The government is angry and frustrated at their inability to silence demands for more democracy in Hong Kong. The government has made it very clear that there will never be true democracy in Hong Kong but the locals refuse to stop agitating for just that. In June there was referendum on greater democracy for Hong Kong. Some 22 percent of registered Hong Kong voters cast electronic ballots (using their government ID) in the non-binding poll. Most people voted for more democracy. Currently China controls who can be allowed to run for office in Hong Kong and directly appoints many officials. Government controlled media condemned the vote, but Hong Kong does have enough autonomy to get away with this sort of protest, and many others besides. As long as there is no violence the government tolerates it, for now. China does not want to endure the domestic and international backlash that would accompany a severe (sending large numbers of activists to jail and some “disappearances”) crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. For one thing, it would be bad for business. But more democracy would be bad for the communist government, which would lose power in a democracy. Most people in Hong Kong, and a growing number in the rest of China, believe that democracy should be given a chance. These Chinese have noted how so many Western ideas have benefitted China, often after some modifications to suit local needs. Why not democracy as well? After all, it works in Taiwan and Singapore. To the Chinese government this is very dangerous thinking.
While the United States is often accused of ignoring the cultural differences with its allies and opponents, and making bad decisions based on misperceptions, other countries often do the same. While the United States has made many mistakes because American leaders thought foreigners thought like Americans (but in a different language) at least the U.S. has come to acknowledge that this problem exists. Not so in China where this lack of empathy for other cultures is rampant in the government and especially in the military. This includes that part of the military that prepares plans for dealing with foreigners in crises situations that could lead to war. While Chinese leaders are very conscious of their own history and the many lessons they can still learn from all that the one lesson that makes their neighbors nervous is that the Chinese believe Chinese expansion is a natural and justified policy for China. The neighbors are very uncomfortable with China's reemerging (but quite ancient) attitude that China is the center of the universe (the "Middle Kingdom") and that everyone should show more respect and pay tribute. The Chinese government encourages these nationalistic attitudes, and many Chinese are eager to see China become more powerful and "get more respect." This is dangerous stuff and a common precursor for war. But China is run by a communist police state that sees nationalism as a useful tool to keep the communists in power. This is the sort of atmosphere that triggered the two World Wars. In 1914 Germany, long the disunited and picked apart mess in Central Europe was again united (in 1870) and wanted respect to go along with its newfound economic and military power.
The government is now taking on Christianity, treating some practitioners as potentially dangerous to the state. Christianity has been in China for centuries and currently is about five percent of the population and growing fast. In some provinces where Christians are prominent (lots of churches) and numerous the government is shutting down churches and arresting clergy and prominent Christians for the least infraction of the law. This effort is most visible on the North Korean border, where foreign Christians (some of them ethnic Koreans or Chinese) have been assisting North Koreans who have escaped from North Korea. Another hotspot is the southeastern city of Wenzhou, long known as a “Christian city” (because about 15 percent of the population is Christian) where local authorities are shutting down dozens of Christian churches. Even before the communists took over in the late 1940s Chinese governments had long seen religion as a constant threat. What is especially alarming is any religion that attracts too many members and become more visible, especially as critics of the government. Some Christian sects are doing this and now comes the usual government response. The last thing China wants is any religion in China constantly demonstrating that it cannot be destroyed and can still fight back.
Chinese efforts, since the 1990s, to curb corruption in the military are not working. At least these efforts are not helping the military to become more effective. Desperate for a solution the government is trying something different. In the last year the government ordered some detailed studies of how the military operates and how effective the armed forces were. The report found lots of problems, most of them connected in one way or another with corruption. This led to the recent appearance of many stories in state-controlled media detailing how corruption in the military was a major reason for Chinese defeats in the last two centuries. At the same time much media attention is being given to senior generals being prosecuted for corruption. In Chinese culture this is the equivalent of a Western country suddenly accusing senior military leaders of corruption and damaging the national defense. China is also not sparing recent political leaders as these articles are also discussing more recent military disasters (like the 1979 war with Vietnam) and the role political and military corruption played. All this is a big deal in communist China, a very big deal indeed. Until recently the senior communists rarely criticized each other in public like this. This is supposed to send a message to the people and the troops that something is finally being done, and to scare the senior officers, especially the ones who are dirty.
The anti-corruption effort in general is making it more dangerous to be corrupt. The latest move is to make it more difficult for corrupt officials to establish escape plans. This involves buying property and moving assets overseas and obtaining citizenship in a foreign country. Government officials now have to report this dual citizenship and people are asked to inform on illegal dual-citizens. The government believes there are several thousand senior officials who are very corrupt and have used some of their new wealth to establish a safe haven overseas. Such behavior is not always illegal. Currently about a third of China’s most successful businessmen (and some women) are moving their families and fortunes overseas. Many of these economic refugees are obtaining dual citizenship wherever they can. Many are sending their wives to give birth in the United States, so that some of their children will be United States citizens. These refugees already have moved over half a trillion dollars in assets outside China and at current rates that will double in the next three years. These wealthy refugees fear the pollution and corruption in China and are losing faith in the current government (a dictatorship run by the Chinese Communist Party) to set things right before the country collapses into another period of civil strife and economic collapse. There is little faith in the armed forces, who are seen as just another bunch of corrupt government bureaucrats. While the government says that everything is under control, the one group of non-government employees most likely to know what’s really going on are running for the exits. The government quietly tries to stem this exodus but fears doing so openly because of the risk that might trigger widespread panic. But many Chinese are noticing the gradual disappearance of the families that used to occupy the mansions and luxury apartments are gone, many of them for good or most of the time. This is not good for morale. Corrupt officials were joining this movement not just to escape prosecution but because, like the nervous businessmen, they sensed that the situation at home was not good.
The government learned about all the dual citizenship activity as they pursued some of the most corrupt officials who had managed to escape arrest and flee the country. Most of them headed for places like the Netherlands, the United States, Canada or Australia. None of these countries have extradition treaties (making it easier to bring back Chinese criminals for prosecution) with China and all allow dual-citizenship and encourage investment by wealthy immigrants. In theory it is possible for China to go to the local courts and make a convincing case that the former officials are criminals and should be expelled. But in practice this is very difficult and since the accused have taken large sums of money with them it is almost impossible to get them back via the courts. The exceptions are those whose corrupt actions caused a lot deaths or who violated laws in their new homeland. For most corrupt officials, the escape plan holds, if you can afford all the legal fees.
Government anti-corruption measures are becoming bolder and more heavily publicized. One example of this is the tactic of sending dozens of investigators to a town with lots of problems (citizen complaints about corrupt officials) and call for locals to show up and give evidence of local corruption. This is quickly followed by well publicized arrests and interrogations. If evidence is found of corruption (and local officials often cannot or do not try hard to hide their stealing) prosecution and conviction follows over the next few months. All this is heavily covered in the state controlled media and serves as a warning to the thousands of corrupt officials who have not been hit yet to shape up or lose everything. The problem is that there are a lot more corrupt officials (over a million) than there are reliable (incorruptible) investigators who will refuse bribes. There is growing urgency to the anti-corruption effort because even senior government officials concede that one reason for the slowing economic growth is the malign impact of corruption. Worse, the major complaint most Chinese have is the corruption, and all its nasty side effects (like the growing air pollution).
The growing Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and adjacent waters is based, according to the Chinese, on their interpretations of history. The Chinese claim just about every uninhabited islet and reef in the region, despite older and more substantial (recognized by international agreements) claims by nations that are closer to the disputed areas. China has ordered its scholars to dig up any historical evidence for early Chinese presence on rocks, reefs and uninhabited islands in the South China Sea. What the Chinese historians have come up with is often vague, hearsay or subject to wide interpretation. In effect, China wants to reverse centuries of recent claims and practices to justify its aggression in the South China Sea. This Chinese effort has one major flaw; it ignores the fact that for thousands of year the Chinese imperial government (which lasted until 1910) disregarded seaward expansion or exploration. The current Chinese government has ordered this history rewritten and reinterpreted and has made it clear that all contradictory opinions by foreign scholars are false. Meanwhile tangible Chinese pressure comes mainly in the form of intimidation by their growing fleet of warships and patrol boats. Actual force (usually bumping into “trespassing” fishing boats or other commercial ships) is usually done by Chinese non-military ships, under orders from nearby Chinese warships or warplanes. New tactics and procedures have to be worked out to counter these Chinese methods. Meanwhile the aggression extends to foreign investments in China. Japan is a particular target, using Japanese World War II era atrocities in China as an excuse. The government instigated anti-Japanese attitudes have caused many Japanese firms to shut down operations in China and cut back on investment in China. This has also led to a decline (by about ten percent) in the number of Japanese living in China.
August 31, 2014: China accused three Chinese Moslems of murdering a pro-government Islamic cleric (Juma Tayir) in late July. Police tracked down the three, shot two of them dead and captured the third. The one who was captured admitted that they killed the clergyman for not being Islamic enough and for preaching an incorrect form of Islam. The three had been radicalized by Islamic terrorist media, some of it found on the Internet. This 18 year old Uighur said he was the mastermind of the plot to murder the cleric. The assassination was committed in China’s largest mosque, which is in the northwest (Xinjiang province). There the government continues to have problems with ethnic Turk (Uighur) unrest. China blames Islamic terror groups there of all sorts of mischief. Not just Islamic radicalism, but also a separatist movement that wants to create a new country (East Turkestan) out of Xinjiang and adjacent areas that have large Moslem populations.
August 30, 2014: The government issued a public demands that all Chinese journalists only report things that the communist government wants reported and report them in a way that the government approves of. “Undisciplined” journalists are a growing problem and even threats or actual punishment have not been successful in obtaining compliance.
August 26, 2014: China insists that its plan to build a railroad through Burma is still alive. In July Burmese officials said that the $20 billion 2011 deal to extend the Chinese railroad system through Burma via a new 1,200 kilometer line to Burma’s northwest coast has been cancelled. There was much popular opposition in Burma to the project, especially in the north. The tribes saw the Chinese railroad as another opportunity for the southerners to seize tribal land and bring in more settlers from the south. When the deal was signed both the government and China realized that there was a lot of opposition in Burma and believed they could placate that opposition before the three year “start by” clause in the contract expired. That did not work out as hoped. Chinese officials indicate that the real problems have to do with money (how much each government will get once the line is operational) and exactly when ownership of the live will go to Burma.
August 25, 2014: Retired Chinese military officers have been ordered to return government real estate they have been using without permission. This involves the corrupt practice of retired officers receiving the use of additional residential property as an informal retirement benefit. This is another form of corruption in the military and was discovered when the government conducted a thorough audit of government owned residential property in areas where informants had indicated retired officers were up to no good. This is part of an effort, begun in 2012, to put a major dent into the corrupt practices found in the military.
August 24, 2014: The government announced the execution of eight Uighurs for carrying out recent terror attacks inside China.
China has increased its efforts to gain some control over the North Korean government by doing nasty things the North Korean leaders want. In the latest case the Chinese are providing something the North Korean leadership wants badly; help in halting North Koreans from escaping into China. More North Korean “defectors” are being arrested by Chinese police and sent back to North Korea. That does not stop the escapes, but it does reduce them. As part of this effort China has also applied more pressure to Christian charities and foreign Christians in general who are operating in China near the North Korean border. Many of these Christians (especially ethnic Koreans from the West) are known or suspected of helping North Koreans escape North Korea and get to South Korea. It is unlikely North Korea will go so far as to drop their nuclear weapons program because of all this assistance, even if that’s what China really wants. Nevertheless China is trying the carrot with North Korea although the stick (messing with the North Korean economy by halting trade and Chinese investment) is still ready for use.
August 22, 2014: In addition to monitoring and censoring the Chinese Internet to eliminate anti-government material, China has also been trying to eliminate pornography for over a decade. Now China has gone after the use of rumor and false information campaigns as well as sharing opinions about politics or issues of public interest. The use of rumor and false information have long (since the Internet began to be a major media force in the late 1990s) been used by businesses, and some individuals in China to attack and discredit competitors and rivals. Even government officials will use it against those they are having disputes with, as in other officials, businessmen or foreigners. This sort of thing is more common in China than elsewhere and has become a very rough and unregulated form of media manipulation and public relations. In the last year the government rolled out this new campaign to restrict this bad behavior. The government is prosecuting and making an example of celebrities and other high profile offenders, to ensure that the message gets around. The new rules only allow government approved organizations to do “public relations” work via the Internet. This includes commenting on the news. This new program went into high gear in early 2104 when China ordered its Internet censors to crack down on what people say on Chinese social media. This quickly led to many local critics (or simply commentators) of the Chinese government disappearing from the Chinese Internet. This does not surprise most Chinese, especially since in 2013 the government finally revealed the number of people (two million) involved in Internet censorship operations. This operation is called Golden Shield (or “Great Firewall of China” in the West) and it’s a huge information control system that has been under construction since for over a decade.
August 21, 2014: In the east (Jiangsu province) arrests have been made in the wake of an August 2nd dust explosion in a factory that left 75 dead and 180 injured. This led to unrest as Chinese protested the continuing low safety standards and that fact that China has one of the highest injury and death rates in the world from workplace accidents. This accident was a common one in plants that grind metal (in this case to polish and produce shiny hubcaps). This process creates a lot of metallic dust, which is explosive if not contained and kept away from open flame or sparks. Other types of industrial dust are also explosive (including that found in storage facilities for grain) and require expensive precautions to prevent these deadly explosions. Those arrested were Taiwanese managers in charge of the plant.
August 20, 2014: The growing list of sanctions against Russia, because of Russian efforts to annex parts of neighbor Ukraine, have hit the Russian arms industry particularly hard because new Russian weapons depend on Western suppliers for some of the high tech components needed. China is taking advantage of this by pointing out that China has become a major producer of high end electronic and mechanical components and can probably replace Western suppliers now unavailable because of the sanctions. While Russia does not buy a lot of foreign weapons it does buy a lot of high-tech components (especially electronic ones) from the West. A lot of these items are dual use items that China (and other East Asian countries) also manufacture a lot of. China backs Russian efforts to annex Ukraine and is hostile to sanctions (which it has been under for several decades). China believes they can replace enough Western suppliers to Russia to create about a billion dollars a year in additional business for Chinese firms.
August 19, 2014: Several hundred kilometers off the coast and a major naval base on Hainan Island a Chinese Su-27 jet fighter intercepted an American P-8 maritime patrol/anti-submarine aircraft. The Chinese fighter flew close (less than ten meters) to the P-8 and made threatening maneuvers that were captured on video. China denied the incident occurred as described, despite the video evidence. Such encounters are increasingly common, as China seeks to drive American military ships and aircraft out of the South China Sea, which China claims as its sovereign territory. International law does not recognize such claims, but China is determined to prevent its naval training operations from being observed. At the same time China is increasingly active in sending its own recon ships and aircraft to observe what the U.S. and neighboring countries are doing.
August 18, 2014: Rumors that North Korea suspects China of supporting a coup against current ruler Kim Jong Un received a boost as North Korea transferred one of most combat-ready tank brigades from the South Korean border to the Chinese border. This is very unusual, but it’s no secret that China has been sending more troops to the North Korean border in the last year and is very unhappy (and openly critical) over how the North Korean leadership refuses to accept Chinese economic (more free market) and diplomatic (shut down the nuclear weapons program) advice.
August 17, 2014: On the Indian border India accused China of sending troops 25 kilometers into Indian territory and when confronted unrolled banners that said, in English, that the Indian troops were in Chinese territory and should withdraw. This is similar to an incident in late 2013 where a platoon (about 20) of Chinese troops into Indian territory to set up a camp. Eventually the Chinese troops withdraw and Chinese and Indian officials argue over the matter. Both sides appear to be trying to avoid violence. Earlier this year India and China agreed to be nice to each other when it comes to these disputes. This was to include holding joint military drills this year so their military forces could learn how to work together in disaster relief or peace keeping missions. All this feel-good stuff was a win for India because China was reducing its military and diplomatic pressure on India to surrender Indian territory China has claims on. The basic problem is that India and China have never agreed on where their mutual border is. Because of that the border is called the LAC (Line of Actual Control) and is also known as the MacCartney-MacDonald Line. It is the unofficial border between India and China and gives rise to a lot of disputes over who owns what. Most of this is about Chinese claims on territory India controls. The LAC is 4,057 kilometers long and borders the Indian States of Ladakh, Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Himachal, and Arunachal. On the Chinese side it is mostly Tibet. China is sometimes less vocal about its claims on Indian territory recently but has never abandoned them. Cooling down these tensions is a big relief to India, which has a defense budget one third that of China’s.