In Flint, Michigan, Overpriced Water is Causing People’s Skin to Erupt in Rashes and Hair to Fall Out.

As the nation’s infrastructure falls apart, water is becoming more expensive and less safe.

On a Saturday afternoon in early May, Gertrude Marshall stood on a sidewalk in front of Flint City Hall holding a hand-printed sign that declared, “We Need Affordable Water.” A 48-year-old grandmother with a kind face and determined eyes, she had come alone to protest the city’s skyrocketing water rates. In the month of April, the city had issued shutoff notices to 378 customers who could not afford to pay their bills.

In some respects, Flint’s water affordability crisis is difficult to fathom. Michigan is “The Great Lake State” after all, a place surrounded by 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water, suggesting that water should be extremely affordable. But as in Detroit, its more famous sibling city to the south, water has become a high-priced commodity that too many residents can no longer afford. With average household charges nearing $150 a month, Flint’s water and sewer rates are among the highest in the United States.

Nor is price the only water problem facing the people of Flint. Since the city’s emergency manager switched the city’s drinking-water source in April 2014 from Detroit’s system to the Flint River—a move that was billed as a cost-saving windfall—residents have endured a series of water-safety scares. First came the three boil-water warnings, which the city issued after finding evidence E. coli and other nasty bacteria in the city’s water supply. These were followed by nine months of dangerously high levels of total trihalomethanes, a carcinogenic byproduct of chlorine, which put the city in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act; the city had ramped up the chlorine in an effort to kill the E. coli and other gut-busting microbes. Along the way, people have complained about rashes, hair loss, bad smells and worse, leading a group of them to file a lawsuit on June 5 to force the city to stop getting its water from the Flint River.

More recently, an internal Environmental Protection Agency memo obtained by the ACLU of Michigan raised concerns about the possibility of widespread lead contamination after the water in one family’s home was found to be contaminated with lead at a level of 13,200 parts per billion (ppb). A lead level of 5,000 ppb is classified as hazardous waste. The EPA memo asserted that the lead issue was the direct result of the cash-strapped city’s inability to handle the job of water treatment.

Much of Flint’s water woes—both in terms of quality and cost—can be tracked to its crumbling infrastructure: 600 miles of poorly maintained pipes plagued by hundreds of water main breaks a year. The whole system is in desperate need of repair, but the city, which is just now exiting receivership, isn’t in any shape to foot the bill—and no one else is stepping in to help.

Flint is a city with little more than half the residents it had when its population peaked in 1950. Likewise, only a fraction of the manufacturing jobs it previously had remain. Once a successful auto town—and a hub of organized labor—it counted only 8,000 General Motors jobs in 2006, down from nearly 80,000 good-paying union jobs in 1978. And jobs weren’t the only things the auto plants took when they closed; the tax revenues that flowed from them dried up as well. As a result, an ever smaller and poorer number of people have had to shoulder the costs of maintaining a decrepit water and sewer system.

For wealthier Flint residents, the relentless rise in rates has been irksome. But for the increasing number of poor people—the city’s poverty rate has swelled to more than 40 percent—the rate spikes are devastating. So is the unsafe water.

“People are forced to decide what bills are going to get paid,” said Flint residentMelissa Mays, a mother of three who’s struggling to make ends meet when the monthly water bill is over $300.

Marshall, a childcare worker and grandmother who lives in a house with one other person, said in May that her last monthly water bill was more than $200.

“A lot of people just can’t afford bills like that,” she said.

* * *

Outside the borders of Michigan, the story of Flint has gotten little attention. But the country ignores the plight of women like Mays and Marshall at its own risk, because their struggle is a growing one, spreading quickly past the frayed borders of Flint toward other troubled cities throughout the United States.

Just 70 miles to the south, Detroit’s spiking water rates have led to shutoffs so massive and unremitting that the United Nations condemned the disconnections as a violation of human rights. This past April, Baltimore also made headlines when reports surfaced that officials there were preparing to start the process of cutting service to some 25,000 homes—a threat that has so far resulted in 3,000 customers’ losing their water. And the number of Baltimoreans who can’t afford to turn on the tap is destined to grow as the city’s water and sewer rates are slated to increase a combined 42 percent over a three-year period; the money has been earmarked for infrastructure replacement that’s both costly and badly needed.

Meanwhile, shutoffs aren’t the only tactics used in an attempt to collect delinquent water bills. In New York City, for example, where rates jumped 78 percent between 2005 and 2014, liens are placed on the homes of owners who have fallen behind on their bills. If people don’t pay up, the liens are sold to private companies, which have the authority to foreclose on the properties, theNew York Daily News reported last year. Between 2008 and 2013, the newspaper reported, “The number of liens sold against owners of two- and three-family homes and mixed-use properties has risen 41%.”

As in Flint, much of the blame can be traced to our failing national water system. The country’s water infrastructure—the million miles of pipes, treatment facilities, and pumping stations that comprise municipal water systems—is old, dating in some cases back to the mid to late-19th century. The situation is similar for sewer lines. Although there have been updates and extensions along the way, with some of the most recent major projects occurring in the 1950s through 1970s, the materials used in each successive wave have tended to be of poorer quality, meaning they tend to erode faster, according to a report by the Georgetown Law Human Rights Institute. The result has been a decline so pernicious that, in 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s water infrastructure a ‘D+’ grade, warning that “much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life.”

Much of the problem can be attributed to a change in policy on the part of the federal government, which reduced funding for water and wastewater systems by 80 percent between 1977 and 2014. As a result of those cuts, consumers have been forced to bear most of the burden of paying for the repair and replacement of aging water infrastructure, causing rates to soar. One particularly stunning survey of 100 municipalities by USA Today in 2012 found that water prices had doubled in more than a quarter of the cities since 2000, and even tripled in several others.

And they’re going to continue to climb.

“Our estimates are that this is a trillion-dollar program,” David LaFrance, CEO of the American Water Works Association, told National Public Radio last year. “About half of that trillion dollars will be to replace existing infrastructure. The other half will be putting into the ground new infrastructure to serve population growth and areas that currently aren’t receiving water.”

With the federal government filling in only a fraction of the gaps, municipal systems’ solution of choice has been to dump rising infrastructure costs on customers by raising prices. But cities have also been exploring other options, including privatizing their water systems (which James Kelly explores in his article about New Jersey’s recent water privatization push) and switching over to cheaper water sources, as Flint has done. Rarely, however, have the changes offered much benefit; frequently, they have made the situation worse.

This shouldn’t have to be Americans’ fate. Once upon a time, this country dreamed of big and ambitious interventions to help its residents live safe, secure, and comfortable lives—a notion that stakeholders like the US Conference of Mayors have echoed, however faintly, in asking Congress to provide direct financial relief to municipal water systems. As of now, the federal government merely makes money available to revolving loan funds that must be repaid—with money coming out of the pockets of consumers.

But getting Congress to come up with the cash is a decidedly tough task in an era when lawmakers eschew any form of tax hike, focusing instead on attempts to rein in the federal budget by hacking away at established programs. So, as we wait and dream for more visionary days, we can and should begin pushing for another solution that makes both economic and humanitarian sense: government can step in and begin helping customers with their exorbitant bills, the same way it provides a safety net for other fundamental needs, such as food, housing, and heating bills. Making that argument all the more compelling is the fact that in parts of the country water rates “are rising faster than any other utility rate, including heating bills,” the National Consumer Law Center reported last year.

Why should water be treated differently?

The idea, which is beginning to make the rounds in cities like Detroit, is for income-based affordability plans based on a customer’s ability to pay. That means, essentially, that poor people are provided a discount based on their income levels. Although it might seem counterintuitive, such an approach actually results in water utilities collecting more money than if the rates were higher.

When bills are out of reach, people tend to toss them aside rather than make partial payments. If, on the other hand, they take a reasonable portion of a person’s income—the US EPA suggests no more than 4.5 percent for water and sewer—then people are not just able but also willing to cough up the cash needed to keep the water flowing.

In June, the Philadelphia City Council voted unanimously to set rates for impoverished customers based on their incomes. And the City of Brotherly Love will be better off financially for it.

“This legislation will improve collections, because experience shows that customers are more likely to pay their utility bills when they are affordable,” Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez said. “At the same time, this program will prevent families who are doing their best and following the rules from being crushed under old and uncollectable debt.”


The battle of Waterloo

A near-run thing

Appallingly bloody, yet decisive, the battle of Waterloo in June 1815 deserves the attention it is getting 200 years later

Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles. By Bernard Cornwell. Harper Collins; 352 pages; $35. William Collins; £25.

Waterloo: Four Days that Changed Europe’s Destiny. By Tim Clayton. Little, Brown; 588 pages; £25.

WITH the bicentenary of the battle of Waterloo fast approaching, the publishing industry has already fired volley after volley of weighty ordnance at what is indeed one of the defining events of European history. About that, there can be no argument. Waterloo not only brought to an end the extraordinary career of Napoleon Bonaparte, whose ambitions had led directly to the deaths of up to 6m people. It also redrew the map of Europe and was the climax of what has become known as the second Hundred Years War, a bitter commercial and colonial rivalry between Britain and France that had begun during the reign of Louis XIV. Through its dogged resistance to France’s hegemonic ambitions in the preceding 20 years, Britain helped create the conditions for the security system known as the Concert of Europe, established in 1815. The peace dividend Britain enjoyed for the next 40 years allowed it to emerge as the dominant global power of the 19th century.

If the consequences of the battle were both profound and mostly benign, certainly for Britain, the scale of the slaughter and suffering that took place in fields 10 miles (16km) south of Brussels on that long June day in 1815 remains shocking. The Duke of Wellington never uttered the epigram attributed to him: “Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained.” What he did say in the small hours after the battle was: “Thank God, I don’t know what it is like to lose a battle; but certainly nothing can be more painful than to gain one with the loss of so many of one’s friends.” Nearly all his staff had been killed or wounded. Around 200,000 men had fought each other, compressed into an area of five square miles (13 square kilometres).

When darkness finally fell, up to 50,000 men were lying dead or seriously wounded—it is impossible to say how many exactly, because the French losses were only estimates—and 10,000 horses were dead or dying. Johnny Kincaid, an officer of the 95th Rifles who survived the onslaught by the French on Wellington’s centre near La Haie Sainte farm, coolly declared: “I had never yet heard of a battle in which everybody was killed; but this seemed likely to be an exception, as all were going by turns.”

Although frequently told, the story of the battle, or rather three battles—the engagement between Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch forces and the French at Quatre Bras on June 16th, the much bigger battle of Ligny on the same day, which saw the defeat of Prussia’s army, and finally Waterloo itself on the 18th—remains tense and gripping. Wellington himself thought such retellings futile, observing some years later: “The history of a battle is not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost; but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance.”

However, for straightforward narrative accounts of what happened, combined with convincing analysis of the decisions and actions upon which the outcome of the struggle turned, it is hard to beat Bernard Cornwell, who is better known as the author of the fictional Sharpe novels set during the Peninsular War, and Tim Clayton, an academic historian who co-wrote a widely praised book about Trafalgar.

They are helped by the massive archive of letters and diaries written by the men who were there. It was an age in which literacy was not just the preserve of the officer class. There was also a competitive newspaper industry eager for graphic descriptions of what everybody at the time realised was an event of huge historical importance. Memoirs, too, were much in demand for decades after the battle. Doubtless some of the reports and anecdotes were embroidered, and memory can lie, but they convey in extraordinary detail and colour the horror, the heroism, the terror and the sometimes dark humour of fighting men in extremis.

In all probability, Napoleon could not ultimately have won the war, because of the size and determination of the forces ranged against him across Europe. But what gives the story its enduring power is the fact that the outcome of this battle was far from certain. As Wellington said later, it was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life”.

Returning from his nine-month exile on Elba, Napoleon had quickly mobilised an army of nearly 200,000 men to take on the coalition forces regathering to apprehend him. As Mr Clayton argues, the conception of this final campaign was brilliant. The plan was to split the forces commanded by Wellington from the Prussian army led by the redoubtable Gebhard von Blücher and then defeat each separately. However, its execution depended on a speed and decisiveness that was beyond Napoleon’s immediate subordinates, Marshals Ney and Grouchy, and perhaps, by this stage, even the great man himself.

“Is that the way to St Helena?”

Four errors, partly the result of poor staff work, helped doom Napoleon. The first, entirely self-inflicted, was to deprive himself of his two most effective generals: Marshal Davout, left behind to guard Paris, and Marshal Suchet, put in charge of defending the eastern border against possible attack by the Austrians. The second was Ney’s almost inexplicable hesitation in taking the strategic crossroads of Quatre Bras, the key to dividing the coalition armies. The third was the aimless wandering in the pouring rain of the Compte d’Erlon and his 20,000 troops between the battle at Quatre Bras against the Anglo-Dutch and the battle at Ligny that the Prussians were losing. Had he intervened in either, the impact could have been decisive. The fourth was the failure of initiative by Grouchy that allowed the regrouped Prussians to outflank him and arrive at the critical moment to save Wellington at Waterloo.

That said, nothing should be taken away from Napoleon’s conquerors. Both commanders were talented professionals—Wellington was unmatched in the art of defence—who had experienced and competent subordinates and staffs. The British infantry and the King’s German Legion (a British army unit) were hardened veterans of the highest quality. Above all, both commanders trusted each other and never wavered in their mutual support, a factor that Napoleon almost certainly underestimated in his strategic calculus.

Mr Cornwell will appeal most to those who are not Waterloo scholars, but who want a great and terrible story told with energy and clarity by a writer who has a deep understanding of men in combat and why they do what they do. Mr Clayton provides a cooler, less Anglocentric approach and a mass of narrative detail that at times can be overwhelming. But his style is lucid and his judgments scrupulously fair.

For an enthralling account of the hours, days and weeks after the battle, read Paul O’Keefe’s “Waterloo: The Aftermath”. It starts with an almost ghoulish description of the slaughter ground after night fell, a “landscape of carnage, observed through the silvered filter of moonlight”. Amid the cries of dying men and horses, the clinking of hammer against chisel beside the burial pits could be heard—the sound of teeth being removed from dead men by entrepreneurial camp followers intending to supply denture-makers in London.

Remarkably quickly, the battlefield became a destination for English tourists, who also flocked to enjoy the charms of Paris they had for so long been denied. To their disappointment, however, some of the great works of European art on display in the Louvre that had been looted by Napoleon’s armies were soon being bundled up to be returned to their original owners. Mr O’Keefe paints a vivid picture of a France that had grown weary of Napoleon and, with the exception of a few old loyalists and anti-monarchists, was quite happy to consign la gloire to the past.

Napoleon threw himself on the mercy of the British. His second and final exile was handled politely but firmly by officers of the Royal Navy. They had orders to disabuse the former emperor of his idea that he might live out his days as a country gentleman in England, and to transport him to St Helena, an island that was sufficiently remote to prevent him from causing any more trouble. Napoleon and his remaining followers thought this a great betrayal by a civilised and liberal nation. The Prussians, had they caught him, would have been still less considerate of the great man’s dignity. They wanted simply to capture and kill the former emperor, a fate that most of Europe would surely have applauded.

4 Qualities Every Aspiring Chinese Bureaucrat Must Possess
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

4 Qualities Every Aspiring Chinese Bureaucrat Must Possess

There is no doubt that China’s reform is entering the so-called ‘deep water’ zone, evidenced by Chinese leaders’ repeated warnings in recent years. The reason is that all the easy reforms have already been implemented; the remaining reforms will be extremely challenging for the Chinese government. In order to push through such reforms, thus, it is imperative for China to train and promote a new generation of government officials who are idealistic, brave, clean, and global-minded. After all, all reforms must be implemented by officials at all levels. These reforms cannot succeed if officials sit idle or resist them. There are already many reports that officials at all levels of Chinese government are directly or indirectly resisting reforms that hurt their interests. This is not surprising. The best strategy to deal with such a situation is to train and promote officials who have the following qualities.

The first important quality for officials is being idealistic. It might seem a bit strange for today’s China since for more than three decades China has mostly adopted a pragmatic approach toward politics. To use Deng Xiaoping’s words, “to get rich is glorious.” Thus, Chinese officials are evaluated by their ability to generate GDP growth, leading to China’s stellar economic performance but also a variety of problems such as social inequality and environmental pollution. But things are changing now. China is entering a new period of development and because of this it badly needs new ideas, new models, and a new political culture. Officials at all levels must adapt to this new reality; it will not be easy, but it is a necessary step for China’s future development.

The second important quality is being brave and responsible. Reform is never easy, in China or elsewhere. This is because reform by definition involves a redistribution of power and resources and, as such, leaves winners and losers. The losers of reform would make every effort to defeat their implementation in the first place. Unfortunately, for China, the success of economic development since 1978 has also created various powerful interest groups that have the ability to thwart reforms that hurt their interests. One can find plenty of examples in the energy and financial sectors. Such difficulties mean that governmental officials who undertake reforms will face all kinds of threats and even physical danger. Without courage and determination, government officials in China will only seek to protect their positions rather than push for reforms benefiting the people.

Another critical quality for Chinese officials is being clean. This is quite straightforward now as the anti-corruption campaign deepens. There is no need to detail the negative impact of corrupt officials on China’s development. In a word, corrupt officials will cause the collapse of the CCP and China. The top leadership in China now is very aware of this problem; and this is why they emphasize that the “anti-corruption campaign is always on the road.” Of course, to largely eliminate corruption in China, institutional mechanisms must be established to encourage people’s participation and monitoring. This process will be a long one given the complexity of the corruption problem in China. Nonetheless, training and promoting clean officials is a very important step in this direction.

Last but not least, China badly needs officials who are global-minded. The reason is very simple. China is a potential superpower and a superpower must understand not only its own region but also the whole world. China has been the biggest beneficiary of globalization for the past three decades; now it is China’s turn to contribute to globalization and the world. Unfortunately most Chinese officials lack global vision, despite their frequent trips overseas. This is part of the reason why China still lacks soft power. If a new generation of Chinese officials who are humble, knowledgeable about international affairs, and good at intercultural communication can rise up over the next two decades, then China’s hope to become a soft power country will increase significantly.

It is now a cliché to say that institutions are important for development. But people often forget that institutions are implemented and transformed by officials. Without the right officials, institutions cannot have their designed effects. This applies to all countries, but China in particular. If China cannot train and promote the right officials in time, then the likelihood of realizing the “China dream” will decrease, perhaps entirely.

The Barack Obama administration has been very busy dealing with nuclear negotiations with Iran, a war against the Islamic State, a new conflict in Yemen and the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Yet the understandable focus on these other crises has obscured China’s efforts to speed up its militarization of the South China Sea. Now, Chinese progress has reached the point that senior Pentagon officials and Congressional leaders are demanding the administration do something about it.

Territorial Disputes

There is no shortage of evidence of China’s rapid buildup of infrastructure and armaments in disputed territory far from its physical borders. Satellite photosreleased last month show that in the past year, China has built several entirely new islands in disputed waters using land-reclamation technology, and then constructed military-friendly facilities on them. In the Spratly Islands, new Chinese land masses have been equipped with helipads and anti-aircraft towers, raising regional concerns that Beijing is using thinly veiled military coercion to establish control in an area where six Asian nations have claims.


Admiral Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, sounded the alarm in a speech in Australia on Wednesday, calling the Chinese project “unprecedented” and saying that the construction is part of a larger campaign of provocative actions against smaller Asian states.

“China is creating a ‘Great Wall of Sand’ with dredges and bulldozers over the course of months,” he warned, adding that it raised “serious questions about Chinese intentions.”

For example, satellite photos taken by Airbus Defence and Space and published by Jane’s in February, show that over the past year China has built an 800,000-square-foot island on top of Hughes Reef in the Spratly Islands, where no island existed before. China also began a reclamation and construction project at nearby Gavin’s Reef. Both islands now have helipads and anti-aircraft towers.

China has also expanded its already created islands on the Spratlys’ Johnson South Reef, Cuarteron Reef, Gaven Reef and Fiery Cross Reef — the last of which can accommodate an airstrip, according to the U.S. military. Harris said China has created more than 1.5 square miles of “artificial landmass” in the South China Sea. China’s claims are based on what’s known as the nine-dash line, which if implemented would grant China 90 percent of the entire Sea.


Top Asia watchers in Congress have been asking the Obama administration to confront China on the issue and devote more attention to the increasingly tense situation in the region. In the late hours of the debate over the Senate budget last weekend, three senators added two amendments aimed at pushing the Obama administration to reinvigorate its so-called Pivot to Asia.

The first of those amendments, sponsored by Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Robert Menendez, Cory Gardner and Ben Cardin, calls on the administration to develop and make public a comprehensive strategy to ensure freedom of navigation in the Pacific. It would also allow Congress to fund more training and exercises by the U.S. military and its Asian partners.

A second amendment, authored by Gardner, the new chairman of the Asia subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, calls for an independent agency such as the Government Accountability Office to review what the administration is actually spending on the Asia pivot and to make recommendations on how it might be better managed.

“It’s important that the American people have a full accounting of the resources that have been devoted to this important policy and whether they have been prioritized effectively,” Gardner told me in a statement.

These pieces of legislation are the latest effort by Congress to find out exactly what the administration is doing to counter China’s moves. On March 19, all four leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter calling on the administration to wake up to the graveness of the situation in the South China Sea. “Without a comprehensive strategy for addressing the PRC’s broader policy and conduct,” the senators wrote, “longstanding interests of the United States, as well as our allies and partners, stand at considerable risk.”

The letter points out that $5 trillion in global trade transits through the South China Sea each year. They assert that China stands in violation of 2002 agreement it signed with the ASEAN countries in which all parties pledged self-restraint and avoid actions that could complicate the situation or escalate tensions.

Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told me that the Chinese are taking advantage of the Obama administration’s focus on the Middle East: “China understands that where this administration is, it’s a place where they can in fact move ahead in the world.”

Asked about the congressional letter, State Department spokesman Jeff Radke insisted that the U.S. is increasing its coordination with countries affected by China’s moves and confronting the Chinese leadership privately. “We have consistently and frequently raised with China our concerns over its large-scale land reclamation, which undermines peace and stability in the South China Sea, and more broadly in the Asia Pacific region,” he said.

But  James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, testified to Congress last month that the Chinese don’t seem to be getting the message. He called their actions “aggressive” and said Chinese claims in the South China Sea are “exorbitant.”

“Although China is looking for stable ties with the United States, it’s more willing to accept bilateral and regional tensions in pursuit of its interests, particularly on maritime sovereignty issues,” Clapper said.

The Beijing government has stated clearly that it believes its expansion in the South China Sea is both legal and non-threatening, refusing to address the region’s concerns in any substantive way. It complained loudly when the U.S. and India took the relatively innocuous step of issuing a joint statement referring to their desire to address the issue.

No matter the state of the Middle East and Eastern Europe, the Obama administration’s lack of response to China’s maritime aggression is worrisome. China is testing how far it can push the status quo before Washington does something. The Pentagon and  Congress are clearly telling Obama that the response needs to come before China’s military takeover of the South China Sea is complete.

To contact the author on this story:
Josh Rogin at

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at

‘The Art of War’ in 8 charts

graphThe Atlantic

The Art of War may be one of the most adaptable books of the past two millennia. There’s an Art of War for small businesses. There’s an Art of War fordating. There’s even an Art of War for librarians.

According to Jessica Hagy, author of the newest version, The Art of War Visualized, the book has spawned so many interpretations because it can be read as not really being about war at all. “It’s about creative problem-solving,” Hagy told me. Hagy, who doodles the quasi-mathematical logic of human foibles on the popular blog Indexed, found three copies of Sun Tzu’s classic among college textbooks and Tom Clancy novels while cleaning out her basement last year, and she saw in its short verses the kind of logic she likes to draw, as in this recent example from Indexed:

fixedThe Atlantic

“It was so much less hypermasculine and bloodthirsty and vicious than you think it is, and it’s very thoughtful,” Hagy said of The Art of War. “About the first read through I really saw that war was just a metaphor for hassles and problems and issues that people face in every scale of life from really petty, stupid things to really big, world-changing, ‘Should we invade this country?’ sorts of questions,” Hagy said.

Indeed, one under-appreciated feature of The Art of War is how much of it is devoted to avoiding actual fighting. “Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting,” Sun Tzu wrote. Also: “[T]he skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field.” He also explained why this is: “When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped.”

Or in Hagy’s updated interpretation: “Quit the awful job, or leave the dysfunctional relationship, or don’t sit in traffic, go around it. That avoidance idea is applicable in so many ways.” Pick your battles, as the cliche has it—which, at least the way I interpret it, is better phrased as “decline nearly all of the battles.”

Here are a few examples of what that looks like in Hagy’s charts and graphs, accompanied by Sun Tzu’s verses. stratThe Atlantic

“Sun Tzu said:

The art of war is of vital importance to the state.

It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin.

Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.”

moreThe Atlantic

“When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be dampened.

If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength.

Again, if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain.”

triangleThe Atlantic

“In war, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.

Thus it may be known that the leader of armies is the arbiter of the people’s fate, the man on whom it depends whether the nation shall be in peace or in peril.”

againThe Atlantic

“Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy’s army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.

The rule is, not to besiege walled cities if it can possibly be avoided.”

nasty cruelThe Atlantic

“There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.

It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war who can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on.”

wisdomThe Atlantic

“The general, unable to control his irritation, will launch his men to the assault like swarming rats, with the result that one-third of his men are slain, while the town still remains untaken.

Such are the disastrous effects of a siege.”

“Thus the good fighter is able to secure himself against defeat, but cannot make certain of defeating the enemy.

Hence the saying: One may know how to conquer without being able to do it.”

Read more:

A Fiber-Optic Silk Road


Not even two years into what will be a ten-year tenure at China’s helm, Xi Jinping has already made his mark on China’s foreign policy, in particular with the launch of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, also known as the New Silk Road. This initiative will manifest in a vast network of transportation, energy and communication projects, all of which are supposed to boost intraregional trade and ultimately give China and its neighbors a sense of “common destiny.”

Although not as well publicized, the planned improvements in telecommunications infrastructure are as critical to business and economic development as the railroad projects that are to be technically and financially supported by China through its New Silk Road initiative. The virtual cloud of cyberspace relies on a physical infrastructure that constitutes the sinews of the Internet. Because cables can be laid easily along rail lines, the future Eurasian fiber optic backbones will benefit from the transportation infrastructure that will soon stretch along the Silk Road. For landlocked countries such as the Central Asian Republics, this will mean greater access to international data networks, at a cost averaging a tenth that of satellite communications and with a bandwidth significantly enhanced by fiber optic technology.

A number of projects are already underway. In 2006 the telecom giant ZTE was commissioned by Afghanistan to establish the country’s first fiber optic cable network, the same year that Huawei, another Chinese firm, received a contract from the government of Tajikistan. China and Russia have also partnered in building major terrestrial telecommunication links across the Eurasian continent, including the world’s longest terrestrial cable link, the Trans-Europe Asia (TEA), in addition to the Europe-Russia-Mongolia-China network, the TransEurasian Information Superhighway (TASIM), and the Diverse Route for European and Asian Markets (DREAM). The last of these is an ambitious Eurasian fiber optic communication land line whose launch was announced by Russia’s MegaFon in October 2013; it will be built with equipment supplied by China’s Huawei.

While domestic networks are mostly terrestrial, underwater fiber optic cables carry the vast majority of international data traffic. Thus Asia and Europe are currently digitally connected, via the Suez Canal thanks, among other things, to the world’s longest submarine cable, the 39,000 km SEA-ME- WE 3 system. Digital packets transmitted from Western Europe to Japan either have to traverse Europe, the Middle East, the Indian Ocean and the China Seas, or ride through the Atlantic, the U.S., and then the Pacific Ocean. The global undersea system experiences several hundred disruptions per year, especially at heavily trafficked choke points such as the Strait of Malacca or the Suez Canal, where too many cables pass through a narrow maritime passage. Regular disruptions occur when ships drag their anchors across cables lying on the ocean floor. In addition to increasing the connectivity of landlocked countries that stretch along the Silk Road, the envisioned terrestrial trans-Eurasian networks will alleviate the possible risks of disruption to maritime cables and add redundancy: Terrestrial cables also face disruptions, but they are easier to repair and maintain than the ones that lie 8,000 meters underwater.

The land digital highways will also increase the speed of data exchanges between Europe and Asia, a major challenge that telecommunication companies are racing to meet. Investors are willing to spend several hundreds of millions of dollars to gain a few milliseconds in highly profitable “high frequency trading” – a system where computers buy and sell automatically and electronically. By some estimates, a one millisecond advantage could be worth up to $100 million a year for hedge fund companies. Shorter routes are therefore the key to speed – and profit. The melting of the Arctic ice cap has created the possibility of opening new routes linking Asia to Europe and Trans-Arctic Ocean submarine cables are now being installed, with the aim of reducing by 30 percent the time a packet takes to travel from Tokyo to London. But maintaining the cables remains an obvious challenge and the Silk Road routes offer a sound alternative for customers looking for increased speed and reliability.

In addition to commercial motivations, the new fiber optic Silk Road could also have geopolitical and strategic implications. Russia and China evidently share a desire to shield themselves from U.S. and other Western intelligence agencies and probably believe that their own communications – both with one another and to and from Europe – will be better protected if cables run across their own territory rather than through the Indian Ocean or the U.S. The same motivation explains the announced Telebras cable, which will connect Brazil to Portugal without any U.S. technology, and the BRICS cable project, which will link Vladivostok to Brazil, via China, India and South Africa. There is a growing wariness among these countries that when their data traffic goes through hubs in Europe or the U.S., it incurs a greater “risk of potential interception of critical financial and security information by non-BRICS entities,” according to Andrew Mthembu, a South African businessman who is promoting the BRICS cable.

Together with planned roads, rail and pipelines, the fiber optic “Silk Road” will tie the Central Asian states more closely to China and Russia. These countries may also hope that the new cables will circumvent NSA attempts to eavesdrop on the data sent through U.S. IT companies. But they may well find themselves subjected to increased electronic surveillance by Beijing or Moscow, or both. Russia and China’s perceived security risks, reinforced by Edward Snowden’s revelations about the electronic surveillance carried out by the U.S. government through digital channels, will lead to more alternative routes provided by non-American companies, conceivably making it easier to seal off the global network if deemed necessary. Paradoxically, the emergence of alternative networks could eventually increase the digital balkanization of some parts of the world.

Nadège Rolland is Senior Project Director for Political and Security Affairs at The National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR). Prior to joining NBR, Ms. Rolland served as senior adviser to the French Ministry of Defense.

How the British and the Russians Drew the Afghan-Turkmen Border
An 1848 map of Central Asia.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

How the British and the Russians Drew the Afghan-Turkmen Border


Last week, The Diplomat featured an interesting piece about the border between Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, noting that the Amu Darya, the river that forms a part of the border between the two countries, has been “steadily pushing southward,” leading to confusion and border disputes. This brings to mind the history of Afghanistan’s northern border, much of which was steadily pushed southward in the 19th century by the Russian Empire, and lies within today’s Turkmenistan.

In fact, this week – March 30 to be exact – marks the 130th anniversary of the infamous Panjdeh Incident, when the Russian Empire seized the then-northwestern corner of Afghanistan in 1885. If one observes a map of the northern border of Iran and Afghanistan with the countries of Central Asia, it is evident that it fairly evenly follows a straight west-east gradient from the Caspian Sea to China, except for an area where southwest Turkmenistan seems to plunge into Afghanistan. The western Afghan city of Herat is relatively close to the border with Turkmenistan today, but used to have a larger northern heartland. To see what Afghanistan looked like before 1885, observe this map and compare it to a modern map:


Afghanistan’s borders fluctuated greatly throughout the course of the 19th century, mostly due to the machinations of the British and Russians during their “Great Game” to dominate inner Asia. Modern Afghanistan was founded as a conquest empire in 1747 on the backs of the collapsing Persian and Mughal empires by one Ahmad Shah Durrani, an Afghan (then synonymous with Pashtun). By the end of the 19th century, however, Afghanistan was mostly a buffer state between British India and the Russian Empire, with weak administrative control over much of its territory.

Afghanistan began to weaken in the early 19th century when the Punjab region in the eastern part of its empire broke off and formed the Sikh Empire. The Sikh Empire then seized Peshawar, the winter capital of Afghanistan in 1818 (all Sikh territory was annexed by the British in 1849). The British attempted to intervene in Afghanistan several times during the course of the 19th century, sometimes to the benefit of that country and sometimes to its detriment, but always because they feared the growth of Russian power in the direction of their empire in India.

While the disastrous invasion of Afghanistan from 1839-1842  is well known (and is the subject of an excellent study, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42 by William Dalrymple), Britain also succeeded in hiving off much of eastern Afghanistan through the establishment of the Durand Line in 1893. Britain also enabled Afghanistan to stretch further west than its administrative capabilities could handle by preserving its de jure control over the western city of Herat, which really functioned as a de facto independent principality for much of the nineteenth century. Herat had been the most important eastern Persian city for many centuries before Afghanistan seized it. Persia tried several times to regain Herat in the 19th century, only to be thwarted by British action again (1838) and again (1856).

It was in this loosely controlled northwestern corner of Afghanistan that Russian encroachment on Afghanistan’s northern border began. North of Afghanistan lay three Turkic-controlled Central Asian khanates: Khiva, Bukhara, and Kokand. While their raids annoyed their northern neighbor Russia for many years, Russia decided to conquer them once and for all to compensate for its loss in the Crimean War and regain its pride. The three Central Asian khanates fell in due course in the 1860s and 1870s. The conquest of Central Asia also brought Russia closer to British India and, as a bonus, to a warm water port, the ultimate dream of the Russian Empire.

After the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880), the British installed a sympathetic ruler on the Afghan throne, fearing Russia’s southward expansion, which reached the northern border of Afghanistan after the conquest of Merv (now in Turkmenistan) in 1884. The British demanded that the Russians halt any further southern advance and both the Russians and British agreed to a delineation committee for determining the border between Afghanistan and Russia. However, before the committee could meet (the Russian commission was conveniently delayed), Russian forces decided to push their advantage to the last extent possible by attacking an Afghan garrison on the west bank of the Kushk River on March 30, 1885. Over 600 Afghan soldiers were killed and the Russians seized the Panjdeh oasis south of the river. These lands were south of the traditional borders of Afghanistan and the entire region’s traditional boundary with Central Asia.

The British were alarmed and there was talk of war, but a final boundary agreement was hammered out and the Russians were allowed to keep Panjdeh after promising to stop any further encroachment on Afghanistan. Later on, in 1895, Afghanistan was compensated with some new territory on its eastern frontier, including Wakhan, the strip of land that connects the rest of Afghanistan to the Chinese border, preventing the British and Russian Empires from actually touching. Afghanistan did not want Wakhan but accepted it as a “gift” arranged by the British Empire.

Therefore, if you have ever been left wondering about the origins of Afghanistan’s strange borders, they are mostly a product of British and Russian imperial vagaries, leftover from their Great Game. The Panjdeh Incident epitomizes the extent to which British and Russian interests shaped contemporary borders.

Lee Kuan Yew’s Enduring Legacy

In Nepal, prime ministers often do not rule for long, and their reign is often chaotic, and in the end, inconsequential. But they often begin with grand proclamations. In particular, many have begun their terms with a promise to turn their country into the “next” Singapore. And Nepal is not alone. Throughout Asia, Singapore’s success has long fascinated and inspired leaders and visionaries. And one man embodies that success – Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Indeed, few Asian leaders are as revered as Lee. Witness the outpouring of praise for him upon his death. Fewer still have made such an impact on Asia’s rulers by ruling over a tiny city-state. Because of Lee, Singapore has, like America, like Japan, transcended boundaries to become an idea that stands for something unique and powerful – an oasis of peace, stability and prosperity in a neighborhood that is often racked by turmoil. Lacking any significant natural resource, Singapore instead turned towards educating its population and cleverly exploiting its unique geostrategic location. Lee was a visionary, but he was also a pragmatist. He understood the limitations of his tiny country just as well as he understood its potential for greatness. He saw clearly the trend towards globalization, and how his country was uniquely situated to take advantage of it. All it needed was the right infrastructure – and he helped to develop it. He opened the economy and made Singapore a notable financial center. He developed its port – until recently the busiest in the world. He built an international airport that has long been considered the world’s most efficient and hassle free.

Lee would remain a pragmatist throughout his life. In this, he much resembled another leading figure: China’s most towering post-Maoist leader Deng Xiaoping. In fact, for Deng, tiny Singapore provided a sort of blueprint for developing his own country. During the Maoist era, China was often messy and violent. Singapore, by contrast, worked smoothly. Its people were prosperous and there were no disturbances. Lee, whose grandparents came from Guandong in Southern China, seemed to have created a perfectly harmonious society in Singapore, one that even Confucius might admire.

Singapore is far from a perfect society. Its harmony can seem a little forced. But to his credit, Lee was unafraid to admit that his country, like many others, needed a guiding hand. Lee never tried to claim that he had developed the perfect democracy. At heart, he was a conservative who believed that family, above and beyond anything else, was the true building block of society – certainly more than the individual. Family provided the support to the individual and the moral fiber of society. In an interview he gave Fareed Zakaria in 1994, Lee deplored the erosion of the “moral underpinnings” of society in the West. This happened partly because in the West, the individual became removed from family and society. Yet, even as he retained a deep faith in familial values, and in the power of culture and society to restrain aggressive individualism, Lee was willing to allow changes to occur in society if that seemed to improve overall welfare. A very good illustration of this was his decision to allow casinos to operate in Singapore. As a traditionalist and a strict disciplinarian, he was fundamentally averse to gambling. Yet, with his blessing, they were finally allowed to open in the city state – albeit under tightly regulated conditions. The objective, as always, was to find a pragmatic, middle path. Gambling can bring in needed revenues, but it could have severe social costs on Singaporeans themselves. But the compromise that Singapore devised was to pass laws that do not explicitly bar natives from visiting casinos, but to impose significant costs on them so as to discourage them from the habit. The compromise attitude towards gambling contrasts with the uncompromising attitude towards drugs. Singapore has one of the world’s harshest drugs policies – even small amounts can be used as evidence of intent to distribute. In fact, Singapore has long had one of the highest per capita execution rates of any country on earth, and the majority of these are related to drug trafficking. Visitors to the country are told in no uncertain terms that the punishment for drug trafficking is death. Punishments for other crimes are also relatively harsh. In fact, severe punishments for violations of norms begin in schools. Caning, for instance, is permissible and even encouraged in schools as a method of controlling unruly children. Lee wanted to impress order and discipline into the very fabric of his society. To do that, he needed to start with the young.

Above all, Lee deplored chaos. And having developed in Singapore an ordered, even conformist society, he was not afraid to prescribe similar solutions to other countries that faced the threat of chaos – countries often vastly larger and more complex than his. Had anyone other than he done that, it would have been considered overreach. Which other leader of a country of a few million tucked in one corner of the world is taken seriously? But under Lee, the success of Singapore had been so striking that there was almost no option but to listen. Herein lay his claim to greatness – that his “model” was applicable not just to his city state – but to the world at large. And his model essentially was a pragmatic alternative to the Western democratic ideal. In an interview he gave to the German magazine Der Spiegel in 2005, he stated that he could not base “his system” on Western democratic norms, but had to “amend” to suit “his people.” He noted especially how in a multiethnic society like his, Western democracy was bound to result in stalemate and foster chaos. Thus, in such a society, there was no alternative to strong leadership that would guide democracy in the desired fashion. That was why he so often discarded the notion that India would be able to catch up with China. India was a multiethnic state where the people often identified less with the state than their own ethnicities or communities, leading to fractiousness and political paralysis. For this reason, Lee greatly admired Indira Gandhi, considering her to be a more forceful leader than Margaret Thatcher. Given his disdain for India’s messy political system, it seems natural that he would support a strongly authoritarian leader like Gandhi who could bring order to the chaos. Moreover, in an interview with the conservative American journalist William Safire in 1999, Lee deplored the sudden collapse of the USSR, arguing that the power vacuum there gave rise to chaos and widespread crime. One could thus argue that he wasn’t a mere “pragmatist.” Clearly he believed that society had to be restrained – by the family at the individual level and by the strong hand of the state at the larger level.

Of course, Lee was not the only one in Asia who thought that Western-style democracy brought more problems than solutions. Many leaders in the region believe that the kind of “guided democracy” that Lee implemented in Singapore is especially appropriate to their societies. Many think that Western models of democracy are neither appropriate nor applicable in Asia. Yet, for all their enthusiasm for the Singapore model, few leaders have been able to emulate its successes. Singapore’s success owes to Lee Kuan Yew’s exceptional ability to control and guide his small country in the direction he wanted to. With the very noticeable exception of Deng Xiaoping, Lee’s admirers and followers have been unable to follow his lead.

Meanwhile Lee himself became aware of the shortcomings of his model when applied to more complex societies. Where once he had looked at India’s messy politics with a measure of disdain, he began to show some respect for what the world’s largest democracy had accomplished. And he was put off by questions of nepotism – never quite managing to explain why in a meritocracy his children held such powerful governmental positions. When William Safire asked him if his son, Lee Hsien Loong, could have deputy prime minister if he was just an ordinary citizen, Lee wittily replied that he would have been the prime minister instead. The fact that his son was deputy prime minister, he further added, was entirely due to his own merits. It was a clever, but unsatisfying answer.

Even more unsettling was the social unrest that occurred in 2013. Because it was quickly put down and was not repeated, that particular case of rioting was deemed an isolated incident by the authorities – yet it may be a sign that it is not enough for a country to have law and order alone. Singapore’s new leaders may have to deal with new problems, and look with new eyes at old problems. Lee’s reputation is secure, but new leaders will have to add to his achievements and perhaps do things differently. Lee has left behind a monumental legacy, but time does not stand still, and his successors will have to adapt to newer times, problems and circumstances. They have to show themselves to be as flexible and perceptive as he was. Singapore’s success began in an era in which globalization was only beginning. Today, it is a much more potent force. If the dynamics of globalization are correctly understood and harnessed, this force could lead the little city-state to ever greater heights; if not, it could lose its luster as the “next” Singapore emerges, perhaps in the most unexpected of places.

Manish Gyawali is a graduate of Miami University and Kathmandu University. He is a consultant and writer.

World Heading for Financial Crisis Worse Than in 2008 — China’s Dagong Rating Agency Head !

Socio-Economics History Blog

Global financial storm is coming! Global financial storm is coming!

  • World heading for financial crisis worse than in 2008 — China’s Dagong rating agency head! 
    BEIJING, February 4. /TASS/. The world economy may slip into a new global financial crisis in the next few years, China’s Dagong Rating Agency Head Guan Jianzhong said in an interview with TASS news agency on Wednesday.

    “I believe we’ll have to face a new world financial crisis in the next few years. It is difficult to give the exact time but all the signs are present, such as the growing volume of debts and the unsteady development of the economies of the US, the EU, China and some other developing countries,” he said, adding the situation is even worse than ahead of 2008.”

    “The current crisis in Russia is caused by Western countries’ sanctions rather than internal factors. If we look at the US…

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China: The Eclipse of the Politburo
Image Credit: REUTERS/Carlos Barria

China: The Eclipse of the Politburo

It is commonly believed that an incoming General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can enact whatever policies he chooses, so long as the top seven or nine leaders of the PBSC agree. If they do not agree, conventional wisdom presumes, then it is unlikely that the leaders will get much done. Such, at any rate, was the prevailing view at the start of Xi Jinping’s tenure. Analyses published at the time of Xi’s ascension confidently predicted that he would prove weak and achieve little, due to the challenge of gaining consensus among PBSC members of such varying backgrounds. Outcomes starkly at odds with such forecasts have done little to deter experts from making additional assertions following the same logic. It is not hard to find analyses today that claim Xi’s anti-corruption drive is fundamentally a power grab that is alienating fellow PBSC members and thus setting Xi up for long-term failure once his peers turn against him.

Xi may well fail in his reform agenda for a variety of reasons, but lack of consensus in the PBSC will not be the primary driver. The importance of consensus for enacting policy between the top seven leaders who comprise the PBSC is overstated. Consensus remains necessary, at least on the surface, for the most important policy initiatives such as the pursuit of structural and systemic reforms under which the current anti-corruption drive is nestled. In reality, though, PBSC members are increasingly constrained in their ability to undermine or drastically change the general direction of policy. For the overwhelming majority of the country’s policy directives, what really counts is the degree of consensus within the central party bureaucracy, or staff organizations (i.e., the key staff bodies and organizations primarily in the Central Committee, such as the General Office, Central Policy Research Office, Central Party School, Organization Department, etc.) andbetween the same central party staff organizations and the General Secretary. Individuals who seek to anticipate the future trajectory of PRC policy-making would be well served to master the publicly available documents produced by these bureaucracies in support of the General Secretary.

The weakening of the power of individual Politburo Standing Committee members and the growing importance of the relationship between the General Secretary and the central support staff owes partly to Xi’s personal initiative, but primarily to major, long-term changes in the nature of CCP rule. Because the retreat from revolutionary politics has undercut the most compelling argument for party dictatorship, the CCP increasingly bases its legitimacy on the claim to uniquely possess a superior intellectual methodology – its Marxist theory – that alone can ensure sound governance and China’s rejuvenation as a great power, as well as the results generated from this supposedly infallible methodology. In the words of Xi Jinping, the CCP’s political theory is “the only correct theory,” the adherence to which alone enables the party to “unite and lead the people to achieve national rejuvenation.”

While the principle of infallibility has always been a feature of the party’s Leninist nature, the original revolutionary incarnation proved much more amenable to the usurpation of authority by members of the leadership elite. After all, when the logic of a political theory favors revolutionary overthrow, authority can accrue to anyone willing to promote the most radical vision. Indeed, chaos in Maoist China frequently owed to this problem, as competing personalities vied for the mantle of revolutionary authority and thereby drove government policy in the direction of their own political agendas.

The party’s pursuit of a more technocratic style of politics in recent years retains the principle of infallibility, but has also narrowed and restricted its expression. To shore up the impression that its policies are derived from a scientifically rigorous intellectual methodology, CCP must invest as much energy elaborating its “theory system of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” as it does to develop sound policies that meet the needs of its people. Consequently, the most essential individuals and organizations in the CCP are those who can articulate the socialist theory system in a clear, consistent, and “scientific” manner, as well as those who can develop sound policies that promote the party’s objectives in a manner that validates the theory. It should be apparent already that a handful of busy individuals, especially those given extremely broad policy portfolios, lack the time and expertise to carry out this work. The individuals best positioned to meet these needs are those analysts, theorists, staff members, and experts who reside primarily within the permanent organizations of the Central Committee. These individuals collaborate on a continual basis to build the common understanding about China’s situation, develop theory concepts to guide policy, and outline the technical details of policy to shape elite opinion and support senior decision makers. The more effectively these staff organizations do their jobs, the easier it becomes for the Politburo Standing Committee to approve their recommendations and direct the implementation of policy accordingly. As a result, the consensus built by the central party bureaucracy under the supervision of the General Secretary has prevailed, and will likely continue to prevail, in setting the course for the nation’s policies.

Another consequence has been an erosion of the power of individual PBSC members. The increasingly institutionalized nature of the political system requires PBSC leaders and other elite leaders to develop their own teams of theorists, analysts, and policy experts if they are to drive policy in a dramatically different direction. Chinese leaders have shown little inclination to empower individual members of the PBSC to overturn the consensus built by the central support staff under the General Secretary’s direction. The reduction in number of PBSC members from nine to seven, at the start of Xi’s tenure, suggests that even then the pursuit of PBSC-level consensus was increasingly viewed as more of a hindrance than a help to achieving party goals. More dramatically, the case of Zhou Yongkang demonstrates in a vivid fashion just how vulnerable members of the PBSC have become. Overall, the trend in recent years has been towards a strengthening of the General Secretary’s influence, and of the central support staff as the primary instrument of his power. While this consolidation has become most apparent under Xi, in many ways his tenure represents an intensification of trends well under way in the Hu era. The most important of these trends include: 1) an expansion and elevation of the central party bureaucracy’s role in policy making; 2) the systematization of the party’s ideology; and 3) the standardization of the party’s policy making processes. These reforms have generally strengthened the influence of political and technical experts in the central party bureaucracy and constrained the power of individual Politburo Standing Committee leaders.

Expansion and elevation of Central Committee organizations in policy making. Both Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping invested considerable time and resources to strengthen their control of the central support staff. They also expanded and elevated the role of these staffs in the policy making process. The introduction of Politburo study sessions and expanded meetings in the 2002 time frame, for example, provided a regular venue for party experts to coach, mentor, and teach senior leaders, a function managed by the Central Policy Research Office (CPRO) and Central Committee General Office. Under Xi, the CPRO has also been designated the administrator of the Central Reform Office, which manages the all-important Central Leading Group for Deepening Comprehensive Reform, while the General Office administers the National Security Commission. Xi has alsoadded two departments to the CPRO to handle the expansion in responsibility. Similarly, while head of the Central Party School (CPS) for ten years prior to his ascent to General Secretary, Hu oversaw a major expansion of the school. Xi also served for five years as director of CPS prior to his ascent. The CPS has become a principal think tank for the party’s theory work, as well as the premier training ground for senior leaders.

Systematization of party theory. In 2004, Hu oversaw a major overhaul in party ideology to render it more functional and pragmatic, resulting in the theory system of socialism with Chinese characteristics. This multi-year effort systematized the various elements of the party ideology, keeping and refining those elements that could be useful for the new policy agenda and discarding the less useful parts. The end result was a modern ideology better suited to serving the CCP’s needs as a governing party. However, it has also empowered experts in the Central Committee as the resident authorities on how to define and articulate an increasingly technical, systematic, and specialized ideology.

Standardization of party policy making processes. Beginning in 2002, the party saw a great expansion in the numbers and types of CCP rules, policies, and procedures to govern most aspects of party activity, to include recruitment, promotion, evaluation, and decision-making. To support policy making, the 16th Party Congress in 2002 also introduced and standardized a number of strategic objectives (zhanlüe mubiao), major strategic tasks (zhongda zhanlüe renwu), policy documents (such as the annual “Document Number One” for rural reform), and high level training events aimed at forging consensus behind the policy agenda set by the central leadership. The process of drafting key strategy and policy documents, to include Party Congress reports and Plenum decisions, has become increasingly routinized and the work largely led by experts in the central party bureaucracy. Officials of the central party bureaucracy also manage the training and education of cadres to carry out the agenda accordingly. In 2003, for example, central authorities began an annual training seminar for the nation’s provincial and ministerial level leaders in the most important theoretical concepts and policy priorities for the coming year. The increasing standardization of many of the party’s political processes constrains the ability of individual leaders to drive dramatic shifts in policy through informal, behind-the-scenes politicking.

To be clear, much about Chinese politics remains poorly or only semi-institutionalized. Secrecy and behind-the-scenes politicking shroud many of the most sensitive political issues, such as the selection of individual leaders and other matters of elite politics. Nevertheless, a decade of ideological and political reform has resulted in a stronger central party bureaucracy capable of providing the cohesion, vision, and depth of expertise needed to help senior leaders carry out an expanded policy agenda aimed at providing more effective governance and realizing China’s rejuvenation. The relentless promotion of Xi as the most important leader among his peers, and the accretion of power in the hands of Xi through the creation of the National Security Commission and numerous small leading groups to carry out structural reforms, represents the culmination of these trends. The more Xi takes on responsibilities and new powers, after all, the more he depends on the experts, specialists, and officials of the central support staff to prepare and oversee the policies carried out under his direction. The strengthening of the central party bureaucracy has enabled the party to withstand the shocks of the Bo Xilai case, the arrest of senior officials such as Zhou and former CMC vice chair Xu Caihou, and the turmoil generated by the pervasive anti-corruption campaign.

The evolving pattern of politics suggests that the common understanding of the relationship between the General Secretary, PBSC members, and the central support staff needs to be refined. General Secretary Xi and PBSC members continue to provide oversight of all policy work. The PBSC members also play a critical role in handling day-to-day decisions for their respective portfolios. However, the central party bureaucracy, under the General Secretary’s leadership, largely defines the “default” mode of policy through a dense network of mutually reinforcing theory, analysis, and central directives. PBSC members continue to play an important role through participation in the central leading groups, but the precise nature of the interactions remains hidden from view. What is clear is that the consensus forged through all of this activity, manifested most importantly in key policy documents such as speeches by the General Secretary and in Party Congress reports and plenum decisions, plays a decisive role in setting China’s policy agenda. Analysis of such documents will therefore likely continue to provide the most reliable insights into future trends of PRC policy.

Ironically, just when the study of Chinese official documents, political processes, and ideology produced by the central party bureaucracy was becoming increasingly essential to understanding PRC politics, much of the China watching community turned its attention elsewhere. The prevailing mode of analysis remains focused on the personal networks, factions, interest groups, “princeling” connections, and individual backgrounds of PBSC members. Such research has provided fascinating insight into the dynamics of elite politics and reaffirmed the importance of personal networks in PRC politics. But this mode of analysis has provided little useful insight regarding the prospects for Chinese policy. Meanwhile, the few articles that have attempted to tackle key PRC policy documents merely demonstrate how much the study of such sources has deteriorated. One analysis published in 2012 dismissed analysis of Party Congress reports as a waste of time, asserting that such events serve as little more than an exercise in “tedious sloganeering” and in “pumping up the party faithful.” It concluded that observers would “need to look elsewhere” for clues as to the Xi administration’s likely policy agenda. Tellingly, the article offered no suggestion as to where that superior source of insight might lie.

No better source has emerged. To more effectively anticipate policy developments, observers should deepen their study of the analysis, theory, and policy documents produced by the central support staff and frequently issued under Xi’s name. The good news is that many of the most relevant and useful documents are widely available on the Internet. With careful study and mastery of these sources, analysts have within their grasp the means to better understand PRC intentions regarding strategy and policy.

Tim Heath is a senior defense and international analyst at the RAND Corporation. He has over fifteen years of experience as a China specialist and is the author of the book, China’s New Governing Party Paradigm: Political Renewal and the Pursuit of National Rejuvenation, published by Ashgate (2014). This article was first posted in the Sinocism newsletter.

China, Japan, and the 21 Demands
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

China, Japan, and the 21 Demands

Compared with the high-profile national Memorial Day for the Nanjing Massacre last month, the date January 18 passed uneventfully. Chinese media appeared to have forgotten that one hundred years ago, on exactly that day, Japan presented Chinese President Yuan Shikai (Yuan Shih-Kai) with requests that would have turned China into a de facto Japanese protectorate.

The Japanese requests included five groups of secret demands that became known as the Twenty-One Demands. Groups One and Two were designed to confirm Japan’s dominant position in Shandong, southern Manchuria, and eastern Inner Mongolia. Group Three would acknowledge Japan’s special interests in an industrial complex in central China. Group Four forbade China from giving any further coastal or island concessions to foreign powers except for Japan. The most outrageous was Group Five. Group Five required China to install Japanese advisors who could take effective control of Chinese government, economy, and military. These demands would have had a similar impact to that of what the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty had on Korea in 1910.

These notorious demands were issued at a time of shifting balance of power in East Asia. With the Qing dynasty’s humiliating defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), regional dominance for the first time had moved from China to Japan. Japan’s ambitions in China were further emboldened by its decisive victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), which affirmed the Japanese presence in south Manchuria and Korea. The 1911 Revolution brought an end to the Qing dynasty and ushered in the Republican era in China, but China remained a pushover in the face of pressure from Western powers. Furthermore, Yuan’s ruling status itself was shaky due to threats from competing local warlords. World War I granted Japan a perfect opportunity to push the envelope even more with China. As the war was underway in Europe, the Japanese hoped that other major powers would show little interest in countering Japanese expansion in China. For these reasons, Japanese Foreign Minister Kato Takaaki was convinced that the filing of an ultimatum buttressed by the war threat would cause China to accept all the demands.

Fully aware of the negative reaction the demands would cause, Japan asked China to keep them confidential and threatened to take “drastic actions” if they were leaked. Contrary to the popular Chinese image of Yuan being a traitor, archived history suggests that Yuan and his top associates worked hard to minimize the harms caused to China’s sovereignty by the Twenty-One Demands. Soon after studying the Japanese request, Yuan instructed top Chinese diplomats that by no means should China submit to the demands of Group Five. Headed by then Foreign Minister Lou Tseng-Tsiang, the Chinese negotiators sought to stall the negotiation process for as long as possible. Between February 2 and April 17, twenty-five rounds of negotiations were held. Disregarding the Japanese threat, Yuan had his political advisor leak the full contents of the Twenty-One Demands to a correspondent for the Times in Beijing, who then reported them on February 12. In seeking international support, Yuan also relied on the traditional Chinese strategy of playing one power against another (yi yi zhi yi). He hoped that a perceived threat to European and U.S. political and economic interests in China would lead them to constrain Japan’s aggressiveness. Although the United States continued with a low-risk strategy in China, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan warned that the United States would not recognize infringements on Chinese sovereignty and the Open Door policy. As author Bertram Lenox Putnam Weale documented in the book An Indiscreet Chronicle from the Pacific, the possible intervention of Great Britain and the United States was indeed a concern for Japan in deliberating what final steps to take on May 6. In addition, Yuan also sought to affect Japanese domestic politics by mobilizing the support of Genro, who were angered by the government’s failure to consult them before drawing up the demands. As the negotiations evolved into an inevitable crisis at the end of April, the open opposition of elder statesmen like Matsukata played a decisive role in forcing the Japanese government to drop the demands of Group Five in the ultimatum delivered to China on May 7.

Not surprisingly, Yuan, who had no intention of risking war with Japan, accepted the ultimatum on May 9. The final form of the treaty was signed on May 25, 1915. With the removal of the most odious provision, however, the new treaty gave Japan no more than what it already had in China. Yuan, whose credibility and popularity as a leader was further weakened as a result of his appeasement policy, viewed accepting the treaty as a “terrible shame” (qichi daru) and made May 9 China’s National Humiliation Day. The Twenty-One Demands nurtured a considerable amount of public ill-will towards Japan, and the upsurge in nationalism is still deeply felt today in China’s handling of Sino-Japanese relations.

To be sure, times have changed. This time, the pendulum of power is swinging in China’s favor. Given the ongoing territorial disputes in East Asia, the episode that occurred exactly one century ago can still provide critical insights into how a rising regional hegemon like China should behave, and how less powerful states could play the power game to better protect their national interests.

Yanzhong Huang is Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations. This post appears courtesy of and Forbes Asia.

The Dragon’s Eyes and Ears: Chinese Intelligence at the Crossroads

The MSS has lost several of its vice ministers to spy scandals and the ever-widening net of President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. What happens next?

January 20, 2015

A little over a week ago, Hong Kong media reported and, on January 16,Beijing confirmed investigators had detained Chinese Ministry of State Security Vice Minister Ma Jian as part of China’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign. While Ma’s detention gives Xi Jinping and political analysts the opportunity to boast, his dismissal from the Ministry of State Security (MSS) opens a void at the top of China’s civilian intelligence service. Ma is the third vice minister to be shown the door in recent years, and each could have succeeded Geng Huichang, the current Minister of State Security, who is due to retire in the next two to three years. With an open playing field, the choices made by Xi Jinping and his colleagues will go a long way toward deciding the future of Chinese intelligence.

The MSS has lost its vice ministers to spy scandals and the ever-widening net of President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign that is sweeping up the debris of former security chief Zhou Yongkang’s network. In 2012, under President Hu Jintao, Executive Vice Minister Lu Zhongwei was disciplined and retired early because one of his close aides reportedly spied for a foreign government. Like the current minister, Lu had worked his way up the MSS ranks in the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations—one of China’s most prestigious international affairs think tanks and staffed entirely by MSS officers. While Lu may only be the second CICIR analyst to rise to the vice-ministerial ranks, he followed a typical MSS pattern of a headquarters bureau director taking the helm of one of the provincial departments, in this case the Tianjin State Security Bureau, prior to being promoted to the front office.

The next vice minister to fall was Qiu Jin, a counterintelligence/counterespionage specialist, who was one of the first victims of Zhou’s disintegrating patronage network. Qiu probably is best known outside of China for his role in escorting would-be defector and Bo Xilai sidekick Wang Lijun from the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu back to Beijing. Earlier in his career, Qiu reportedly directed the MSS headquarters counterespionage investigations bureau and the marquee provincial unit for counterespionage, the Beijing State Security Bureau. His crimes reportedly included directing an associate, Beijing State Security Bureau Director Liang Ke, to clandestinely monitor senior Chinese leaders.

A thirty-plus year veteran of intelligence operations, Ma Jian, the latest intelligence official caught in Xi’s anti-corruption web, most recently served as executive vice minister, presumably claiming the position after Lu left the service, and once was regarded as a strong candidate to succeed Minister Geng. Ma also probably took over Qiu Jin’s counterintelligence portfolio after the latter’s ouster this time last year. Vice Minister Ma had been a key player in Chinese event security, including the Asian Games in Guangzhou in 2010 and probably the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Ma did not commit any obvious crime; however, it appears he was guilty of assisting family members in their business dealings and presumably exploited his MSS position to do so. He is also believed to be close to Ling Jihua, Hu Jintao’s former top aide, who was himself detained last month.

The current MSS chief, Geng Huichang, ascended to the position in August 2007 as a scandal forced a ministerial shakeup ahead of the 17th Party Congress and routine ministerial changes due at the 2008 session of the National People’s Congress. Geng will turn 64 this year, leaving only a short time before he is due for mandatory retirement. He was the first minister selected with a foreign affairs background; however, he still reflected the tendency to choose a politically-neutral or weak minister who could not become a political force of his own or be used as a cat’s paw in leadership struggles.

With three potential candidates ousted from the ministry, the question is who is left to replace Geng? This is a difficult question as the leadership lists remain mostly hidden from public view. Only the minister and the provincial-level department directors are officially listed. With Lu, Ma, and Qiu gone, the only publicly-identified vice ministers unaccounted for are Sun Yonghai and Dong Haizhou.

Sun is listed online as a special member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and MSS vice minister. Apart from him potentially masquerading under a pseudonym as a leader of various cultural and academic exchange organizations—suggesting a foreign intelligence focus like Geng—even less is known about Sun than Ma Jian. According to his CPPCC profile, Sun was born in 1953 and internet sources suggest he became a vice minister in 2006. Other online sources suggest Sun headed the MSS Fifth Bureau, which handles intelligence source reporting and requirements.

Like his colleagues, Dong Haizhou has a low profile with public references to his CPPCC membership and a handful of Xinhua references. The top milestones of Dong’s career include his assignment as director of the Tianjin State Security Bureau in the late 1990s and his rumored ascent to the MSS party committee in 2005 followed by his promotion to vice minister in 2006.

Sun and Dong are the only two professional choices to succeed GengHuichang, unless the leadership brings someone over from military intelligence. The losses of Lu, Ma, and Qiu leave a gaping hole of experience at the top of the ministry, as they served in the MSS front office for several years.

Below are a few of the considerations that the Chinese leadership will need to consider when choosing the next minister of state security and possibly filling in the vice minister vacancies. The choices made by Xi Jinping and China’s other leaders about MSS leadership will provide a window into the politics of Chinese intelligence and what Beijing expects from its principal intelligence service.

·      Professional or Political? In a country governed by a Leninist party-state, professional versus political seems like a foregone conclusion. The history of Chinese intelligence, however, has demonstrated a consistent tension between professionally-minded intelligence officers, such as Li Kenong, Pan Hannian, and Xiong Xianghui, and those who wielded the intelligence service as a tool for state terror, such as Kang Sheng, Luo Ruiqing, and Wang Dongxing. The Chinese news coverage of the MSS’s creation in 1983 suggests that, even if the ministry may not have a professionalized approach to intelligence, it least aims to be an apolitical organization outside leadership politicking. Although Xi Jinping seems committed to reining in excesses, he could try place his own man in charge of the ministry when the time comes. If Xi can bring the MSS under his control, then he would provide a tangible demonstration of his authority vis-à-vis his peers.

·      Political Power or Neutrality/Weakness? The minister of state security is the only MSS official on the party’s Central Committee, placing it at a bureaucratic disadvantage with its principal competitor, the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), which usually places numerous officials on the Central Committee (probably by virtue of their party careers outside law enforcement). There have even been times when no MSS official was represented on the Central Committee; Geng’s predecessor, Xu Yongyue, languished as only an alternate member for a number of years. The cost of raising the political clout of MSS leadership, however, risks making the ministry a “normal” part of Chinese politics and encouraging meddling of the kind that got Qiu Jin and Liang Ke dismissed.

·      External or Internal? MSS history and organization favor a leadership selection based on internal security or counterespionage expertise. Because of the MSS organizational structure that gives local governments’ influence over their operations through the Political-Legal Affairs Committee system, internal stability and counterespionage take priority over foreign intelligence operations that only benefit the central government. An externally-focused pick, nevertheless, may make sense for the MSS. The current minister is the first who had foreign affairs expertise, and he arrived on the scene as the People’s Liberation Army was redirecting its intelligence apparatus away from policymaker support and toward operational military requirements. Simultaneously, the Ministry of Public Security appears to be regaining its important domestic intelligence role, which was passed to the newly-formed MSS in 1983, driven in part by investment in public surveillance. An external focus across the ministry would move the MSS into an increasingly open bureaucratic space for policymaker support.

·      Human or Technical? The MSS has long focused on human intelligence (HUMINT); however, the growing role of cyber in China’s intelligence collection as well as the ministry’s role in key cybersecurity and informatization leading groups suggests the MSS needs at least one person in the senior ranks with technical expertise as well as the gravitas that comes from being in the front office.

Peter Mattis is a Fellow with The Jamestown Foundation and a visiting scholar at National Cheng-chi University’s Institute of International Relations in Taipei.

Image: Flickr/Ana Paula Hirama

The Spies Are Coming! The Spies Are Coming to Taiwan!
Image Credit: Photo of a Taiwan Air Force pilot by J. Michael Cole for The Diplomat

The Spies Are Coming! The Spies Are Coming to Taiwan!

The optics couldn’t be worse — four Taiwanese military officers, including an Air Force pilot, a lieutenant colonel and a former Army major general, indicted on charges of belonging to a spy ring led by a Chinese intelligence officer. Oh, and the owner of a karaoke club, to boot. The January 16 indictments, which follow the arrest in September last year of Zhen Xiaojiang, the Chinese handler who was also indicted, are but the latest in a string of arrests on espionage charges in recent years. 15 cases were uncovered in 2014 alone. Has the Taiwanese security apparatus been completely penetrated by Chinese spies, as some analysts have been arguing?

Maybe, but the extent to which systems and people have been compromised is anyone’s guess. The People’s Liberation Army is particularly interested in establishing a complete picture of Taiwan’s C4ISR architecture, radar and air defense systems, as well as war preparedness plans, a focus that has been confirmed through the string of arrests over the years, including the latest case. Despite warming ties between Taiwan and China since 2008, espionage efforts against the island-nation never abated; in fact, substantially increased contact between the two sides created a wealth of opportunities for intelligence collection and source recruitment by China.

The PLA’s rationale for stealing secrets from Taiwan is self-evident: Beijing does not recognize the existence of Taiwan as a sovereign state and regards it instead as a province awaiting “re-unification,” by force if necessary. Despite views to the contrary, Taiwan remains a so-called “core interest” of Beijing, and President Xi Jinping has stated that he hopes to resolve the Taiwan “issue” during his term. It goes without saying that if force were used to resolve the “issue” — that is, preventing a permanent state of division through the de jure independence of Taiwan — the Chinese military would seek to exploit the weaknesses in Taiwan’s defense establishment. To be able to do so, it must gather intelligence, recruit agents, and have sources in the many agencies that would play a role in a military contingency.

So of course Taiwan has a serious spy problem on its hands! It was, is, and will remain an intelligence priority for the Chinese.

However, damage assessments in the wake of a Chinese op should not be limited to the information that was, or may have been, stolen. Just as important are the propagandistic aspects of Chinese intelligence gathering, which are felt not when agents access classified information, but rather when they are caught and their activities are exposed.

For all the bluster, Beijing would much rather “win” Taiwan without having to fire a shot in anger. War is a messy adventure and its outcomes are unpredictable. Even if the PLA had the ability to prosecute a “quick and clean” war over Taiwan, which is by no means certain, the consequences would be dire for China, both in terms of the human cost and the blow to China’s image internationally. Better, then, to win without a fight, a strategy that certainly isn’t alien to Chinese culture.

Ironically, most defense analysts in Taiwan and abroad do not seem to be all that interested in understanding the propaganda component of China’s offensive operations against Taiwan. Through propaganda, Beijing aims to undermine Taipei’s image, further isolate Taiwan within the international community, and destroy morale in Taiwan. Consequently, whenever an espionage case is brought to light — regardless of the seriousness or nature of the incident — it tends to reinforce the notion that Taiwan is crawling with Chinese spies and therefore cannot be trusted with secrets or advanced military technology. The ramifications for intelligence sharing and arms sales to Taipei can be serious. Even careless operations in which agents are likely to be exposed can yield propaganda benefits for Beijing by damaging Taiwan’s reputation as a reliable security partner. In some cases, being caught could very well be the main goal of an intelligence operation!

Worse, Beijing’s propaganda ops broadcast the belief that Taiwanese can simply be “bought,” a view that simply doesn’t stand scrutiny. Western media have sometimes irresponsibly helped create that impression. For example, in an otherwise fine (if somewhat pessimistic) piece, Defense News writes, “The joke among many government officials in Beijing, according to media reports, is that it will be easier to buy Taiwan than invade it.” Unfortunately, the author doesn’t tell us which media reports he is referring to, or who the government officials are, not to mention whether they are qualified to discuss the matter or what their motivations might be for doing so.

The spy problem puts Taiwanese counterintelligence in a difficult position, as successful operations, especially when they are made public, exacerbate perceptions of Taiwan as drywood infested with termites. During the détente period of President Ma Ying-jeou’s reign, the military tended to downplay the seriousness of the Chinese espionage problem, or punished those who, like this author, sought to draw attention to the problem. Politics then dictated that the negative aspects of the relationship, such as continued Chinese belligerence, should be papered over in order to ensure continued dialogue, President Ma’s main consideration. Top-down intervention was rampant, and agencies were instructed to remain silent on Chinese aggression. As a result, intensifying Chinese espionage (and military buildup) against Taiwan was relatively cost-free for Beijing: The consequences of exposure were next to nil, and rapprochement continued as if nothing had happened.

However, relations soured in early 2014, by which time Beijing had lost patience with Ma over his “inability” to meet its timelines (for all his faults, President Ma has to deal with a democracy). Accordingly, Taipei reciprocated by taking a tougher line on China. Electoral considerations, growing apprehensions about China’s intentions in part due to the Sunflower Movement, and the need to appear strong on national security compelled the government to become more vocal on the China threat. Suddenly the National Security Bureau (NSB), the island’s civilian spy agency, was less reluctant to point fingers at China, and the government didn’t intimidate journalists who presented an overly pessimistic picture of the spy situation.

Ma, who is widely regarded as the architect of Taipei’s “pro-China” policies since 2008, stepped down as chairman of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) following his party’s disastrous performance in the November 29 “nine-in-one” elections.” The presidential election next year will likely force the KMT to distance itself from the embattled president, and the party’s candidate (Ma cannot run for a third consecutive term) will be tempted to adopt a more Taiwan-centric position to increase his or her appeal with the majority of Taiwanese. Taipei could therefore conceivably become more openly critical of China and more willing to expose Beijing’s bad behavior.

So we should not be surprised if more spy cases come to light in the coming months. However, in order to fully understand the severity of the situation, we must look beyond the secrets that were potentially leaked and take into consideration the propaganda value of an intelligence operation — both the costs of exposure and Beijing’s motives for launching an op in the first place. In other words, while we should regard Taiwan’s spy problem as a serious issue, we must not overstate the matter: China might be attempting to make it look worse than it actually is.

The Decline of China’s Princeling Generals

The recent appointment of Lieutenant General Zhou Xiaozhou as deputy commander of the Chengdu Military Region has been widely regarded as a sign of the rise of princeling generals in Chinese politics.

The son of Lieutenant General Zhou Yibing, former commander of the Beijing Military Region (from November 1987 to April 1990), Zhou Xiaozhou, aged 58, began his military career in 1973 and worked in the 27th Army and 14th Army before his promotion to chief of staff in the Chengdu Military Region in 2012. He was awarded the rank of lieutenant general in 2013 and appointed deputy commander of the Chengdu Military Region in December 2014.

One may also note that Lieutenant General Wang Ning, aged 59, the new commander of the People’s Armed Police, has also come from a military family. His father was an officer of the deputy army commander rank in the Nanjing Military Region; his uncle, General Gu Hui, was commander of the Nanjing Military Region in the 1990s; and his father-in-law, Lieutenant General Du Ping, was No. 7 political commissar of the same military region in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s.

Strictly speaking, these cases belong to different categories of princeling generals. Zhou Xiaozhou is a typical example of princeling generals by birth — sons and daughters of former high ranking officers/officials of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Wang Ning represents princeling generals by marriage — sons-in-law and daughters-in-law of former high ranking officers/officials of the CCP.

In the former category, one may also find other princeling generals such as General Zhang Youxia, director of the General Armaments Department; General Ma Xiaotian, commander of the PLA Air Force; Admiral Wu Shengli, commander of the PLA Navy; and General Liu Yuan, political commissar of the General Logistics Department. In the latter category, one may also find other princeling generals such as General Liu Yazhou, political commissar of the National Defense University.

Taken together as one group, however, princeling generals have been in decline in Chinese politics. Since 1994 when the first military princeling was awarded the rank of general, nine of them (including six princeling generals by birth and three by marriage) have been promoted to this rank. At the beginning of 2015, however, there were only five princelings with the rank of general left. Four of them (Zhang Youxia, Wu Shengli, Ma Xiatian, and Liu Yuan) are princeling generals by birth, and one (Liu Yazhou) is by marriage.

But Liu Yuan is likely to retire in 2016 at the age of 65; Liu Yazhou, Wu Shengli, and Ma Xiaotian are also likely to retire in 2017 due to their age. Only Zhang Youxia would stay on beyond the 19th Party Congress in 2017.

Hence, despite some recent promotions, we are actually seeing the decline of princeling generals in Chinese politics.

Professor BO Zhiyue, a leading authority on Chinese elite politics in the world, will take up an appointment in January 2015 as Director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre (NZCCRC) and Professor of Political Science at Victoria University of Wellington. The only nation-wide research center on contemporary China in the world, NZCCRC aims to be a global leader in knowledge generation and knowledge sharing on political, economic, and social life of contemporary China among tertiary institutions, business sector, and policy community for the benefit of New Zealand. Based in Victoria University of Wellington, the Centre has seven member universities: Victoria University of Wellington, the University of Auckland, Auckland University of Technology, the University of Canterbury, the University of Otago, the University of Waikato, and Lincoln University.

China Just Doubled the Size of Its Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Divisions
People’s Liberation Army (Navy) Marines
Image Credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Corporal J.J. Harper

China Just Doubled the Size of Its Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Divisions


According to media reports China will double the number of its Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Divisions (AMID) from two to four. Initially, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fielded two AMIDs, one stationed in Guangzhou, the other in the Nanjing Military Region, with a total number of about 30,000 men. Now total manpower in the AMIDs will be around 52,000 – 60,000. These new amphibious forces are meant to complement the roughly 20,000 strong elite PLA Marine Corps in future conflicts over the East and South China seas as well as Taiwan, although the PLA Marine Corps and the AMIDs still lack a joint command system.

In comparison to the PLA Marine Corps, the AMIDs are mostly suitable for conventional large-scale amphibious assaults, such as would occur in a full-scale invasion of Taiwan. However, as a report by the U.S. Department of Defense on military and security developments in China notes: “Large-scale amphibious invasion is one of the most complicated and difficult military operations the PLA might pursue in a cross Strait contingency. Success would depend upon air and sea superiority, rapid buildup and sustainment of supplies on shore, and uninterrupted support. An attempt to invade Taiwan would strain China’s armed forces and invite international intervention …. China does not appear to be building the conventional amphibious lift required to support such a campaign.”

The report continues:

“The PLA is capable of accomplishing various amphibious operations short of a full-scale invasion of Taiwan. With few overt military preparations beyond routine training, China could launch an invasion of small Taiwan-held islands in the South China Sea such as Pratas or Itu Aba. A PLA invasion of a medium-sized, better defended offshore island such as Matsu or Jinmen is within China’s capabilities.”

Thus, for now Taiwan appears to have little to fear from this nascent force. China simply cannot transport the AMIDs across the Taiwan Strait. Each of the four divisions is equipped with up to 300 armored and amphibious transport vehicles – the majority of which are of the ZBD05/ZLT05 type. However, these amphibious vehicles cannot traverse large stretches of water by themselves. Consequently, China will have to rely on its fleet of amphibious warfare ships such as the new Type 071 (Yuzhao-class) transports of which it is currently building two, with three completed and six more planned.

According to open source information, the Type 071 ships can carry between 15-20 armored vehicles and 500 -800 troops (some reports also indicate that China is building an even bigger class of amphibious assault ships). China also operates older and smaller landing ships of the Type 072II-class landing ships, as well as the even older Type 072-class landing vessels. All of these ships combined would currently not be able to transport and re-supply a single AMID along with support elements across waters. (A Taiwanese military intelligence assessment quoted in the 2010 U.S. Department of Defense report to Congress appears to have been wrong.)

It should be noted that the capability to transport a large conventional force is not required for the majority of China’s naval operations. However, in the special case of a full-scale conventional invasion of Taiwan, where there will be only a small time window before China would face massive retaliation by the United States, this capability may very well be required.

China’s $1 Trillion Investment Plan: Stimulus or Not?


With China’s growth slowing down, Beijing will approve 300 infrastructure projects worth a total of 7 trillion RMB ($1.1 trillion) for 2015, Bloombergreports. The decision has not yet been publicly announced by the Chinese government or Chinese media.  The move is linked to a larger plan that will see 10 trillion RMB ($1.6 trillion) pumped into China’s economy by 2016. According to Bloomberg’s sources, the investment will center on “seven industries including oil and gas pipelines, health, clean energy, transportation and mining.”

The report hints that economic rebalancing still faces an uphill challenge in China, despite vocal support from top leadership. China has been extremely reliant on government investment as a driver of growth ever since 2008, when Beijing launched a massive stimulus program to compensate for a decline in global trade. With investment levels at nearly half China’s GDP, Beijing’s economy is “the most investment-dependent in history,”Financial Times notes. This strategy has also resulted in a massive amount of government debt, particularly at the local level.

Beijing recognizes these long-term concerns and plans to promote domestic consumption as a pillar of growth while easing off on investment. But as this new announcement indicates, domestic consumption simply isn’t robust enough to support growth at a level China’s leaders are comfortable with. China’s growth is widely expected to slow to 7 percent or even lower in 2015. While the Chinese government has repeatedly attempted to de-emphasize hard GDP growth targets in favor of promoting stable and efficient growth, concerns about employment and income still make Beijing incredibly nervous about overly slow growth. In July 2014, PremierLi Keqiang noted that China must keep its growth within a “reasonable range.”

When growth threatens to dip below that threshold, it sparks a return to the comfortable and familiar method of jump-starting growth through government investment. China will continue to be reliant on government-funded infrastructure development in the short term even as it seeks to change its long-term economic drivers.

Last year, between October 16 and November 5 alone, China greenlit 21 new investment projects worth $112 billion. At the time, Chinese state media described the decisions as a way “to hedge against falling investment in the real estate market.” Chinese experts predicted further infrastructure investment as a way of compensating for a sagging real estate market; the measures reported by Bloomberg fulfill that prophecy.

Still, experts caution this does not signal a return to the stimulus era of 2008. Nicholas Consonery of the Eurasia Group predicts that the $1 trillion-plus investment package “will not mark a significant trajectory change in terms of Beijing’s determination to use fiscal stimulus to boost growth.” Instead, it’s a “public messaging strategy,” which lumps together pre-existing projects to get to a eye-catching number that helps boost confidence in China’s economy. In general, Consonery writes, “we do not expect Beijing to use aggressive fiscal stimulus to push growth above a 6.5-7 percent level in the year ahead.”

Lian Ping, the chief economic with China’s Bank of Communications, seems to agree. Lian told Xinhua in November that the spate of new infrastructure projects “should be deemed reasonable investment and non-stimulus on a massive scale,” as the projects are “quite necessary” in addition to being important economically.

Infrastructure investments are especially crucial for China’s central and western regions, where development lags behind the wealthier coastal areas. In November, reports emerged that China would earmark $16.3 billion especially for infrastructure development in those areas, part of the groundwork for the planned Silk Road Economic Belt. China Daily reported that the fund “will be used to build and expand railways, roads and pipelines in Chinese provinces” along the planned Silk Road route.

Internationally, the Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road projects, which also require massive infrastructure development, represent another chance to jump-start China’s economy. At the 2014 APEC summit, President Xi Jinping announced the set-up of a $40 billion Silk Road fund to finance infrastructure projects. Much of that money will go to fund Chinese-led projects in other countries. As a recent Xinhua articlepointed out, for example, China is currently discussing high-speed railway projects with 28 separate countries.

China’s “one belt, one road” project offers opportunities for more than just Chinese infrastructure and investment firms. The completed trade route would open up new markets for Chinese goods in Southeast, South, and Central Asia, and beyond — even in the Middle East and Europe if all goes as planned. If implemented completely, China’s “Marshall Plan” will also be a major boon to Chinese companies.

That brings us back to China’s $1 trillion infrastructure investment plan. Beijing has made clear that the first step in creating the new “Silk Road” is to literally create roads – and railways, ports, pipelines, and the other necessities that make up an inter-connected region. While the international aspect of this strategy receives the lion’s share of the attention, China will also need to pump billions into its domestic infrastructure, particularly if under-developed provinces like Xinjiang are to take up their envisioned role as China’s “gateway to the West.”

In other words, the Bloomberg announcement shouldn’t be read only as China’s latest stimulus package. The economic ramifications are obvious, but it also ties in closely with China’s overall development and even foreign policy goals.

Is China’s Cyberwar Capacity More Backward Than We Think?


In a lecture on January 7 in Beijing, a senior PLA officer and professor at the PLA National Defense University called on “PLA troops to enhance their capability of winning informationalized warfare,” according to an article on the Chinese Ministry of Defense website. The article goes on to summarize the lecturer’s principle point: “Zhu Chenghu said the future war will be information-based local wars, featuring unprecedentedly high levels of intelligence. As a result, there will be no concept of front or rear. Space, air, sea, ground, cyberspace, and even electromagnetic pulse space can be the target to strike. The information security will become the most vulnerable area for China.”

This is nothing new. Many senior Chinese officers have repeatedly emphasized the need to bolster the country’s cyber capabilities, since they provide some asymmetric compensation at a comparatively low cost for the relative backwardness of the Chinese military vis-à-vis the U.S. military and its regional allies.

Despite many reported successes in cyber espionage, the PLA is a latecomer when it comes to applying information technology to broad military use. China has never issued a formal cyber warfare strategy document. At the 16th Party Congress in 2002, then General Secretary Jiang Zemin announced that the PLA’s future mission will be to persevere in “local wars under informationized conditions” by 2050. This strategic guidance set in motion a timetable of modernization with the end result of a total “informatization” of the PLA by 2050. In a speech back in November 2012, former Chinese president Hu Jianto stated that by 2020 China should have made “major progress in full military IT application.”

However, as I have pointed out elsewhere, China will need to overcome a number of challenges before it can be considered a first-rate military power in cyberspace.  For example, Chinese technical institutes and universities still cannot compete with the United States in the highly specialized areas that support cyber warfare. On a micro level, Chinese specialists can compete with their Western analogs, but postgraduate training for military personnel in cyber-related spheres is not as good as it is in the United States.

The PLA also has other competing military priorities, such as the mechanization of the army, modernizing the air force and deploying a more robust navy. More importantly, the private sector capacity in China – the true center of gravity in any cyber conflict – is inferior to the highly sophisticated U.S. private sector’s capacity to support cyber war operations (e.g., training future cyber warriors).

In addition, there are cultural issues within the PLA that will hamper progress such as the well-known strong “single-service silo” culture with little information sharing between services, which only amplifies the also well-known aversion of the Chinese military bureaucracy to change. Also, China, according to a former intelligence operator I spoke with, is still relatively weak in global intelligence collection – especially human intelligence, which is problematic for advanced military operations in cyberspace since they require intelligence collection from diverse sources in order to be successful. Insiders believe that China’s efforts on this front are neither as comprehensive nor as successful as those of the United States.

The False Hope of Chinese Economic Rebalancing

“The widely held view that the Chinese economy is headed for an explosion in consumer demand is flawed…”

January 7, 2015

There is a line of thinking among foreign economists and financial analysts that China is in the midst of a change in direction known generically as “rebalancing,” this based upon statements made by Chinese leaders about emphasizing stronger consumption after years of investment-led growth. We described the wasteful and unsustainable investment strategy embraced by Beijing in July 2014 here in these digital pages: The Beijing Bubble: Will China’s Housing Addiction Damage the Global Economy?

The alleged move by China involves “a reliance on investment and exports for growth to one where consumption and markets play a bigger role,” Bloomberg News reports. “Economists and analysts are watching seven areas for quickening policy change that could bolster economic restructuring in 2015. They include a pickup in domestic demand, cheaper oil, energy-pricing reforms, improved welfare cover and a wave of privatizations.” Were that it were so.

Venerated Western observers such as Stephen Roach, former chief economist at Morgan Stanley, state emphatically that China’s shift to consumption-led growth is part of a dramatic change that will offer “fantastic opportunity” to the developed world. Such views of China reflect the Western dualism between political and economic activities, something that China has still yet to embrace. As an old China hand observed to me years ago, there is no division between Church and State in China, there is only the state.

The widely held view that the Chinese economy is headed for an explosion in consumer demand is flawed in several respects. First, it reflects a tendency on the part of foreign analysts to believe that China’s leaders wish to push the country towards a more open, Western-style form of political economy where consumers exercise choice. Second, and more significant, it reflects a sort of wishful thinking that an increase in consumption and, particularly, Western-style consumerism in China will help to improve the overall outlook for corporate profits and world economic growth. And thirdly, it assumes that China’s rulers can make its people increase consumption in the same way that Beijing uses public-sector expenditures to boost the construction of transportation, housing and whole cities.

China is nothing if not a nation of sharp contrasts, many of which are in open conflict with the false image of the country held in the minds of most Western observers. For example, despite the many changes that have occurred in China, Beijing remains firmly in control over the country’s economy, what Orville Schell of the Asia Society in New York describes as “Leninist capitalism.” Indeed, since the rise of Mao Zedong and the Communist Party in 1949, politics and economics in China have been unified into a single state religion. The heroic role of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always been tightly bound to a politically deterministic view focused on the idea that the world inexorably is moving towards communism, an argument that justifies the CCP’s monopoly on power and the acts of repression required to maintain the party’s “leading role.”

As Mao led his 600 million countrymen through disasters such as the Great Leap Famine and the Cultural Revolution, the control of the CCP over both China’s economy and its political life was total and it remains so today. Since the death of Mao, periods of “liberalization” have been followed by a reassertion of state hegemony, as in the case of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The CCP leadership understands that losing control over the political and economic life of China will ultimately spell their personal doom. Thus today, even as Western analysts predict economic opening led by consumers, China is seeing a resurgence of Marxist orthodoxy.

The fact of continued CCP control over China’s economy, especially the financial system and major industries, largely precludes precisely the type of free-market economic evolution that Western analysts are so fond of predicting. And at the same time, the fact of state control over the political economy does not necessarily translate into the ability to cause Chinese consumers to increase consumption.

Perhaps this is one reason why the long-awaited surge in consumer demand has yet to materialize and, indeed, retail activity in China has been falling for the past year.

China Beige Book (CBB), one of the few independent sources of information on the Chinese economy, reports in its Q4 2014 survey that the economy has stabilized after reaching a near-term low in the second quarter of last year. But the national survey published by CBB strongly refutes the idea that China is experiencing a consumer-led boom:

While services led this quarter and manufacturing held up, retail weakened for the fourth straight quarter. This complicates the rebalancing story, since rebalancing toward services is occurring but rebalancing toward consumption is not. Other aspects of rebalancing appear fleeting: Export orders picked up more than domestic orders in Q4, reflecting stronger demand abroad than from business and consumers back home. Property is also sending mixed signals, with a collapse in construction partially obscured by better performance in realty.

What CBB suggests is that while China is not following the script regarding increase consumption mandated by Beijing (and parroted by many foreign analysts), China is in fact experiencing the very same deflationary pressures that are causing weak retail and consumer activity around the world. CBB notes that:

Our finding of no 2014 deflation will likely be challenged in 2015. There has been continuous disinflation since the first quarter of 2013, with sales prices, wages, and input costs still increasing, but more slowly. While outright deflation has not set in, the impact of the collapse of crude oil prices has yet to be felt. Deflationary concerns are now justified.

While many foreign analysts are heralding the emergence of a consumer society in China, the deflationary bias affecting the entire global economy is causing China’s businesses and individuals alike to be very cautious about spending. Indeed, when you look through the incredible claims of annual GDP growth published by official government agencies and consider the underlying fragility of the Chinese economy, worries about deflation and credit problems in Chinese banks ought to be paramount. But instead foreign analysts proclaim a degree of confidence regarding China’s economic prospects that are even more effusive than the most optimistic government statistics.

One of the most telling indicators of the fragile stability of the Chinese economy is the tendency of many of the nation’s most powerful and wealthy citizens to immigrate. Wealthy business leaders and government officials have been sending their children overseas in droves, hardly a vote of confidence in the solidity of China’s economic future. Capital flight is one reason for this human exodus from a nation that, if you believe the official statistics, is the fastest-growing economy on earth. But most fundamentally, notes ProfessorPerry Link of the University of California at Riverside:

[L]egal émigré status is an insurance policy against an unpredictable future in China: life in the West offers a feeling of security that life in China, despite government expenditures of hundreds of billions of yuan per year on “stability maintenance,” cannot offer. If people in the Chinese elite were truly confident in their system of Leninist capitalism, they would not need a huge budget for domestic repression, would not keep a Nobel Peace laureate in prison, and would not be looking to emigrate.

Indeed, as this article was being finalized, China announced a new spending program for infrastructure projects to counter fears of an economic slowdown. Once again, Beijing is turning to useless construction projects to preserve the appearance of economic growth. But one element missing from the economic equation is political and personal freedom, something China’s communist rulers fear more than any other possibility.

Christopher Whalen is Senior Managing Director and Head of Research at Kroll Bond Rating Agency, where he is responsible for financial institutions and corporate ratings. He is the author of the December 2010 book Inflated: How Money and Debt Built the American Dream, now in a second printing from John Wiley & Sons. He is co-author with Frederick Feldkamp of the book Financial Stability: Fraud, Confidence & the Wealth of Nations which was published by John Wiley & Sons in September 2014.

Image: Flickr/leniners/CC by-nc 2.0

Top Chinese Diplomat Falls to Corruption Probe
Image Credit: pixabay/ tpsdave

Top Chinese Diplomat Falls to Corruption Probe

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption probe captured its latest “tiger” to ring in 2015. Senior Chinese diplomat Zhang Kunsheng has been sacked on suspicions of “violating discipline” — a common euphemism used by the Chinese Communist Party for corruption. Zhang, 56, is notably the first prominent member of China’s diplomatic corps in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be sacked. Details on the circumstances leading up to Zhang’s investigation are unknown as the Chinese government has been characteristically tight-lipped about the situation.

According to Chinese media reports, Zhang was the most senior of the four individuals holding the rank of assistant foreign minister within the Chinese foreign ministry. Zhang’s portfolio concerned the ministry’s protocol department which will now be taken over by the ministry’s chief spokesperson Qin Gang. According to the South China Morning Post, Liu Jianchao will take over from Qin as the ministry’s spokesperson. Zhang recently represented China at the ASEAN Regional Forum Seminar on Sea Lines of Communications Security. He has additionally previously served at the Chinese embassy in Washington D.C., and worked in the Ministry’s Department of North American and Oceanian Affairs.

Zhang’s investigation somewhat expands the scope of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption probe in practice. Where previously senior military leaders, politicians, and even Politburo members (Zhou Yongkang) have fallen to corruption investigation, Zhang is a top-level bureaucrat from the relatively clean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Though details concerning Zhang’s case are sparse, there is considerable speculation that the investigation surrounding Zhang could have been motivated by politics in Zhang’s native Shanxi province.

Zhang has yet to officially be charged with any crime. In previous cases concerning corruption investigations, the individual under question has usually been sacked and removed from their public role for a period of weeks or months before being formally charged with a crime.

How to Approach Political Rumors in China
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

How to Approach Political Rumors in China

With regard to political rumors in China, there are two basic rules to follow.

Rule No. 1: do not spread them. You could be legally liable if you retell the story about the involvement of a former premier’s 90-year-old mother in a corruption scandal, even though the original reporter later won the Pulitzer Prize for “his striking exposure of corruption at high levels of the Chinese government.” You could face severe sanctions if you can not keep to yourself the story about the relatives of a former vice president being filthy rich and having secret bank accounts overseas. You could be dismissed from the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party if you are a Central Committee member; expelled from the Party if you are a CCP member; or sent to jail if you are none of the above.

Rule No. 2: do not dismiss rumors completely. Subsequent to a Politburo meeting on December 29, 2014, it was rumored that Party Secretary Sun Chunlan of Tianjin would be transferred to Beijing as director of the Central United Front Department, replacing the discredited Ling Jihua. Mayor Huang Xingguo of Tianjin would replace her as party secretary of Tianjin; Deputy Secretary Wang Dongfeng of Tianjin would replace Huang as mayor of Tianjin. This was quickly dismissed as a rumor by an internet group, Xue “Xi” Xiaozu (Xi Jinping study group) — Xi Jinping’s cyber alter ego. This is because Ling Jihua had yet to be dismissed as director of the Central United Front Department, paving the way for Sun Chunlan’s possible appointment, and Wang Dongfeng had to be appointed as acting mayor by the Tianjin Municipal People’s Congress Standing Committee before his formal appointment as mayor.

But on December 30, 2014, it was announced officially that Sun Chunlan was no longer party secretary of Tianjin and Huang Xingguo took over as acting party secretary of Tianjin. On December 31, 2014, Ling Jihua was officially dismissed as director of the Central United Front Department and Sun Chunlan took over that post. It is not clear who will eventually be party secretary of Tianjin, nor is it clear who will become next mayor of Tianjin. But Huang Xingguo could be a strong candidate for the position of Tianjin party chief and Wang Dongfeng is a good candidate as his replacement — just as the rumors suggested.

In sum, please remember these two don’ts for dealing with rumors about Chinese politics: don’t spread rumors and don’t dismiss them entirely. PERIOD.

Professor BO Zhiyue, a leading authority on Chinese elite politics in the world, will take up an appointment in January 2015 as Director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre (NZCCRC) and Professor of Political Science at Victoria University of Wellington. The only nation-wide research center on contemporary China in the world, NZCCRC aims to be a global leader in knowledge generation and knowledge sharing on political, economic, and social life of contemporary China among tertiary institutions, business sector, and policy community for the benefit of New Zealand. Based in Victoria University of Wellington, the Centre has seven member universities: Victoria University of Wellington, the University of Auckland, Auckland University of Technology, the University of Canterbury, the University of Otago, the University of Waikato, and Lincoln University.