Chinese New Year: How far China have come and how far they still have to go

Chinese-New-YearChina has come a long way in 101 years.

Back in 1911 (during the year of the pig), China’s final dynasty, Qing collapsed after nearly a  150 years of gasping for breath. The encroachment of the Western powers (and later Japan) with their unequal treaties, opium wars and favourite nation clauses had been met by ‘head in the sand, fingers in the eyes’ approach by the de facto ruler Empress Dowager Cixi for over fifty years before her death in 1908.

Although yesterday marked the start of a new lunar year and a new chapter of China’s history, tomorrow marks the 101th anniversary of the edict forcing child Emperor Puyi from the throne in 1912.

This measure led to the brief dictatorship of General Yuan Shikai and the beginning of the Republican era.

It is remarkable to think that after the traumas the country faced over the past century with seemingly endless civil war, the rise of communism and the brutal of life under Chairman Mao that the country is on the verge of being the most strongest economic power on earth in the next 10 years.

But we should not be too quick to sit back and watch. Despite America’s recent ‘Asian Pivot’ and the prospect of the Trans-Pacific Partnership potentially being formed as a more powerful trading bloc than the EU with China at its centre, China’s future could still be rocky.

The Chinese economy, whilst still the strongest in the world, is starting to slow down with the effect of the Eurozone crisis and the continued financial turmoil across the world. So they are unlikely to see the same double digit growth figures they’ve enjoyed over the past few years.

That is not to say the country doesn’t have anything to look forward to. Construction is now under way to build the world’s largest skyscraper, Sky City One in Changsha, Hunan province in south west China.

Similarly, China will be taking further steps into the space race with their lunar probe Chang’e 3 being launched later in the year.

However with the continuing  Bo Xilai scandal’s twists and turns remaining in the news and Xi still not fully cementing his authority over the biggest population on earth 2013 could still be a bumpy ride.

The Chinese authorities are still trying in vain to control the tide of information leaks but new innovations in telecommunications continue to outpace them. The power of microblogging sites has persisted despite manifold attempts to shut them down and it looks like nothing will change as we head into the new year.

So the dissident in China is likely to only build in the next few years. The examples of Ai WeiWei and Chen Guangcheng are international embarrassments to the nation which tries so hard to maintain control. While most foreign powers are too awestruck by China’s economic might to pay much attention to internal human rights abuses, these controversies are getting harder and harder to hide from the internet savvy Chinese population.

So as Xi tries to assert his authority over the next few years he will have several different challenges.

One way he could assert his authority is to go down the Cristina De Kirchner Fernandez route and continue to claim Japanese territory .

The ongoing dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands (know as the Diaoyu islands in Chinese and the Pinnacle Islands in English) has historical roots but has only really come to the fore in the past year. Although the islands are closer geographically to mainland Japan they are on the edge of China’s tectonic plate which is traditionally viewed as the extent of Chinese maritime influence.

The dispute goes back to the days when what is now the Okinawa prefecture of Japan was an independent kingdom. It survived by offering tributes to both China and Japan but adopting Chinese fashion, style and way of life. When Japan and China were forced to trade by the Western powers, instead of sticking their heads in the sand like China, Japan embraced change and the Meji Restoration cement a central government across the country instead of the Shogunate that had ruled for hundreds of years.

This included Okinawa which remained under Japanese rule from 1895 until America annexed it at the end of the Second World War.They gave it back in 1972 under the Okinawa Reversion Treaty and the Senkaku Islands were part of the deal.

Ever since China has not given up its territorial claim to them but has done very little to demand them back. They argue that as the islands were administered along with Taiwan after Japan annexed it in 1895, the islands should have been returned to China in 1945 as well. They claim that the then Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai Shek was too busy fighting the civil war against the Communists and too dependent on US support to fight his case properly.

The new conflict was sparked by a comment from the Toyko Governor in April 2012 Shintaro Ishihara saying he would use public money to buy them back from their private Japanese owner. In August several Hong Kong activists sailed to the uninhabited islands but were sent back, 10 days later Japanese activists did the same. In December 2012 a Chinese aeroplane was said to have violated their air space and in January of this year, Beijing said they were conducting a geological survey of the area.

Neither side seems to want to go to war over the islands but the tensions could be the perfect opportunity for Xi to distract from problems at home like De Kirchener is trying unsuccessfully to do in Argentina over the Falkland Islands.

Despite its new found status and power China is slightly licking the wounds of its past. A war with Japan could go a long way to healing the humiliation of losing a war with them, a smaller nation that had previously looked up to them, in 1895 which overtaking them economically hasn’t achieved.

China is the oldest and biggest continuous civilisation in the world. It has a delicate future ahead of it which could cement its rule as the most powerful nation on earth or it could crumb back into chaos. History is still crucial to China, and they will try to right wrongs in the twentieth century alongside power building in the twentieth first.

A Review of the Year: Asia In 2011

The earth seemed to spin doubly fast in 2011 and the rate of news seemed to be so rapid and unrelenting we even missed silly season and such delights as Yvonne the runaway cow and the moose that got in a drink driving snafu because of the real important news that would not stop happening. 2011 also saw the birth of this blog. With all these new and exciting things happening it is easy to get a headrush so I have taken it upon myself and this blog to condense the news of 2011 to around six-eight key news stories from each region that I believe have been the most definitive of the year in a series of blog posts over the next few days.

Asia in 2011

China: The leader of the region, China supposedly became committed to the ‘soft power’ economic model in the early part of the last decade to take over the world with their cheap manufacturing and seemingly inexhaustible manpower. With the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, the Chinese authorities even temporarily loosened up some of their restrictions on many internet sites and it started to seem like China might be finally, fully welcomed back into the boson of international relations if albeit in an totilatarian sort of way. However, ever since the beginning of the Arab Spring in late December, early January China has feared its own ‘Jasmine Revolution’ leading to its crackdown on noted dissidents for such heinous crimes such as ‘tax evasion’ and ‘fraud’. Their most noted victim, artist Ai WeiWei emerged from captivity after 3 months detention back in June as the result of an international campaign for his release. However, many unknown dissidents may have faced a worse fate because they did not have the international community to come to their rescue. Recently another dissident, Ni Yulan was alleged crippled under torture and is today standing trial.

Japan: To use a technical term, Japan has had a clusterfuck of a year. First there was an earthquake, then there was a tsunami, then there was the nuclear panic over Fukushima. Safe to say, that this year everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Japanese. After a disaster movie style year the task has been reconstruction and recovery since the earthquake in March that killed over 15,000 people. With political fighting and a seemingly insurmountable level of mess and misery to clear up, the Japanese have so far handed this crisis with an extraordinary level of dignity and courage. Time will tell, however, if it gets back to it’s for ‘tiger economy’ glory.

Thailand: The general election in July supposedly ushered in a new political chapter as the military formally gave up power to an elected government since their coup d’etat against populist leader, Thaksin Shinawatra in 2005. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra won a resounding victory for the countries Red Shirts, populist supporters of greater democracy but in the spirit of reconciliation she choose to rule in coalition with the Yellow Shirts, pro-monarchists. Despite the King’s, who still has an enormous influence over Thai politics, failing health the country political system seems to be in rudimentary health. However, since the election there have been a series of devastating floods across Thailand that have killed over 600 people and declared by the World Bank as the fourth costliest disaster in human history.

Burma: After Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in late 2010, she has begun to tour throughout Burma during 2011 as she becomes part of the domestic political structure once more. As part of a continued relaxation of Burmese rule, in October thousands of political prisoners were released at Aung San’s request. Additionally, according to the Bangkok Post, there is renewed business interest in Burma as a new centre of development. However, the slight reduction on mainstream censorship has not been met with a new toleration for the rebellious ethnic minority Karen people on the border with Thailand who are campaigning for greater political autonomy.

India: After the year Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh has had many in his position would give up. A year of corruption scandals was kicked off by the minister supposedly investigating corruption during the Commonwealth Games in 2010 was arrested on corruption charges himself. After another series of scandals, popular social activist, Anna Hazare declared a public fast in April until an anti-corruption bill was passed. This promoted a massive internet campaign that soon spread to the streets in a movement that BBC called ‘India’s Arab Spring’. It got through the lower house this month but the upper house was adjourned today rather than casting its vote.

Pakistan: In an example of religious extremism that showed just how fanatic elements of Pakistani society have become, Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was gunned down by his bodyguard in January for supporting a repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Instead of being reviled for the murder of a public figure, Malik Mumtaz Qadri was hero-worshipped by some and had rose petals thrown over as he went into for his preliminary hearing. Religious clerics also called for a boycott of Taseer’s funeral because of his campaign for a mercy plea for Asia Bibi, a Christian Pakistani woman accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death. On the other hand, there were protests on the streets of the Punjab region where he was popular against his death. In August Taseer’s son Shahbaz Taseer was kidnapped by an unidentified gunman. He was last reported to be near the Pak-Afghan border in October but his exact whereabouts are still unknown.

North Korea: After suffering from failing health, disguised from his people, for a number of years, ‘Dear Leader’ and ‘Amazing Politian’ Kim Jong Il finally gave up the ghost and made way for the ascension of his untested youngest son, Kim Jong Un. With the two-day official mourning at an end for the man who claims to have invented a food that sounds suspiciously like a hamburger the country makes way for a ‘glorious future’ under there new ‘Glorious Leader’. Ahem.

The Problem with Politics

Is this sort of violence an exception or will our frustrations always boil over?

It’s human nature to never be satisfied. In a way that’s why I almost feel sorry for politicians because even when they do what is actually in the best interests of the majority (which does happen very occasionally) the hysterical minorities come out in force.

We always want what we can’t have, take the figures released by Research Globe Scan, a polling firm and published in the Economist last week. In 2002, 80% of Americans, the land of the ‘American Dream’, believed that free market economics was the best financial system for their country but eight years and one massive recession later only 59% still agreed in 2010. Amongst Americans earning less than $20,000 it fell from 76% to 44%. You can say this is the impact of the financial crisis and the blame heaped on unregulated banking system for the loss of faith but Germany’s approval of capitalism has remained steady at 69% even if admittedly they’re still the strongest performing economy in the Euro zone. Only Spain managed to buck the trend with its approval growing from 37% to 51% and it is widely tipped to be the next country to receive a bailout from the European Union and the IMF.

In contrast, Communist China’s rating of capitalism keeps going up and up, at 68% it is higher than the USA for the first time ever.

There is a pretty clear correlation between the relative opinions of capitalism and the growth figures of each individual countries but does this play into a wider trend?

People have documented the increasing desire in the nominally communist states for prosperity and individuality with barely suppressed glee over the past few decades as evidence for the Western way being best but do these latest figures show that the grass will always be greener  no matter what side of the wall you’re on?

I’m withholding judgement on the merits or otherwise of free market capitalism (for now) but simply making the point that nothing will ever be perfect. There are always winners and losers and people will always see themselves as the loser because its human nature to have a bit of a chip on your shoulder.

If you don’t give people what they want they grumble (and in North Africa at the moment they rebel), if you do, they demand more or poke holes in what you’ve done. It’s a fun thing; there will never be a right way of doing things, only a few things the uninformed and slightly hysterical masses presume won’t damage them too much.

That’s why government’s normally veer from left to right depending on how dissatisfied the population are. If the recession hadn’t happen, Gordon Brown had been more charismatic and we hadn’t been dragged into two overseas conflicts, Labour probably would have still lost the next election because Cameron’s happy, shiny unrealistic plans looked so much more exciting.

You can promise anything when you’re not in power (ask the Lib Dems) if you make it seem different enough from what the government is doing.

(This post really has no point, it’s just late and it’s been a really long day. It’s mainly just my musings over the past week rather than any really cohesive polemic that’ll happen again when I’ve had more than five hours sleep).