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China’s internet, despite controls, offers fame and fortune to some

Economist - Thu, 11/15/2018 - 16:49

BEFORE HU JINZHOU began his climb into the foothills of fame, as a professional player of computer games in China’s multi-billion-dollar livestream industry, he was a schoolboy tearaway. He got into playground fights, tried to sell his textbooks to classmates and sneaked out after dark for some online gaming.

Back then, Mr Hu’s reluctance to conform was a drama played out on a small stage. “Our hair went white trying to straighten him out,” sighs his stepfather, Cai Hongbo, recalling nights spent hunting for the boy in the internet cafés of Dangyang, a factory town in Hubei, a central province. Quick-witted and popular, if not with teachers, Mr Hu shrugged off efforts to control him. “We’d get him to kneel...” recalls his mother, Zhao Aiying. “...To write letters of apology,” chips in her husband at their foot-massage parlour on a busy market street, where traders sell roasted nuts, vegetables of the brightest green and fish from the nearby Yangzi river. Their...

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Tsinghua University may soon top the world league in science research

Economist - Thu, 11/15/2018 - 16:49

TSINGHUA UNIVERSITY was born out of national humiliation. It was founded in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion—an anti-foreign uprising in 1900—and paid for with the reparations exacted from China by America. Now Tsinghua is a major source of Chinese pride as it contends for accolades for research in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). In 2013-16 it produced more of the top 1% most highly cited papers in maths and computing, and more of the 10% most highly cited papers in STEM, than any other university in the world, reckons Simon Marginson of Oxford University (see chart). The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) still leads in the top 1% of STEM papers, but Mr Marginson says Tsinghua is on track to be “number one in five years or less”.

...

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In China, political screening of university entrants causes an uproar

Economist - Thu, 11/15/2018 - 16:49

“ARE THEY retarded or just plain evil?” So asked a scathing commentary that was circulated recently through China’s social media. The author was referring to officials at the education bureau in Chongqing, a south-western region. On November 2nd they had published a document saying that students wishing to take the university-entrance exam must undergo zheng shen, or political vetting. Those who failed this screening would be barred from taking the test.

 What was striking was not so much Chongqing’s reminder that students must toe the Communist Party’s line, but the outcry this triggered in spite of strenuous efforts by China’s leader, Xi Jinping, to keep dissent in check. Parents in Chongqing and farther afield expressed incredulity. The term zhengshen briefly lit up Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, before references to it were scrubbed by censors.

Zhengshen has a long history. During Mao’s rule, those...

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In Macau, the old colonial tongue is back in vogue

Economist - Thu, 11/08/2018 - 11:03

THESE DAYS Manuel Machado has a spring in his step. The school of which he is headmaster, Escola Portuguesa de Macau, is the only one in the southern Chinese city that still follows the curriculum taught in Portugal, which until 1999 had held sway in Macau, more or less, for nearly four-and-a-half centuries. What gives Mr Machado cheer is that enrolment has been rising for the past three years. The school now has more than 600 pupils. He predicts the trend will continue.

There is certainly plenty of room for catch-up growth. When the school was founded in 1998, a year before Portugal handed Macau back to China, it had nearly twice as many students (and there were at least three other such schools through much of the 1990s). The vast majority of pupils were children of Portuguese expatriates, who then dominated the senior ranks of Macau’s public sector. Today the school’s fastest-growing ethnic group is Chinese. 

 Only 2.3% of the city’s 660,000...

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China is struggling to explain Xi Jinping Thought

Economist - Thu, 11/08/2018 - 11:03

A slog, but it’s the thought that counts

THE INSTITUTE of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era occupies several rooms in the Marxism department of Renmin University in north Beijing. Qin Xuan, the institute’s director, says it is one of ten similar centres for the study of the philosophy that is attributed to China’s president. The institute has only a small administrative staff but about 70 affiliated academics. It produces research, offers advice to policymakers and organises seminars.

Mr Qin says that part of his team’s job is to explain Xi Thought to journalists, foreign diplomats and Chinese youngsters. In October he and researchers at other such institutes, all founded in the past year, appeared as judges and commentators on a youth-targeted game-show called “Studying the New Era”. It involved students who stood on the bridge of a starship and answered...

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Old-age homes boost Japan’s soft power in China

Economist - Thu, 11/08/2018 - 10:48

AMID THE stress and sadness of choosing an old-age home for her husband, it took Li Wangke, a retired academic, a while to realise why one facility was so good at reawakening his playful, chatty side. She had visited other homes that had fine food and lavish amenities, reflecting the affluence of the couple’s southern Chinese home town, Guangzhou. But one newly opened home stood out for easing—at least somewhat—the symptoms of the disease ravaging his brain. Rather than pampering her 83-year-old husband, its staff assessed his rare neuro-degenerative illness, then with warmth and firmness pushed him to do as much for himself as possible. They cajoled him to talk, exercise and even play ping-pong. He seems a “different person”, says Ms Li.

After several visits she discovered that the home’s methods had been imported from Japan, a former wartime foe that older Chinese are commonly thought to detest. Her husband, also a retired...

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Think of China as a giant sub-prime lender in Latin America

Economist - Thu, 11/01/2018 - 17:40

SINCE ITS emperors first wrangled with distant barbarians, China has practised unsentimental diplomacy. Not much has changed, to go by its dealings with Brazil and Venezuela as the two Latin American countries struggle with political crises.

On his noisy, populist path to victory, Brazil’s hard-right president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, cast China as a menace. “The Chinese are not buying in Brazil, they are buying Brazil,” the former army officer growled on the stump. He was referring to China’s snapping up of oilfields, mines, ports, giant dams and power grids. Since 2000 Chinese direct investment in Brazil has amounted to nearly $50bn. At times, Mr Bolsonaro’s gripes echoed those of the Trump administration, far to the north. In October Mike Pompeo, the American secretary of state, accused Chinese state-owned firms of “predatory economic activity” in the region. Mr Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson, had urged Latin Americans to...

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China’s public worries pointlessly about GM food

Economist - Thu, 11/01/2018 - 17:40

AMID AN ESCALATING trade war with America, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has tried to reassure a nervous public by insisting that his country can go it alone in its pursuit of tech supremacy. The Chinese people must “cast aside illusions and rely on ourselves”, he said in April soon after the first shots were fired. But in one technological realm, China appears less eager to surpass America: the development of genetically modified (GM) food crops. China was once a world leader in the field, but in the face of public opposition it now lags far behind (see chart). Unlike America, China restricts the commercial use of GM strains largely to non-food farming.

In 2016, after years of vacillation, the government looked ready to allow wider introduction of GM food crops. In a five-year planning document, released that year, it said that certain GM maize and soyabean varieties would be in commercial use by the end of the decade (an...

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China waters down its ban on the use of tiger and rhino parts

Economist - Thu, 11/01/2018 - 17:40

Poached for a placebo

“IT’S GOOD news for my patients,” says Zhu Meng, a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine in Beijing. Ms Zhu is cheering a government directive, which took effect on October 29th, allowing the medical use of tiger bone and rhinoceros horn after a 25-year ban. Although evidence of their curative properties is sorely lacking, Ms Zhu insists that tiger bone mixed with alcohol can cure arthritis and that rhino-horn powder can help in the treatment of cerebrovascular disease, among other things.

In 1993, when the previous ban was declared, tiger bone and rhino horn were also removed from the officially approved list of Chinese medicines. In 2010 the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies, based in Beijing, told its members not to use tiger bone or any other parts from endangered species. Astonishingly, however, the new directive implies that tiger and rhino parts may have...

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A fashionable aesthetic confounds Chinese parents—and officials

Economist - Thu, 10/25/2018 - 16:44

Courage, responsibility and bubbles

NEW F4 ARE actors-turned-musicians with pebble-smooth chins and artful coifs (the “F” is short for “flower”). Yet the boy band’s appearance last month on a patriotic children’s show caused a kerfuffle, and not just among fans. Some parents, already angry that the government had ordered them to ensure their primary-school-aged children watched the programme, complained that the foursome were not appropriate role models for young boys. What lessons could they learn from them, asked one enraged blogger, except “how to use eyeliner and lipstick?”

Slim young male stars with a taste for make-up are enjoying a moment in vogue. Labelled “little fresh meat” by their fans, who consist mostly of women in their teens and twenties, they mimic an aesthetic pioneered by singers from South Korea and Japan. The most mainstream adopt faux-innocent personas vaguely reminiscent of the...

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Frequent protests by veterans alarm China’s authorities

Economist - Thu, 10/25/2018 - 16:44

TWENTY YEARS after leaving the air force with a lump-sum payment, Song Zhiming, a mechanic from Henan province, says he has struggled to build a second career. Divorced, and soon to turn 60, he worries about funding his retirement. He feels cross that people who left service only a year or two after him got what he thinks is a better deal. Lately he has been visiting government offices to petition for more help with his future living expenses and medical bills. His persistence, he says, has made him unpopular. When he and some friends tried to present their cases in Beijing this month, they were stopped by police on the outskirts of the city and sent packing.

Mr Song is one of about 57m living veterans of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). While many of China’s old soldiers have settled happily into civvies, a large number—particularly from cohorts demobilised in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s—complain that the government has let...

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What a new bridge says about Hong Kong’s relations with mainland China

Economist - Thu, 10/25/2018 - 16:44

A GREAT PHALANX of Chinese politicians turned up this week to open the world’s longest sea-crossing bridge, connecting Hong Kong with the mainland city of Zhuhai and the former Portuguese colony of Macau. The throng of Communist grandees, who strode into the opening ceremony with President Xi Jinping at their head, was fitting, because the project makes more sense as a political symbol than as a transport link.

Nine years in construction, 55km long and wildly over budget, the bridge consists of a series of six-lane bridges and tunnels, winding between man-made islands across the Pearl River delta. It was hailed at the opening by Han Zheng, a Chinese deputy prime minister, as a boost for the principle of “One Country, Two Systems”. Under that ingenious slogan, in the late 1990s, Communist-run China took back Hong Kong from Britain and Macau from Portugal, with a promise to preserve their rumbustious, neon-lit capitalist systems...

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China defends the mass internment of Muslims

Economist - Thu, 10/18/2018 - 16:52

More security risks

FOR A YEAR or more the Communist Party has feigned bafflement when asked to comment on evidence that it has detained without trial at least several hundred thousand Muslims, and perhaps more than 1m, in the far-western province of Xinjiang. On October 16th it changed tack, abandoning its denials and loudly defending the internments. A report broadcast on state television contained footage said to have been shot within one of the many “vocational and educational training centres” that China has built or renovated since 2016, when it began ramping up measures against separatism and religious extremism which it says threaten the region. The report suggested that China’s methods for preventing terrorism could serve as inspiration for others.

The 15-minute news package—filmed in and around an institution in the town of Hotan in southern Xinjiang—featured male and female detainees in...

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An influx of mainland Chinese is riling Hong Kong

Economist - Thu, 10/18/2018 - 16:52

INSIDE AN AUSTERE room in an industrial building in Hong Kong, a dozen or so middle-aged women, many with small children by their side, arrange chairs in a circle. They are new migrants from mainland China who have come to attend a free Cantonese-language conversation course run by a local NGO. The youngsters, who have recently enrolled at local schools, are already near-fluent. Their parents, however, often find themselves reverting to Mandarin, their mother tongue, when the going gets tough. Each time this happens, the instructor, a native Hong Konger, politely reminds them to stick to Cantonese, even if it makes their children blush.

The border between Hong Kong and mainland China operates much like an international one and mainlanders are not free to enter the city at will. But up to 150 mainland Chinese are allowed to settle in Hong Kong every day under the one-way permit scheme, a programme set up in 1980 that lets...

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China is misreading Western populism

Economist - Thu, 10/18/2018 - 10:48

THE ERA of populist politics in the rich world is hard work for China. Its leaders generally dislike change in foreign capitals, preferring to deal with old friends or devils they know. Young leaders, in particular, can be bumptious, and in need of training in how to avoid annoying China. On the upside, turmoil in Western capitals offers new ways to put foreigners in their place. A European envoy in Beijing describes how Chinese officials greet visitors who raise such issues as the rule of law or political freedoms. Rather often, he reports, Chinese hosts cite the financial crisis that gripped Europe and America in 2008 (but which largely spared China) and the rise of populist parties. “They say: ‘We have been using our system for millennia, and your system doesn’t work.’”

Delightful though it is to gloat, on balance China is getting this populist moment wrong. Chinese leaders are too cynical about elections in the...

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Hong Kong’s expulsion of a British editor is a blow to its freedoms

Economist - Thu, 10/11/2018 - 16:49

Officials want to muzzle them

“IT IS not like he is getting executed,” wrote a columnist for Ta Kung Pao, a leading newspaper in Hong Kong with close links to the Chinese Communist Party. The writer was referring to Victor Mallet, a Hong Kong-based editor of the Financial Times whose application to renew his work visa, which expired earlier this month, was rejected by the territory’s immigration department. China has a long history of showing the door to adventurous foreign correspondents. But this is the first time that Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous territory, has forced a resident foreign journalist to leave. Mr Mallet has until October 14th to do so.

The pro-Communist press aside, many in Hong Kong as well as elsewhere are worried by what the territory’s treatment of Mr Mallet portends. The European Union, Britain and Canada have weighed in on his behalf. America’s chamber of commerce in Hong Kong said any effort to...

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The way China arrested Interpol’s boss has harmed the country’s image

Economist - Thu, 10/11/2018 - 16:49

WHEN in 2016 a senior Chinese policeman was elected president of Interpol—an international agency that helps police to co-ordinate across borders—state media portrayed the event as a vote of confidence in China’s justice system and a milestone in the country’s rise. Yet less than two years after he took office, the presidency of Meng Hongwei (pictured, left, at an Interpol meeting in Beijing last year) has come to a chilling end.

Chinese officials took the 64-year-old into custody in late September, after he flew back to China for what was supposed to be a short trip away from Interpol’s headquarters in the French city of Lyon. They did not admit that they had done so until October 7th, and only after Interpol had issued a statement saying that its president’s whereabouts were unknown.

It had been a strange few days, during which all that was known was that Mr Meng’s wife, Grace, had reported him missing to French police. On October 7th she appeared before reporters in Lyon,...

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Stressed-out Chinese love melodrama about courtly life

Economist - Thu, 10/11/2018 - 16:49

A BIT surprisingly, one of the best things about the “Story of Yanxi Palace”, a television drama about an 18th-century emperor that has broken Chinese viewing records this year, is watching concubines being rude to eunuchs. Even less predictably, the particular rudeness—combining scorn, resentment and a dash of fear—offers insights into how Chinese people cope with life in today’s ruthless and unequal society. An early scene shows the Qianlong emperor’s chief eunuch, a tubby, squeaky dimwit, bustling into a silk-draped waiting-room with an order for the harem. Return to your quarters, he announces, the emperor is working late. “What? His majesty is sleeping alone again?” grumbles Noble Consort Gao, a boo-hiss villain. “Let’s go,” she tells her fellow concubines, stalking past the eunuch without a glance. “What else is there to wait for?”

“Yanxi Palace” is a gorgeously costumed fantasy, filled with poisonings, betrayals and young women competing for the Forbidden City’s great prize:...

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A Chinese writer calls for private companies to fade away

Economist - Thu, 10/04/2018 - 16:43

POLITICIANS in democracies are skilled at portraying themselves as all things to all people. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is trying to achieve much the same in the realm of economics.

Amid anxious speculation in China that Mr Xi wants to tip the scales in favour of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) at the expense of the private sector, he has given full-throated support—to both. On a trip late last month to the north-east, he began with a defence of SOEs, saying that he wants them to become stronger, better and larger. “Any thoughts and statements that place doubt on the future of SOEs are wrong,” he told employees of a state firm.

Later that day, Mr Xi visited a privately owned factory. There he offered soothing words. Most of the government’s economic policies, he said, were aimed at supporting the private sector. Entrepreneurs should have confidence.

For much of the past three decades, private firms have flourished. Starting from almost nothing, they account today for about 80% of industrial output, 90% of exports and nearly all new jobs. SOEs still dominate sectors that are deemed strategic by the government, notably finance and energy. But they lag behind private firms in performance, with much lower returns on investment. Some Chinese economists have called SOEs deadweights that gobble up resources.

When Mr Xi became leader in 2012,...

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Why protests are so common in China

Economist - Thu, 10/04/2018 - 16:43

THE last tweet sent by Lu Yuyu before his arrest two years ago was typically terse. “Monday June 13th 2016, 94 incidents” it read. Appended was a link to a page on his Blogspot website (newsworthknowingcn) listing details of those cases. They included a protest by more than 100 parents complaining about a local-government decision to make their children attend a distant school instead of a nearby one; another by dozens of farmers enraged by the seizure of their land by village officials; and a demonstration in Beijing by around 2,100 ex-servicemen demanding better benefits.

For his painstaking efforts to catalogue unrest in China—Mr Lu and his girlfriend had recorded more than 70,000 outbreaks in the three years before he was seized—the activist was found guilty last year by a court in Yunnan province of “picking quarrels and causing trouble”. He was given a four-year jail sentence.

There was a time when the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) itself released annual data relating...

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