One of the most popular iPad apps in Beijing at present is China Air Pollution Index. The app is both addictive and disturbing. When I checked into a Beijing hotel recently, I found that – even from the 40th floor – I couldn’t see further than one block because of the grey smog enveloping the city. So I checked the numbers and discovered that the AQ level, which measures fine particulates that are especially dangerous, was 250 – about five times the level deemed safe.
Activists of the Indian right-wing Hindu organisation Shiv Sena burn a Chinese flag in protest against troops moving into Indian-controlled territory on April 25 (NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images)
Rising tensions with Japan are evidently not enough to keep China busy. The People’s Liberation Army has now also pitched tents in a bit of disputed territory, controlled by India, creating an embarrassing security dilemma for the Delhi government. Official India’s initial reaction has been to play the incident down. I encountered an Indian diplomat in Beijing last week, who speculated that the whole thing was probably an initiative by an over-zealous local Chinese commander – and assured me that it would all be smoothed over. But that was five days ago, now – and the Chinese are still there.
As a result, the Indian government is increasingly open to charges of weakness – or even appeasement. Brahma Chellaney, one of India’s most hawkish commentators, fumes that “China is encroaching little by little on Indian land” and accuses the government of Manmohan Singh of “bending over backward at a time of aggression”. Read more
Over the past year, there have been security and war scares all over East Asia – but Taiwan, the traditional hot spot, remained strikingly cool. In recent months, Japan and China have jostled over their disputed islands and the North Koreans have threatened America and the South with nuclear weapons. By contrast, Taiwan has not been at the centre of a good war scare since the Straits crisis of 1996. Visiting the island, a few weeks ago, I was told by a senior member of the security establishment that – “We look like an island of calm in a boiling sea.”
Perhaps the Taiwanese were feeling left out? Because, together with China, they have succeeded in creating some waves over the past week. First, the Taiwanese government staged its first live-fire security exercise since 2008. And this event was swiftly followed by the revelation that China has deployed missiles near the island that are capable of threatening American aircraft carriers. This is significant, because the carriers are the basis of American power in the Pacific. And, in the Straits crisis of the mid-90s, it was the dispatch of US carriers to the area that signalled that America was taking a tough stance. Read more
If commodities exporters were pinning hopes on an acceleration in Chinese growth, Monday was not a good start to the week. The disappointing gross domestic product statistics for the first quarter give the likes of Australia, Brazil and Indonesia plenty to be worried about.
As one investor put it: “For the global economy this data is bad news. Commodity exporters are screwed (especially those needing exports to China as key component). I would be very worried about places like Brazil, Indonesia, Australia and the like. The current level of GDP growth in China is OK with China but not OK for the currencies above.” Read more
What next for the Brics?
The Brics started life as a marketing gimmick dreamt up by Goldman Sachs to promote emerging markets, but the notion has taken on a life of its own and this group of nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – are now a formal organisation who have just met for their fifth summit. In this week’s podcast, Gideon Rachman is joined by Stefan Wagstyl, editor of beyondbrics, and Andrew England, South Africa correspondent, reporting from Durban, where the group has agreed to set up a Brics-led development bank. But do the Brics matter, what unites and divides these nations, and are we likely to still be discussing this group in ten years’ time?
In 2005, Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina’s seminal, satirical essay, How to Write About Africa, urged outsiders to conjure descriptions that are “romantic and evocative and unparticular”, talk of safari animals, the African light, big skies and always “treat Africa as if it were one country”.
On those criteria, new China president Xi Jinping’s cliché-heavy first speech on African turf as head of state has measured up all too well. Addressing Tanzanian dignitaries in a Chinese-built conference hall on his first trip to Africa as head of state, Xi spoke of his welcome being “as warm and as unforgettable as the sunshine in Africa” and characterised the economy as “forging ahead like a galloping African lion”.
He also spoke of the warm reception received by a Chinese television series in Tanzania and told a story about a young Chinese couple who honeymooned in the Serengeti and wrote a blogpost on their return that was a bit of a hit in China, which said: “We have completely fallen in love with Africa and our hearts will always be in this land.”
In a blow to Xi’s stated aim of treating Africans as “equals”, Wainaina said the tone of the imagery offered “cheap sentiment” that “smacks of paternalism”.
“China’s charm offensive seems to want to assume there are no serious cultural and intellectual exchanges and conversations to be had,” said Wainaina after reading excerpts of the speech. “I do not get a sense of what Africans are thinking and planning… what African thinkers mean to a growing China. If a Chinese leader cannot begin to articulate what Africa is to them with more substance, Africans should be worried.”
Such sentiments should also worry China, which seems to be failing in its efforts to sidestep allegations of neo-colonial attitudes that mar Africa’s relations the west and to deliver the “bosom” friendship Xi said he espouses. Read more
Today brought yet another headline about the apparently relentless rise of the Chinese economy. The OECD predicts that China will be the world’s largest economy (in PPP terms) by 2016. Not long, now.
Yet there are still many China bears – both inside the country and outside it. Those who suggest that there is something rotten in the state of China point to many things, from the environment to corruption. One of the most popular bearish arguments is the extent of capital flight from the country. If everything is so good in China – say the bears – how come so many rich Chinese are eager to get their money out of the country? Perhaps they know something we don’t? Read more
Xi Jinping (Getty)
Fresh from his “surprise” election as president of China last week, Xi Jinping is about to set off on his first foreign trip. Later this week, he will travel to Moscow. The choice is a traditional one, and redolent of the Cold War, when Russia and China were the twin pillars of the Communist world.
Back then, China was the junior partner in the relationship. These days, although the Russians would be reluctant to acknowledge it, China is the more important partner – simply because of the sheer size and dynamism of its economy.
That said, there is a time lag in the way the two countries behave on the international stage. Russia is no longer a superpower, but still has the instinct to demand a central role in the settlement of the big international issues – just look at the role that the Russians have assumed over Syria. By contrast, China is an emerging superpower, but is still loath to take the lead on international issues outside of its immediate neighbourhood. Read more
Peng Liyuan performs in 2007 (Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty)
The talking point of the Chinese leadership transition has so far centred on the President-elect and his austerity drive on gift-giving. But today his celebrity folk singer wife – Peng Liyuan – swept to centre stage, following the revelation that she will not only be accompanying him on his first foreign tour, but also giving a speech.
The move is a departure from the treatment afforded to the wife of the outgoing President, Hu Jintao. It would seem that, rather than the silent companion of yore, Xi Jinping is keen for his wife to play a key ambassadorial role.
A cursory look at pictures of her performing across China show an array of brightly coloured outfits – her repertoire of different looks could rival those of Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the wife of the former French President. Another link between the two women is that both were independently famous as singers before marrying their politician-husbands. Read more
By Gideon Rachman
“Our intercontinental ballistic missiles are on standby … If we push the button, they will blast off and their barrage will turn Washington, the stronghold of American imperialists and the nest of evil … into a sea of fire.”