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Oxon China

A collaborative project between Politics in Spires and the Oxford China Centre, this blog provides analysis on the economic, political and cultural transformations taking place in China.

A collaborative project between Politics in Spires and the Oxford China Centre, this blog provides academic analysis on the economic, political and cultural transformations taking place in China.

The leadership turnover in China last year took place in a shifting political situation. Namely, there have been increased calls for more political accountability and multi-candidate elections, broader media freedom and financial reform. We need to watch this closely. How China’s leadership reacts to these calls for change will determine whether it will continue its phenomenal ‘rise’ or be hampered by intransigence. Let’s take a closer look at the context. The uprisings in the Arab world have prompted many to ask whether China will be the next to be swept along in a wave of popular unrest that has toppled rulers in several countries. Indeed, the Chinese leadership, both in power and previously in power, has been watching the situation carefully. This attention has been particularly justified considering that the current Chinese president assumed power at a time when social media became a real force. These new forms of communication played an undisputable role in the Arab and Maghreb uprisings. Now, half a billion Chinese are registered on Sina Weibo, a website much like Twitter. This online platform has served “netizens” to voice many complaints ranging from governance malfunctions and corruption to food and environmental issues. This raises inevitable questions. Is the bid for democratic reform a matter of time? Might the prediction of an “end of history” and of a uniform move in the direction of liberal democracy make a comeback? Or, might there be other sustainable alternatives?

In April 2013, Joseph Yun, then the US Acting Assistant Secretary for East Asia and the Pacific, addressed a Senate Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the US policy of “rebalance” towards Asia. He argued that this rebalancing, originally introduced by the Obama administration in 2011 as the “pivot”, reflected the “profound recognition that the future prosperity and security of our nation will be defined by events and developments in the region”. Yun went on to explain how the US commitment towards the Asia-Pacific can best be demonstrated, noting that while security and defence-related cooperation is important, US “allies and partners… also tell us that, as we deepen our military engagement, we should continue also to emphasize the diplomatic, development, economic, and people-to-people engagement in order to demonstrate our longer-term commitment to our rebalance strategy.” (Yun Testimony, Washington DC, 25 April 2013). President Obama’s intended visit to the region in early October 2013 was supposed to be a key plank in demonstrating that commitment. Obama was to have attended the East Asia Summit in Brunei, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference held in host-country Indonesia – a country that because of its influence in ASEAN, the G20 and the Organization of Islamic Conference, deserves sustained attention. In Kuala Lumpur, Obama would have attended the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. More importantly still, it would have been the first time that a sitting US president has visited Malaysia since 1966. Obama was also due to be in the Philippines in order both to demonstrate that the US remains a loyal ally when there is a perceived increased threat from China, but probably also to give the message that Manila needs to stay in step with its ASEAN neighbours on the South China Sea dispute and not surprise them with diplomatic positions that leave them nonplussed and that would likely exacerbate the issue.

I recently interviewed Professor Rosemary Foot about her new book, China Across the Divide: the domestic and global in politics and society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), as part of Politics and Spires’s OxOn China series. NH: What is the book about? RF: The book’s main argument is that, as students of international relations, we need to do more to collapse the divide between the domestic and global spheres of analysis. I make this argument with special reference to China, but I think it can be applied to other countries. I have chosen three main approaches to illustrate this phenomenon of the interconnectedness between the global and domestic levels of analysis. The first section of the book looks at ideas emerging from within China itself, at both mass and elite levels, about the country’s place in the world and how it should conduct its external relations. The argument is not that these ideas determine policy decisions, but help to shape, or set the broad contours of, the decisions that are arrived at. The second section looks at involvement in inter-societal enmeshments between China and other countries, and both the intended and unintended consequences of these linkages. This part of the book looks at the ways in which these non-state relations are transforming not only China itself but also the world of which it is a part. The third section focuses on three major global issues that are salient or intrusive at the domestic level and which require either some alterations in domestic ways of life or generate resistance at the domestic level to that intrusiveness. NH: What inspired you to write/edit it?

Xi’s recent visit to Russia is unlikely to spur more initiative from Russia to expand bilateral ties beyond trade agreements. This is mainly due to Russia’s misconceptions about China and the nature of their relationship. As I first crossed the China-Russia border from Heilongjiang Province into Primorsky Krai back in 2007, I stepped into a different world. On the bus that took me across the border, the many Chinese passengers were far more friendly and talkative than the few Russian travellers on board, hauling back Chinese merchandise. I had left Suifenhe, a town bustling with activity, including Russian tourists and traders, and suddenly found myself in a desolate and unwelcoming Pogranichniy. Most people who have crossed that border will recognise those contrasting impressions, which are symbolic of the two countries’ unequal standing. Last year, China’s GDP grew twice as fast as Russia’s. At the same time, investment as a part of GDP, a measure of potential future growth, was 46 percent in China versus only 23 percent in Russia. China’s growth in influence is truly global and multi-dimensional. Russia’s is mostly limited to the “Near Abroad”, and seems highly correlated with the price of oil and gas. Bilateral trade relations also reflect rising inequalities. Whereas in 2010 China became Russia’s leading trading partner, Russia was not in China’s top 10.Despite an 11 percent rise in the value of trade between the two countries in the past year, the potential for collaboration is far from fulfilled.

Dramatic changes do not appear to be on the agenda in China, at least at the surface level. The new political regime, under the stewardship of Xi Jinping, inherited an economy with widening socio-economic disparities and accompanying social welfare concerns. Farmers, migrant workers and lower/middle-class urbanities grumble about rising living costs, and a perceived lower quality of life. Their concerns are further cemented by greater public awareness of corruption in both the state and non-state sectors. This may be the cause of lower levels of trust and confidence in public and private institutions by the general public. But in spite of the discontent, changes are happening. Administrative in nature, perhaps, these changes will have strong implications for state-society relations going forward. What can we expect?

Chinese state-owned enterprises of the 1980s reigned infamous for their inefficiency, poor quality and total dearth of customer service. There was simply too much politics and not enough emphasis on actually making products. Meanwhile, smaller, privately-managed corporations which filled in market gaps left by the state, were prone to fraud, exploitation, instability and short-term attitudes. They tended to collapse very quickly; overnight the boss might get arrested or leave with all the company’s money. But some of these firms looked to the West and to Japan for inspired ideas to kick-start their ailing businesses. Among them was Zhang Ruimin, CEO of Haier Group, which started out as a struggling collectively-owned fridge manufacturer. As company legend goes, in 1984 Zhang checked one batch of Haier’s products and found 76 fridges to be defective. Rather than follow the usual practice of passing them on to second hand stores or employees, Zhang lined up all the defective fridges, took a sledgehammer and, with the help of Haier employees, smashed them to pieces to show that the company would not tolerate poor quality. He then introduced a rigorous quality control system to build a new “cultural mindset” of quality in his employees.

Accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) on 11 December 2001 was a watershed for China’s international economic relations. Joining the WTO meant that, after two decades of gradually opening its economy and markets, China formally accepted both the benefits and obligations of membership in a multilaterally negotiated rules-based regime governing international trade. The long march towards WTO accession – its pitfalls and challenges as well as the impressive surge in China’s import and export figures thereafter – have been well documented. But, somewhat in the shadows of these remarkable achievements in the field of multilateral trade policy, foreign investment has emerged as another important component of China’s international economic relations.

For the past few years, Professor Rana Mitter, one of the co-editors of our China blog, has been engaged in a research project aiming to better understand the process and relevance of the Sino-Japanese War between 1937 and 1945. Recently, he published his main findings in a volume that discusses the social, political and economic repercussions of the Japanese invasion and the Chinese response. We sat down with him to discuss it in more detail. OxOn China (OC): What is the most important thing we need to know about the war with Japan? Rana Mitter (RM): What distinguishes the Sino-Japanese war is that it really provides a breakpoint for Chinese modernity. A whole variety of longstanding traditions, patterns of landholding, and economic structures, changed forever. The fact that large swathes of Chinese territory were invaded and occupied was enormously disruptive. Local elites, for example, found themselves refugees, supplanted by an alien power. The political powerbase changed very suddenly, paving the way for the Communist revolution.