Archive for the ‘Development’ Category

Ai Weiwei in London

September 28, 2015

Isn’t it great when art is important, as well as nice to look at?

If you get the chance to see Ai Weiwei’s show at the Royal Academy in London, go.

It starts with dead trees in the courtyard outside. They have been sawn up and then put back together with iron bolts. This breaking and rebuilding is a favourite trope of Chinese artists who grew up in the Cultural Revolution. Ai opens with a new variant on it.

Inside, everything, to quote Ai’s dictum, is politics and everything is art at the same time. A large room is filled with 90 tonnes of iron rebars from buildings that collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. The reason many public buildings fell down is that they were not sufficiently reinforced with steel; the unspoken accusation is that contractors skimmed off money by skimping on steel. On the walls around the sculpturally arranged rebars are the names of several thousand children who died in the earthquake, their names, school classes, schools and towns meticulously recorded, as collated by Ai and his group.

In another room is an installation built from the rubble of Ai’s Shanghai studio, bulldozed when the government decided it had had enough of him.

Much of the work has actually been done by Chinese craftsmen. Ai provides the ideas — a sort of uncorrupted Damien Hirst running an atelier with a rationale beyond mere self-enrichment. There is a pair of handcuffs sculpted from a single piece of jade. There are CCTV cameras in marble. Ai has even re-wallpapered several rooms of the Royal Academy, including with copies of the tax payments that supporters paid on his behalf when the government hit him with a huge tax ‘bill’ as a means to finger him as a criminal. The work in marble, hard wood, jade and so on connects traditional China with contemporary China in a manner that is subtly subversive. It highlights the beauty of traditional craftsmanship at the same time as making just the type of connection between New China and old imperial China that the government rejects — a connection to do with unaccountable power.

There is more than enough stuff that is not aggressively political to give the show balance. Equally, the finale, about Ai’s incarceration, is cleverly handled. It focuses on the psychological torture he underwent. In half a dozen large iron boxes, he is rendered as a waxwork with two guards standing over him has he variously eats, sleeps, undergoes interrogation and defecates. There is no physical violence, but the emotional violence, which can only be viewed through small holes in the iron containers — at one end, and from above, by standing on a step and craning over the top of the box — is palpable. A cheap fan in each ‘room’ produces noise and air movement that makes the experience far more real than any Madame Tussaud’s waxwork.

I wasn’t sure how serious Ai was before going to this exhibition. He is very serious and it is a must-see.

Ai bars

Joined-up economics

August 17, 2015

Here is a rare thing. A dynamic theory from an economist — whereby the solution to today’s problem may not be the solution to tomorrow’s problem. It’s David Dollar, former World Bank country chief for China talking about the role of institutions in development…

 

What institutions do Asian countries need to keep growing?

31 May 2015

Author: David Dollar, Brookings Institution

The notion of a ‘middle-income trap’ has entered the lexicon of policymakers in emerging markets in Asia and elsewhere. Many leaders of countries that have experienced fast growth — such as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang — worry that economic growth will come off the boil as their countries reach middle-income status.

Chinese workers construct residential buildings of a government-funded housing project in Tiemenguan city, China, 2 May 2015. (Photo: AAP).

Growth for virtually all advanced economies was slower in the 2000s than in the 1990s; meanwhile growth rates in poor and middle-income countries accelerated. But there is a lot of variation in these broad trends, especially for the middle-income countries. Some of the latter have seen very impressive growth spurts, while others have stagnated.

What explains why some countries grow fast and others languish? There is a strong empirical relationship between the quality of institutions (as measured by the World Governance Indicators’ Rule of Law index) and economic growth. But institutional quality does not change very much from year to year or sometimes even from decade to decade, which makes it hard to explain why countries have periods of high growth followed by low growth (or vice versa).

Institutions which are well-suited to one phase of economic development may be ill-suited to another. One way to resolve the paradox of persistence of institutions and non-persistence of growth rates is to focus on the quality of institutions relative to the level of development. It turns out this can help explain why China and Vietnam, for instance, have seen such high growth in recent times: they have relatively low institutional quality in an absolute sense, but they have above-average quality institutions given their stage of development, which might, for instance, help to attract foreign investment to China or Vietnam rather than other Asian countries with similarly low wage levels but weaker institutions.

Another question is whether authoritarian institutions are better for economic growth than democratic ones. It may depend on the stage of a country’s development. When we look at the historical experience, in countries that have a per capita income below US$8,000, authoritarian institutions seem more conducive to growth. But at higher levels of income, democratic countries are likely to see higher growth than authoritarian ones. Why might this be so?

One explanation might be that at low levels of income, the economic priority of government should be to establish basic law and order and an environment in which private investment, including foreign investment, can operate. This is a catch-up stage, in which innovation is not yet particularly relevant. But the usual economic strategy for authoritarian governments relies on capital accumulation, which becomes less effective as countries get richer. When an economy reaches the point where acquiring more and more capital is no longer sufficient for rapid growth, the need for political and economic institutions that promote competition, innovation and productivity growth becomes paramount.

Interestingly, it is about at the US$8,000 per capita GDP mark that two of East Asia’s great developmental success stories, Taiwan and South Korea, were also becoming free and open polities. By the early 1980s for Taiwan and the mid-1980s for South Korea, a move had been made away from authoritarian institutions, which continued until both reached fully democratic status as measured by Freedom House’s civil liberties metric.

Of the countries that have witnessed rapid growth in Asia recently, Vietnam has shown some steps towards political liberalisation, with its civil liberties score moving to five, which is slightly better than either South Korea or Taiwan at the same stage of development. But Vietnam is entering the stage of development where the line of thinking presented above implies a need for further political reform. Greater freedom will be necessary to strengthen property rights and the rule of law in order to bring about an environment for innovation and productivity growth.

China, on the other hand, has largely eschewed political reform. Although he has placed a lot of emphasis on the idea of implementing the ‘rule of law’ in China, President Xi Jinping has made it abundantly clear that he wants to pursue economic reform without political liberalisation; some observers even point to backsliding in recent years on the question of freedom of ideas and debate. The historical evidence would suggest that this will weigh on the growth of the Chinese economy in the future. At the stage of development at which China now finds itself, South Korea and Taiwan were on the way to becoming more or less free societies.

Of course, just because no authoritarian country (apart from oil producers and, depending on how you classify it, Singapore) has reached more than 35 per cent of US GDP per capita does not mean that it will be impossible for China to do so. But the historical evidence should caution Chinese policymakers against thinking that the kind of political institutions that have facilitated China’s astonishing growth up to now will be sufficient or optimal for the next stage of its development.

David Dollar is Senior Fellow, John L. Thornton China Center, Brookings Institution. He was the former World Bank Country Director for China and Mongolia in the East Asia and Pacific Region.

This article summarises a paper prepared for the Pacific Trade and Development Conference in Singapore this week.

A warm-up for Italy?

July 13, 2015

So, the Med Men caved. They didn’t have the balls to leave the Euro, which might have been their best option. However I am cautiously optimistic, because a fudge scenario in which Greeks are left in charge of structural reforms and they don’t take place (again) may have been avoided. The Med Men caved to such an extent that it looks like Commission bureaucrats and the IMF will be standing right over them as ‘they’, the Greek politicians, write and implement reform legislation. Like doing your homework with Mummy Merkel leaning down with two hands on the kitchen table. That suggests the reforms and the privatisations could actually get done. The trick is for the EU to ease the pain while the change is happening. A lot of drivel is being written about how the deal is ‘worse than Versailles’ and involves no debt forgiveness. Rubbish. Debt is a combination of principal, the interest you have agreed to pay and the term limit over which you have agreed to pay. There have already been big haircuts on the latter two (in the second, 2012 bailout), and more will come. But Mummy Merkel will have to find ways to finesse a bit of extra current spending to ease the pain of the reforms. This is far from impossible if you believe, as I do, that she is a basically decent person (I’d far rather owe her money than the British government, or indeed the average Greek politician). So let’s see. Assuming of course that those who voted No in the referendum and won don’t — not unreasonably — impose their decision by protest. If the reforms go through and Greece starts to grow that way (rather than as a result of devaluation), it is a warm-up for the Siege of Rome. Doubtless Matteo Renzi, who said he was going to Brussels to tell Frau Merkel how to behave, noted the observation of one person party to the negotiations that Tsipras had been ‘crucified’. Ouch. If, as someone once observed to me, Italians fear pain but not death, that is a horrible prospect.

More:

If you have an FT subscription, read Gideon Rachman’s column. He thinks the Greeks won’t do their homework whatever Mummy Merkel does.

Goodbye Greece

July 5, 2015

The Greeks have just voted ‘no’ to the terms of a new deal with their creditors. So what happens next?

I think that Germany-led Europe will let them fall out of the Eurozone. The Greeks think they are going to negotiate a better deal, but any improved deal just invites the likes of Italy to think they can get one. So I can’t see any way forward other than letting the Greeks go.

There will be some chaos in the financial markets, and plenty of short-term chaos in the Greek economy. But within a year a Greece run on drachmas will stabilise and start to show some growth at a more realistic exchange rate.

The bigger problem for Germany and the Eurozone core will then come into a view in a couple more years when an Italy that has not delivered structural reforms and is still barely growing sees that Greece is stabilised and starts to flirt more aggressively with leaving the Euro.

That, however, is two years away. In politics, you deal with intractable problems by kicking the can down the road. And that is why I think Greece has to go. So that Germans can try to imagine, for another couple of years, that the Euro project hasn’t been a monumental disaster.

Unfortunately it has.

That said, Spain and Ireland should be in much better shape in a couple of years which at least reduces the list of countries that might be looking for big debt hair-cuts from German and French banks.

I continue to believe that it is in Italy where the Euro mess will reach its apogee.

New year’s resolutions wanted

December 30, 2014

Two articles pasted below remind us how far China has to go before it can be deemed a ‘developed’ country.

First, from the 29 December Washington Post, the well-known Chinese lawyer Teng Biao says that China under Xi Jinping has no serious commitment to rule of and by law.

Second, from Caixin, Sheila Melvin recounts the story of Hu Feng, a writer and Party member whose belief in the rights of the individual within a socialist state brought him into head-on collision with Mao Zedong and the doctrines set out in Mao’s Yan’an Talks. It is the utilitarian logic of the state as representative of the ‘mass line’ that continues to make rule of law impossible in today’s China.

China’s empty promise of rule by law

By Teng Biao December 28 at 6:52 PM
Teng Biao is a human rights lawyer and a visiting fellow at Harvard Law School.
During the year that is drawing to a close this week, much has been made of the Communist Party of China’s new emphasis on “governing the country according to law.” But those who imagine that fundamental reforms will flow from this rhetoric would do well to remember the warning that Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu gave in response to questions about the legal justification for a 2011 incident of press mistreatment: “Don’t use the law as a shield.” I don’t understand why some are so willing to believe what the party says while disregarding what it does.

This is hardly the first time the Communists have raised the banner of “rule of law.” Even before they seized power and established totalitarian rule, they promised liberty and constitutional democracy. In 1997, the idea was written into the report delivered at the party’s 15th Congress, and in 1999 it was written into the Constitution. But that same year saw the savage repression of the Falun Gong. Since President Xi Jinping came to power, hundreds of rights defenders and intellectuals have been thrown into prison for political reasons. Properties have been expropriated or demolished, free speech has been restricted, religion has been suppressed, women have been forced to have abortions, and torture has multiplied. In Xinjiang and Tibet, the authorities have carried out one shocking human rights catastrophe after another. The abuses have never stopped.

To the Chinese Communist Party, “governing the country according to law” does not mean rule of law as you and I understand it. The essential element required for rule of law — using the law to limit the power of the government — stands in ideological opposition to the purpose of the party. In reality, the rule of law that the party talks about is “Lenin plus Emperor Qin Shi Huang” — modern totalitarianism combined with pre-modern Chinese “legalism.” It is nothing more than a tool to further control society. Rule of law is always superseded by the rule of the party, and there is not a shred of doubt about this.

The legislative organs controlled by the Communist Party have promulgated volumes of statutes. The judicial organs, also controlled by the party, are busy with cases. The legal professions have been developed. But is the law at the center of the governing order?

As University of Hong Kong law professor Fu Hualing has pointed out, many extra-legal processes — and extra extra-legal processes — stand above and apart from the law. These include shuanggui (an extralegal detention and interrogation system used to enforce discipline within the party), media restrictions, house arrest, secret police, “black jails,” chengguan (a para-police force that works with police across the country to enforce minor city rules and regulations), spying on citizens, torture, disappearances and Internet police. Without such tools, how long could the Communist Party continue to rule?

This year’s “governing the country according to law” is just another attempt by the party to address its crisis of legitimacy. Such slogans may help the party fool people within China and the international community. But legitimacy can come only via recognition given through free elections, and here the party is stuck. Clinging to one-party rule, it completely rejects general elections, even in Hong Kong. True rule of law would mean the end of the one-party system. This is the limitation on the legalization process that cannot be overcome.

Over the past 10 years, I and other human rights defenders have consistently sought to use Chinese laws to carry out our human rights work, and occasionally we’ve had success. But the limitations are obvious. Whenever the authorities begin to feel a threat from civil society, they move to suppress it. I have had my lawyer’s license revoked, been expelled from my university and been kidnapped several times. When the security police were torturing me, they shouted: “Don’t talk about any of this law stuff with us.”

In enumerating the progress being made in China, some observers have pointed out the falling number of death sentences, a new criminal procedure law, the abolishment of re-education through labor, reform of the local courts, the government’s willingness to release more information and the ongoing anti-corruption campaign. But it is questionable whether this represents progress. And even if it does, the major driving force for these changes has been not the party but the people — each change a result of pressure by rights lawyers, democracy activists and countless Chinese on the lower rungs of society.

Xi Jinping once talked about locking up power in a cage, but this is not much different than a magician wrapping an iron chain around himself. In reality, what party officials would like to do, and are doing, is to lock the people in a cage. Sycophants are able to imagine a “spring” for rule of law that doesn’t exist only by ignoring human rights disasters suffered by Ilham Tohti, Xu Zhiyong, Cao Shunli, Gao Zhisheng, Uighurs, Tibetans, petitioners, Falun Gong adherents and house churches.

This kind of selective blindness has prevented Western readers and politicians from understanding the reality in today’s China. It’s no surprise that this type of seemingly even-handed wishful thinking has become the excuse for Western governments to adopt short-sighted policies of appeasement in dealing with autocratic regimes and for favoring trade over human rights.

 

In praise of Hu Feng

By Sheila Melvin

Hu Feng (1902-85) is a name that most students of PRC history have undoubtedly encountered at one time or another. I remember reading it for the first time years ago in Jonathan Spence’s “The Search for Modern China.” It stuck in my mind because back then I found it incredible that a nationwide campaign could have been launched against a lone writer who was himself a loyal member of the Communist Party, his only “crime,” in essence, to suggest that China’s creators and consumers of culture needed a little space in which to breathe.

Later, I heard Hu’s name in a more personal way from my friend and teacher Gui Biqing, because her beloved younger brother, Wang Yuanhua, had been an associate of Hu’s, both men active leftist writer/critics from Hubei working with the League of Left-Wing Writers in pre-liberation Shanghai. One day in 1955, Shanghai’s chief of police asked Wang to admit that Hu was a counter-revolutionary – warning Wang that if he did not, the consequences would be “severe.” Wang spent a long sleepless night in detention and the next day told the police chief that he did not consider Hu a counter-revolutionary. He was thus declared a member of the “Hu Feng counter-revolutionary clique” and jailed for the prime of his life; his wife was punished, too, and later, in the Cultural Revolution, even his sister, my teacher, was locked-up for eight months.

But, beyond the bare bones of his case and my teacher’s stories, I knew little about Hu Feng and always felt that I should learn more. The opportunity recently presented itself when I came across Gregor Benton’s 2013 English translation of “F: Hu Feng’s Prison Years,” a 1989 memoir by Mei Zhi – Hu’s wife, an established writer in her own right – that recounts in gripping, heartrending detail the Kafkaesque detentions, disappearances, and arrests to which her husband was subjected by a Communist Party so intent on crushing those who refused to tow its line that it ate its own, destroying the best and brightest intellectuals of an era.

Hu Feng was a product of the May Fourth Movement and a disciple of Lu Xun, a committed leftist who believed that literature should inspire social transformation and reflect reality, but who also insisted on the role of the individual in the creative process. In the lingo of the era, he supported “subjectivism” and argued that artists and writers should not be dictated to and controlled by political bureaucrats – instead, they should be granted some autonomy so they could actually be creative.

This stance earned him enemies early on – well before 1949 – but he refused to back down, instead warning that a blind insistence on obedience to Party dictates would turn China into a “cultural desert” and founding several literary journals – like “July” and “Hope” – in which he promoted the works of like-minded young writers (among them the poet Ai Qing, the father of Ai Weiwei). Hu’s beliefs became increasingly problematic after Chairman Mao gave his speech at the Yanan Forum on Arts and Literature, in which he decreed that “There is no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics” and after which the Party began exerting ever tighter control over writers, artists – and the individual in general.

Nonetheless, Hu survived the transition to the PRC and was appointed to the editorial boards of the prominent journal People’s Literature and the Chinese Writer’s Union. He used these positions to promote professionalism, criticize the nation’s stagnating intellectual life, and decry the idea that writers could only focus on the lives of workers, peasants and soldiers – didn’t other people’s lives matter, too? In March of 1954, he drafted a 300,000 word “Report on the Real Situation in Literature and Art Since Liberation” and submitted it to Xi Zhongxun – the father of current president Xi Jinping, who then supervised cultural policies for the Party – who reportedly welcomed it. For good measure, Hu appended a long letter to the Politburo complaining that he had been ostracized and deprived of his right to work, and asking them to intercede.

Chairman Mao did not respond well. On the contrary, he personally helped launch a campaign against “Hu Fengism,” which was rolled out nationwide to drill home the dictate that every individual must subsume his will to that of the Party and the State. Members of Hu’s “clique” – most of whom he had never met – were rounded up and arrested. Hu and his wife were taken away in the middle of the night while their three young children slept – she was imprisoned for 70 months and he for 10 and a half years. Mei Zhi’s account opens at this point, in 1965, when she has heard nothing from her husband for a decade and fears he may be dead – but he isn’t.

Out of the blue, she is informed that she can visit him at Qincheng Prison. “Ten years without ever seeing someone dear to you. What will he be like? Will he be the man of my dreams? Will I recognize him?” They talk about family and, inevitably, politics, since she is under intense pressure to make him confess and repent, even though she knows he won’t – “Hu Feng didn’t know how to play it safe and always ended up saying what he thought, so he became the victim of an unprecedented onslaught.” Hu bemoans all the people who were implicated and suffered because of him but steadfastly maintains his innocence. “I was always being told to confess but I had nothing to confess,” he tells her at one point, at another, “I have not lost faith in the Party.”

The visits continue – she brings food, but he wants books, so she lugs him a Japanese edition of the complete works of Marx and Engels – and finally he is released. He sees his children, now grown, they celebrate Chinese New Year and plan to rebuild their lives. The reader sees the Cultural Revolution coming like an impending train wreck, but they do not. They are sent to Sichuan – for their own safety – and live in exile, carving out a life together even as they are sent to ever more remote areas. Then, in 1967, Hu is arrested again and Mei Zhi is left to fend for herself in a mountain prison camp. When Hu is returned to her five years later, he is a man broken in body and spirit, afraid even to eat a tangerine: “If I eat that, they’ll denounce me.” He leaps to attention in the middle of the night, calls himself a murderer, spy and traitor and becomes increasingly paranoid. “I would restore him,” Mei Zhi vows. She makes progress, but after the death of Zhou Enlai, which leaves him sobbing, he worsens, hearing voices talking to him through the air and threatening her with a kitchen knife while imagining he is trying to save Chairman Mao. She begs him to recover: “If you can survive, we will have won. You must live.”

He does live, he is freed, he is exonerated. And then his body betrays him, just as his Party had, cancerous cells devouring his heart. “How he longed to stay alive!” Mei Zhi, ever faithful to the man for whom she has sacrificed so much, promises him, posthumously, to “spend the rest of my life washing the remnants of dirt from your face and showing your true features to the world!”

Mei Zhi is gone, but her mission remains important – Hu Feng still matters and his case is well worth our study. Artistic and literary expression still sometimes get writers and artists detained, and jailed – and, in the worst cases, innocent spouses suffer too, just like Mei Zhi. Hu’s ideas also remain critically important. Debates between those who advocate the May Fourth Spirit and those who prefer something closer to Mao’s Yanan vision remain very much alive – and Yanan, in recent years, is gaining ground. President Xi has called for “innovation, innovation, innovation” and the Chinese government has done much to promote the creative arts. But history has proven that Hu was correct – real innovation and creativity can happen only when artists and innovators are given the space and the freedom to test their own ideas, express their own creativity, and make their own mistakes, without fear of punishment. We should all continue to support Mei Zhi’s quest, and learn from Hu Feng.

 

All is forgiven

December 10, 2014

I spent the 1990s fuming about Microsoft Office and its regular-as-clockwork crashes. But I now realise that I was wrong.

Why? Because of this.

Or in video format if you prefer:

In fact I see that Gates has written a full review of How Asia Works, here.

Joined-up colonialism

December 3, 2014

COUTK 4 COUTK 5

COUTK 3 COUTK 1

COUTK 2 COUTK 6

 

I recently mentioned a compelling new edition of Han Suyin’s beautiful novel And the Rain My Drink, about British conduct in the war against communist insurgency in Malaya after the Second World War.

As luck would have it, writing about British colonial perfidy seems to be the genre du jour, as one of my very favourite journalists, Ed Vulliamy (never met him), files a long investigative report about British conduct in Greece from late 1945 on. It is much the best thing I have read in The Observer for some time, and completely free.

Add a couple more case studies from South Africa, Kenya or Ireland, and we have the beginnings of a joined-up history of British colonialism.

That said, there are marks on both sides of the ledger. As Brave Dave Cameron observed on his visit to India last year: ‘I think there is an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British empire did and was responsible for. But of course there were bad events as well as good events. The bad events we should learn from and the good events we should celebrate.’

He’s right. The Carry On movies were tremendous, a real boon to my childhood. And It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum, not bad either.

Possibly one of those days that the world changed (for the better)

November 12, 2014

This looks like very big news.

Obama and Xi Jinping have reached an understanding (no written agreement, mainly — I am guessing — because of the difficulty of ratifying one in a Republican-dominated congress) on curbing carbon energy emissions.

I am just pasting the New York Times coverage below. You can also click through to a supporting opinion piece by John Kerry.

Some immediate thoughts:

  1. China is promising that its carbon emissions will peak, at the latest, in 2030. Cynics will say the Chinese have not said what the peak will be, or limited it. However China’s carbon emissions per unit of GDP are already officially targeted to fall 40-45% 2020 vs 2005. And China has set and met/is meeting targets to cut energy consumption per unit of GDP 19% in 2005-10 and 16% in 2010-15. These targets were in the last two five-year plans and it would be hard to move away from what is now a 10-year trajectory line in cutting energy intensity in forthcoming five-year plans. In sum, I think the emissions peak by 2030 is a very meaningful target that will not be rendered meaningless by political jiggery-pokery.
  2. China also promised to make renewables 20% of total energy production by 2030. Last year was the first one in which Chinese installation of renewables’ generating capacity exceeded that of carbon electricity generating capacity. A cursory reflection on the numbers suggests to me that installation of power generation capacity going forward will, in just a few years, be almost all renewable in order to achieve the 2030 target. (If your ‘investment advisor’ has not already shorted the stock of Harbin Electric and Dongfang Electric, the two most exposed coal turbine and boiler makers, sack him/her. You probably don’t want to own Shanghai Electric either.)
  3. The US has promised huge cuts versus trend line carbon emissions, too. More cerebrally-challenged Republicans are already doing their nuts.
  4. Obama is back. He’s done healthcare. Now he might go down as the President who saved the planet. So much for playing too much golf…
  5. Xi Jinping’s domestic position goes from strength to strength. But it is a little frightening when one guy commands so much popular support in a society with too few checks and balances on executive power.
  6. Here’s a speculative thought. If the delivery of this understanding turns out to be as good as what appears to be written on the tin, the Nobel Committee will have to think very seriously about giving Obama and Xi a joint Peace Prize. At first blush that might seem a tough choice for the committee, given China’s human rights record and the anti-dissent crackdown under Xi. But should a prize be given, it would be even tougher on President Xi. How could he accept after Liu Xiaobo already got the prize in 2010? This is very premature, but I throw out the thought.

Meanwhile, make a note of where you were when you heard this potentially historic news. I was in the library.

U.S. and China Reach Deal on Climate Change in Secret Talks

By

NOV. 11, 2014

President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China were greeted by children during a ceremony inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Wednesday. Credit Feng Li/Getty Images

BEIJING — China and the United States made common cause on Wednesday against the threat of climate change, staking out an ambitious joint plan to curb carbon emissions as a way to spur nations around the world to make their own cuts in greenhouse gases.

The landmark agreement, jointly announced here by President Obama and President Xi Jinping, includes new targets for carbon emissions reductions by the United States and a first-ever commitment by China to stop its emissions from growing by 2030.

Administration officials said the agreement, which was worked out secretly between the United States and China over nine months and included a letter from Mr. Obama to Mr. Xi proposing a joint approach, could galvanize efforts to negotiate a new global climate agreement by 2015.

Related in Opinion

  • Op-Ed Contributor: John Kerry: Our Historic Agreement With China on Climate ChangeNOV. 11, 2014

It was the signature achievement of an unexpectedly productive two days of meetings between the leaders. Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi also agreed to a military accord designed to avert clashes between Chinese and American planes and warships in the tense waters off the Chinese coast, as well as an understanding to cut tariffs for technology products.

A climate deal between China and the United States, the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 carbon polluters, is viewed as essential to concluding a new global accord. Unless Beijing and Washington can resolve their differences, climate experts say, few other countries will agree to mandatory cuts in emissions, and any meaningful worldwide pact will be likely to founder.

“The United States and China have often been seen as antagonists,” said a senior official, speaking in advance of Mr. Obama’s remarks. “We hope that this announcement can usher in a new day in which China and the U.S. can act much more as partners.”

As part of the agreement, Mr. Obama announced that the United States would emit 26 percent to 28 percent less carbon in 2025 than it did in 2005. That is double the pace of reduction it targeted for the period from 2005 to 2020.

China’s pledge to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030, if not sooner, is even more remarkable. To reach that goal, Mr. Xi pledged that so-called clean energy sources, like solar power and windmills, would account for 20 percent of China’s total energy production by 2030.

Administration officials acknowledged that Mr. Obama could face opposition to his plans from a Republican-controlled Congress. While the agreement with China needs no congressional ratification, lawmakers could try to roll back Mr. Obama’s initiatives, undermining the United States’ ability to meet the new reduction targets.

Still, Mr. Obama’s visit, which came days after a setback in the midterm elections, allowed him to reclaim some of the momentum he lost at home. As the campaign was turning against the Democrats last month, Mr. Obama quietly dispatched John Podesta, a senior adviser who oversees climate policy, to Beijing to try to finalize a deal.

For all the talk of collaboration, the United States and China also displayed why they are still fierce rivals for global economic primacy, promoting competing free-trade blocs for the Asian region even as they reached climate and security deals.

The maneuvering came during a conference of Pacific Rim economies held in Beijing that has showcased China’s growing dominance in Asia, but also the determination of the United States, riding a resurgent economy, to reclaim its historical role as a Pacific power.

Adding to the historic nature of the visit, Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi were scheduled to give a joint news conference on Wednesday that will include questions from reporters — a rare concession by the Chinese leader to a visiting American president.

On Tuesday evening, Mr. Xi invited Mr. Obama to dinner at his official residence, telling his guest he hoped they had laid the foundation for a collaborative relationship — or, as he more metaphorically put it, “A pool begins with many drops of water.”

Greeting Mr. Obama at the gate of the walled leadership compound next to the Forbidden City, Mr. Xi squired him across a brightly lighted stone bridge and into the residence. Mr. Obama told the Chinese president that he wanted to take the relationship “to a new level.”

“When the U.S. and China are able to work together effectively,” he added, “the whole world benefits.”

But as the world witnessed this week, it is more complicated than that. Mr. Xi won approval Tuesday from the 21 countries of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to study the creation of a China-led free-trade zone that would be an alternative to Mr. Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trading bloc that excludes China.

On Monday, Mr. Obama met with members of that group here and claimed progress in negotiating the partnership, a centerpiece of his strategic shift to Asia.

Negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership are much further along than those for the nascent Chinese plan, known as the Free Trade Area of Asia Pacific, and some analysts said the approval by the Pacific Rim nations of a two-year study was mainly a gesture to the Chinese hosts to give them something to announce at the meeting.

For all the jockeying, the biggest trade headline was a breakthrough in negotiations with China to eliminate tariffs on information technology products, from video-game consoles and computer software to medical equipment and semiconductors.

How to make enemies and alienate people…

October 6, 2014

Here is the FT op-ed I wrote over the weekend. It just went live on their online edition.

Can’t say it is likely to get me many tycoon dinner invites, but I do think it is true:

 

 

October 6, 2014 5:14 pm

Hong Kong should focus its fight on the tycoon economy

The real target is the anti-competitive, anti-consumer economy, writes Joe Studwell
A woman holds a placard at a large pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong on October 1, 2014. Hong Kong has been plunged into the worst political crisis since its 1997 handover as pro-democracy activists take over the streets following China's refusal to grant citizens full universal suffrage. AFP PHOTO / ALEX OGLE (Photo credit should read Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images)©AFP

Hong Kong stepped back from the brink on Friday night, when chief executive CY Leung belatedly authorised a senior official to “hold talks” with protesters and those same protesters decided, for now, not to enter government buildings. It was a fortunate outcome. Beijing would characterise the occupation of official property as an attack on the Chinese state.

What Hong Kong needs is not a strategy that backs Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, into a corner, but one that resonates with his own mindset. This is why the protesters should refocus on Hong Kong’s tycoon economy, and the anti-competitive, anti-consumer arrangements that define it. You may think,like the Heritage Foundation, that Hong Kong is a free market. However, except for external trade, it is not. Instead it is what one of the richest men in the city once described to me as “a nice bowl of fish soup”. That soup is fed to the few, making ordinary people poorer, stoking resentment, and indirectly contributing to acute pollution.

Cartels are everywhere in Hong Kong. Supermarkets are a duopoly, one whose pricing power allows the chains to charge higher prices for the same products in some of Hong Kong’s most deprived areas. Drug stores are a duopoly. Buses are a cartel: high-priced, mostly cash-only, running shoddy, dirty diesel vehicles with drivers who earn a pittance. Electricity is provided by two, expensive monopolies that handle everything from generation to distribution, one on Hong Kong island and the other in Kowloon. The container ports are an oligopoly, with the world’s highest handling charges. Yet they will not supply onshore electricity to vessels, which must instead run diesel generators that pollute the city air.

The biggest stitch-up remains the lousy construction standards and sky-high costs in a residential property market dominated by the “Four Families”, which in the 1990s were estimated to be selling property for between two and four times what it cost to develop.

You may think of the territory as a free market but, except for external trade, it is not

Add in the jiggery-pokery of a Boys’ Own stock market with 1970s-style governance, and a taxation system that tycoons circumvent by taking out their money through tax-free dividends, and you begin to get the picture.

Hong Kong has had a Competition Ordinance and a Competition Commission since 2012. But so far nothing has changed. In a striking contrast with mainland China, where the Communist party after 1989 first increased transfer payments to the urban poor, and then increased transfers and cut taxes for the rural poor in the 2000s, the Hong Kong government lets a colonial rentier economy carry merrily on.

Mr Xi launched his new administration with not only a brutal anti-corruption campaign, but also an anti-monopoly drive. Unfortunately he seems unaware that Hong Kong is at least as rigged as the mainland.

So here is a plan. Speak to Mr Xi in terms he understands. Refocus the protests on the cartels. I am no protester, but it is not hard to think of peaceful tactics that would be difficult for the tycoons to ignore as they sweep into their basement car parks and ascend in private elevators to their penthouse offices. Where possible, boycott the cartels.

Would this be the end for the tycoons? Not at all. In my experience they are people of extraordinary entrepreneurial acumen. Like all of us, they enjoy a capacious free lunch. But if that is taken away they will adjust and add more value to the economy by doing so.

It is time for Hong Kong to work for the majority. If the protesters make Mr Xi understand the economic problem, it becomes easier to compromise on the politics – probably with a more open nomination process in 2022. I hold, perhaps wrongly, that Beijing’s intransigence is born of ignorance, not malice.


The writer is author of ‘How Asia Works: success and failure in the world’s most dynamic region’

 

More:

This just went up from Han Donfang. Very much worth a read. The lead explains who he is if you do not know.

And here is a nice piece from The Age about CY Leung trousering US$7m during the sale of his insolvent firm. Now that is leadership.

10 seconds of unprovoked HK police brutality

October 3, 2014

See here. HK policeman swings around a middle-aged, passive protester so he can spray pepper spray directly into his face and eyes.

Anti-protest thugs have been attacking the Occupy movement in Causeway Bay (HK island) and Mong Kok (Kowloon) today. Police not responding to/unable to cope with this. Looks like Beijing United Front / state security people up to no good. Old-fashioned Italian-style ‘Strategy of Tension’ that allows government to sell itself as the good guys riding to the rescue amid civil chaos. Except that in Italy the protesters included terrorists who were killing people. In Hong Kong it is just kids who clean up after themselves. People on the ground in Hong Kong say students so far not reacting, moving away. Student leaders have called on those in Mong Kok to leave and come to the government offices area in Admiralty where international press is concentrated and numbers are larger.

Key link:

Here is the livestream feed from HK. Not looking good UK 1330/HK 2030.

More:

This video purports to show Hong Kong police handing out blue, anti-protest ribbons to anti-protesters in a police station. Pretty appalling if true.

Hemlock is singing a similar tune to me re. the tycoons. The point he quotes from Nicholas Bequelin is brilliantly incisive.


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