Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Lu Wei And The Larger War Against Corruption In China


It took a year and a half, but finally we’ve been told why China’s high-profile former Internet czar Lu Wei [鲁炜] lost his job.

He’s a sleaze and he was getting dangerous.

That’s according to the official announcement that appeared Tuesday evening on Chinese Central Television, accusing Lu of doing everything wrong from Party conduct (“feigned compliance, sought to dupe central authorities” [阳奉阴违、欺骗中央]) to his conduct at parties (“frequented private clubs, vigorously engaged in self-promotion” [频繁出入私人会所,大搞特权]).

Read as a whole, it’s a damning list, one that, for example, charges Lu with abuse of power for personal gain, and receiving payments to accrue illicit wealth [以权谋私,收钱敛财]. Lu “engaged in intrigues without any sense of shame [以权谋色、毫无廉耻], the report alleges, using language often leveled at officials who sought to construct their own political fiefdom and ignore directives from the Party leadership. For his actions, Lu’s assets are being seized, and he’s being expelled from the Party and will almost certainly be jailed.

Shades of Bo Xilai, and of Zhou Yongkang

There’s likely to be all sorts of the usual commentary after-the-fact about what Lu did and why Beijing was particularly angry. We’ll be told that this is what Xi’s anticorruption campaign is about (it isn’t; it’s far more than just taking down "tigers"); that if the Party doesn’t stop graft, it’s legitimacy is called into question (it can’t stop graft, and legitimacy as it’s understood outside China is irrelevant inside China); and Lu’s case occurred because of the need to send a message to other high officials (as if they didn’t know that already). It’s very unlikely that any of that analysis—which never predicted any of this--will explain why it took so long to bring Lu to book.

And that’s the real question here: What took so long?

It’s rather strange.

Lu clearly did a lot of stupid things, convinced that he could get away with being a bore and, according to the report, stiff-arming inspection tours sent into his administrative patch to investigate his realm and apparently his leadership style.[1] The account just released appears to indicate that some in the Chinese leadership didn’t like Lu or his methods, and hadn’t for some time.

Plus, Lu didn't have a lot of friendly comrades in some provinces and places--more than a few provincial and local officials resented the various ways he and his people tried to exercise social control at the very moment Beijing was emphasizing innovation.

Surely if the central leadership wanted to move against Lu, they should have had the horses to do so.

But maybe they didn’t.

There’s no real way to know at this point. It could be that making a case against Lu took a year and a half because the scope of his malfeasance was so broad and deep. That seems to be what at least part of the account is saying, with its long list.

But it’s the other part of the report that should give even greater pause. That’s the one that says that Lu was nefarious because he could get away with it—and that it took this long to take Lu down because his political support was so strong. Maybe Lu is a terrible person, but he seems to have been a tremendous tactician to have lasted so long.

There’s another possibility here: That Lu wasn’t smart so much as the anticorruption forces have been divided as of late.

After all, there have been debates in recent months about just what Xi’s crusade against graft entails--and that’s happened before, usually leading to a pause in prosecutions (or at least public notice of them). Healthy as those reconsiderations may be for the anticorruption campaign as a whole, it’s likely that these discussions have slowed down investigators because they’re looking to Beijing for clarity about what sort of conduct should be condemned and what type tolerated, and who should be targeted.

For example, if the scale of corruption is important, then surely Lu and former Chongqing Party Secretary Sun Zhengcai are prime targets. How deep and wide the level of graft and misbehavior is seems to matter—that there’s some sort of a tripwire that really attracts Beijing’s attention. That could be one message.

At the same time, if taking advantage of public funds in any form is the focus, then lower-level officials need to be brought up on charges, which is also what’s been happening in recent days, with a gaggle of local government officials reprimanded for dining out, giving gifts and granting various favors.

In other words, there now seem to be two anticorruption campaigns being waged, instead of one. One track is about leaders, and so Lu and Sun get toppled and charged. The other track focuses on the daily graft that goes on in China’s localities.

Maybe Lu’s demise is a signal that a more coordinated anti-graft crusade is getting underway. But it’s more likely Beijing still can’t decide who the larger enemy is—officials such as Lu, or the culture of corruption that produces people like him and allows them to last so long.








[1] It’s likely that the next few weeks will see pro-Beijing publications in Hong Kong run selected stories about Lu and his salacious and outrageous conduct, to strengthen the case against him in the minds of midlevel officials and bureaucrats here.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Not Yet Ready For Takeoff--Or Even Talking



Like most regional Communist Party newspapers in China, Nanjing Daily [南京日] winds down on the weekend, taking a pause from the usual heavy dose of local politics.

But this past Sunday, one of the articles there asked a rather pressing and impertinent question: If China’s aircraft carriers are supposed to be the vanguard of a new national naval doctrine, why is the fighter plane they carry obsolete?


Of course, the question wasn’t phrased that way: the query as posed was, “How Should Our Country Choose The Next Generation of Carrier-Based Aircraft?” [我国下一代舰载战斗机会如何选?]

But it amounts to the same thing—a critique, an interrogation of sorts, a bit of a broadside aimed at the high-profile aircraft carrier program, a question that someone is asking because it’s not been answered, and some think it ought to be.

The very appearance of such an essay (one that took up almost the entire page)[1] is noteworthy for a number of reasons.

First, there's Beijing admitting some unease with part of its military planning.

The article contends that the existing J-15 Shenyang fighter [-15 沈阳] “is a very excellent heavy multipurpose carrier aircraft, but it belongs to the 3rd generation of fighters after all, so the shortcomings are very obvious.” [它是一款非常优秀的重型双发多用途舰载机,但它毕竟属于第三代战斗机,不足之处也十分明显.]

That view is a striking departure from the widespread adulation that followed the J-15’s first operational takeoff as well as the praise that appeared in the Chinese media a few years ago.

Second, that the article appeared at all.

There are no secrets spilled: No documents, transcripts of deliberations, or interviews with the usual uniform or uniformed or uninformed experts appear. But the article did go into detail about foreign jet fighters (weapon systems, bomb and fuel loads, ejection and safety systems, and doctrine). By doing so, the piece gave careful readers a sense of what worries Chinese aircraft designers about the technical challenges they face and the military competition from other nations. Usually those topics are keep below the waterline.

Then there’s also the fact that the article originated in a non-military media outletChina Youth Daily [中国青年报].

China Youth Daily had been known for its strident approach on many policy matters[2], and it’s likely that the author was directed by Party officials to write about the inability of the defense establishment here to make a decision.

In cases like this one, the matter is deemed to be too sensitive for a military newspaper to speak of directly, as doing so would reflect badly on the current military establishment and the Party leadership they supposed to serve. So, notice of the indecision would be subcontracted to another outlet, to raise again an issue that, for some at least (probably naval officers), wasn’t getting much attention.

But even that attempt ran into trouble evidently, because it took over a week for the main news agency of Xinhua to reprint the piece and thus provide the imprimatur of central authorities. China’s main military newspaper, for its part, republished the original essay only a few days after Xinhua did so--probably because it was at that point that its editors believed that they could slipstream behind Beijing’s consent.

And that’s where the public discussion sat, until this past weekend when Nanjing Daily was able to--or perhaps instructed to--revisit the problem by putting the piece back into print.

So while some Chinese officials hadn’t wanted to disclose that there was a debate raging in the Navy about what planes it needs for its vaunted and expensive aircraft carriers, they seem to have been overruled. Those who want a decision are now more able to revisit the problem—or at least try to.

Given Nanjing’s high military profile, this city is as good a place as any in China to restart the conversation, and to see if a decision can be reached about just what the Navy needs and if the nation can produce that--or if China needs to once again go abroad to buy military technology.

And this is no small decision—which is perhaps why there’s been so much wobbling on the issue. The type of fighter aircraft chosen will reflect--or dictate—China’s military doctrine, whether its aircraft carriers are designed primarily as strike-forces or defense shields. Doctrine is driving some of these decisions, of course; but choices made well before—such as a massive investment in the carriers themselves—are pushing the discussion, and they involve politics.

For example, enabling Chinese civilian media to ask what aircraft might now be best is in itself a veiled criticism of previous decisions, because the expectation was that the jets presently based on carriers would surely have a longer shelf life. Why would Beijing buy Russian jets for itself unless as an interim measure to develop a domestic military manufacturing capability in the meantime? Or wasn’t that a wise decision after all—and, incidentally, who made it? The article and its broken voyage of publication reflect the sensitivity of the matter, and the reluctance to broach it.

There are larger issues at stake then—more than how best to equip an aircraft carrier or three. Perhaps China will be a major military threat to US and other interests in the region. Maybe China already is, or ends up being little more than a regional power trying to punch above its own weight.

Those are answers no one here or abroad actually yet know. That uncertainty will persist so long as Beijing remains undecided about whether it even wants to ask some of the necessary questions.




[1] The Sunday edition of Nanjing Daily carries fewer pages, though one of the sections focuses on Chinese military developments—in part because of the large number of military personnel and retired officers based here.

[2] Some observers outside China think that Global Times [环球时报] plays that role, but there’s often quite a difference between the English-language version they grab and the Chinese edition that everyone else here reads. Global Times is a far more complicated publication that many credit it for, especially on domestic issues in China. In the 1990s and into the following decade, China Youth Daily was known to many here as the newspaper run and read by China’s “angry youth” [], reflecting a hardline and uncompromising stance towards the United States in particular. For many readers, that’s still its attraction. Conservatives who want a more public hearing for their views will use the paper as a platform to raise matters they think aren’t receiving enough attention, to put pressure on officials to enter (or re-enter) into debate.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Two Snowstorms, Two Contrasting Interpretations About What It All Means


As if two recent snowstorms weren’t enough for Nanjing officials to contend with, there now seem to be two competing interpretations of the lesson to be learned from that experience.

The first interpretation appeared shortly after the city’s impressive cleanup was largely concluded and was rather militaristic.[1] The blizzards were battles, the local Party media said, and they were won because of the city and provincial-level governments, the military, and the masses. Particular credit was given to official institutions and their preparation and energetic response. The snowstorms were struggles--sieges, really--but Nanjing had triumphed. Time to celebrate, and then move on.

That takeaway received more reinforcement in the form of Thursday’s edition of Nanjing Daily [南京日], which included a 20-page supplement, entitled “The Decisive Engagement Against Ice and Snow” [决战冰雪].[2]


The section, full of pictures of cadres and citizens alike, led off with an essay that described Nanjing’s various city districts’ response to the storm’s “surprise attack before dawn” [凌晨袭] . Officials and others here, according to the account, believed that “Nanjing is very sound! In the ultimate battle with ice and snow, Nanjing can win!” [南京很拼!决战冰雪,南京能赢] . It was that martial spirit and the mobilisation it engendered, this interpretation has it, which proved decisive.

There’s no disputing that there was city-wide determination on display, and that a pair of storms that might have paralyzed other places for days was dealt with expeditiously here in Nanjing.

But sliding in between these clarion calls of battles waged and won was a somewhat different analysis of what it all meant.  

Just the day before the lengthy supplement above was distributed, an unsigned (and thus authoritative) commentary appeared in Nanjing Daily.

The commentary, titled “The successful fight against the blizzards highlights the city 's ‘inner strength’ [成功抗击暴雪彰显城市内功’],” struggled to give credit for the city's triumph while being cautionary.

The piece stated that while it might be appropriate to conceive of Nanjing’s response to the snowstorms as “a battle that has just been won,” the event actually offers the chance for “a major review of the city's ability to govern”--“a new opportunity for a new starting point…to promote the city governance system and modernize its capacity.”

That’s because, the essay argues, “governance capacity depends on not only the circumstances of normal governance, but also the level of emergency management under abnormal conditions, especially the ability of city managers to respond to emergencies.”

So it's right to draw lessons from the experience--but they need to be the correct ones, the commentary is saying.

One lesson, the commentary contends, is that “it’s actually very hard to use very powerful force” [用非常之力,竟非常之功]— a classical aphorism [成语] which usually denotes that authority is often limited in its reach. In this instance, the essay implies that mass power—or mobilizing the masses--doesn’t solve all problems, that there’s more to governance than gathering up volunteers and going all-out. What made the campaign mentality possible was Nanjing's way of governing, according to the commentary.

Nanjing's approach revolves around the notion that “this is the age of examiners, where we [the government] administer and evaluate tests, and so do the people.” [时代是出卷人,我们是答卷人,人民是阅卷人] . 

In other words, each side has expectations of the other, and decisions by authority are not made in a vacuum--they are and will be evaluated not only by cadres and bureaucrats, but residents.

This commentary then seems to be arguing a different line—that the results on performance aren’t all in yet. Beating the snowstorm might have been a battle, the essay concedes. But policymaking in Chinese cities isn’t a war to be waged, so much as an ongoing process by which government tries to prove itself as both concerned and competent all the time. “Inner strength” makes it possible to be outstanding when crises such as these snowstorms appear, but that needs to be nurtured.

It's as if some officials in Nanjing would prefer a little less backslapping and a little more back-and-forth. And it may well be that these are reformers within the Party speaking yet again about alternatives that are available, policy options that need further reinforcement, experiments that merit support.

There’s an even larger issue in play here.

A consistent political line is crucial in China. It reflects the prevailing view of the Party and government leadership, and indicates that decision-makers have achieved consensus. When such a line exists, it provides a route for the State-controlled media to run stories on, and enables readers (that is and often especially, other officials) to see what leaders think and proceed accordingly. Debates and discussion, as well as implementation, go more smoothly, because both upper and lower echelons of authority are clear about what’s permitted and what’s not. 

So for Nanjing to be showing two separate lines about a major event—one of those saying that the Party-led government triumphed, and the other saying that the situation really deserves further study—has to concern some local officials, if only because of the lack of clarity in where to go from here. Some provincial-level cadres might also be a bit worried.

Maybe this is a rift that provides an opportunity for open debate about just what city governments should be focusing on. 

But there’s already some space between how Beijing wants to proceed with national policies and what Nanjing believes will work locally. Nanjing will need to be careful to secure consensus within its own walls soon, lest its ability to chart its own course melts away as quickly as the snow here is is already starting to.







[1] Perry Link speaks of the use of military metaphors in his An Anatomy of Chinese (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), pp. 251-254, but he doesn’t make it entirely clear if he thinks that they’re being employed more now than in previous decades. 

[2] Normally, the various large kiosks that display the daily editions of Nanjing Daily put up every page for passersby to read and are changed regularly. Thursday’s, containing the supplement, was evidently too long to be posted, and so, in at least some kiosks, the previous day’s edition remained in place.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Wang Qishan Is Back And Going Places


And that’s great news.

It’s great news for the people of Hunan, whom he will be representing as a deputy in China’s National People’s Congress. There’s even the chance that Wang’s Qishan’s selection is just a prelude to him being named Vice-President when that legislative body meets in a couple of months—a position that could well enable Wang to continue to support President Xi Jinping and his programs.

And it’s great news for all of those analysts who predicted that Wang Qishan [王岐山] wouldn’t retire and would remain on the Politburo to continue being the anticorruption czar that Chinese officials feared and so many China Hands admired.

It’s important here not to mention that the latter prediction was utterly wrong. Nor should anyone note that it came from many of the same folks whose sage advice for some years was that China would be opening up economically and politically; that the new generation of China’s leaders wouldn’t be ideologues but technocrats; and that leadership succession in Beijing was becoming more institutionalized and therefore more predictable. There were many conferences and professional meetings about such themes, and those with such wisdom were well funded for their forecasts. Good for them; they did well, for themselves.

Maybe there’s material out there written by those who prognosticated such matters that explains why and how they missed so much--perhaps an extended essay or two (heck, maybe even a conference) as to what might be learned from those errors of analysis. There could be; but if there are any mea culpas about and ideas about how to avoid such problems in the future, they’re proving terribly difficult to locate.

In any event, let’s just not mention those things.

Here's what we should know: Nothing in the analysis of Chinese politics is easy. And there’s a planetary difference between those who examine Chinese sources and statements and do the hard slogging of actual reporting, and those who seem to rely on China Daily and their assistants for their weekly dollop of charting the country’s direction—and poke fun at those in the former camp.[1] It’s just that a little more humility and a lot less hubris in this project of trying to understand the nature and trajectory of Chinese politics wouldn’t go amiss.

But back to Wang Qishan.

Maybe he’s headed for Vice President, using the back door of China’s legislature to continue to help Xi. 

That's not inconceivable. Wang has been brilliant at many things, and he is purported to have a warm relationship with Xi.

At the same time, getting Wang elevated may not be (or have been) a political deal easily done. Indeed, forgotten in all the gushing about Wang by foreign diplomats and bankers and others who’ve shaken hands for photo ops with him is that Wang has made a whole lot of enemies in the party ranks with his anticorruption campaign; more than a few local officials haven’t been shy about privately condemning the crusade and Wang’s tactics. Actually, at this time last year, there were clear and strong signs that the antigraft crusade was being put aside for a time, probably in part because Beijing wanted to try other strategies and maybe also because local resistance and outright opposition to Wang and the campaign had taken a firmer hold. 

So, did Xi have to burn some political capital to get Wang back—that maybe Xi isn’t quite the dominant leader so many assure us Xi is, and that he now needs Wang to step back in, in some formal way?


Is it also possible that Wang isn’t exactly the fabulous mentor and political ally that many have made him out to be—or that he had been, but that Wang is worried that Xi is listening to advisers who have been urging the Party leader to double-down on the increasingly radical hardline and is desperate to be heard once more?

Is it at all conceivable that more than a few observers are projecting their own hopes on Wang—that he’s the latest version of, say, deposed Party leader Zhao Ziyang [紫阳] and former Premier Wen Jiaobao [温家宝] —where many Western analysts saw qualities that they wanted because the existing alternative was unpleasing? That is, could Wang's reappearance be bad news for those who hoped that liberal reform might at least be hiding out, holed up in the NPC?

Yes, and yes and yes.

It’s all possible.[2] Just as hardly anyone predicted that Wang would return to an official position of some power,[3] there’s not a lot of reason right now to think that Wang’s return is a major event--at least not yet. No one can know—which is fine, so long as those of us who try to decipher Chinese politics come out and say so.

Still, it’s strange stuff to be reading about Wang, especially the confidence among some quoted as if they know what this is all about. Up to now, Xi was in total command, and the National People’s Congress was a do-nothing, rubber-stamping legislative body. Suddenly, Wang being named as a NPC representative from Hunan is presented as a portent of a new political situation here in China. Nothing is said about what any of this means in terms of policy; just that Wang helps Xi with securing power that everyone was being told Xi had plenty of already.

Ok, maybe that’s fine. But really it's not.

Amidst all of this speculation, apparently there’s no possibility that Wang Qishan is a patriot and a loyal comrade; that he believes that the National People’s Congress does good and important work; and that still wants to serve the Party and the nation, even in a far more subdued role.[4]

Nah. Nuance isn’t nearly as much fun when nefarious explanations will do just as well.

Well, here’s another possibility.

If there’s one thing we do know about Wang Qishan is that he’s a warrior.

So, as the NBA trade deadline approaches and with growing concerns at Golden State if one of their stars were suddenly injured, expect Wang to be signed to a 10-day contract, coming off the bench to relieve Draymond Green at power forward.


Look for Wang Qishan to do a lot of posting-up, setting picks for the real scorers, and playing excellent defence on behalf of the team. 

After all, that's been Wang's role up to now and he clearly has a few moves left.

Long live Wang Qishan.




[1] If you have to ask yourself which camp you reside in, you’re in the latter one.

[2] That there is clear disagreement between the two best newspapers for reporting on China—The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times—about what Wang’s selection portends is telling and should be instructive. It probably won't be. 

[3] The media outlet that did predict that possibility and could well be on the mark with Wang--South China Morning Post-- is clearly receiving instructions from certain parties in Beijing to leak or spin information for an English-reading audience.

[4] After all, there’s precedent for that in Chinese politics: former Premier Zhu Rongji [], for one.