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Every five years the Chinese Communist Party meets for two weeks and agrees on who will get the top jobs for the next five years. This includes a new bunch of senior military commanders. The next such gathering begins tomorrow, although a lot of the changes have already been announced or leaked. Agreements still have to be reached on major policy matters.
All this is a remnant of the old communist “five year plans” that laid down specific economic decisions as well. But for the last three decades the Chinese communists have let the economy pretty much run itself. The country has prospered mightily as a result. Now, with a rapidly growing middle class there is a growing demand for less corruption and more democracy. Five years ago the government talked a lot about democracy but did little since then. This time around there’s a lot of pressure to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Many younger Communist Party members agree that more democracy is in order, but their elders are not so sure. Meanwhile, opinion surveys show that most Chinese want less corruption and more accountability. Many Chinese see democracy as a way to get that accountability. They certainly aren’t getting much of it from the current self-perpetuating communist government. Only one party, the Communist Party, is allowed and that isn’t working out so well.
The Chinese Air Force is seeing more of its generals promoted to the most senior leadership positions in the Chinese government. This is part of the decades old transition from a largely infantry/guerilla army in the 1960s, to a modern force that most Westerners would recognize. While China has been buying a lot of high tech warships and warplanes in the last two decades, mainly from Russia, the skills and technology to build that stuff in China has also been obtained, either by purchase or theft. China has made a lot of mistakes and produced some poorly designed and built ships and planes. But this is part of the learning experience. Over the next decade China is expected to exceed Russian levels of quality in weapons design. Chinese shipbuilding is already quite competent, especially for commercial shipping. Chinese leaders have a tradition of being patient and that patience and persistence is being rewarded. In the next two decades China will be designing and producing world class weapons.
To accommodate all this new tech the Chinese armed forces are making it easier for geeks to join (height, weight, and tattoo restrictions are loosened) and are offering financial and other incentives to college grads who sign up. On the down side, the military has been pushing nationalistic and aggressive propaganda for over a decade now. Officers have written a lot of books about the “next war” (usually with the United States) and how it is time for China to get some respect after two centuries of being kicked around. This is very popular stuff with the average Chinese. Some of the more outspoken officers are now senior generals. If these guys act on their aggressive cheerleading it could lead to clashes with neighbors and the United States. Will wisdom and restraint develop as these generals and admirals achieve higher office? If not, things could get scary.
The new Chinese government may be convincing enough to persuade the North Korean leaders to accept economic reforms. So far, the North Korean ruling class has said they would but didn’t. Chinese trying to start businesses in North Korea find themselves being robbed by greedy officials and driven out of the country if they protest. The Chinese government is under growing pressure to deal harshly with this kind of behavior by corrupt North Korean officials. That might just cause North Korean officials to be even more self-destructive and cause a total collapse. China does not want that because it would mean a flood of North Korean refugees and China would be forced to take control of North Korea. That would be a major economic, military, political, and diplomatic headache. So China treats the wayward leadership of North Korea gently, although there are persistent rumors that pro-Chinese North Korean officials are being encouraged to stage a coup and create a more reasonable and effective government.
South Korea is pressuring China to do something about all the Chinese fishing boats that poach in South Korean waters. The Chinese national government admits, quietly to South Korean diplomats, that corrupt local officials refuse to crack down on the poaching fishing fleets because the fleet owners pay lucrative bribes to avoid punishment.
The United States is becoming more insistent that China is behind the growing number of sophisticated hacker attacks against Western companies and governments. These hacker efforts are mainly to steal information, both commercial stuff that benefits Chinese companies and government secrets that helps the Chinese military and policy makers. China denies all accusations and has done so for over a decade. The victims are running out of patience and discussing retribution.
November 4, 2012: The Chinese Communist Party officially expelled Chinese politician Bo Xilai. Now Bo can be prosecuted for corruption. Bo was dismissed from his job (running a large city) last August when it became obvious that he was at the center of a huge web of corruption. The government found itself having a hard time with damage control. Bo Xilai's wife was subsequently convicted of murdering a British businessman and given a suspended death sentence. She will most likely be out of jail in five years or so, in return for keeping her secrets to herself. Bo Xilai and his wife were at the center of numerous corrupt schemes, an arrangement that is increasingly typical in China. For the ruling families corruption is a family affair, with everyone taking part. The state-controlled media would not discuss this, but most Chinese will. The Bo Xilai case is a major embarrassment for the communists. Bo, like his wife, will be shown leniency in return for silence.
Meanwhile, the communists have to figure out how to handle the growing call for prosecution of the many other senior party officials who are corrupt. This has become more urgent because Western media is circulating a detailed story about how the family of Chinese supreme leader Wen Jiabao amassed a fortune of $2.7 billion since 1998. In typical fashion none of the money is in the name of Wen Jiabao but his wife and other kin have become enormously and obviously wealthy. Chinese media knows to look the other way but now these well documented stories from Western media, despite government efforts to block Internet access to them, are widely known inside China.
Four Chinese survey ships again got close (within the 22 kilometers that mark “territorial waters”) to the Senkaku Islands for the 11th time in the last two months. This is the second time in two days Chinese ships have done this and quickly withdrawn. In September Japan officially laid claim to the disputed islands. Chinese officials have allowed ownership of these long-disputed islands to become a popular issue in China and that has caused a lot of ill-will towards Japan.
October 31, 2012: China’s second stealth fighter prototype, the J-31, made its first flight. Last January a similar project (the J-20 from a different manufacturer) made its first flight. The two aircraft are apparently competing to become China’s “5th generation” fighter.
October 27, 2012: In the northwest (Gansu province) another Tibetan set himself on fire to protest Chinese occupation of Tibet and attempts to suppress Tibetan culture. This is the fifth such incident this week and the 59th Tibetan to die this way since China put down an uprising in Tibet three years ago. Police are offering a $7,700 reward for information about the group (if any) behind the growing number of immolations. The government fears another major uprising in Tibet and officially sees the unrest as the work of foreign agents, not popular discontent over Chinese oppression in Tibet.
October 25, 2012: A U.S. Navy commander made it clear that American warships were in the area to assure freedom of navigation. This means that Chinese claims to the entire South China Sea, and the right to free passage through China’s EEZ is assured. By international law (a 1994 treaty) the waters 360 kilometers from land are considered the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the nation controlling the nearest land. The EEZ owner can control who fishes there and extracts natural resources (mostly oil and gas) from the ocean floor. But the EEZ owner cannot prohibit free passage, or the laying of pipelines and communications cables. China asserts that it can control who enters its EEZ and harasses American warships and aircraft that do so. China has angered its neighbors by claiming all the islands (especially tiny uninhabited ones) in the South China Sea. This is a 3.5 million square kilometer (1.4 million square mile) area south of China and Taiwan, west of the Philippines and north of Indonesia. China claims the entire area, as if it were one big EEZ. This has aroused the ire of the neighbors and caused them to unite against China. The U.S. has also said it is not taking sides in the claims over disputed islands and rocks.