China began the New Year with yet another major attempt to block Chinese from free access to the international Internet. This involved new censorship software to detect and block the use of VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) that have been used to access forbidden web sites outside China. The government also rolled out powerful new data mining and screening software checks for anti-government posts in real time. Currently as many as ten percent of Chinese Internet users get past the “Great Firewall Of China” using VPNs and other technical tools. The problem with blocking all this is that many of these wall piercers are just curious or, more importantly, business users who need this international access to remain competitive. While the government will grant international access for business and academic users these permits are difficult to get and still involve some censoring. As expected the Great Firewall crossers are finding other ways to access the outside world and the struggle continues.
Despite all this censorship Chinese continue to discuss forbidden subjects (mainly about corruption at the top and Chinese who openly protest the corruption and bad government). Chinese censors are not really going after individual offenders as much as they are seeking to prevent mass unrest from being ignited. Thus sometimes even the arrest and punishment of Internet offenders is not publicized, lest this get a mass protest movement going. China has a growing problem with large groups of people hitting the streets to protest in the flesh. With the large amount of government corruption and inefficiency, there's a lot to protest. The Internet is seen as essential economically, but also the chief means of local protests turning into major ones. That is not to be allowed, at all costs.
Once major source of protests is being vigorously addressed. The anti-corruption campaign has been operating with increasing vigor. One of the primary supporters of this inside the government are the few remaining communist believers, who point out that almost all the corrupt senior people had abandoned their communist beliefs and this was clear proof of the value of communism. Most other officials (both uncorrupt and currently unindicted) scoff at the likelihood of any resurgence of communism. The market economy is clearly more effective and the elders can still tell you entertaining tales of how even the “old comrades” (founders of the Chinese Communist Party) tended to eventually become corrupt. For the moment the leadership tolerates the communist true believers, if only because they are sometimes still useful and it’s easier to keep an eye on them if they are inside the government.
Meanwhile anti-corruption officials are proudly proclaiming record anti-corruption results in 2014. In a surprising move the anti-corruption officials spotlighted success in rooting out bad behavior in state owned enterprises (still known for their inefficiency and ineptness) and the military. Officials noted that over 4,000 senior (colonel or general) officers have been audited in the last two years and five percent were found guilty of some misbehavior and punished. Sometimes this meant a demotion or just a written reprimand. Many military veterans know that the percentage of dirty officers is higher so the corruption is obviously surviving in the military. Few really high ranking officers have been prosecuted. It is believed that more corrupt senior officers are being caught but most of them have the ability (evidence of bad behavior by even more senior officials) to demand and get little punishment. Usually that means no jail time but they do get removed from jobs that enable them to steal and are often forced to retire. Much of their stolen wealth is usually confiscated although senior people know it is wise to park as much of the stolen wealth as they can outside the country. It wasn’t just the military that got investigated. Outside the military 232,000 government employees and officials were punished. This was an increase of 32 percent over 2013. Those punished were the result of using many of the 2.7 million letters of complaint received from citizens. As with the military many of those prosecuted seemed to walk away with light punishment. The ant-corruption organizations know they have to watch their own people very closely because corrupt officials know that yet another (and larger) bribe can get them out of trouble (or at least avoid jail time). Still the growing anti-corruption is having noticeable impact, with more suicides among government officials, less of the conspicuous spending (and gambling) corrupt officials were long familiar with and more readiness to address citizen complaints. There’s still lots of corruption just less of it and more unease among the practitioners of corruption. For many Chinese this is all good news and more Chinese are writing those letters of complaint.
The government is also having problems with neighbors. In the south Burmese rebels remain active near the Chinese border because China is a major market for heroin and other drugs produced in northern Burma. China is also the source of all the military equipment the rebels need. At the moment the Chinese are not happy with the Burmese Army because the weeks of recent army activity has pushed thousands of refugees into China and disrupted trade (both legal, illegal and semi-legal). Many of the civilians, and rebels, on the Burmese side of the border are Burmese citizens but also ethnic Chinese. Most Chinese border areas contain these ancient Chinese tribes, who long ago decided they did not want to belong to a Chinese empire and fled, and often had to keep fleeing. China is also angry at the Burmese Army for arresting (or at least detaining) over a hundred Chinese citizens who were in Burma when all this tribal violence broke out. The Burmese are not cooperating with Chinese government efforts to locate and return their citizens to China.
Other neighbors are more content. China makes itself useful to Thailand, for example, in many and sometimes unexpected ways. A recent example is the rapid increase in the number of Chinese tourists over the last year. This came just in time to make up for the sharp decline in the number of Russian tourists (unable to travel because it became twice as expensive to buy dollars with Russian currency because of sanctions and lower oil prices). All this is a big deal in Thailand where tourism normally amounts to ten percent of GDP (but was down a bit in 2014 because of the May 2014 coup and general unrest.) But in the last year Russian tourists arriving in Thailand declined 30 percent while Chinese arrivals nearly doubled. Thus Chinese are now 19 percent of the tourists versus seven percent Russian. This was helped along by special programs (discounts, Chinese language tour guides and resort staff) for Chinese tourists (from Taiwan and Singapore as well as China). Meanwhile China is growing as a trading partner, especially by providing more high-end (and often high-tech) goods formerly obtained from Japan or the West.
When China is making itself useful to other countries it is because this is seen as useful to China, often in the long run. Case in point is recent willingness to sell weapons to Argentina. That is surprising because Argentina is broke and a notorious (and frequent) international deadbeat. China normally sells to anyone as long as they can pay cash, preferably up front if there are any doubts about the buyer’s credit rating. An exception is being made with Argentina to allow South Americans to get a better view of Chinese weapons, which are touted as cheap, reliable and increasingly high tech.
With all that new military high-tech comes the need to keep a lot of it secret. Thus China is building a 22 meter (71 foot) high wall around its Dalian naval base in northeastern China to prevent people from taking pictures of what is going on there. It seems that new construction in the area has resulted in unexpectedly tall residence being built near the base. The military recently got new laws passed to restrict the height of new buildings put up near military bases. Getting existing buildings torn down is too difficult (some of the owners are powerful locals) so up goes the wall.
Then there is North Korea, which is still seeking a high price for any sort of concession on its nuclear program. North Korea continues to hold out for a major (size unspecified but apparently more than the United States and the neighbors are willing to pay) to get the north to shut down their nuclear and long-range ballistic missile programs. This is seen as such a threat that even China is getting more nervous about and more extreme in its threats to North Korea over the matter.
In part because of the need to focus popular anger at North Korea China has eased up on its “hate Japan” campaign, which encouraged local hotheads to be openly nasty about Japan and sometimes physical with Japanese owned companies in China and even visiting Japanese. The government knows it can easily turn this hate on again (to deflect criticism of local bad behavior like corruption or unpopular government policies) because of some seemingly endless self-destructive and impossible-to-change bad behavior of the Japanese. This ensures that the Japanese never have close allies in the region. A recent example of this was the recent creation of a U.S., Japan and South Korea Trilateral Information Sharing Agreement meant to better counter North Korean aggression. This agreement was meant to be much more but there are still major problems with Japanese and South Korean cooperation. Despite the threat both countries face from North Korea (and China) such cooperation has been impossible to achieve. South Korea has turned down all Japanese proposals that both nations coordinate military policy against common enemies (China and North Korea). Such cooperation is still very unpopular in South Korea because of continued anger over 40 years of brutal Japanese occupation early in the 20th century. The Japanese consider these South Korean attitudes self-destructive as it wallows in the past at the expense of dealing with current and future threats. Yet Japan continues to ignore the fact that its post-World War II policy (documented in decrypted Japanese diplomatic messages sent out right after the Japanese surrender in August 15, 1945) of claiming to be a victim in World War II and guilty only of trying to liberate all Asians from Western oppression is the main obstacle locally. That “Japan as victim” view was never very popular with Japan’s neighbors, who saw Japan as no better (and often a lot worse) than Western imperialists. To the countries of East Asia Japan compounds these historical sins by continuing to insist that Japan is innocent of any wrongdoing. This makes it more difficult to unite to deal with threats from North Korea and China, but the Japanese show no signs of changing their attitude.
Although Hong Kong police finally ended the eleven weeks of pro-democracy demonstrators in December the protestors have not gone away they have just changed tactics. Now they use unexpected “flash mobs” (rapidly organized, via cell phones, mass gatherings) in public areas to quietly disrupt tourist attractions, high-priced shopping areas and government administration. The last major pro-democracy effort was in 1989 in Beijing and did not end well, in part because the government eventually called in the army and slaughtered thousands of people to clear the streets. While the memory of this use of force, and decades of subsequent suppression, kept the pro-democracy advocates quiet (but not completely silent) Hong Kong was a special case because for over a century Hong Kong was ruled by the British and was returned to Chinese control in 1999 to fulfil the treaty by which Britain controlled the city. The people in Hong Kong are Chinese, but they have different attitudes. The government was angry and frustrated at their inability to suppress demands for more democracy in Hong Kong. The government has made it very clear that there will never be true democracy in Hong Kong but the locals refuse to stop agitating for just that. Currently China controls who can be allowed to run for office in Hong Kong and directly appoints many officials. Government controlled media condemned the persistent street demonstrations but Hong Kong does have enough autonomy to get away with this sort of protest, and many others besides. As long as there is no violence the government tolerates it. China does not want to endure the domestic and international backlash that would accompany a severe (anything from deadly violence to just sending large numbers of activists to jail and some “disappearances”) crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. For one thing, it would be bad for business. But more democracy would be bad for the communist government, which would lose power in a democracy. Most people in Hong Kong, and a growing number in the rest of China, believe that democracy should be given a chance. These Chinese have noted how so many Western ideas have benefitted China, often after some modifications to suit local needs. Why not democracy as well? After all, it works in Chinese countries like Taiwan and Singapore. To the Chinese government this is very dangerous thinking. Despite many calls within the senior Chinese leadership for “decisive action” (violent suppression) to eliminate the problem before it spreads outside of Hong Kong the Hong Kong officials remained patient and generally non-violent. The local government noted that many residents of Hong Kong were growing tired and frustrated at the months of disruptions caused by the demonstrations. To the government this was a sign that the protestors were losing popular support and would eventually lose so much support that the protests would dwindle and disappear. The police and local officials believed that time was on their side and the police were right, for the moment. But now these flash demonstrations are happening, reminding the leadership in Hong Kong and Beijing that the problem did not go away.
Police have also been more active in the northwest (Xinjiang province), where Uighur (local ethnic Turks who are Moslems) unrest continues unabated. The government revealed that arrests in in Xinjiang doubled in 2014 over 2013 and most of the increase due to more vigorous counter-terrorism activities. All this police activity makes life different for the Uighurs and a growing number are spending their life-savings on paying smugglers to get them out of the country.
Another reason for Chinese officials, and Chinese in general, to be nervous is the continued slowdown in economic growth. Over three decades of high (often ten percent) annual GDP growth make corruption and the police state atmosphere more tolerable. But if the growth continues to weaken (as it has since 2008) that could be another source of popular unrest.
February 13, 2015: China officially opened its new embassy compound in Pakistan. This is China’s largest embassy. China is the largest supplier Pakistan’s weapons and foreign investment. China is also the most effective critic of Pakistani support for Islamic terrorism. China does this by telling Pakistan to fix the situation (when it involves Chinese citizens or investments inside Pakistan) or see China go from being a helpful to a hostile neighbor. Given China’s place as Pakistan’s most important ally and investor, these requests cannot be ignored. This is in sharp contrast to similar requests from the United States, India, Afghanistan and Iran.
February 4, 2015: The Philippines made another formal diplomatic protest over continued and increased Chinese military activity within the Philippines EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone, waters 380 kilometers from the coast) in the South China Sea. Filipinos have been fishing reefs and other shallow waters within the EEZ for centuries, long before there was a Philippine state and without interference from Chinese fishermen who occasionally showed up. That’s because fishing boats with refrigeration, a 20th century invention, only recently made it possible for Chinese fishermen to scour the entire South China Sea for fish to catch, refrigerate and carry back to China. The latest Filipino protests emphasize continued Chinese work on constructing concrete structures on some of these reefs, apparently to make possible the establishment of military bases. China says this is within their rights and no one is trying to stop them with force. The victims of all this aggression are waiting on the United States to take the lead in confronting China. The U.S. has declined so far. The Philippines regularly protests the growing number of Chinese warships and coast guard vessels making “sovereignty patrols" within the Filipino EEZ. China rejects such complaints as without merit because China owns the South China Sea and to the Chinese that is settled law.
January 31, 2015: Recent Chinese visitors to North Korea report that the commander of Kim Jong Uns bodyguard was replaced. This was apparently related to placating China over the December incident where a North Korean army deserter fled to China and killed four civilians. The North Korean government is dismissing or punishing senior people in the security services who were supposed to have prevented these desertions which have been the source of many complaints from Chinese leaders. In response to this prompt reaction by the North Koreans China suddenly resumed shipping aviation fuel to North Korea, something China had halted a year ago. China apparently sold no petroleum products to North Korea in 2014, causing major economic problems there. China still provided some oil as “gifts” but not enough to keep North Korea in business as usual. Now North Korea has finally acted in an acceptable manner. China is pleased that North Korea is responding as a traditional tributary state should. Very medieval, but just the way the Chinese like it. At the moment the North Korean leadership is focused on survival. Official data shows a decline in trade between China and North Korea in 2014, the first in six years. This was the message China sent to North Korea that the North Koreans are finally responding to in an acceptable manner. Meanwhile North Korea is trying to develop closer relations with Russia. This would never replace China, because Russia is also becoming an economic dependency of China (because of sanctions and plunging oil prices) but would provide some help in the event of major problems with China. That is a false hope because at the moment China is the major and crucial ally of North Korea. There is no one else.
An example of growing economic cooperation between North Korea and Russia, these two countries have joined with China to create a tourist zone where the borders of the three countries meet. In that area, any tourist visiting one of the countries can freely visit (without a new visa) a special zone about ten kilometers from the border in the other two countries. North Korea is particularly dependent on tourist income and most tourists come from China as well as a growing number from Russia.
January 28, 2015: Burma opened a new oil pipeline to China. The 770 kilometer pipeline can move about 4.5 million barrels of oil a day. Back in 2013 a 2,500 kilometer natural gas pipeline from Burmese gas fields into China was completed and began operation. About a third of the pipeline is in Burma, the rest is in China. This pipeline delivers 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas a year. This is equivalent (in terms of energy) to 15 million barrels of oil. The Burmese gas replaces the more expensive liquefied natural gas in three provinces of southwest China as well as eliminate the need for 30 million tons of coal a year (a major source of air pollution).
January 27, 2015: The Sudan government officially opened its new Chinese built presidential palace in the capital (Khartoum). Construction began in 2010. The government declared the new building an example of Sudan-China cooperation. China is a major buyer of Sudanese and South Sudanese oil. Chinese weapons also stock Sudan’s arsenals.