day session, was laced with caution. Mr Li said China would aim for GDP growth of between 6% and 6.5% this year, down...

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America’s allies are struggling with two bullies

Economist - Thu, 02/28/2019 - 16:42

CANADIAN DIPLOMATS in China recently carried out one of their grimmer duties: paying a monthly visit to a former colleague, Michael Kovrig, who is being detained by state security agents. Mr Kovrig, a diplomat for over a decade before joining the International Crisis Group, a conflict-prevention charity, was grabbed off a Beijing street on December 10th. He is being held in a room kept brightly lit at all times, and questioned for up to six hours a day. Granted one consular visit a month, Mr Kovrig may not see his family or hire a lawyer. On this occasion friends gave the consuls messages to read to him (handing over letters is banned). Mr Kovrig, a lover of jazz, the blues and literature—he likes the science fiction of Harlan Ellison—was allowed to receive a book. Though accused of endangering China’s national security, a catch-all offence, Mr Kovrig has not been charged with any crime.

Mr Kovrig is, in effect, a hostage. He is being held because on December 1st Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, a senior executive of Huawei, a telecommunications giant, and the daughter of its founder. The action was taken at the request of American prosecutors, who accuse Ms Meng of scheming to sidestep sanctions against Iran. Along with Mr Kovrig, China has detained a second Canadian, Michael Spavor, who runs tours to North Korea. Even the most urbane...

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To win minorities’ support, China offers places at boarding school

Economist - Thu, 02/28/2019 - 16:42

MEIDUO WAS 11 when she left her village in Tibet to attend boarding school. Her family had been trying to secure this opportunity for her ever since she began her education. They believed that studying in a more prosperous part of China would give her a brighter future. Yet when the moment came to say goodbye, they could not bear to send her off. So Meiduo, with a suitcase bigger than herself, went to the railway station with a teacher who escorted her to her destination. It was four years before the girl saw her relatives again.

Meiduo (not her real name) is one of more than 141,000 children from Tibet who have taken part in a scheme known as “inland classes”, or neidiban. Set up in 1985, it offers selected students places at secondary schools in parts of China inhabited by the country’s Han majority. There are dozens of schools scattered over more than 20 provinces that accept such children from Tibet (including some of Han ethnicity). In 2000 the offer was extended to children in Xinjiang, a western region bordering Tibet with a large population of mostly Muslim Uighurs. Since then more than 100,000 students from Xinjiang have attended neidiban schools in 45 cities.

Admission to the programme is highly competitive. Applicants must not only excel academically. They must...

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China is waging a nationwide campaign against gang crime

Economist - Thu, 02/28/2019 - 16:42

IN THEIR EFFORTS to eradicate criminal gangs, Chinese officials deploy a colourful vocabulary. Beijing is festooned with red banners urging citizens to “resolutely root out black and evil forces”. (In other countries this might be a job for police officers or exorcists.) Other banners mix metaphors. “Dig deep and thoroughly investigate the protective umbrellas” of such menaces, says one.

In January 2018 China’s leader, Xi Jinping, launched a three-year campaign against organised crime. State media brim with reports of success. The authorities in Zhanjiang, a city in the southern province of Guangdong, claim to have dealt an effective blow to “vehicle tyrants” (taxi-business mafias), “sand tyrants” (gangs that control the sand-mining industry), “sea tyrants” (those involved in the seafood business) and “basket tyrants” (those engaged in the basket trade). So far more than 10,000 alleged gangsters have been brought to trial across the country. State media say police have smashed 6,000 gangs, with the help of citizens who are offered lavish rewards for leads (disguised recipients are pictured).

Campaigns against hei shehui, or “black society”, as organised crime is often called, are common in China. But officials have been at pains to point out that this one is different. Previous such efforts have...

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Economic woes hurt Chinese journalists as much as censorship does

Economist - Thu, 02/21/2019 - 16:49

SOME DAUNTING obstacles must be overcome to study journalism at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), home to the region’s best college for reporters. Applicants must speak good English, find annual tuition fees of over $25,000 and—to secure places on courses that are oversubscribed each year—persuade HKU professors that their interest in journalism is heartfelt. A surprising number of mainland Chinese youngsters, who represent about 60% of students on the master’s programme for journalism, then face a further obstacle: telephone calls from parents, begging them to shun careers in news lest they doom their whole family.

A group of mainland students, hosting Chaguan in an HKU common room, share stories of tough parental calls. Lansie (her chosen name in English) fields frequent pleas from her mother to avoid writing about Chinese politics, which end: “Do you want us all to be in prison?” Fernando’s father works for the state media, but still he urges his son to start a business and forget about the “noble things” journalism can do. As for Ann, her family’s concerns seem more trivial. Her parents have begged her “thousands of times” to consider a career in finance. They complain that, for now, they are respectably middle-class. But if Ann becomes a journalist they fear she will pull them into poverty.

Parents are right that...

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China’s high-spending tourists bring political clout

Economist - Thu, 02/21/2019 - 16:49

EARLIER THIS month the great pyramids of Giza and the nearby Sphinx were lit up in “Chinese red”. Spectators, many of them from China, were then given another unprecedented treat. The sound-and-light show, a staple of pyramid entertainment since 1961, was narrated in Chinese.

The event was sponsored by the Chinese government, which takes pride in its travellers’ growing influence. Since 2012 China has been the world’s biggest source of tourists. Chinese travellers racked up nearly 150m trips abroad last year. Their spending—over $250bn in 2017—far outstrips that of their American counterparts (see chart). Chinese officials know these tourists buy influence. Take Egypt, which China sees as a regional hub of its Belt and Road Initiative—an effort to boost its influence through massive spending on infrastructure. China’s leg-up for the country’s tourist industry is a way of showing thanks for Egypt’s enthusiasm.

China even uses the term “tourism diplomacy”. The...

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China’s master-plan rings alarm bells in Hong Kong

Economist - Thu, 02/21/2019 - 16:49

IT DOES NOT lack ambition. On February 18th China unveiled a long-awaited master blueprint for the Greater Bay Area (GBA), a mammoth urban cluster comprising the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau, and nine cities in the southern province of Guangdong. The GBA will boast a population of 71m and a total area of 56,000 square kilometres. It will become by far the world’s biggest integrated “bay area”, surpassing rivals such as Tokyo and San Francisco. The master plan calls on the GBA to play “the leading role in the country’s economic development”.

Like most big Chinese ideas, this one is attributed to President Xi Jinping himself. It has two overarching goals. The first is to align Hong Kong and Macau more closely with the mainland. Macau has rarely caused trouble for China; but Hong Kong, a former British colony, has seen a rise in pro-independence sentiment in recent years. So the preamble to the blueprint notes that the GBA will allow “compatriots” in Hong Kong and Macau to “take pride in a strong and prosperous motherland”.

However, the plan is being marketed on the second goal. The GBA aims to become a “first-class” innovation hub. The idea is to make the most of the strengths of the region’s cities so that they co-operate rather than compete with one another. Hong Kong will be the leader in...

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China tries to stop academics from taking its constitution literally

Economist - Thu, 02/14/2019 - 16:43

A YEAR BEFORE Xi Jinping became China’s leader, a 47-year-old professor at Peking University, Zhang Qianfan, delivered a talk to mark the 100th anniversary of the collapse of China’s last imperial dynasty, in 1911, charting the history of efforts since then to instil respect for constitutional principles. Students unable to find seats in the packed lecture theatre stood shoulder-to-shoulder around the walls. They grinned and clapped when he started by saying: “I have written down my true feelings...They may sound fierce. Forgive me if they cause offence.”

The thin, bespectacled academic held his audience spellbound. Those who, unable to find space in the room, had crowded by the doorway, were still there when he finished, almost two hours later. That was fortunate, because his final point was the most powerful in a lecture packed with indictments of China’s failure to implement the guarantees of its constitution, including...

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Xi Jinping thought saves the world

Economist - Thu, 02/14/2019 - 16:43

Armageddon, a topic of mutual concern

EARTH MUST be moved away from the expanding sun, which threatens to engulf it. As it is propelled across the solar system by gargantuan thrusters it gets trapped in Jupiter’s gravitational pull. The apocalypse looms. There is only one hope for the human race: China.

“The Wandering Earth”, China’s first blockbusting sci-fi film, has achieved gravity-defying success with this absurd plot. In its first ten days in cinemas it earned an impressive 3bn yuan ($440m). The film is widely expected to become China’s second highest-grossing, behind “Wolf Warrior 2”, a jingoistic thriller whose lead actor, Wu Jing, also stars in the sci-fi pic. Many Chinese commentators attribute the film’s stellar success to growing pride in the country’s space programme. Last month China became the first country to land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon.

Officials are...

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Why so glum, China?

Economist - Thu, 02/14/2019 - 16:43

IT TOOK 125 years for America’s Declaration of Independence to reach a wide Chinese audience, and when it did, some lofty phrases got lost. The earliest known Chinese translation of the declaration, published in 1901 by young nationalists burning to overthrow the Qing empire, is an impatient, combative text. The document’s name, noted the scholar who rediscovered it, Frank Li of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, became the “American War Proclamation of Independence”. The rights it deemed inalienable—“life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”—turned into something bleaker: “life, liberty and all interests”.

Happiness remains a thorny subject in China. Since 2012 the UN has sponsored a World Happiness Report, for which residents of about 150 countries are asked how satisfied they are with their lives. China ranked 86th in the latest report, below Russia and even war-torn Libya. Some foreign observers find it easy to explain...

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Does China understand Taiwan?

Economist - Thu, 02/07/2019 - 16:53

IF CHINA’S RULERS ever decide to invade Taiwan—a grim but not impossible prospect—they will need good answers to two questions. First, would the People’s Liberation Army win? The consensus in Taipei is that the PLA is close to that goal but is not “100% sure” of victory. Second, would ordinary Taiwanese submit?

Chinese leaders have limited patience for Taiwanese opinion. Their offer to the democratic island of 23m is ostensibly generous. Under the slogan “One Country, Two Systems”, Taiwan is promised lots of autonomy alongside access to China’s vast market. This is backed by honeyed words about unifying a family sundered for 70 years, since China’s civil war ended with the losing Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT) retreating to what they hoped would be temporary exile on Taiwan. Still, China is committed to using force to block any bid for formal independence.

Chinese optimists call time their ally, as Taiwan’s...

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Once denounced as bourgeois vanity, pets are big business in China

Economist - Thu, 02/07/2019 - 16:53

A shameful bourgeois indulgence

WITH ITS overflowing ball pits, indoor swimming pools and elaborate obstacle course, the Maidao Play Centre offers a fun-packed day out, reviewers gush. “My girl just loves it here—she just leaps into the car when she realises where we’re going and she can’t wait to play with all her friends,” says a woman in her early 30s.

While children would probably love Maidao, it is aimed at dogs. It is just one of hundreds of puppy-grooming parlours, animal hotels and doggy day-care centres that have sprung up across China to cash in on the booming pet industry. The market for food, toys, coats and other products for pets was worth 170bn yuan ($25bn) in 2018, up by more than a quarter from the previous year, reckons Goumin, a pet-services portal. This would make it bigger than China’s tea industry. Goumin says China has 73.5m cat- or dog-owners, a group approaching the size of the...

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