By Gideon Rachman
When judging forecasts about 2016, beware of the “continuity bias”. This is the temptation to assume that this year will be a bit like last year — only more so. In fact, recent political history suggests that the events that define a year tend to be the big surprises and sudden discontinuities (call them “black swans” or “unknown unknowns”, if you must).
By Gideon Rachman
“American and Chinese presidents do not really know how to talk to each other. They are like computers running on different operating systems.” That was the verdict once offered to me by a US official, who has watched many US-China summits from close quarters.
By Gideon Rachman
The gigantic military parade that will pass through Beijing on Thursday is meant to be all about the past. But, inevitably, many in the Asia-Pacific region will see it as a disturbing message about the future.
Most of the interest in the outcome of the Communist Party plenum in Beijing has focused on the economic decisions. But the Chinese government also announced that it plans to set up a National Security Council – which has obvious echoes of the White House decision-making apparatus.
The Chinese are not alone in making this move. Japan is also in the process of setting up a new National Security Council, which is meant to be operational by the end of the year. Some might find it a little ominous that at a time when Sino-Japanese tensions are so high, both countries are revamping their national security structures. But it could also be that the Chinese and Japanese are simply following foreign-policy fashion in the West. National Security Councils are all the rage. Britain set up an NSC in 2010, allowing the prime minister to chair regular meetings of all the senior ministers and officials dealing with security issues: foreign affairs, defence, intelligence and so on. Read more
China’s third plenum could lead to far-reaching reforms
Xi Jinping was appointed Chinese president just over a year ago and promised to shake up China’s economy. Now Mr Xi’s agenda for the next decade has become a little clearer with the conclusion of a party plenum in Beijing on Tuesday. In a statement the ruling Communist party pledged to implement wide-ranging economic reforms, with a greater role for market forces. In this week’s podcast Gideon Rachman is joined by Tom Mitchell, Beijing correspondent and James Kynge, editor of China Confidential to discuss whether this is a pivotal moment for the world’s second largest economy.
A "Chinese Dream" promotion billboard (Getty)
I spent last weekend in Beijing, as part of a group of foreigners, at a small conference dedicated to “Understanding China”. We met a large cross-section of the country’s senior leadership from President Xi Jinping on down. We heard many reiterations of the idea that China is about to pursue “comprehensive reform”. So I would love to be able to say that I have a crystal clear idea of what is likely to emerge from the much-hyped Communist Party plenum that begins in Beijing this weekend. But that would be an overstatement. Most of the Chinese leaders were understandably cagey about exactly what reforms would be necessary to achieve the “Chinese dream” of national greatness and prosperity. A certain pre-plenum caginess had set in. And indeed many of the important arguments have not been settled. That, after all, is the business of the party plenum.
However, most of the key subjects that need to be tackled are already clear and the outlines of decisions are emerging: Read more
By Luisa Frey
♦ Foreign investors have the perception that it is getting harder to do business in China. By forcing multinationals to lower prices and improve their offerings, the Chinese government aims to raise the bar for domestic competitors and show citizens how their lives are improving under the new administration.
♦After travelling to China and meeting its leader, Xi Jinping, FT’s columnist Gideon Rachman comments on how the government is confident that China can keep growing more than seven per cent a year, proving the sceptics wrong.
♦The New York Times reports from Sochi, in Russia, which is preparing to host the Winter Olympics in February. For the narrow costal city, the $50 billion Games project has caused irritation as well as pride.
♦ Meanwhile, Egypt’s deposed president Mohamed Morsi’s trial started in Cairo. Foreign Policy’s Bel Trew describes the controversial court session, which ended with the following words from Morsi: “This is not a court. This is a coup.”
♦ In Syria, Islamist rebels use web postings with bloody portraits of dead fighters as a recruiting tool, reports the Washington Post.
♦ A new digital news startup, Vocativ, is capable of eavesdropping social-media conversations all over the world and running an analysis on the results, writes Jeff Bercovici at Forbes. Read more
By Gideon Rachman
Foreign commentators and local bloggers regularly predict that China is heading for an economic and political crisis. But the country’s leaders are in strikingly confident mood. They believe that China can keep growing at more than 7 per cent a year for at least another decade. That would mean the country’s economy – already the second-largest in the world – would double in size. And, depending on the assumptions you make about US growth and exchange rates, it would probably mean that China becomes the world’s largest economy by 2020.
The Xi-Obama summit
Later this week, the presidents of the United States and China will hold a two-day summit, the first since Xi Jinping’s elevation to the top job in China. It comes as US-China tensions are fairly high on a number of issues, from cyber attacks to territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. So what are both sides hoping to achieve? Gideon Rachman is joined by James Kynge, editor of FT China Confidential, and Geoff Dyer,who was a Beijing correspondent before his current assignment in Washington.
Ahead of the meeting between Barack Obama and Xi Jinping in California, now dubbed the “shirt-sleeves summit”, here is a sample of what’s being talked about in the press.
♦ Sunnylands, the 200-acre estate close to Palm Springs, has played host to quite a line up of leaders, including the likes of Nixon, Reagan, Thatcher and Kissinger. It seemed the ideal spot for the ‘getting-to-know-you’ summit, with both its long ties to Hollywood and its renowned collection of Chinese enamelled metalwork dating from the Ming dynasty.
♦ History looms larger for those who lost, writes David Pilling, contrasting the two centuries of optimism since the American revolution with the period of imperial collapse that followed China’s rebellion. A sense of boiling injustice mixed with certainty about one’s position in the global hierarchy makes for a potent brew ahead of the meeting.
♦ The summit could define US-China relations for years to come, says the Washington Post. A principal goal of the meeting will be to build individual trust where strategic distrust exists between the two countries.
♦ But Xi is not ready for a touchy-feely meeting, says Foreign Policy. Surely the US is rewarding China when it should be censuring it?
♦ Washington Wire have done a jaunty précis of Lawrence Summers’ proposed agenda for the Summit, including tackling China’s trade surplus, China’s somewhat anti-competitive business practices and a rethink of the global financial system.
♦ Russell Leigh-Moses at the Wall Street Journal warns of the potential pitfalls looming in Sunnylands: “Xi needs to maintain his approachability for the US while being mindful of those in China who think that now is the moment to press Washington on a whole host of issues, especially where China’s military rise is concerned. Xi’s been more forceful than nuanced here in China; he will need to be precisely the opposite in California.” Read more
♦ In cities like Istanbul and Ankara, opposition to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government is strong. Elsewhere, however, the AKP retains a significant amount of support and people are very suspicious of the demonstrators and their motives.
♦ China’s government and Chinese activists were even more active than usual on the Tiananmen anniversary.
♦ Susan Glasser, Foreign Policy’s editor-in-chief, interviews Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister.
♦ When Xi Jinping meets Barack Obama on Friday, look out for Wang Huning, head of the Communist party’s central policy research office. The former university professor is one of the most influential figures in China today.
♦ Venice is drowning in conflicting interests.
♦ Cristina Fernández has a crazy plan to save Argentina’s economy.
♦Want to know what it’s like to be in Taksim Square now? Take a look at Paul Mason’s montage. Read more
Xi Jinping visiting a coffee farm in Costa Rica (AFP/Getty)
Where the US leads, China follows close behind. Or is that vice versa? The question is especially pertinent in Latin America, where China’s president, Xi Jinping, is midway through a regional tour that culminates in Mexico before he meets Barack Obama in California. What makes Mr Xi’s trip noteworthy is that it follows a similar regional tour by Joe Biden, the US vice-president.
For fans of a multi-polar world, Mr Xi’s trip illustrates how fast the world is changing – and how China is prepared to pay to expand its sphere of influence too: in Trinidad & Tobago, Mr Xi stumped up $3bn in loans. Read more
By Gideon Rachman
The world will be watching the body language at this week’s US-China summit. If Barack Obama and Xi Jinping can establish a friendly rapport, they will challenge the fatalistic notion that China and the US are doomed to confrontation. That pessimistic view is underpinned by an economic shift that the Americans find uncomfortable: by 2016, Mr Obama’s last year in office, China’s economy is likely to be larger than that of the US.
Shinzo Abe in Washington on February 22 (Getty)
It’s rare that the sequel is better than the original movie, but so far Shinzo Abe II is doing much better at the box office than its ill-fated prequel. As we approach the first 100 days in office mark, here are five differences (and a few similarities) between Shinzo Abe I and Shinzo Abe II.
1. Shinzo Abe I had a dull subtitle. Constitutional Amendment failed to excite the public and never got anywhere. Deflation Slayer, on the other hand, the subtitle for Shinzo Abe II, has got everyone talking, from bond traders and currency speculators to ordinary Japanese fed up with economic drift.
2. It is often forgotten that Shinzo Abe I, released in October 2006, had a strong opening. Abe travelled to Beijing and mended relations with China. But the movie quickly trailed off as the plot foundered on a boring and jerky narrative involving disappearing pension records and a series of ministerial scandals. Shinzo Abe II was strong even before the opening credits rolled. Many audience members were so excited that shares soared and the yen weakened even before Abe appeared in the opening scene.
3. The plot of Shinzo Abe II is intriguing. It starts off as a story about a bold economic experiment, but no one knows how it will end. Will the Japanese economy at last gain some traction after 20 years in the doldrums? Or will the gamble end in catastrophe with hyperinflation and capital flight? Read more
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
More on the island rescue
Elsewhere in the world
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