Although the government likes to proclaim China as the next superpower (militarily and economically) many Chinese economists and military analysts are quietly pointing out that despite three decades of rapid economic growth and increased defense spending the U.S. still has eight times the GDP per capita and a commanding lead in many economic and military categories. Inside China efforts to curb corruption and deal with growing air and water pollution are failing. Too many senior officials seem more concerned with controlling information (especially the Internet) and suppressing dissent than in solving problems most Chinese are increasingly angry about. Some senior officials say the right things about dealing with corruption and pollution, but government actions do not produce results. The corruption and pollution are getting worse and the police state repression is becoming more common and intense. Many Chinese are particularly worked about corruption in the banking system, which is dominated by government owned banks which are widely seen as very corrupt and not to be trusted despite the continued GDP growth. Foreigners experience the banking system corruption as well and are more willing to talk about it. Thus in the latest Transparency International ranking of corruption in nations, over the last year China dropped 20 places (to 104) in the rankings of 177 countries. Number one (Denmark) is the least corrupt and 175 (Somalia and North Korea in a tie) is the most. So no matter what the government says about its efforts against corruption, international surveys like this are more trusted by most Chinese and a great embarrassment to the government. More worrisome is the fact that the least corrupt countries share characteristics (free speech, free media, fair courts) that are lacking in China mainly because most government officials do not want these things but most Chinese do. One positive aspect of all this is that more senior officials are openly asking for the kinds or reforms most Chinese want.
North Korea is angry at China for not coming to their aid over recent war crimes accusations. North Korea is even angrier, and very shaken that a retired Chinese general said publically that China would not come to the aid of the current North Korean government if the government collapses or starts a war. China often makes official announcements via public “comments” by retired senior government or military officials. This makes it easier to, if need be, back off from the new policy. China is telling North Korea to do what China wants or else. China wants work on North Korean nuclear weapons stopped. Yet Chinese diplomats and spies inside North Korea report that supreme leader Kim Jong Un was not willing to halt his nuclear program under any circumstances. Kim Jong Un sees the nukes as his ultimate defense against all his diplomatic, economic and internal (as the result of poverty, corruption and greater knowledge of the outside world) problems. China has long been the ultimate solution if North Korea becomes so threatening that war seems likely. Only China has enough allies inside North Korea and military forces that can quickly (without having to battle through a fortified DMZ) go in and replace the Kim dynasty with a more accommodating dictator. China does not see force as a desirable option. The fiscal, diplomatic and human cost is too high. Then there is the risk that Chinese forces will not perform well against North Korean troops who resist. This would expose the weaknesses in Chinese military leadership that many senior Chinese officials are aware of but would prefer to keep the rest of the world unsure of. But the one Chinese threat to North Korea that is very real is the declaration that China will not help the current North Korean government in a crises. Since 1950 China has pledged, and delivered, on assurances of help. That promise is now rescinded.
The Philippines is loudly protesting Chinese construction of an artificial island on a reef 457 kilometers from Palawan Island (inhabited by 770,000 Filipinos and not claimed by China, at least not yet). The artificial island already has a landing strip and some other facilities. The artificial island is built on Kagitingan Reef which, as part of the Spratly Islands, is claimed by China even though parts of the islands on within the territorial waters of other nations. China calls Filipino accusations baseless as the Spratly Islands and most of the South China Sea belong to China and that is that. China is also demanding that nine Chinese fishermen, arrested in May for poaching off the Filipino coast be released. China insists that these fishermen were in Chinese waters even though, according to international law the Chinese were closer to the Philippines and in Filipino waters. The Philippines imposed fines and other charges of $103,000 per poacher and insists that this be paid before the men are freed. This airstrip makes all the nations bordering the South China Sea nervous because China seems determined to enforce its growing number of territorial claims in the area.
The pro-China government of Taiwan is in trouble because of defeats in recent local elections. The head of the ruling party resigned and the party is seeking a way to deal with the growing anti-China sentiment in Taiwan. This change in popular opinion was not a surprise. In June the first ever visit of a senior Chinese official (the minister of Taiwan Affairs) to Taiwan was met with a mixed reception. Two events were cancelled because of the possibility of very violent reaction to the Chinese official. Many Taiwanese are strongly opposed to closer relations with China because they believe all this is simply a cover to make it easier for China to conquer Taiwan. China began making these friendly moves in 2008 and now millions of Chinese tourists visit Taiwan each year and Taiwanese are major investors in Chinese businesses. Many Taiwanese tolerate all this because it is profitable. But most Taiwanese now believe that mainland nationalists are lying about their intentions towards Taiwan and are determined to conquer the island nation one way (economically) or another (militarily). Thus the Taiwanese parliament had been approving defense budget increases recently that the ruling party tried to stop but could not. The ongoing pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong are another thing that stokes anti-China attitudes in Taiwan.
December 3, 2014: The government released a report showing that recent tests found 93 percent of government websites had security vulnerabilities. The majority (73 percent) were considered at high or extreme risk to hackers. In 2013 four percent of government websites were reported hacked, but the worst hacks are usually those where the attackers got in and out undetected. This report was released in an effort to get local (provincial and below) agencies to improve their Internet security. The central government only controls central government agencies and even there the control is often thwarted by corrupt or incompetent officials. Senior officials realize that this vulnerability at the provincial and local level is a threat to the entire country because local officials have lots of data and Internet connections with commercial firms and central government organizations. Thus all of China is more vulnerable to hacker attacks. Thus when Chinese officials lie and deny having their hackers go after the West, they are not lying when they complain that China is the victim of massive hacker attacks from the West. The only edge China has at the moment is that Western economics are more closely linked to the Internet and thus more vulnerable. But China is rapidly moving in the same direction and government efforts to reduce the vulnerability have largely failed.
The central government warned media organizations (both private and state owned) to strictly follow the rules regarding censorship and avoiding publishing anything the Communist Party does not approve of. This admonition pointed out that the government was aware of the many techniques editors and publishers had invented to try and get around the censors to remain competitive in a very competitive media environment. Some of the bad behavior was for strictly criminal reasons, like selling press credentials to gangsters who specialized in digging up embarrassing information on the rich and powerful and then blackmailing them. Senior officials seemed, for good reason, to be more concerned with the blackmail problem than exposure of corruption and mismanagement in government.
December 2, 2014: The government announced that it would stop taking transplant quality organs from dead (usually executed) prisoners as of January 1 2015. Many Chinese and foreigners believe that this profitable organ trade will simply go underground and become another source of corruption. The government changed its policy here because of decades of bad publicity from other nations.
November 29, 2014: In Hong Kong thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators came out and tried to reclaim areas that had recently been cleared of demonstrators. For two months t
he government tried to use patience in dealing with its latest pro-democracy crises in Hong Kong. But on the 26th the police went in and used force to remove demonstrators from areas they had occupied for weeks. At first it seemed to work, but now it is obvious that it did not, or at least was not as successfully as the police thought. The last major pro-democracy effort was in 1989 in Beijing and did not end well, in part because the government eventually called in the army and slaughtered thousands of people to clear the streets. While the memory of this use of force, and decades of subsequent suppression, kept the pro-democracy advocates quiet (but not completely silent) Hong Kong was a special case because for over a century Hong Kong was ruled by the British and was returned to Chinese control in 1999 to fulfil the treaty by which Britain controlled the city. The people in Hong Kong are Chinese, but they have different attitudes. The government is angry and frustrated at their inability to suppress 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. Currently China controls who can be allowed to run for office in Hong Kong and directly appoints many officials. Government controlled media condemned the growing demonstrations 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 (anything from deadly violence to just 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 Chinese countries like Taiwan and Singapore. To the Chinese government this is very dangerous thinking. Since June the pro-democracy activists have become more public with their protests and since late September there have been growing and persistent public demonstrations. There’s a growing call within the senior leadership for “decisive action” (violent suppression) to eliminate the problem before it spreads outside of Hong Kong. The government notes that many residents of Hong Kong are growing tired and frustrated at the months of disruptions caused by the demonstrations. To the government this is a sign that the protestors are losing popular support and will eventually lose so much support that the protests will dwindle and disappear. The police and local officials still appear to believe that time is on their side, despite this recent resurgence of pro-democracy support.
November 28, 2014: In the northwest (Xinjiang) there was another Uighur terror attack. This one, using knives and bombs, left fifteen dead and 14 wounded when eleven men began attacking people in a market place. The police quickly responded killing all the attackers before much damage could be done. This is the first major attack since September when another attack against a market place, two police stations and a store left over 40 dead, most of them attackers or civilians, along with four policemen. Most of the dead were Uighur but over a dozen appear to have been ethnic (Han) Chinese. Before that the last major attack was on July 28th which left over a hundred dead. After that one the government prosecuted and punished 17 local politicians and police commanders for not preventing the attack and not handling it well when it did occur. That has encouraged local officials to do better and the prompt response to the most recent attack is the result. Despite that this attack was embarrassing in part because officials had recently announced that in the last six months anti-terrorist efforts in the northwest had destroyed terrorist cells or organizations and arrested 334 people. It wasn’t enough and many locals believe all this made more Uighurs willing to commit terrorist acts. Most of this terrorist violence is taking place in the northwest (Xinjiang). China accuses Islamic terror groups among the ethnic Turks (Uighurs) of Xinjiang for all these problems. The government is greatly embarrassed at its inability to halt the violence. Unhappy Uighurs are increasingly aggressive in attacking the growing Chinese presence among them. In Xinjiang province the local Uighurs are not responding well to growing pressure from Han Chinese soldiers and intrusive Han government officials. Because of that many Uighurs continue to support anti-Han activity and this makes it possible for Islamic terrorists to survive and operate. Most Uighurs are found in Xinjiang province. There the nine million Uighurs are now less than half the population and most of the rest are Han Chinese. The government has been publicly urging soldiers and police to be more aggressive against uncooperative Uighurs. The government accuses Uighur activists of endangering state security and tries to keep the unrest out of the news. The same thing is happening in Tibet, where the government is using the same tools to keep everyone under control. Since 2011 several hundred have died in Xinjiang because of Uighur violence against Han rule. Thousands of Uighurs have been arrested and hundreds sentenced to prison, or death.
November 25, 2014: For the first time ever, two Vietnamese warships visited the Philippines. The two Russian built frigates were obtained by Vietnam from Russia, along with six modern submarines, to provide some deterrence against growing Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. Vietnam has joined forces with the Philippines and other Chinese neighbors to discourage China. So far it does not seem to be working.
November 24, 2014: South Korean warships held training exercises on and around the Dokdo Islands (which are claimed by South Korea and Japan) in a well-publicized event that increased the tension in both countries. South Korea holds these exercises once or twice a year. While there is some training value this is also political theater as the two nations would never go to war over the dispute. But the political sensitivity (and centuries of ill-will) of the counterclaims makes settlement very difficult. Diplomats in both countries wish the situation would just go away, as it hinders cooperation, especially against Chinese and North Korean threats. For many South Korean the most immediate military threat is not North Korea or China, but Japan.
November 23, 2014: Japan has decided to purchase seventeen V22 tilt-rotor transports from the United States. This came after more than two years of deliberations. These V22s will be used to help defend the islands both Japan and China claim but Japan currently occupies. The high speed of the V22 and its ability to land like a helicopter makes it possible for the Japanese to quickly reinforce the disputed islands if China makes a surprise effort to grab them. This is an ancient Chinese tactic, to quickly seize some disputed territory and then call for peace talks. It works better in the 21st century than it did hundreds of years ago and Chinese military experts today talk openly about using it. The V22 makes this tactic much more difficult to carry out. The Japanese V22s will take until 2019 to complete delivery. So far nearly 200 V22s have been built and ultimately 408 are to be delivered at a cost (including development) of $88 million each.
November 18, 2014: China is offering its 18 ton J-31 stealth fighter to export customers as the FC-31. Pakistan has expressed some interest, but then Pakistan is the largest export customer for Chinese weapons. Pakistan might want to wait a bit because it is unclear how ready the J-31 is for active service. Since 2012 China has been testing the J-31 “Falcon Eagle” (from an inscription on the tail). While it looks like the American F-22, it’s also smaller than China’s other stealth fighter (the 35 ton J-20, which has been around longer). The J-31 was built by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (which makes the J-11, the illegal Chinese copy of the Russian Su-27). The J-31 has some characteristics of the F-35 as well and appears to be something of an “F-35” to the earlier J-20s effort to match the American F-22. The J-31 flew for the first time in October 2012 and at that point there were at least two prototypes. The designer has talked of the J-31 being able to operate off an aircraft carrier (like the U.S. F-35 and the Chinese J-15, a J-11 variant).
November 17, 2014: India complained of information indicating that China has been training Pakistani troops along the Chinese border with the Pakistani portion of Kashmir. China denied that this was taking place.
November 16, 2014: China agreed to invest another $42 billion in Pakistani projects. In return Pakistan promised more help in fighting Islamic terrorism against China. Many of those terrorists are based in Pakistan. China also expects Pakistan to protect its investments from terrorist violence. About the same time China said it will double its planned economic investments in Iran from $25 billion to $52 billion.