Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

Tense times in Chinese iron ore price talks [BBC]

Australia and China have always made for uneasy relationships. Just over a century  ago the Australians tried to wipe out the Chinese from their lands with the legislated White Australia Policy. Its chief Architect, Alfred Deakin had said – “It is not the bad qualities, but the good qualities of these alien races that make them so dangerous to us. It is their inexhaustible energy, their power of applying themselves to new tasks, their endurance and low standard of living that make them such competitors.”

The Chinese would say so otherwise to this politically polite and probably cultural un-saavy statement.

Today, China and Australia have a relationship that is so intertwined. China needs Australia’s resources to build its cities and infrastructure, and Australia’s chief export is its resources. Is there a legacy issue at the back o of some minds involved in these uneasy times? I would think so. Not fully, but at the back of some minds.

People outside of China will not know this – but switch on your TVs and tune into any one of China’s political satirists and hear what they have to say. With audiences queueing up for months on end to hear what these satirists have to say about China’s place in the world today, the growing number of people reminded of how China was bullied in the past is phenomenal. And remember,  in China, phenomenal numbers really really means phenomenal relative to what most of us are used to.

“I understand there is a lot of internal pressure in China to get a new benchmark agreement to shield it from further increases in the spot price.” Phillip Price, steel editor at Metal Bulletin.

– – –

Tense times in Chinese iron ore price talks
By Will Smale
Business reporter, BBC News
Source – BBC, 20 Feb 2010

Due to stand trial in China, Stern Hu knows just how sensitive the country is about how much it pays for the vast iron ore imports its giant steel industry needs.

Mr Hu, an Australian national, is the head of the Anglo-Australian mining group Rio Tinto’s iron ore business in China.

He and three Chinese colleagues – Wang Yong, Ge Minqiang and Liu Caikui – were arrested in July last year and subsequently charged with bribery and violating commercial secrets. They are now set to go on trial later this year.

The four are accused of spying on Chinese steel mills for six years, and in the process helping to inflate the price China pays for its iron ore imports. Rio Tinto strongly denies the accusations.

The arrests of the four came last year as China failed to agree already overdue 2009/10 annual iron ore prices with the world’s three largest producers – Rio, fellow Anglo-Australian miner BHP Billiton, and Brazil’s Vale.

With talks now starting for the 2010/11 financial year that begins on 1 April, China’s ill-tempered approach appears to be continuing.

The three main iron ore firms negotiate benchmark prices separately. Photo: AP

Earlier this week, Wu Xichun, the chairman of the China Iron and Steel Association (CISA), the industry body that organises the Chinese representation at the separate negotiations with Rio, BHP and Vale, verbally attacked reporters who questioned how this year’s talks were likely to proceed.

“Please don’t report on it any more, you’re not doing us any favours,” the Reuters news agency reported him as saying.

“So don’t ask me anything about iron ore talks!” he shouted. “Nobody from CISA will tell you anything about it.

“You’d better not waste your time and keep on prying.”

High drama

So why is China being so jittery?

Unlike any other raw metal, the worldwide price of iron ore is primarily set on an annual basis.

This process – the establishment of global annual “benchmark” prices – has traditionally been of benefit to both the iron ore miners and the steel companies, as it introduces long-term stability to what has always been a sector prone to boom and bust.

The way it has worked in recent years is that the three miners each negotiate separately with Japan, South Korea and China – the world’s three largest iron ore importers – and the first to agree a price with one of these countries sets that year’s benchmark, which the other two then broadly follow.

With billions of dollars at stake, it is a game of high drama and huge implications.

The system failed last year because China refused to accept the benchmark deals agreed by South Korea and Japan, which themselves were not signed until June – three months late.

While South Korea and Japan negotiated a price cut of approximately 30% in the face of the then global recession, China said this was not enough, and so refused to follow suit.

The problem this time around is the opposite. With global steel demand and prices now soaring again as the worldwide economy continues to recover, the negotiations will centre on how much iron ore prices need to rise, with some analysts predicting the miners may call for a 40% increase.

And with China now the world’s largest steel producer – accounting for half of global production in 2009, up from 38% in 2008 – its position is vital for both sides. China needs the iron ore, and the miners need its business on favourable terms.

Such is the importance of securing a deal with the Chinese, analysts say it is important to note that Rio last week appointed a new boss in China.

Rio has appointed Ian Bauert, a fluent Mandarin speaker, as its new managing director for China.

Rio’s chief executive Tom Albanese said in a statement that his appointment “underlines the importance the company places on enhancing its relationship with China”.

‘Soaring demand’

Source - The Steel Index

To secure the extra iron ore imports it needed last year from outside the benchmark agreement, China turned to a recent development in the sale and purchase of iron – the “spot” market.

In essence, this is the trade of iron ore on the open market, with the spot price of iron ore going up and down on a daily basis, in the way that other raw metals are traded. Four years ago, only 4% of iron ore was available to buy on the spot market, but this has now risen to about one third.

However, China cannot rely solely upon the spot market for two main reasons.

Firstly, the price of spot iron ore has soared 65% over the past year to about $123 per metric tonne this week.

This compares with the $70 to $75 per metric tonne benchmark prices that Japan and South Korea agreed last year.

Analyst Patrick Flockhart of Steel Business Briefing says the spot price will only rise further this year.

“The spot price is rising strongly because steel demand is soaring globally, with even the steel market in Europe picking up,” he says.

“As a result, the supply of iron ore is going to be tight in 2010. Demand is stronger than supply again.”

With spot prices expected to keep rising, it is financially vital for China to be able to agree a new benchmark price at or around the current spot price level.

Secondly, China cannot gain all the imports it needs through the spot market.

Which brings us firmly back to the importance of this year’s benchmark price negotiations, which Rio, BHP and Vale are – as ever – refusing to comment on.

“There is a risk of China not settling again this year, but I imagine it will certainly try to,” says Phillip Price, steel editor at Metal Bulletin.

“Since last year’s benchmark settlement, the spot price has risen quite considerably.

“I understand there is a lot of internal pressure in China to get a new benchmark agreement to shield it from further increases in the spot price.”

Mr Hu, in his cell in Shanghai, must be hoping that China’s talks with Rio go well.

Filed under: Australia, BBC, Environment, International Relations, Resources

Eventful Sunday – 15th Day of the Lunar New Year [Opinion]

This is the fifteenth day of the Chinese Spring Festival. Also known as the Lunar New Year (Chinese New Year) based on the ancient Chinese lunisolar calendar, the fifteenth day is ‘yuan xiao jie’ (元宵节). Its literal translation means – the ‘first evening’, being the first full moon after the Lunar New Year. And that’s how I have learnt over the years to tell the time of the month. Every time there’s a full moon, I know it’s either the first or the fifteenth of the lunar month.

It is a day when the Chinese gather to eat ‘tang yuan‘ (汤圆) – some very tasty glutinous ball treats. Been loving it for decades. I recall spending the entire day making them with my mum’s instructions in the younger days. In a world reveling in the cult of speed today, we simply buy our ‘tang yuan’ from the supermarkets.

The day is also celebrated as the Lantern Festival, so this is when you will see the Chinese walking around with paper lanterns illuminating the streets. There are reasons for this, and it is rooted in deep spiritual beginnings. Candles are also lit outside houses so that wayward spirits may find their way home.

The fifteenth day also marks the official end of Lunar New Year festivities. So, friends – this marks the end of the overwhelming (sometimes overbearing) red and yellow decor and firecrackers our friends from around the world have to bear when it comes to this part of the year.

To celebrate this day in a special way, I made my way down (with parents in tow to help translate – I still am a a very slow reader of Chinese text) to the Chinese Heritage Center at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, two places extremely rich in Chinese culture in Singapore (or deeply rooted seats of Chinese soft power sown a long time ago). The University was started by the Overseas Chinese of Singapore in 1955, the first Chinese-language university in South East Asia. Built by the Hokkiens (the largest Chinese dialect group in Singapore at 41% according to the 2000 Singapore Census), the university was funded by people from all walks of life – and amazingly – labourers and rickshaw pullers were remembered for playing a significant part in raising the funds needed.

At the Heritage Center, I found this. Already from the 19th century, American caricature have been portraying the Chinese as monopolizing the manufacture of all goods and services (look at how evil and predatory the Chinese are made to look…I am pretty sure this is not how Chinese look, but that’s for another story). Two hundred years ago, the Americans already knew and predicted the reality of today. I am certain not many imagined the actual scale it would reach. After all, China back then was still known as the ‘Sleeping Dragon’ –

Photo: Taken from the NTU Chinese Heritage Center. 28 Feb 2010

The second piece of news to share is this, and this I did not know until today. Facebook is blocked in China. I  think I can see why. Facebook can be a great stirrer of things big and small. Have a Chinese friend (living in Melbourne) who could not accept me as a friend when she was back home in the mainland for the holidays. She told me, “This has to go into your book.” And here it is – starting with the blog.

Filed under: Bob's Opinion, Greater China, Soft Power, Spring Festival

Wen to chat with online users [Straits Times]

Wen to chat with online users
Source – Straits Times, 27 Feb 2010

BEIJING – CHINESE Premier Wen Jiabao plans to take part in an online chat with Internet users around the country and overseas on Saturday, state media said, in a repeat of a similar exercise last year.

The discussion scheduled for 3pm (0700 GMT, 3pm Singapore time) will be shown live on the central government’s website and the official Xinhua news agency website, Xinhua said on Saturday. The report did not provide details on what he plans to discuss.

Mr Wen first chatted with web users in February 2009, broaching issues including corruption among officials and having a shoe thrown at him by a protester.

The discussion attracted thousands of questions from people in China and abroad, with some querying the amount he earned, how long he slept a day, and how much alcohol he could drink, Xinhua reported.

Mr Wen has tried to forge a reputation as a man of the people, contrasting with his colleagues in the ruling Communist Party hierarchy who come across as much more staid.

China has the world’s largest online population with at least 384 million users, according to official figures. However the Internet in China is also regarded as one of the most heavily censored, with the communist authorities seeking to block a wide range of issues they believe may threaten their rule. — AFP

Filed under: Internet, Media, Politics, Straits Times

Chinese students learn harsh lessons

Chinese students learn harsh lessons
By Zhao Yanrong
Source – China Daily, 12 Jan 2010

Problems emerge when an increasing number of Chinese students choose to study in foreign countries. Many students have complained that agencies have misled them and that they have had problems with their overseas universities, colleges and schools.

Nick (not his real name) is one of them. The 28-year-old who now works as a taxi driver in Melbourne went to Australia with his girlfriend early in 2006, one year after graduating from university in China.

His father is a municipal government official and his mother a former worker for a State-owned factory. His father had saved for five years in the hopes of buying a car but, when the family decided to send Nick to Australia, they abandoned the car-buying plan and threw their support behind him.

Nick found an agency via the Internet that was based in his hometown in Hebei province.

“They claimed that they had helped many Chinese students enrol in colleges and schools in Australia and Canada,” he said. “We knew almost nothing about overseas study then. But my parents hoped that we could get Australian citizenship as soon as possible.”

The agency recommended Nick and his girlfriend attend a 20-week language program, and told them the language school cooperated with a college that they would subsequently attend, so they would not need to take any language exams after finishing the program.

Nick said they thought about attending a language school in Melbourne but the agency told them the school it recommended in Adelaide was better and said it had sent many students there.

When they arrived in Australia, Nick discovered many problems.

“I only needed to attend a 10-week program based on the IELTS score I had in China,” he said. “The agency said we do not need to take the IETLS test again, but we still had to pass a language test set by the school, which is as hard as IELTS. The agency never mentioned that before.”

Nick and his girlfriend were unsatisfied with the arrangement. So, after they finished the first 10-week classes, they withdrew from the school. With the help of a Chinese agency in Adelaide, they finally managed to go to Melbourne in March 2007. But they had to start over – including the language courses.

“I planned to enter a local college in Melbourne, but the agency told us that studying with more Chinese students at an international school could help reduce culture shock and help us make more friends.”

Once again, Nick followed the agency’s suggestion – to study cookery at the school. However, the private school was shut down eight months after he enrolled.

“I did not know what to do. In China, I had never heard of a school suddenly shutting. I felt like I was abandoned by the school and the society,” he recalled.

“I am not interested in cookery, but it could have helped me gain more points in my immigrant evaluation. To get the permanent residency that my parents hoped for, I had to take the course.”

Three months later, Nick was transferred by the private school to another private school, which was also full of international students.

“The international school also got shut down due to its bankruptcy later in 2009,” said Nick, who graduated in mid 2009 with a diploma. “I am lucky that I finished my study before its closure.

“I’ve spent almost four years in Australia, but I think I’ve wasted a lot of time and money by following those unreliable agencies’ suggestions.”

Filed under: Australia, China Daily, Chinese overseas, Education, International Relations

Growing number of Chinese students head to US

The Chinese have been flooding the world with its people for two centuries. This is where China’s true power lies. Its sheer numbers – the redrawing of the extents of China. I trust it is not hard to read between the lines. The fear is when it fails to become a positive exchange.

– – –

Growing number of Chinese students head to US
By Yu Ran
Source – China Daily, 27 Feb 2010

SHANGHAI: The visa application process on the Chinese mainland for the United States continues to grow rapidly, while the number of applications from other countries is declining, a US consular said on Friday.

Michael D. Kirby, the principal deputy assistant secretary for the consular affairs, announced that the overall number of all visa applications in the mainland for 2009 is 596,231, a year-on-year increase of 50,000, with student visa applications accounting for 98,500 of them.

“The number of Chinese applicants has kept increasing, with the number in Shanghai in January seeing an increase of 80 percent over last December to reach a peak of 32,400,” Kirby said.

“We’re expecting an annual growth rate of 16 to 20 percent.”

As always, students’ visa applications occupied a large portion of all applications, while the refusal rate for them was declining, which was in contrast to the public perception of the situation. The refusal rate of students’ visa applications declined from 32 percent to 15 percent from 2007 to 2008, while the number of applicants doubled.

Lei Guoxin, manager of the US study abroad department at Shanghai A&A International Education Agency, told China Daily: “We have not had students rejected on the basis of their visas since we launched our US study abroad department last year. The number of applicants rose dramatically after President Obama’s visit to Shanghai last year, while the age of applicants has fallen.”

Student applicants also discovered the visa process is not as difficult as they expected.

“I was told by my friends that it was very difficult to get a visa to the US for Chinese applicants, but I just applied as a student. It only took two minutes for the interview,” said Wu Xiangsheng, a first year student at the University of Northern California.

From March 1, all applicants will be required to apply for a US visa via the Online DS-160 Non-immigrant Visa Electronic Application.

The DS-160 application is an online form with different questions for different types of visas. Applicants do not have to spend time filling out paper forms or sitting in waiting rooms for interviews.

“The DS-160 uses high technology to meet the increased visa application demands in China,” Kirby added.

“I want to dispel the myth that it is very difficult to get a US visa in China. Chinese are welcomed to study, travel and shop in the US if they confirm that they will not immigrate to the country. We could also regard this as a way to stimulate our economy as a whole,” Kirby stressed.

Filed under: China Daily, Chinese overseas, Culture, Education, Greater China, International Relations, Soft Power, U.S.

Injury toll in China quake rises to 29

Injury toll in China quake rises to 29
Source – AsiaOne, 26 Feb 2010

BEIJING – The number of people injured in a moderate earthquake in southwest China rose to 29 on Friday as aftershocks rattled the region, the government and state media reported.

Tens of thousands of homes were damaged in Thursday’s 5.1-magnitude quake, the epicentre of which was located about 90 kilometres northwest of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province.

Two of those injured were in a serious condition, the local seismological bureau said, adding that up to 35,000 homes, at least 100 schools and dozens of hospitals were damaged near the epicentre.

As of early Friday, 37 aftershocks had struck the area. More than 3,000 residents were evacuated, and soldiers have been sent to the region to help with rescue and evacuation efforts, Xinhua news agency said.

Filed under: AsiaOne, Environment, Natural Disasters

Oxfam Hong Kong halts training programme in China

How unfortunate. Perhaps Oxfam has allegiances the public is not privy to, perhaps the Chinese are over-reacting. “Some mainland rights activists told Hong Kong media that they were alarmed. Oxfam is seen by them as a very moderate – even over cautious agency – in its dealings with mainland authorities.”

– – –

Oxfam Hong Kong halts training programme in China
By Annemarie Evans
Source – BBC News, Hong Kong, 24 Feb 2010

Oxfam Hong Kong has suspended a programme training young graduates in mainland China.

Oxfam is one of the biggest names in world aid and development. Photo - BBC

The move comes after notices attributed to China’s education ministry appeared at several universities saying the aid agency was trying to infiltrate China.

The notices said Oxfam Hong Kong had ill intentions and that graduates should not sign up to be trained.

The agency says the programme will be suspended until it receives an explanation from the Chinese ministry.

‘Cautious agency’

The programme is just one of many that Oxfam Hong Kong carries out in mainland China. It has been run for four years with no prior problems , according to Oxfam Hong Kong’s Director General John Sayer.

The internships – which run from three to six months – place around 10 young graduates with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to train them as programme officers.

The notices, which first appeared at Minzu University in Beijing and later at other institutions, appear to be from the ministry’s Communist Party secretariat.

They also cite Oxfam’s heads as being in the opposition camp. The chairman of Oxfam Hong Kong is a member of the Democratic Party; another council member is spokeswoman for a group protesting against a high-speed railway link to the mainland.

But Mr Sayer rejects the allegations.

“As far as we’re concerned, as an independent NGO, we’re free of any particular political party or government or religious group or indeed business group, and we’re really proud of our independence.

“And we’re not associated or affiliated and we have no agenda apart from working for a world that is freer of poverty,” Mr Sayer says.

Some mainland rights activists told Hong Kong media that they were alarmed. Oxfam is seen by them as a very moderate – even over cautious agency – in its dealings with mainland authorities.

Filed under: BBC, Politics

Rural population could drop to 400m

Rural population could drop to 400m
By Jin Zhu
Source – China Daily, 25 Feb 2010

An elderly man from the countryside walks in a street in Renshou county, Sichuan province, with his granddaughter on his back, on Feb 4. Renshou county has a population of 1.62 million, with 1.33 million living in rural areas. Photo: China Daily Yao Yongliang

The country’s rural population may drop to 400 million from the current 900 million in the next three decades because of rising urbanization, a senior official has forecast.

The rural population currently stands at 720 million, the latest population figures have shown. But the number does not include the 180 million rural residents who have left their hometowns to live in cities for more than half a year, Han Jun, a senior official at the State Council Development Research Center, was quoted as saying by Beijing News.

In the past 30 years, the urban population has increased by 400 million to hit 600 million. Of these people, 27 percent now live in cities but are not permanent residents.

“Currently, one in four residents in the cities come from the rural population. The current movement of labor from rural to urban areas is expected to continue in the future,” Han said.

The country has about 240 million migrant workers, with about half of them born after 1980 and 40 million of them born in the 1990s, the latest official statistics show.

“Young migrant workers are reluctant to go back to the countryside and are eager to be new residents in cities,” Han said.

Source - China Daily

A major policy document released last month addressed the young as “a new generation of migrant workers” for the first time and made it clear that the government is “striving for substantial reform of the household registration system” to help them to register in cities where they can then receive more social benefits.

“Hundreds of millions of farmers are now working for the development of cities and contribute a great deal to tax revenues where they live. However, they cannot enjoy the public services offered in cities. It is not fair,” said Zhang Hulin, a professor with the Party School of the Central Committee of the CPC.

New-generation migrant workers mostly live in cities and work as security guards, waiters, construction and decoration laborers, and deliverymen.

“More and more citizens have felt the importance of migrant workers to their daily life. But low wages have also made many migrant workers unwilling to stay and work, especially in big cities,” Zhang told China Daily yesterday.

So far, 13 provinces and cities such as Hebei and Liaoning have already piloted a unified household registration in rural and urban areas. But many say the reform falls short of offering benefits in education, housing and social security to the new population, Han said.

Filed under: China Daily, Domestic Growth

Govt wants a better view of ‘naked officials’

Corruption has been a very very big problem with China since time immemorial, but little did I know the extent was so significant. $50 billion will do a lot of good for many people. This piece highlights the cunning plan of some Chinese officials who send their families overseas on the pretext of studies, for example, and that provides an avenue for them to send their ‘hard-earned’ money overseas.

“About 4,000 corrupt officials fled the country with at least $50 billion between 1978 and 2003, a report by the Ministry of Commerce showed. Many of these officials sent their spouses and children abroad first, then transferred the money they took from China.”

– – –

Govt wants a better view of ‘naked officials’
China Daily
Source – AsiaOne, 24 Feb 2010

A special monitoring system is likely to be set up within the year to better watch officials who have spouses or children living abroad, as a measure to curb corruption.

The National Bureau of Corruption Prevention and the Ministry of Supervision jointly listed supervision over so-called “naked officials” as a key task.

The term “naked official” was selected as one of China’s top 10 buzzwords of 2009 by Chinese linguists. It refers to officials whose family members have moved overseas, while they themselves work in the country alone, usually with the other country’s visa in hand.

The move coincides with a requirement of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) to promote a revised code of ethics for CPC members to ensure clean practice in their work.

A national video conference was held yesterday to promote the implementation of the new regulations.

The guidelines specify 52 unacceptable practices for CPC officials, including accepting cash or financial instruments as gifts, and using their influence to benefit their spouses or children regarding employment, stock trading or business.

The guidelines also prohibit CPC officials from for-profit activities and abusing public funds for personal interests, and warned of “strict punishment” to violators.

Lin Zhe, an anti-corruption professor with the Party School of the Central Committee of the CPC, said she expects a specific regulation to be issued this year requiring “naked officials” to report their personal and family information.

“We have had similar reporting requirements before, but they were too general. The new regulation should demand such officials report in detail, as details often reveal problems,” she said.

For example, an official should report the exact overseas school his child studies in, how the child was admitted, how much tuition fees and living expenses are, as well as where the money is from, with relevant proof or receipts.

“A Chinese student needs about 200,000 yuan (S$41,160) a year for studying in the UK. At least the official should explain how he or she can afford it,” she said.

Meanwhile, once the reporting system is set up, related departments should adopt a strict check-up if “naked officials” apply to go abroad.

Lin also mentioned the monitoring role played by banks. “I suggest the list of ‘naked officials’ be provided to banks, so they can be very cautious and report to the authorities if there is a large sum of money moving in their account,” she said.

However, He Zengke, a professor with the China Center for Comparative Politics and Economics, said it is more urgent to set up a personal assets reporting system.

“It would provide a more rigorous and direct supervision over the officials, as the purpose of graft is to pursue personal fortune. Several nations like the US and France have set up similar systems, and we can learn from their experience,” he said.

About 4,000 corrupt officials fled the country with at least $50 billion between 1978 and 2003, a report by the Ministry of Commerce showed. Many of these officials sent their spouses and children abroad first, then transferred the money they took from China.

In 2008, Pang Jiayu, former mayor and Party chief of Baoji in Northwest China’s Shaanxi province from 1997 to 1999, was accused of allowing substandard pipes to be used and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment for corruption.

But Pang’s wife and son had emigrated to Canada in 2002, causing great concern in the public over corrupt officials relocating their “dirty money” abroad.

A communique, issued by the fifth plenary session of the 17th Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the CPC this January, stipulates that officials should report their property and investments as well as the employment of their spouse and children, and authorities should particularly monitor those officials who had family members living overseas.

The Shenzhen municipal government issued a regulation in November 2009, stipulating that “naked officials” were prohibited from serving as leading officials in major Party and governmental departments.

As the “two sessions”, or annual sessions of the National People’s Congress, the top legislature, and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the top advisory body, are approaching, online surveys show that corruption remains the No 1 concern among Chinese people.

Filed under: 52 Unacceptable Practices, AsiaOne, China Daily, Corruption

China talks tough but policy unchanged

Prof Wang is the leading regional expert on all matters China, and his views matter. For a bridge to understand China with a balanced east/west perspective, read on as Prof Wang comments on the recent friction between US and China.

– – –

China talks tough but policy unchanged
By Wang Gungwu
Source – Straits Times, 24 Feb 2010

RELATIONS between China and the United States seemed to have worsened because of the US arms sale to Taiwan and a host of other issues. In the US, support for President Barack Obama’s programmes appears to have weakened. Has that encouraged the Chinese to talk tough? Are there developments within China that have led its leaders to move away from low-key responses and take higher profiles abroad?

Certainly Beijing’s tone and the words it has used in public exchanges have been stronger than usual. Does this come from a shift in Chinese thinking?

I believe that China is not obsessive about what the US thinks, but it has always looked around in every direction. So I thought I should go through my checklist of what would appear to be the core global issues from the Chinese perspective.

China has carefully studied the rise and fall of modern great powers from the time they sprang out of the aggressive political cultures of the 15th and 16th centuries and re-configured the course of Atlantic history to the present. Although the empires of the Western powers reached the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the real struggle among them remained in the Atlantic. It was not till late in the 20th century, after the empires were finally dismantled, that the centre of gravity of great power conflicts moved eastwards to Asia.

Chinese leaders know that China’s greatest mistake from the 15th to the 20th centuries was to remain with its continental mindset while a fundamental shift had taken place in the world. Chinese leaders are still struggling to find the right balance between their overland concerns and the threats to their maritime borders. But they know a great deal about nuclear weapons and are learning fast about cyberspace. On the whole, they now find it easier to understand what is necessary in order to ensure their security.

Recent geopolitical changes have occurred because China’s rise has produced the view in the West that China is the only power that can resist Euro-American global hegemony. Other pockets of resistance in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East can be handled as local operations. Thus the attempts to induce, if not force, China to conform to the dominant norms.

The Chinese see this as a continuation of the ideological thrust that has been challenging China’s sovereignty for the past 150 years. Their leaders note that this could ultimately be aimed at another regime change.

To them, the obvious manifestation of this thrust is the coming together of the US, Japan and India in the name of shared democratic values. This is feasible because modern military and communication technology has ensured that the Indian and Pacific Oceans are no longer too big for political cultures and patterns – the tussle between democracies and non-democracies, for example – once confined to the Mediterranean to replicate themselves in Asia. China realises that it has to be more watchful of such rivalries, for they may well threaten it.

In this context, China finds comfort in Asean’s reluctance to join the ideological game. In its own interest, Asean has played a valuable role in reducing the sense of threat among the major protagonists involved in the region. Its efforts to minimise ideological thinking emphasising differences have been reassuring. China wants to help promote policies that can knit together those with similar goals in both the Pacific and Indian oceans.

In contrast to South-east Asia, China sees the regions to its north and west as posing persistent and intractable problems for its security and is determined to strengthen its defences along its borders with these regions.

My checklist of China’s core interests becomes simpler when it comes to the country’s internal goals. The hierarchy of its concerns has changed little over recent decades. The highest priority is still rapid economic development.

Two developments have pushed for change internally: the financial crisis in the West, where China’s main markets are; and the damaging environmental degradation within the country. But China will change its policies gradually; the changes will not be panic-driven.

Beijing’s concerns with internal stability remain unchanged. National attention has been directed at achieving social harmony, a clear admission that rapid economic development has led to inequalities beyond what can be tolerated by the Chinese people. The authorities know that there is widespread anger at the rampant corruption in official circles. Judicial and political reforms will continue, but the stress will be on caution. All future moves will continue to be deliberate and controlled.

China’s key concern over the past century has been its sovereignty. The legitimacy of any Chinese government depends on its capacity to unify the country and preserve its borders.

Many lessons have been learnt from the period of turmoil that the Chinese people experienced, the most important being the country will always need development and order. Thus, the US and China may be talking less softly to each other today, but nothing fundamental in Chinese policy has changed to explain this shift.

The writer is chairman of the East Asia Institute, National University of Singapore. Think-Tank is a weekly column rotated among eight leading figures in Singapore’s tertiary and research institutions.

Filed under: Influence, International Relations, Straits Times, U.S.

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February 2010

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Wandering Taiwan: reflections of my travels in the democratic Republic of China

Wandering China, Resounding Deng Slideshow

Click here to view the Wandering China, Resounding Deng Slideshow

Slideshow reflection on Deng Xiaoping's UN General Assembly speech in 1974. Based on photos of my travels in China 2011.

East Asia Geographic Timelapse

Click here to view the East Asia Geographic Timelapse

A collaboration with my brother: Comparing East Asia's rural and urban landscapes through time-lapse photography.

Wandering Planets

Creative Commons License
Wandering China by Bob Tan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at Wanderingchina.org. Thank you for visiting //
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