November 10, 2011 § 1 Comment
Occupy Wall Street protests have not spread to China, but Beijing’s crackdown on media coverage and Internet activity related to OWS isn’t surprising. What’s less predictable are ways that Occupy protests could shake up China’s internal politics, especially among neo-Maoists.
Occupy Wall Street protests have not spread to the People’s Republic of China. But word of the protests has, and the Chinese authorities are trying to figure out how to respond.
Their reactions have run the gamut: from gloating denunciations of American capitalism, to a crackdown on all media coverage of Occupy Wall Street (OWS). Of course, there is no real surprise in this sequence of responses. More interesting, and less predictable, are the ways in which the Occupy Wall Street protests could substantively shape China’s internal politics.
In the early days of the OWS movement, when protests were confined to US cities, a China Daily OpEd (Sept. 30) harshly attacked the American media for journalistic hypocrisy, for not giving coverage to protests in their own country even as they had relished covering protests in the Arab world just a few months earlier. A couple weeks later, state-run Xinhua News was harsher still, arguing that the protests in New York’s Zuccotti Park “laid bare malpractices of the US government and ailments of its political and economic systems.”
But as the Occupy movement spread globally, the Chinese response shifted. Assault on the silence of the American press gave way to anxiety about the possible effects Chinese media coverage might have on their Chinese audience.
On Oct. 17, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, after remarking that the issues raised by OWS may be “worth pondering,” cautioned the Chinese media, saying that their “reflections should be conducive to maintaining the sound and steady development of the world economy.” On the same day, editors of the Chinese Communist Party-run Global Times called for people to “calmly observe the protest movement and the global situation, and not be confused by extreme points of view.”
A few days later, on Oct. 19 and 20, Beijing authorities – setting aside any ambivalence they might have had about the Occupy movement – issued an order to the Chinese media to cease all reporting and commenting on the OWS movement.
What happened? Perhaps Beijing had examined the numbers in the intervening three days, and been reminded that as high as the income gap in the United States is, China’s income and wealth inequality is right up there as well, even higher according to some estimates. Or perhaps recognition had set in that China’s elite 1 percent just might – like America’s 1 percent elite – be open to charges of greed and corruption.
Given, too, that 36 percent of the Chinese people (that’s 481 million people) live on $2 a day or less, the Beijing leadership might have become worried that the Chinese would not remain as “calm” in the face of news about the US protests as the Global Times might wish.
Cyberspace censorship quickly followed after the media gag order. Searches for “Occupy Wall Street” and, more pointedly, for “Occupy Beijing,” “Occupy Shanghai,” “Occupy Guangzhou,” “Occupy Zhongnanhai,” and “Occupy Lhasa,” among a growing list of banned terms, now yield blank screens on microblogging sites like Sina Weibo (China’s version of Twitter).
Such a crackdown was predictable. Since the Arab Spring uprisings, the Chinese leadership, vigilant about any signs of civil unrest at home, has been aggressive in promoting the “harmonious society” that is the Community Party’s mantra.
But tensions in the ruling Chinese Communist Party have surfaced in recent years. New Leftists, sometime called New Maoists, have become more voluble about the widening gulf between rich and poor; corporate and official collusion; the state’s inattentiveness to the needs of the elderly, the infirm, and the impoverished; and the rise in “mass incidents” of protest against official corruption. It is time, the New Leftists suggest, to put the brakes on the liberal reform experiment launched in the post-Mao era by Deng Xiaoping. It is time to resurrect the revolutionary, egalitarian spirit of Chairman Mao.
Will the message or spirit of the Occupy Wall Street protests resonate with China’s 99-percenters and give momentum to China’s New Maoist agenda? OWS has already produced small demonstrations in nearby Hong Kong and Taiwan. If OWS endures and expands its reach to mainland China, savvy politician Bo Xilai, party chief of Chongqing municipality in China’s southwest, would likely have much to gain. The leading figure and public face of the New Maoists, Bo is angling – some would say campaigning – to win a position on the all-powerful nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo in 2012.
Described as “handsome,” “outgoing,” and “Kennedy-esque,” Mr. Bo has made a name for himself as an activist party chief – even as he has ruffled feathers along the way. He launched a popular campaign targeting organized crime and official corruption in 2009. He also sponsored low-income housing projects and welfare programs for the working class and the poor in Chongqing. This summer, he inaugurated the Red Culture Movement, calling for a renaissance of the revolutionary spirit embodied by Chairman Mao.
Residents of Chongqing are encouraged to come together in parks and stadiums to sing “red songs” – songs extolling the achievements of Mao and the Chinese Communist Party – and to watch the revolutionary dramas that have replaced the soap operas on Chongqing TV. With such efforts, charismatic Bo has struck a strong populist chord in Chongqing and beyond.
But winning acclaim from the people and winning a place on the Standing Committee of the Politburo are two different matters. Bo’s flamboyant style is at odds with the staid style of present members of the Standing Committee (which in a process lacking any transparency will select the replacements for those retiring from the Standing Committee next year).
His support for a more tightly state-controlled economy is at odds with the more liberal state capitalism now in vogue. And his Maoist rhetoric is at odds with the liberal reform rhetoric embraced by the Chinese leadership for the past decade, and especially by current Premier Wen Jiabao. Bo’s words and actions have conjured up, at least for some, the specter of a return to Cultural Revolution days.
Still, in the words of the press, Bo is a “political rock star.” Excluding him from the Standing Committee may be difficult. But should China’s 99-percenters awaken to the call of Occupy Wall Street and coalesce around the movement, excluding Bo from the Standing Committee mix would be more than difficult – it would simply be too risky, even for China’s authoritarian ruling party.
This post first appeared as an op-ed article in the Christian Science Monitor on November 8.
March 28, 2011 § 5 Comments
You’ve heard of road rage. But Beijing, with its attempt to cut back on car ownership and ease the congestion that frustrates the millions of drivers in the capital city, may be generating a new strain of anti-social disorder, “off-the-road rage.”
As you may remember, Beijingers bought cars in record numbers last year, more than 800,000 units, increasing the total number on the roads there to nearly 5 million and making Beijing, together with Mexico City, the top city in the world for “commuter pain” (IBM commuter pain survey).
By December of 2010, Beijing officials concluded that the car-buying frenzy, though good for China’s economy, had to be reined in; the city’s traffic and congestion were out of control, as was the dirty exhaust being spewed into the Beijing air—by idling cars especially. With the efficiency a one-party state can muster, Beijing declared that in 2011 car sales would be limited to 20,000/month (17,600 for individual car buyers, the rest reserved for commercial or government use) or 240,000 for the year. And to ensure fairness, the government would institute a lottery system. During the first week of each month, individuals could enter their name in lottery; at the end of the month, 17,600 lucky entries would be drawn—with the winners winning the right to purchase a car. (On the late December day that Beijing officials announced its plans for 2011 more than 30,000 residents of Beijing rushed out to auto dealerships to buy a car before the lottery system kicked in.)
In January of 2011, 210,000 people entered their names in the lottery; 17,600 of them won licenses. That left a lot of disappointed entrants (192,400). Their names were automatically rolled over into the February lottery, along with the 137,045 new applicants. So while January’s lottery was competitive, February’s was still more so: 17,600 out of more than 300,000. The odds of winning had worsened significantly: January’s 1 in 11 had fallen to 1 in 17. Now, this month, there’s March Madness: including the rollovers from the January and February contests, there are about 400,000 total applications, putting the odds of winning at something like 1 in 23.
It also means that by the end of March you’ll have 380,000 disappointed Beijingers waiting hopefully each month for their name to be drawn. And, of course, this number will only grow larger with each passing month.
I’m not sure that traffic congestion in Beijing has noticeably improved. But I am pretty sure that as the odds of winning the car lottery plummet, the frustration among some of the repeatedly unsuccessful entrants will mount. Give them a few more disappointing months and their rage—as a consequence of being unable to take to the roads—may be no less than the rage experienced by some drivers caught in snarling traffic and unable to escape the roads.T
Think of it as the yang of “on-the-road rage” giving birth to the yin of “off-the-road rage.”
February 2, 2011 § 4 Comments
This post appears in today’s Huffington Post:
In 2004, there were 38 golf courses in the Beijing area. Worried about land grabs by developers, the Chinese government that year issued a moratorium on the development of new courses. Just two weeks ago, however, the Southern Weekend (Nanfang zhoumo) reported that China’s Department of Homeland, after a city-wide inspection, found the number of Beijing courses to have nearly doubled since 2004, from 38 to 73 (a number that excludes 42 driving ranges).
With the average 18-hole course occupying 248 acres, roughly 18,100 acres of Beijing land (approximately 25% more acreage than the whole of Manhattan) are given over to the elite sport of golfing. The Southern Weekend remarks that many courses are located on flat, arable land—land especially suitable for corn production. And, of course, golf grasses require intensive turf management—meaning heavy watering and heavy application of pesticides and other chemicals, which leach into the soil and the city’s groundwater.
The government, it seems, can issue all the prohibitions and moratoriums in the world, but they mean little without enforcement. And though you’d think that enforcement of the 2004 moratorium would be a relatively simple matter, course developers don’t necessarily register the land that comes into their possession for “golf course” use. Instead they might register it as land for a recreational center, a high-end tourist site, a hotel, or a resort—and then incorporate a course into the project.
Still, the construction of a golf course can hardly be kept a secret. Spotting one going up shouldn’t be much of a challenge. This then raises a number of questions: 1) Did the 2004 moratorium lay out a clear set of punishments for its violation (I’ve found nothing)? 2) Were local land officials given the responsibility and the means for enforcement of the moratorium? 3) If so, did local land officials not follow through on their responsibilities? 4) Were local officials working hand-in-hand with the land developers? 5) And did local officials, when uncovering violations, ignore them because the courses represented an economic boon to their jurisdictions? These questions need to be sorted out.
But, there is little question that, environmentally, Beijing’s golf craze– considering the sizeable amount of land taken out of production in a country short of arable land, the water and the pesticides needed to maintain the 18,100 acres, and the harmful effects of intensive turf management on the city’s water supply—makes little sense.
And if the environmental irrationality of promoting the sport of golf in China needs to be underscored, just read yesterday’s People’s Daily (Jan. 31), which reports:
As of January 28, 77.4 million mu (5.16 million acres) of crops had been harmed by the ongoing drought, and 2.57 million people were faced with drinking water shortages in China….Local governments of the affected regions must make efforts to monitor drought conditions, speed up the building of water projects, increase drought-fighting material reserves and grant subsidies to the drought-stricken population.
An accompanying article, “China to Invest $608b in Water Projects,” writes:
Efforts will be intensified to promote water conservation as well as the sustainable use of the precious resource, and the task will be a multi-trillion yuan national priority, a central policy document said.
In a country like ours, where, in the minds of many, driving the right car and belonging to an exclusive golf club mark elite socio-economic status, we should be slow to criticize Chinese for aspiring to similar status symbols. (We can ask, however, why Chinese routinely look to Western symbols–like the game of golf–for affirmation of status.) In any event, let’s just hope that they are quicker to appreciate the injury their pursuit of these symbols will have on their environmental present and future.
January 31, 2011 § 1 Comment
On his blog, artist Fan Jianping sketches a flooding Beijing–even as the capital city is experiencing its worst drought in 40 years. It’s a clever cartoon.
January 25, 2011 § 3 Comments
You live in Beijing and are tired of having your face smashed up against the window of the subway car of the #1 line during rush hour—or any other hour of the day for that matter.
So you’re thinking of buying a car. You’re not especially happy that by waiting until 2011 you missed out entirely on the tax incentive that the Beijing Muncipal Government had been offering: in 2009, instead of the normal 10% sales tax, you’d have paid only 5% (if you bought a car with a 1.6 liter engine or smaller); last year, you’d have paid 7.5%, still a bargain. But, today, the government, less eager to incentivize the automobile industry and more eager to reduce the horrific congestion on Beijing roads, has returned the tax rate to 10% (WSJ).
You know that the subway system is far more economical, a ride from one end of town to another costing no more than 30 cents; and you know too that traveling the same distance in a car is likely to take you 3 or 4 times longer than in a subway car. Still, the Zhou family next door has their shiny new Buick, or maybe it’s an Audi, so why shouldn’t you?
You can afford it, and you owe it to yourself and your family to show you can afford it. You figure, sure, the drive might take longer, but you’ll have your ac or heater going full blast, you’ll be listening to the music of your choice, and, instead of standing with your head pinned under someone’s armpit, you’ll be sitting comfortably in your climate-controlled leather seat. Yep, it’s time to take the plunge, you decide.
“Wait just one moment,” you hear the new lottery system telling you. Right!, now you remember. You don’t just go out, put down the 50k in cash, and drive away in your brand new automobile. The Zhous may have done that, but the Zhous bought last year, before the Beijing leadership declared that beginning December 24, 2010, interested buyers would have to enter a lottery to purchase a car. Why? Traffic in Beijing has become unbearable. Traveling a couple of miles can easily require 2-3 hours.
The city has become notorious. In an IBM survey, it and Mexico City tied for honors as having the worst traffic jams in the world—each scoring a 99 out of 100 on a “commuter-pain index.”
So now you ask yourself, “what are my chances in this lottery thing?” Turns out, not real good. You start crunching the numbers. In 2010, more than 800,000 new cars took to the roads in Beijing. In 2011, the government has capped the number of new cars—for the entire year—at 240,000. That’s a mere 20,000 each month. You’ve read the papers and know that on the night of December 23 alone, the day before the new rules went into effect, more than 30,000 cars were sold. You know then that demand is terrifically high. You also know from the papers that in the first 11 hours of 2011 more than 40,000 people registered for the lottery. By the end of the first week of 2011, when registration for January’s lottery closed, roughly 220,00 people had entered their names in the lottery, from which 20,000 will be drawn on January 26 (China Daily). Chances then: 1 out of 10. Not good odds. But they won’t get better in February’s drawing, you figure. The 200,000 less lucky January entrees will automatically be rolled over to the February lottery.
You’re desperate. You consider buying a car from a dealership in nearby Tianjin and registering it with your cousin there but discover that Beijing city officials have anticipated you: they’ve drawn up a rule disallowing all cars registered elsewhere from driving in Beijing during rush hours—which is most of the time. And police, according to the China Daily, are having a field day flagging down cars with non-Beijing plates and issuing $15 fines. No, that option isn’t going to work.
So now you’re struck with one, final brilliant idea: rent a car. It’s cheaper than buying in the end, you don’t need an expensive insurance policy, and you don’t have to enter a lottery. Unfortunately, this idea has struck others before it struck you. You discover that 90% of the cars available for rental in Beijing—and 100% of desirable models–have already been rented out.
You’re resigned now. Public transit is pretty good, after all. And you know that even with a car, municipal law, in an attempt to ease congestion, will require you to keep the car off the road one day a week—depending on the last digit of your plate. You’re reminded too that Beijing has just extended its subway system, opening up five new lines on one day (December 30) alone—so getting from place to place has become still easier and more convenient.
And yet, you can’t entirely free yourself from the thought that there’s always the February lottery. Or the March lottery. Or the ….