Opinion

The Great Debate

China’s real problem with Bo Xilai’s legacy

In China, the political lens is focused on Bo Xilai, the disgraced former commerce minister and party chief of megalopolis Chongqing. While Bo’s contestation of the charges of bribery and abuse of power gripped the attention of the social media this week, Bo will probably not be a free man again and certainly not a public figure.

What the trial can’t undo is Bo’s legacy—which opened new channels for popular and elite dissent that is likely to haunt China’s new leadership.

The recent focus on Bo’s crimes and his ultimate punishment is vastly misplaced. In assessing China’s Bo problem, the real story is not bribery or corruption in the Communist Party. The leadership, which will surely be tested on that issue, at least will be undertaking a public campaign to address it and is making important progress.

Bo’s real legacy is in the way he eviscerated a slew of party norms by waging a public campaign for a senior leadership position. In doing so, he exposed dissonance in senior leadership circles over policies and even personalities–a dynamic that has not been observable in China at such a public level since the Tiananmen period. And most frightening for China’s new leaders: He came very close to getting away with it.

Bo’s ouster was driven not by his political crimes but because those closest to him slipped up and created a window for his enemies within the system to take him down. If Bo hadn’t overstepped and allegedly become involved in the cover-up of the death of Neil Heywood, a British businessman, and had Wang Lijun, a police official and Bo’s former ally, never fled to the American consulate in Chengdu, Bo Xilai might very reasonably be expected to be a powerful member of the Politburo Standing Committee walking the halls of power in Zhongnanhai instead of those at the Qincheng prison in Beijing.

The short and long of emerging markets

Fickle investors have spurned emerging markets in recent weeks, but this rout has obscured a more alluring vista out on the horizon.

Developing economies now account for 50 percent of global output and 80 percent of economic expansion and are projected to continue growing far faster than developed nations. They are expected to possess an even larger share of global growth, wealth and investment opportunities in years to come. So much so that the labels investors use to classify some of these nations will change as the developing develop and the emerging emerge into more potent economic powers

But this long-term view has been lost on many of those who look to emerging market assets for a higher yield in the short term. Their ardor cooled when the Federal Reserve signaled it may soon ease the stimulus that has kept credit cheap, signaling higher interest rates ahead. That was coupled with signs of slower growth in key emerging markets like China and Brazil.

Why Russia won’t deal on NATO missile defense

President Barack Obama meets with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Mexico, June 18, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed

President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to discuss missile defense, their thorniest bilateral problem, at the G8 summit in Ireland on June 17 and 18. Previous talks between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have floundered over the alliance’s refusal to give Moscow legal guarantees that the system would not undermine Russian nuclear forces.

But the diplomatic dance around missile defense cooperation has always been like Kabuki theater — with officials playing out their designated roles. There is only the illusion of real engagement.

The looming U.S.-China rivalry over Latin America

President Barack Obama meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) in California, June 7, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Though the U.S. and Chinese presidents heralded a “new model” of cooperation at their weekend summit, a growing competition looks more likely. The whirlwind of activity before President Barack Obama met with President Xi Jinping in the California desert revealed that Beijing and Washington’s sights are set on a similar prize — and face differing challenges to attain it.

Their focus is Latin America and the prize is increased trade and investment opportunities in a region where economic reforms have pulled millions out of poverty and into the middle class. Latin America is rich in the commodities and energy that both China and the United States need, largely stable politically and eager to do deals.

Addressing China’s ‘soft power deficit’

Xi Jinping (L) met with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Feb. 14, 2012.  REUTERS/Jason Reed

As Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares for his landmark summit with President Barack Obama in California Friday and Saturday, the critical mission of improving China’s image in the world could well be uppermost in his mind.

The central challenge that Xi faces here is that China’s soft power – its ability to win the hearts and minds of other nations and influence their governments through attraction rather than coercion or payment – has lagged far behind its purposeful hard power built on its growing economic and military might.

The case for sea-based drones

An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator is towed into the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), May 13, 2013. CREDIT: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Timothy Walter

If all goes according to plan, sometime on Tuesday the military balance of power in the Pacific Ocean could tilt to America’s advantage. The U.S. Navy’s main warships, whose firepower now cannot match the range of Chinese missiles, could gain a new weapon that more than levels the playing field.

It all boils down to a 62-foot-wide, hook-nosed Unmanned Aerial Vehicle built by Northrop Grumman. This new drone is set to launch off the 1,092-foot-long flight deck of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, known in Navy parlance as CVN-77 and until Tuesday morning docked at the sprawling naval base in Norfolk, Virginia.

New bird flu strain creates fear and surveillance

An emerging bird flu that is mysterious and deadly is haunting China. With four fresh H7N9 cases reported in Jiangsu Province and no indication as to how three Chinese adults caught the little-noted avian flu virus that killed two of them in March, the global medical community is hoping the new flu will calm down until China’s health system can determine how it spread.

“I can tell you this thing is real and definitely has the markings of being a killer,” says Jason Tetro, coordinator of the Emerging Pathogens Research Centre in Ottawa, which on Monday examined gene sequences from three of China’s H7N9 cases.

“I don’t wish to cause panic,” Tetro said in an interview, noting that if the subtype were proven to have emerged from a small farm, he wouldn’t be much alarmed. Infecting a big poultry reservoir, on the other hand, might well enable H7N9 to access Asia’s wild bird population. The upstart subtype could then become as menacing as H5N1, which since 2005 has officially taken 371 lives in 622 cases, mostly in China, Southeast Asia and Egypt, according to the World Health Organization. The additional Chinese cases have convinced Tetro that “close contact with birds” has been involved. “And I think the CAFOs [industrial chicken farms] have definitely contributed to the evolution of this virus,” he says.

Drone coalition: Key to U.S. security

The Pentagon’s biggest, most high-tech spy drone aircraft — one of the hottest items on the international arms market — is the key to a burgeoning robotic alliance among the United States, Japan, South Korea and Australia.

The RQ-4 Global Hawk, a $215 million, airliner-size Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) built by Northrop Grumman, could help this four-nation coalition monitor both China, as it increasingly flexes its military muscles, and North Korea, as it develops ever more sophisticated nuclear weapons.

If, and when, Canberra, Tokyo and Seoul acquire their Global Hawks — all three sales negotiations are still at an early stage — they could all share intelligence with Washington and vice versa. For all would be using the same hardware and software system. The resulting network could monitor millions of square miles of land and sea around the clock and in real time.

China as peacemaker

Nuclear escalation on the Korean Peninsula demands creative solutions. With a 2,200-year history of non-aggression, China is in the best position to take the lead — and relieve the United States of a burden it has shouldered for too long.

In fact, no other nation  has had as stable a pattern of world citizenship. Over two millennia, China has not attempted to conquer its neighbors or spread its system of government on any scale remotely comparable to the Romans, Mongols, British, Germans, French, Spanish, Russians, Japanese or even Americans. China does brutally resist the secession of Tibet, which it considers part of its ancient patrimony. But it has not grasped for lands beyond its historical borders.

There is no reason to think the Middle Kingdom has merely been biding its time. Indeed, if any nation can be said to have a long-term strategy, it is China. Premier Zhou Enlai, when asked what he thought of the French Revolution of 1789, allegedly replied, “It’s too soon to tell.”

‘Post-Communist’ Russia and China remain remarkably the same

For a Russian to live in Beijing is to experience time travel. Things long gone in Russia, or stuffed into kitschy theme bars to draw tourists, still appear in China with no sense of irony. There are endless displays of hammer-and-sickles, Red stars, and exhortations to Obey the Communist Party. There’s the rhetorical deification of the worker and the peasant. “Public-security volunteers,” elderly men and women with red arm-bands and a lot of time on their hands, lounge on little folding stools, sizing up passers-by. There are five-year plans, and front-page headlines screaming “Socialist path reaffirmed”.  I thought I left all of this in the 1980s’ Leningrad. But no, it’s all still here in Beijing, instantly recognizable even behind Chinese characters that give it  a new spin. All of which makes it tempting to think how  Russia and China have changed over the last 20 years.

But in fact the opposite is true: their political systems  remain remarkably similar. Both ditched Communism a while back. The only difference is Russia ditched the trappings while China held onto them. The system that emerged in both places operates with fewer overt ideological constraints but with a singular mission: the self-perpetuation of the ruling elite.

Oddly enough, the Chinese version might be slightly more pluralistic than the Russian one because Beijing focuses on the preservation of power in the hands of one party, while Moscow is obsessed with the preservation of power in the hands of one man. The Chinese have a history of tightly choreographed handovers of power from one crop of party leaders to the next. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has been able to give the appearance of letting go of power only when he knows it’s coming straight back to him.

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