Three Reasons Arab Wave Won’t Reach China

March 11, 2011 § 2 Comments

This article first appeared in the Christian Science Monitor on March 2:

The West is guilty of wishful thinking when it excitedly imagines people-powered revolt in the Arab world spreading to China. There is dissatisfaction in China. But Tiananmen Square is not poised to become a Tahrir Square anytime soon. Here’s why.

In the past week or so, a lot of Western press has been given over to the question, “Is China the next Egypt?” Why this question is receiving so much attention puzzles me. Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking: We’d like to see every country under authoritarian rule become more democratic. But looking at China today, even if I squint really hard, I don’t see a government at risk of being toppled by mass protests soon.

This is not to say that Chinese people are uniformly happy, or even satisfied, with their government. There are the poor who aren’t participating in China’s skyrocketing prosperity; there are the powerless who see their lands seized from them by those more powerful and better connected; there are the college-educated who can’t find jobs commensurate with their skills and expectations; there are the activists who have been silenced (sometimes brutally), placed under house arrest, or imprisoned by the state. And, there’s the sort of culture of official corruption where a hit-and-run driver can taunt his pursuers by shouting, “Go ahead, sue me if you dare. My dad is Li Gang!” (the deputy director of Baoding City’s public security bureau).

There is dissatisfaction in China. But Tiananmen Square is not poised to become a Tahrir Square anytime soon. Here are a few reasons why.

First, and most obvious, under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) China has enjoyed 30 years of uninterrupted economic development. GDP has grown at an average annual rate of nearly 10 percent for the past two and half decades. Children live much better than their parents, who, in turn, live much better than their parents. Pundits may point to the fact that Egypt’s GDP has experienced solid growth in recent years as well. But growth there has been half that of China; and more telling is the percentage of Egyptians still living under the poverty line, a whopping 20 percent, compared to China’s 3 percent.

Wisely, too, the Chinese government has dedicated much of its new wealth to building up the country’s infrastructure. By pouring money and resources into the road and highway system, subway lines, high-speed rail, power grids, telecommunications, schools and education, and water supplies, for example, the CCP has sought to improve China’s standard of living. In these projects, Chinese people find some tangible signs of a government that is giving back to the country. In Egypt, the popular perception was that former President Hosni Mubarak used the country’s growing prosperity mostly simply to enrich himself, his family, and his cronies.

Second, that China in 2011 is now counted among the world’s great powers, economically and politically, is a source of great pride among the Chinese people (consider the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics). Remember, this is a country that just over 30 years ago viewed itself – and was viewed by much of the world – as backward. The people’s deep pride in witnessing their country’s triumphant return to the global stage cannot be underestimated; it’s a pride that serves to bolster the legitimacy of the current government, since the CCP, after all, has been the guiding hand responsible for shaping China’s emergence as a 21st-century superpower.

Third, China is ruled by a party whose leadership changes at least every ten years. In 2002, President Hu Jintao succeeded Jiang Zemin as party leader; in 2012 Xi Jinping is expected to succeed Mr. Hu for the two five-year terms allowed by the Constitution. In Egypt, under Mubarak, the government was embodied in the person of one “strongman” – for a full 30 years. The grievances of the Egyptian people could find a ready target in this one man; he was a natural focal point for their disaffection.

In China there is no similar focal point, in part because CCP leadership is routinely changing faces, and in part because within the leadership there are differences of opinion (which often make their way into the press) – over foreign relations, the domestic economy, the rule of law, environmental stewardship, the rise of nationalism, and Internet freedom, for instance. That there exist differences within the party helps to mitigate the intensity of people’s opposition to one-party rule.

At the Feb. 19 meeting with high-level government officials Hu, according to Xinhua News, “acknowledged that despite China’s remarkable social and economic development and growth in its overall national strength, the country is ‘still in a stage where many conflicts are likely to arise. There are still many problems in social management.’” Xinhua paraphrased him as further saying, “The government should speed up the development of various social sectors by developing education as a priority, promoting employment, reasonably adjusting income distribution, and perfecting the social security system that covers urban and rural residents.”

And in an Internet chat directly with the people this week, Premier Wen Jiabao, in the words of Xinhua, “laid out three planks of government policy essential to maintaining stability: closing income gaps; equal benefits and opportunities for rural residents; and eradicating corruption.”

This isn’t Mubarak’s government. This is a government that realizes what it is expected to do to maintain the support of its people – and its own legitimacy.

High on China’s Radar: Economy, Environment, and Social Well-Being

March 9, 2011 § 1 Comment

Premier Wen bows to the National People's Congress before delivering his "Report on the Work of the Government"


This past Saturday, Premier Wen Jiabao delivered his 2011 “Report on the Work of the Government” to the 3000 delegates gathered in Beijing for the National People’s Congress.  The report, delivered annually, is comparable to U.S. President’s State of the Union Address, laying out the successes of the past year and the direction the government plans to take in the next year.  But, as this is a year that the Congress will issue the next Five-Year Plan (the 12th), Wen’s report looks beyond 2011, down the road as far as 2015.

Parsing the “Report on the Work of the Government” is no easier than parsing the State of the Union address.  It is long on ideals, goals, and aspirations, and short on details, short on plans for implementation.  It reflects, we can assume, the concerns of the leadership; and it reflects, no doubt too, what the leadership perceives the people may expect from the government in the coming years. Yet there is one important difference with the State of the Union Address: the SUA presents the views of one person, the President, and perhaps those of his party’s leaders—but not those of the opposition party; the “Report on the Work of the Government” presents the collaborative views of the entire CCP leadership.  What this means simply is that while the goals put forward in the “Report” might never be realized, it won’t be because an opposition party stands in the way.

Bulleted below are points from the “Report” that strike me as significant or interesting, followed by a brief comment or two.

GDP is to grow by 7% annually over the next five years.

This has caught most China watchers by surprise, as the 7% target is down from the 7.5% figure of the previous 11th Five-Year Plan (and down from the 8% figure for 2010).  The day after Wen delivered the report, Xinhua News led with the headline:  “China Prepares to End GDP Obsession.”  That’s probably going too far, but the question remains, why the reduction? « Read the rest of this entry »

China’s Drought: It’s Our Problem Too

February 15, 2011 § 4 Comments

China’s drought is bad, the worst in at least 60 years. Roughly 12.5 million acres of winter wheat crop have been damaged. And a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) alert reported last week that 2.57 million people and 2.79 million livestock are suffering from shortage of drinking water.





The mood in China is not upbeat, as forecasters are predicting that the drought may well continue into the late spring-early summer months–threatening the summer wheat crop. And though the Chinese might have a reasonable amount of wheat stockpiled, no analyst I’ve read pretends to know with certainty how deep the stock goes or how long, in the face of unyielding drought, it can sustain the needs of the population. What we do know is that the prospect of a China running low on water and wheat is not pretty–for anyone.

China is the largest wheat-producing (and wheat-consuming) country in the world. Wheat shortage there means not only that prices in China will rise, but also that prices on the international market will go up.

Some pundits have already argued that the recent unrest in Tunisia and Egypt was prompted in part by surging food costs. Global wheat prices jumped 77% in 2010 (a spike that continues unabated into 2011). If China is forced to turn to the international wheat market, how steep will global prices rise? Will China’s demand resulting shortages elsewhere? And will shortages and steeper prices, in turn, lead to social and political unrest in other spots of the world?

Other pundits remind us that if the current Chinese wheat harvest is a bust, China will likely look to the U.S. market for imports. How will Chinese import demand affect wheat supply and prices here? And will this demand contribute to growing inflation in the U.S.?

Inflationary pressures in China are already high. The present drought only exacerbates these pressures. The anxiety of the Beijing government is palpable. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have made personal visits to the stricken areas calling for “all-out efforts to combat drought” and committing $1billion to fight the devastation. They’ve made television appearances assuring the people that the government has abundant stockpiled wheat and is taking all possible measures to maintain the balance between supply and demand of the grain. What Hu and Wen, of course, know is that droughts and famines have made for restive populations in China’s past–they’ve even toppled governments (the Taiping and Boxer rebellions of the 19th and earlier 20th century are still fresh in their minds and Huang Chao’s rebellion at the end of the Tang dynasty (618-907) has a place in their high school history texts).

So, the Beijing government continues to fire the cloud-seeding chemical silver iodide into the atmosphere to encourage more snowfall (to little effect, however, according to reports in the China Daily and the Global Times).

It’s begun digging 1350 emergency wells, constructing irrigation facilities, and planning water-diversion projects in the major wheat-growing provinces affected by the drought.





And it’s handing out $334 million in emergency relief aid to farmers.

Such measures by the Chinese government are intended principally to ease the burden on the Chinese people and to ensure social and political stability. But, given the global repercussions of a severe wheat shortage in China (or, indeed, anywhere in the world, as events in Tunisia and Egypt have suggested), Beijing’s aggressive efforts to deal with the crisis should be welcome by all.

Low on Water, Short of Crop Land, Beijingers Turn to Golf

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.

The Beijing Grand Canal Golf Club

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.

A kindergarten class honing their putting skills

Beijing Floods Even in Midst of Drought

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.

The ‘Sputnik Moment’ Epidemic: Is China Our New Russia?

January 27, 2011 § 2 Comments

I published the following post in the Huffington Post on January 18, prior to President Obama’s State of the Union address.  But since the “sputnik moment” epidemic seems to be spreading–and spreading furiously–I’m reproducing the post here at


The ‘Sputnik Moment’ Epidemic: Is China Our New Russia?

It’s an epidemic.  Everyday you wake up and read about someone else who’s had a “sputnik moment.”  Thomas Friedman, the op-ed guy, may have been the first (September 2009); an incubatory year later and the number of its victims mounts.  In December of 2010 alone, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Senator John Kerry, former Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn, and the President himself all experienced a “sputnik moment.”  I haven’t had one, nor likely have you.  Influential and powerful people are most susceptible.

Chester Finn describes his moment:

Fifty-three years after Sputnik caused an earthquake in American education by giving us reason to believe that the Soviet Union had surpassed us, China has delivered another shock. On math, reading and science tests given to 15-year-olds in 65 countries last year, Shanghai’s teenagers topped every other jurisdiction in all three subjects.

Secretary Chu, asking whether the energy race is our “new sputnik moment,” answers yes it is:

From wind power to nuclear reactors to high speed rail, China and other countries are moving aggressively to capture the lead.  Given that challenge, and given the enormous economic opportunities in clean energy, it’s time for America to do what we do best: innovate.  As President Obama has said, ‘we should not, cannot, and will not play for second place.’”  Chu goes on to enumerate the areas where we are now playing catch-up with China: high voltage transmission, high speed rail, advanced coal technologies, nuclear power, alternative energy vehicles, renewable energy, and supercomputing.

I’m no doctor, but as I look at the sputnik moment for Finn and Chu and the others, its onset seems to be something brought on principally by fear.  Finn feels “shock” when he discovers in early December that students in Shanghai outscored students the world over in every subject tested by the highly respected Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).  He ominously predicts, “If China can produce top PISA scorers in one city in 2009—Shanghai’s population of 20 million is larger than that of many whole countries—it can do this in 10 cities in 2019 and 50 in 2029. Or maybe faster.”  Holy smokes Batman, we’re in trouble.  Will American students ever be able to compete with their Chinese counterparts?

And for Energy Secretary Chu, his sputnik moment coincides with the realization that China, through deliberate effort, is racing ahead in the development of cleaner energy technology.  He’d likely be less anxious if our Congress wasn’t deliberately running in the opposite direction, away from any consideration of the energy issues we now face.

Fear then is the one common trigger of the recent sputnik moment outbreak–fear of being bettered educationally, fear of being bettered economically, fear of being bettered technologically, fear of being out-greened.  The range of fears is varied.  But the source of these fears is not.  It’s always traceable to China.

In 1957 when Russia launched the sputnik satellite, the US response was swift.  We committed national resources to the development of science and math programs in our schools and to the invigoration of our space program.  We also committed ourselves to a still more frigid cold war with Russia.

Today’s sputnik moment epidemic runs a risk.  Yes, it can be motivation to engage in serious—and to me necessary–debate about how and what students in our schools should learn; about the measures we must take to wean ourselves off non-renewable and polluting energy sources; and about whether and how to reconfigure our infrastructure priorities.   When Chu, Obama, and Friedman target China, they, I suspect, intend to move Americans to action by appealing to their competitive spirit; thus Chu prods, “When it comes to innovation, Americans don’t take a back seat to anyone – and we certainly won’t start now.”

But, in this scenario, the distinction between China as convenient and beneficial goad and China as enemy becomes easily blurred.  Our economy falters because China is a “currency manipulator”; our renewable energy technology can’t compete because the Chinese government is pouring heavy—even illicit—subsidies into China’s renewable energy industries; and the wide trade imbalance is because Chinese traditionally have a lower rate of consumption—for fairness’ sake they need to consume more, the way we do.

The 1957 sputnik launching kick-started American progress in education and technology, but it also deepened an enmity between the world’s two super powers.  Today’s sputnik moment epidemic can serve to redouble our efforts in the teaching of math and science (though I’d hope not at the expense of history, literature, art, music, and the classics) and in the pursuit of new sources of energy.  But let it not make China our 21st century Russia. Let us not fall into the simple mindset that we’re playing a zero-sum game, where there is a clear winner and a clear loser.

The world has changed since 1957.  Economies are intertwined and mutually dependent; technological and medical advances in one part of the globe bring advances to other parts; and climate change knows no national boundaries.  Let this be a “sputnik moment” that prompts a genuine, fruitful cooperation with China, a cooperation where the entire world benefits.

When Hu Jintao visits next week, our message to him should be clear:  we aren’t in a race where either you win and we lose or you lose and we win.  In this race, we either both win or both lose.

Wheels of Fortune: Buying a Car in Beijing

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 ….


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