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Xi Jinping wants China’s armed forces to be “world-class” by 2050

Wed, 06/26/2019 - 19:40

OVER THE past decade, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been lavished with money and arms. China’s military spending rose by 83% in real terms between 2009 and 2018, by far the largest growth spurt in any big country. The splurge has enabled China to deploy precision missiles and anti-satellite weapons that challenge American supremacy in the western Pacific. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, says his “Chinese dream” includes a “dream of a strong armed forces”. That, he says, involves “modernising” the PLA by 2035 and making it “world-class”—in other words, America-beating—by mid-century. He has been making a lot of progress.

Organisational reforms may be less eye-catching than missiles that fly at Mach 5, unmanned cargo planes and electromagnetically powered superguns (all of which China has tested in the past year). Yet Mr Xi has realised that there is little point in grafting fancy weapons onto an old-fashioned force. During the cold war the PLA evolved to repel the Soviet Union and America in big land wars on Chinese soil. Massed infantry would grind down the enemy in attritional battles. In the 1990s Chinese leaders, alarmed by American prowess in the Gulf war of 1991, decided to focus on enhancing the PLA’s ability to fight “local wars under high-technology conditions”. They were thinking of short, sharp conflicts on China’s...

Categories: China News

A fly-on-the-wall account of what China tells American bigwigs

Thu, 06/20/2019 - 16:51

A BIT LATE, China’s leaders are starting to accept that their trade war with President Donald Trump is only one element of a larger crisis in relations with America—and not the most dangerous one. The leaders understand that their critics within America’s foreign-policy and national-security machine—meaning aides to Mr Trump, members of both parties in Congress and officers in the State Department, Pentagon, spy agencies and beyond—want China to change its ways. They also believe (or hope) that Mr Trump wants something different, and perhaps less painful for them: to show voters the spectacle of China losing a trade fight with him.

China’s rulers now accept that they face more than a Trump problem. They concede that bipartisan suspicion of China in America will intensify in the run-up to the elections of November 2020, and will continue afterwards, whoever wins. They absorbed that message during visits by high-ranking Americans, including Mr Trump’s officials, business bosses and veterans of Republican and Democratic governments. Dismayingly, they show no sign of accepting that China’s own actions are in any way to blame.

Chinese leaders believe that America’s policy machine wants them to change principles that have guided China’s rise for 20 years. They protest that these demands cut to the heart of China’s model of...

Categories: China News

A policy U-turn puts Hong Kong’s leader in a precarious position

Thu, 06/20/2019 - 12:33

JUST AS HONG KONG was digesting the impact of what may well have been its biggest street protest since China took over the territory in 1997, another far bigger one happened. Organisers said 1.9m people joined the second of these demonstrations—a turnout that was all the more remarkable given that the government, less than a day earlier, had made a humiliating U-turn to placate the protesters. Critics of the Communist Party’s tightening grip on Hong Kong feel they have gained a rare advantage. The leadership in Beijing has suffered an embarrassing blow.

Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive, Carrie Lam, says she will give up—at least until next year—her efforts to secure the passage of legislation that triggered the unrest: a bill to allow criminal suspects to be extradited to the Chinese mainland. But the scale of the second massive protest, on June 16th, showed that many Hong Kongers deeply distrust both her and the regime that pulls her strings.

There will be more unrest. As The Economist went to press, a deadline passed for the government to respond to demands made by student unions. They had asked Mrs Lam to scrap the bill and make it clearer that a smaller protest on June 12th that escalated into violence, with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets, was not, as the police called it, a...

Categories: China News

Rare earths give China leverage in the trade war, at a cost

Thu, 06/13/2019 - 16:26

IT LOOKS AT first like a classic Chinese painting: water-soaked paddies nestled against endless green hills. But then the brown begins. Abandoned brown pits on the hilltops. Brown gashes down their sides. Brown sludge in the streams. Ganzhou, until a few years ago, was southern China’s mining country. The damage done in the name of economic growth involves an industry that has given China leverage in its trade war with America. The rocks extracted are rich in rare-earth minerals, used in everything from planes to smartphones. It is a dirty business that China dominates.

Rare earths, covering 17 elements on the periodic table, are in fact common. But China holds two-fifths of global reserves. In 1992 Deng Xiaoping quipped that “the Middle East has oil, China has rare earths.” The chemicals used to extract them from the ore create toxic run-off, and for years China was more willing to bear that cost than other countries. By the early 2000s it accounted for almost all the world’s production. “There were no laws back then and everyone here was digging up the ground,” says Xie Yizhen, a local who worked in mining for 18 years.

Crucially, China has translated its control of the raw materials into dominance of the valuable next steps: turning oxides into metals and metals into products. To extend Mr Deng’s comparison, it is as...

Categories: China News

Debating contests teach Chinese students an argument has two sides

Thu, 06/13/2019 - 16:26

WHEN THE Chinese government first sent students to America in the late 19th century, it could not decide whether their goal should be to acquire specific technical knowledge or to absorb new ways of thinking. More than a century later, a third of a million Chinese students are enrolled at American schools and universities. Yet folks back home remain divided about what an American degree means.

Attending an American university is a good career move. It is also scorned as a soft option for well-off kids, scared of the gaokao, China’s brutal university-entrance exams. Yet many bright Chinese youngsters explain the appeal of an American education in remarkably idealistic terms. One place to hear such dreams, on a recent smoggy Saturday morning, is an English-language debating tournament in the central city of Wuhan. It follows a format popular at high schools across America, known as “Public Forum Debate”. On this occasion 182 teenagers are taking part.

At first sight, the event reeks of privilege. It uses the classrooms at a bilingual private boarding school in Wuhan with its own golf course and an ice-hockey team coached by imported Russians. But the debate is not for big-city elites. It is run by the National High School Debate League of China, a company founded by two young Americans in 2011. It...

Categories: China News

Once again, China’s richest region is pulling ahead of the others

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 16:34

MOTIVATIONAL SLOGANS do not get much blunter than the one hanging over the sewing machines in Li Zhiguo’s factory: “Work hard here to make money, don’t be disliked by your family”. He proudly holds up one of his products, a red chiffon dress with ruffled sleeves. Dozens more are wrapped up, awaiting shipment.

It is a scene that, on the surface, should please Chinese leaders. Mr Li’s factory is in Baiguan, a poor town in the central province of Hunan. The government has long wanted to spur growth deep inside the country, in part by getting low-end industries to leave the prosperous coast and move to places like Baiguan. The money, managers and machines in Mr Li’s factory are almost all transplants from the coast. “There’s advantages to being here. It’s easier to find workers,” he says.

But scratch a little deeper, and problems appear. Mr Li aims to have enough orders to keep a hundred workers busy. But business is so slack that he has only hired half that many. When Baiguan launched its industrial park three years ago, the government billed it as a new home for China’s textile industry. Today, the zone is pockmarked with vacant buildings. Workers may be paid less than on the coast, but they are more expensive than their counterparts in Cambodia and Bangladesh. The roof over the park’s sales office has partly...

Categories: China News

A belt-and-road court dreams of rivalling the West’s tribunals

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 11:18

THREE WORDS—Fairness, Professionalism, Convenience—form a mission statement for the China International Commercial Court, which held its first public hearing in Xi’an on May 29th. When Chaguan attended the session, alongside foreign diplomats and representatives of China’s Supreme People’s Court, that three-word promise in English and Chinese shone from a digital screen dominating the bronze and marble entrance hall of this, China’s newest judicial institution.

It is built to impress, for it has large ambitions. It was founded to buttress the railways, roads and fibre-optic cables of the Belt and Road Initiative—a globe-spanning scheme launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping—with something less visible: a distinctively Chinese vision of how laws should govern globalised commerce. The court has two tribunals. The one in Xi’an is in a symbolic spot. The city was the historic terminus for jingling, snorting camel trains on trade routes later dubbed the Silk Road. Its sister tribunal in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen will hear disputes relating to maritime routes of Mr Xi’s project. Yet for all the pomp, the new court has an uncertain future, clouded by doubts about how many firms will agree to use it—though its remit now extends to large disputes involving foreign businesses, not just belt-and-road deals. The doubts are related to a...

Categories: China News

Hong Kong wants to build massive artificial islands

Thu, 05/30/2019 - 11:03

HONG KONGERS have less residential space than the people of any other big city: 15 square metres each. That is barely double the size of a standard prison cell in Hong Kong. The Chinese territory is also the world’s most expensive property market. The average price of a home is $1.2m, around 40% higher than the nearest competitor, Singapore. To be fair, 45% of Hong Kongers live in government-subsidised housing. But the average waiting time for such flats is five-and-a-half years.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has taken note. Last year she unveiled a colossal project, called Lantau Tomorrow Vision. It involves reclaiming 17 square kilometres of land off the coast of Lantau, Hong Kong’s largest island. That is about five times the area of New York’s Central Park. It is the biggest infrastructure project ever proposed in the city (see map). Housing on the artificial islands would accommodate up to 1.1m people, about one-seventh of the current population. The new flats would be bigger than average and 70% of them would be subsidised. On May 25th Hong Kong’s quasi-parliament, the Legislative Council, approved the launch of a feasibility study. Reclamation work is unlikely to start before 2025.

The estimated price tag, including the cost of transport links, is at least HK$624bn ($80bn), officials say. That is...

Categories: China News

Many Chinese know little about the bloodshed in Beijing 30 years ago

Thu, 05/30/2019 - 11:03

THREE DECADES after troops used murderous force to clear protesters from Tiananmen Square and central Beijing, covering up that crime has become a bit of a chore. China’s security machine is ready to censor, arrest and imprison those who speak too candidly about events in 1989. But 30 years on this work of repression is carried out with cold, bureaucratic efficiency—a far cry from the terrors of June 3rd and 4th when soldiers and tanks shot and smashed their way into the ceremonial heart of Beijing, as loudspeakers metallically intoned that the army “loves the people”.

The most recent jailing linked to the Tiananmen protests occurred on April 4th this year. A court in the south-western city of Chengdu sentenced an activist, Chen Bing, to three-and-a-half years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. His offence: labelling bottles of baijiu alcohol with the iconic image of the lone protester who stared down tanks near the square. That picture, and any other reference to Tiananmen in 1989, is politically taboo in China. Each year, as the anniversary approaches, the relatives of those killed by the army, including the mothers of school pupils gunned down in cold blood, are placed under surveillance or taken on enforced trips out of town.

The cover-up is a headache for internet and...

Categories: China News

China is getting tough on those who fail to pay their debts

Thu, 05/30/2019 - 11:03

THE CASE of Mr Ke, a carpenter from the eastern city of Taizhou who fell deep into debt, may one day be noted in histories of China’s financial evolution. On May 9th a local court announced that it had arranged for Mr Ke’s liabilities to be written off. This was made possible by what state media described as the country’s first ever regulations concerning the clearing of personal debt. Sadly, for now, they only apply in Taizhou.

Mr Ke—the court did not reveal his full name—had fallen victim to fraud eight years ago. By last year the 54-year-old’s debts totalled 480,000 yuan ($70,000), owed to three banks. But the court took account of Mr Ke’s predicament. He has no income, a home with only one room and less than 100 yuan in savings—the equivalent of what he would earn in under seven hours on the local minimum wage.

In America, Europe and many other countries Mr Ke’s problems would have been swiftly handled according to national regulations on bankruptcy. China, however, still has no such rules for discharging penniless people’s debts. Officials in Taizhou say Mr Ke is the first beneficiary of a procedure the city’s own judiciary devised for dealing with such cases. It is modelled on China’s law relating to the winding-up of insolvent firms.

For an individual in China, it is easy to fall into debt without being...

Categories: China News

Amid trade tensions with America, China is showing old war films

Thu, 05/23/2019 - 16:52

THERE IS A lot for Americans to dislike in the Chinese propaganda film “Shangganling”. It is based on a real battle in late 1952, during which American and South Korean forces failed to take a mountain ridge from more lightly armed Chinese troops, who suffered terrible casualties. The weeks-long campaign came near the end of the Korean war of 1950-53, which began when the Stalinist regime of Kim Il Sung invaded the pro-American south and which eventually drew in millions of Chinese and UN forces. Chinese schools teach that China joined the war in self-defence and was victorious. Pupils are told their countrymen showed solidarity with communist brethren in Korea while standing up to American imperialists who were bent on attacking China’s heartland. Official histories avoid the awkward question of who started the “War to Resist America and Aid Korea”, as it is known. China’s internal estimates put the Chinese death toll at 400,000. The public is told that only 152,000 Chinese were killed.

Newspapers have begun to cite the Korean war in editorials, as they brace the public for prolonged trade conflict with America. Filmed in 1956, “Shangganling” is one of several Korean war films shown on national television in recent days. Sporting crude, prosthetic hooked noses beneath their steel helmets, the “Americans” in that film cackle with...

Categories: China News

African swine fever hits China, home of half the world’s pigs

Thu, 05/23/2019 - 16:52

WHILE THE Chinese zodiac celebrates the year of the pig, for the Earth-bound variety it is a terrible time. African swine fever, harmless to humans but fatal to porkers, has spread across the country. Hong Kong’s first case was reported on May 17th. The epidemic has affected colossal numbers of pigs, pushing up pork prices steeply. It has walloped the tens of millions of Chinese who depend on pig-rearing for their livelihood. There is no effective vaccine. Experts say that it may take years for China to control the disease.

African swine fever is so named because the first known case was detected in Africa over a century ago. The virus spreads easily between pigs, which can also catch it from ticks, contact with contaminated surfaces or by eating infected food (cheap animal feed in China often contains pork). It causes haemorrhaging and often kills in less than a week. The death rate is at least 90%. Since 2016 outbreaks have occurred across Europe and Asia. But nowhere have they been more devastating than in China, which at least until recently was home to half of the world’s pigs.

China’s first officially acknowledged case was reported in August last year in the north-eastern province of Liaoning. But many people in the industry believe that the virus began spreading, unreported, months earlier. The country (excluding...

Categories: China News

China is a nation of tea-drinkers, but coffee is taking off

Thu, 05/23/2019 - 16:52

ON A SPRING morning in Chengdu, the capital of the south-western province of Sichuan, Zhang Xiaoyu stands in her classroom, teaching the art of coffee-making. On the wall a dozen plaques from the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe certify her proficiency in skills ranging from roasting beans to serving the drink. Seven students, all women in their 20s and 30s hoping to open coffee shops, take sips from tiny cups and make notes on the flavours.

Until the 1990s coffee was rarely served in China except at luxury hotels aimed at foreigners. When Starbucks opened its first outlet there in 1999 it was far from clear that the country’s avid tea-drinkers would take to such a different—and usually more costly—source of caffeine. Starbucks tried to entice customers unused to coffee’s bitter taste by promoting milk- and sugar-heavy concoctions such as Frappuccinos.

The average Chinese still only drinks five cups per year, says the International Coffee Organisation, a London-based group. That is just 1.3% of the amount consumed by the average Japanese or American. But coffee has become fashionable among the middle class. Starbucks now has about 3,800 outlets in China—more than in any other country outside America. Statista, a business-intelligence portal, says the roast coffee market in China is growing by more than 10% a year...

Categories: China News

As China tightens rules on religion, unregistered churches wince

Mon, 05/20/2019 - 10:54

XU YONGHAI’S flock gathers weekly to worship in his small studio apartment in west-central Beijing. On a chilly winter morning a dozen people climb the concrete stairs to his door, dump their coats on his Snoopy bedsheets and gather around a table laid with tea and Bibles. The service begins with some devotional songs, accompanied by music from a battery-powered speaker. The pocket-sized gadget packs up halfway through the medley, forcing the pastor to dig out a spare.

Many tight-knit services such as this one take place across China each week. The small congregation meets without the permission of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, a government umbrella under which all China’s Protestant congregations are supposed to huddle. It meets on Fridays rather than Sundays, an arrangement considered less likely to provoke officials. Authorities know what goes on and occasionally post a watchman to a security box outside the building. But they tend not to interfere, says Mr Xu, because they know that all his congregation does is “read the Bible”.

Chinese Christians were thought to number about 70m in 2010 and are probably more numerous now. Perhaps only a minority of them worships in government-sanctioned churches, in which the party vets both clergy and services. Most attend unregistered ones, which vary from cramped house groups such as Mr Xu’s to...

Categories: China News

China’s desert-taming “green Great Wall” is not as great as it sounds

Thu, 05/16/2019 - 17:13

AN EX-ARMY LORRY chugs across the desert outside Minqin, a town in the north-western province of Gansu. It is delivering water to a team of about 20 people planting saxaul—a squat, spiky tree native to the area—on the banks of towering dunes. The hope is that the vegetation will anchor the ground and help prevent sand from sweeping through Minqin during wind storms in spring. Without these efforts, says one of the planters, the oasis town could be “eaten by the sand”.

Minqin is the seat of a county of the same name which is half the size of Belgium. It is surrounded on three sides by the Gobi desert (see map). On a warm evening the town’s neat central plaza is thronged with locals practising dance routines for exercise and entertainment. But their livelihoods are threatened by the desert, which in recent decades has been advancing on the town at an average rate of several metres a year. To help hold it at bay, officials plan to have shrubs and trees planted in the county. These will eventually form a belt more than 400km long, say reports in the state-controlled media.


Categories: China News

China bristles at Western naval transits through the Taiwan Strait

Thu, 05/09/2019 - 16:54

AS DAWN BROKE on May 5th, Chinese warships began live-fire drills in the north of the Taiwan Strait, the 180km-wide waterway between China and Taiwan. Fishermen, who were told to stay clear until May 10th, will be getting used to passing shells. In April 2018 the Chinese navy held its first live-fire exercise there for three years. The Taiwan Strait now seems thick with warships—and not only with China’s.

Last month the passage of a French frigate through the strait angered China. It complained that the passage was “illegal” and barred France from a multi-country ceremony to mark the Chinese navy’s 70th anniversary. The suggestion of illegality—later removed from the website of China’s defence ministry—raised eyebrows. It seemed to imply that China was staking a claim to an entire international waterway.

That did not discourage a pair of American destroyers from sailing through the strait a few weeks later, on April 28th. The US Navy said the transit showed America’s “commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific”. It was the fourth such American passage in 2019, according to figures released by America’s Pacific Fleet in May and first reported by the South China Morning Post, a newspaper in Hong Kong.

American naval transits rose from an average of under six per year between 2007 and 2010,...

Categories: China News

China worries about how study in Taiwan might affect its students

Thu, 05/09/2019 - 16:54

SIPPING ICED coffee at a trendy restaurant in Tainan, a city in southern Taiwan, Li Jiabao appears calm despite the attention the 20-year-old student’s outspoken views have recently attracted on the island’s campuses. Mr Li is a student of pharmacy from the eastern Chinese province of Shandong. In March he released a startling self-recorded video in which he denounced China’s decision, unveiled about a year ago, to scrap the ten-year term limit for the presidency. He compared China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, to an “emperor”. Most Chinese students in Taiwan keep quiet about politics at home. But Mr Li says living in Taiwan’s “model democracy” inspired him to speak out. Last month he applied for political asylum there.

Liberal thinkers in China have long been fascinated by Taiwan’s politics because of the island’s close cultural and historical links with the mainland. At the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, the defeated Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party, took refuge on the island and ruled it with the same contempt for democracy that the victorious Communist Party displayed in China. But Taiwan succeeded economically, producing a middle class that began pushing for reform. Eventually, in 1996, Taiwan held its first democratic presidential election. The KMT won but the next time, four years later, it was defeated.


Categories: China News

Calls to harden the West’s defences against China suggest despair

Thu, 05/09/2019 - 16:54

THE HISTORY of attempts to contain modern China is not a happy one. The Soviet Union tried it in 1960 when Mao Zedong’s insouciance about nuclear war—he had suggested that such a conflict would kill more imperialists than socialists, leaving the world ruined but Red—alarmed Nikita Khrushchev. Soviet technical advisers, including nuclear-weapons experts who shredded all documents they could not carry, were withdrawn from China. Chinese technicians reassembled the shreds, recovering clues which helped China test an atom bomb four years later.

The lesson was clear. Withdrawing assistance from a threatening China may be rational, but a China that succeeds anyway, and then feels less dependent on outsiders, is not necessarily safer.

It is not a lesson that has much resonance in America today. Whatever happens with the trade war started by President Donald Trump, America is hardening itself against China. Moves are afoot to wall off sensitive technologies behind export controls, tariff barriers and tougher investment-screening rules. With varying degrees of success, American officials are leaning on allies in Europe and elsewhere to shun such Chinese firms as Huawei, a telecommunications giant. Amid allegations of rampant, China-directed espionage on campuses, America is tightening visa rules for Chinese students of science...

Categories: China News