2020 06 – Newsnotes

Notes on the News

By Gwydion M. Williams

Real Politics at China’s National People’s Congress

Vital politics must be occurring at the current gathering of China’s National People’s Congress. But not in the ways it would happen in the West. The government presents policies.  Respectful debates occur.  Votes are held that overwhelmingly endorse those policies. No dissent occurs in front of the general public, or the foreign media.

But in other countries where plenty of open dissent is allowed, everyone knows that the bulk of the important politics occurs out of sight. I assume the same happens in a gathering of chosen delegates from across China.

Back in 2012, I noted that the fall of Bo Xilai occurred just after that year’s NPC.[1] But no one else saw this as significant.

This year, I’d find it significant if there were further replacement of regional officials in Wuhan and the surrounding province of Hubei in the next few weeks.  It would be a sign that the majority of those with power in China’s provinces accept that this one region was at fault.  That Beijing led by Xi were unforgivably misled, early on.

Interestingly, Xi’s role in correcting regional errors is suggested by a Financial Times article that otherwise blames him:

“Mr Xi’s disappearing act in late January and early February could indicate that even China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong was finding it difficult to get to the bottom of what was happening in Wuhan, says Mr Johnson.

“‘The instinct of local officials in China, or any similar system, is not to say, just before the biggest holiday of the year: ‘We have a catastrophe on our hands,’’ he says. ‘The bottom line was Xi didn’t have his people in Wuhan initially so he didn’t know what the right information was. The real risk [he faced] was coming out and saying that ‘things are great’ or ‘things are terrible’ and then being proven wrong three days later. That’s how you get yourself in trouble.’”[2]

Mr Xi is an elected authoritarian.  Not a dictator, even though Western media pretend otherwise.[3]  The Central Committee of the Communist Party has a legal right to replace him. More realistically, the Party’s leading core could oust him.  This has happened to other leaders, in China and elsewhere.

Khrushchev was replaced twice.  The first time, in June 1957, he managed to rally the full Central Committee to endorse him.  Got them to condemn Molotov and the others as the ‘Anti-Party Group’.  But his people on the Central Committee were tired of him by 1964 and removed him again.  And then had no better idea than the Brezhnevite stagnation, which led by stages to the system’s final collapse.

In China, Mao dominated the party for more than three decades, till his death in 1976.  Deng Xiaoping was dominant by 1982, and held unofficial but real power till he died in 1997. There was then a consensus that both the Top Leader and the Number Two should serve for just 10 years. Their successors would be indicated by the top two in elections to the Politburo Standing Committee.

Mr Xi himself emerged that way in 2007.  He came ahead of Li Keqiang, believed to have been the choice of the then-leader Hu Jintao.  The pair duly succeeded in 2012, and seem to have worked together very smoothly.

Everything changed in 2017.  Rather than designate the next pair of successors, it was left open.  There were strong suggestions that Xi and Li would not be stepping down in 2022. There is no term limit for Party General Secretary.  But every leader after Deng has combined the job with that of President, the official Head of State.  And this previously had a two-term limit

It seems that in 2017, there was a consensus that the ten-year limit left the top leadership too weak to carry through vital reforms.  They needed time to get control, but after five years people might be looking to the next leader.

Mr Xi can now get a third term at the Party Congress that should be held in 2022.  Presumably with Li Keqiang still as Number Two.  But this depends on a vote by the 200-member Central Committee.  It is in turn elected by the Party Congress, which decides the basics of Chinese politics.

Xi’s continuing power past 2022 depends on the party feeling he still merits it.  If opinion turned against him, he would probably save face and say he did not feel able to continue.  That’s how Chinese politics usually works. Xi’s future after 2022 was at stake when he apparently overrode the regional authorities and imposed a drastic lockdown.  Something that was widely criticised at the time in Western Europe and the USA.

The very places that now have the bulk of the world’s Covid-19 cases.  States forced to copy Xi’s measures when it became obvious that this unusually infectious virus was spreading rapidly from an initially tiny number of cases. By any sensible view, Xi has once again proved very competent.  The pandemic within China barely got outside of Hubei.  A solid lockdown also worked for every foreign country that had the good sense and modesty to impose it quickly.

Mostly East Asia and Australasia.  There, fresh pandemics were widely expected.  They are acutely aware that a dangerous mix of fresh meat and live or freshly killed animals also exists throughout South-East Asia.  As do bats that can tolerate a vast range of unknown viruses.

With hindsight, the Wuhan and Hubei regional governments made errors similar to other governments all round the world in the weeks and months since then.  Slow to accept bad news, and inclined to suppress it.

A weakness all too easily worsened by the competitive politics and unchecked criticism of governments that China has been preventing. The same Financial Times article I quoted earlier also says:

“‘No matter how many shortcomings exist in China’s administrative system, if there was freedom of speech citizens could have taken measures to protect themselves,’ wrote Mr Ren, who has since been detained by the party’s discipline inspection commission.” This is the official Western consensus – but blatantly wrong.

Citizens freely discussing the pandemic on the Internet have blamed 5G aerials, and attacked workmen putting them up.  Demanded a lifting of lockdown, when the disease is still spreading fast.  Have held public protests at which some of them must have infected others.  Decided in a few cases that it is a government conspiracy to take away their freedoms.  And hydroxychloroquine, pushed by President Trump, tragically turns out to raise the death rate.[4]

As at 26th May, the USA is 2nd in terms of cases per million.  8th in deaths per million.[5]    Rising rapidly on both counts, since the USA was hit later than Western Europe. A further spike in US cases is now likely, as they yield to populist demands for an over-hasty end to lockdown.  Perhaps also in the UK, or at least in England. China meantime is seeing the world move in its direction.


Hong Kong: Its Friends Encourage Suicide

Hong Kong’s ambiguous status ended in 1997.  It was handed over entirely to China. It was stated plainly that Hong Kong would in the long run be fully integrated.  But there would be a period of transition. Hong Kong was trusted to make its own laws on the security matters that all states enforce.

Attempts by Hong Kong to do this have repeatedly been blocked by protests.  But after the last round, the protestors thought it a good idea to carry on with repeated protests.  Now the demands were that they be given even more scope to make trouble, with the police to be punished for doing the normal job of police anywhere.  With a business-dominated electoral system to be replaced by one that might return a regional government with no coherent ideas except making life harder for Beijing.

It’s a really stupid idea.  But spontaneous popular movements tend to sink to the limited understanding of the most aggressive protestors. And almost always fail.  Only when there is a disciplined movement with leaders who can make a compromise is there any success. Now Beijing has lost patience and is passing its own law.  Probably leading on to a much tougher crackdown.

And don’t look to International Law. It has always been a fiction. The West has repeatedly made sure that the semblance of International Law existing in the United Nations and other bodies can never be enforced against Western interests.  So the rest of the world is no more respectful of this empty prattle.  States yield only when the empty prattle is backed by real power: mostly Western power applied selfishly.

When Hong Kong was dumped, the UK made sure that nominal citizenship of the British Empire would not give any right to come to Britain.  Only a selected few with wealth or skills got such a right. But Chris Patten also took pains to encourage some of them to think that they should carry on a struggle against Beijing.  And hope to change it over to Western values.

This might have worked, had not the West made a complete mess of transforming Russia in the 1990s.  And an even worse mess by repeatedly attacking Secular Arab Nationalism, despite repeatedly seeing it replaced by something much more hostile to Western values.

And then had a massive economic crash in 2008.  Following by vicious austerity for most people and secure protection for the rich gamblers who had caused the crash. Western values as redefined by Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s are simply not working. But they seem to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.  And never warn the protestors of the wisdom of backing down before they get hurt worse.

China’s very tough penal system could absorb a few hundred thousand Hong Kong dissidents, and might well do so.  I’ve been continuously warning them they could not win, and could only get hurt. But everyone else has been encouraging them.  Giving them the false hope that something may be done to help them. Why?

It could be cynical.  Expending Hong Kong dissidents has been a great boon to anti-Beijing forces on Taiwan, and globally. But only in Japan, Taiwan and Australia did China’s enemies react intelligently to the Covid-19 crisis.  The rest of them seem to think that ‘Freedom’ means that they should be free to do what suits them, even when others are denied that same freedom.  (Very relevant to the current scandal over Dominic Cummings and Lockdown.)


New Right Blunderers

Why do our Centre-Right elite miss what others find obvious? It may be because their whole lives are bound up with continuous struggles for small gains that can add up to massive profit. They see life as all about struggle. They don’t bother to think long-term or outside of conventional ideas.

There’s a nice analogy with the famous ‘Gorillas in our midst’ experiment.  A film was shown with some ordinary people playing basketball – but then a man in a gorilla suit wanders among them.  Obviously everyone noticed, when just asked to watch.  But when asked to count the passes made by one of the teams, they did just that and never noticed the gorilla.[6]

Likewise our competitive elite focus on a series of small struggles in which they hope to advance themselves.  Mostly they miss the rest. And have an egoist’s understanding of freedom.  There should be no limits on what they want to do.  And they are not concerned about what others are either not allowed to do, or lack the cash or leisure to do. So they continue business practices that are in the long run self-destructive. All very unfortunate for anyone who trusts them.


We Have Plutocracy, Not Capitalism

“Too Big to Fail: The Entire Private Sector.

“Large parts of [US] financial markets are now being managed by the government. Even if they don’t like it, investors must acknowledge it. A decade ago, the Federal Reserve was instrumental in keeping the banking system from going bust. This time around, the Fed’s actions are far more sweeping, and it has essentially propped up entire financial markets with its bottomless ability to buy assets with freshly created money…

“While the Fed says it does not seek to keep stock prices up, the market has rebounded some 30 percent since the institution began its giant program to pump trillions of dollars into financial markets. It has bought billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. Treasury bonds and government-insured mortgage bonds, keeping the prices of those bonds up, and pushing yields, which move in the opposite direction, down.”[7]

But it looks as if small businesses will be allowed to fail: I’ve seen other articles complaining about this.  They vote Centre-Right whatever is done to them.  So they keep getting kicked. I expect they will learn nothing as they dwindle into increasing insignificance.


WHO Dares Say No

Australia tried to organise an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19.  One that might well blame China. Trump pitching in, while also accusing WHO of not giving him the warnings they had in fact given him repeatedly.  Demanding ‘reform’, and cutting funding. This weakened the case against China. Wrecked it.

“W.H.O. Members Reject Trump’s Demands but Agree to Study Its Virus Response

“The outcome left the United States isolated as officials from China, Russia and the European Union chided Mr. Trump over his heated threats.”[8]

“President Donald Trump’s approach to China is so erratic that it is more likely to alarm US allies than to unite them. And without a unified and coherent western response, the chances of modifying Chinese behaviour are dramatically lowered…

“The broader difficulty is that America’s allies fear that the Trump administration’s goal is not to compel China to follow international rules — an aim they would support — but to destroy the rules. The allies know that the White House has pulled the US out of the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and is deliberately hobbling both the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization. They remember that the president has threatened to impose tariffs on Germany and Japan — and has expressed scepticism about Nato and hostility towards the EU. They also know that Mr Trump is up for re-election in November, and suspect his motives in going after China now.

“The sad truth is that America’s allies in Europe and Asia are also angered by Beijing’s behaviour. They simply do not trust the Trump administration’s leadership in countering it.”[9]

Trump has indeed recognised what the liberals refuse to see – that Globalisation as centred on the US had failed.  (Something that many of us had been hoping for all along.[10])  And it is now hurting what Trump would see as core US values. But he messed up on Covid-19, as did Boris Johnson.  Experts are now saying Trump could have saved some 36,000 lives by locking down a week earlier.  54,000 if it had been two weeks earlier.[11]

The World Health Organization gave him excellent advice from early on.  He just didn’t listen.


Times Changing?

“Large areas of London are to be closed to cars and vans to allow people to walk and cycle safely as the coronavirus lockdown is eased…

“Experts say it is crucial to encourage walking and cycling as people return to work because physical distancing is impossible on crowded transport and a surge in car use would cause gridlock and an increase in air pollution.”[12]

But will the old norm ever return?

“Many cities have already announced measures to improve walking and cycling and support a low-carbon, sustainable recovery from the coronavirus crisis.”  (Ibid.)


China Itself Again?

“China ‘copycat’ buildings: Government clamps down on foreign imitations…

“A government statement says ‘plagiarising, imitating, and copycatting’ designs is prohibited in new public facilities.

“The statement says buildings ‘reveal a city’s culture’ – and that ‘large, foreign, and weird’ designs should be limited.

“The guidelines also clamp down on new skyscrapers – limiting them, in general, to a maximum of 500 metres.”[13]


New Types of Education?

“Not Everyone Hates Remote Learning. For These Students, It’s a Blessing…

“For the vast majority of students, remote learning is a poor substitute for being in the classroom…

“But one unexpected silver lining of the shutdown has been an improved learning experience for certain students, including some who struggle to pay attention in class and even some high-achieving self-starters. Enough students are benefiting from this crash course in remote learning that parents and educators are wondering if, when buildings reopen, there are aspects that can be continued for these students, as well as lessons that can apply to everyone else.

“For some, the avoidance of distractions like disruptive classmates, or simply not being in a room filled with other children, has been a boon. Others have taken advantage of the ability, when offered by their teachers, to work at their own pace and take breaks when they want.

“Some students have found it easier to participate in remote classes without the social pressures of a physical classroom. Introverts who are the last to volunteer an answer in class, even when they know it, are now making themselves heard.”[14]

I’ve always felt that education was much too much set up to processing ‘one standard Unit of Child’.  Even where the intentions are excellent, which they mostly are, the right to be different is not much respected.


More Home Working?

“Millions of Americans are taking part in an unprecedented experiment in working from home. Many are happier, more efficient and want to hang onto the benefits when the pandemic ends.”[15]

And not just work.  I’ve long thought it would be a good idea if a jury should be protected from being seen in court.  With the current crisis, Texas is now trying a jury trial by Zoom.


Old newsnotes at the magazine website.  I also write regular blogs – https://www.quora.com/q/mrgwydionmwilliams

[1] https://gwydionwilliams.com/newsnotes-historic/2012-newsnotes/newsnotes-2012-10/#_Toc419217650

[2] https://www.ft.com/content/3a294233-6983-428c-b74b-3cc58c713eb8).

[3] https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/problems-magazine-past-issues/post-liberalism/chinese-politics-working-well/

[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-52799120#

[5] https://informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/covid-19-coronavirus-infographic-datapack/

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inattentional_blindness#Invisible_Gorilla_Test

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/19/business/too-big-to-fail-wall-street-businesses.html

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/19/us/politics/trump-who-coronavirus.html

[9] https://www.ft.com/content/b9a063aa-9057-11ea-9207-ace009a12028

[10] https://gwydionmadawc.com/against-globalisation/degraded-globalisation/

[11] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/20/us/coronavirus-distancing-deaths.html

[12] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/may/15/large-areas-of-london-to-be-made-car-free-as-lockdown-eased

[13] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-52585684#

[14] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/20/nyregion/coronavirus-students-schools.html

[15] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/05/business/pandemic-work-from-home-coronavirus.html