China Power

A Chinese Summer, Revisited

Kim, cars, Gates and the South China Sea—its been a busy summer for China watchers.

With the summer drawing to a close, I thought it would be worth revisiting some of the issues that have been covered in this blog over the past couple of months. I’ve always found it frustrating when a story is picked up by the media, covered and then forgotten about. So in case readers are asking themselves ‘what happened next?’ here are a few answers.

Late last month, I covered the 60-mile traffic jam that was snaking its way slowly into Beijing. Drivers stuck in the tailback were complaining of price gouging by noodle sellers as they whiled away their time playing chess.

So what happened? Well, good news for drivers—according to the BBC, the jam was finally cleared just over a week ago. But there’s been good news for the noodle sellers as well! A new, 75-mile jam has now formed on the same Beijing to Tibet expressway as coal trucks bringing their loads into the capital have once again brought traffic to a virtual standstill.

Could a solution to some of Beijing’s infamous traffic snarls be in the offing later this year? The creators of an elevated super bus will be hoping so. AFP reported last month that a new 1,400-passenger vehicle that ‘travels on rails and straddles two lanes of traffic, allowing cars to drive under its passenger compartment’ will be tested in the western part of the city next year.

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More recently—this week in fact—I looked at speculation about what Kim Jong-il was doing in China last week, and what his visit does or doesn’t say about ties between China and North Korea. One of the most popular theories has been that Kim was, in effect, seeking approval for the succession of his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. North Korea is this month convening a national conference of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, the first such meeting in more than four decades, so the feverish speculation is understandable.

But China watcher and The Diplomat contributor Gordon Chang has dismissed suggestions that Kim was in China seeking Beijing’s approval.

Writing in Forbes yesterday, Chang said:

‘It's true the Chinese leadership would be uncomfortable with a Kim family "prince heir." "We would like to see the transition of power go smoothly, but I don't think China will show any admiration for this sort of succession," Zhu Feng of Peking University told the Christian Science Monitor.

‘Beijing, however, does not get a vote. For one thing, Kim Jong Il, whose juche ideology makes a fetish of independence, would never seek the approval of the Chinese in such an obvious fashion. He would, of course, introduce his son as a courtesy, but it would be politically unacceptable for him to ask for China's OK.’

Another recurring topic the past few months has been the apparent pushback by the Obama administration in its China policy. Some analysts have contended that there hasn’t actually been any concerted effort to push back, and that what we’re seeing is just the natural to and fro of ties between two major powers.

But whereas the US once seemed willing to bend over backward to show respect for China (humiliating itself according to some US conservatives last year after Obama came away with little to show after his trip to Beijing), this year has been marked by a series of tougher statements of intent, arguably beginning with the arms sale to Taiwan announced in January, and running through the Shangri-la Dialogue (where Defence Secretary Robert Gates was in a combative mood) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comments at a security forum in Hanoi in July suggesting that the US saw freedom of access to the South China Sea as in its national interests and that it would be willing to assist in resolving territorial disputes between Beijing and its South-east Asian neighbours.

But the increased willingness to tread on China’s toes isn’t endless, as perhaps demonstrated by a story in the Washington Post this week about a self-confessed Chinese intelligence agent who’s set to be deported from the United States back to China after he tried to claim political asylum.

There seems little doubt that if Li Fengzhi, who defected to the United States in 2004, is eventually deported, he’ll face the death penalty back home. So why is the US still apparently trying to send him packing?

It’s a question vexing former senior intelligence officials including Michelle Van Cleave, chief of the National Counterintelligence Executive during the Bush administration, who is quoted as saying:

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‘I can’t understand why the Obama Administration would oppose Li’s application for asylum…Can you imagine the fate that would await him if he were deported? Or what kind of a signal that would send?…Whether he came over with the crown jewels of Chinese intelligence or just some crumbs from the table, we should be welcoming him with open arms and encouraging others to follow.’

She’s right, of course.

Finally, again late last month, I talked about the hostage crisis in Manila in which eight tourists in Hong Kong were killed by a gunman who had seized the tour bus they were travelling on. I found the over-reaction of Hong Kong frustrating—a travel warning was issued despite there being no indication that this was anything but a tragic but isolated incident, with the nationalities of the hostages irrelevant.

Well, according to the China Digital Times’ fascinating weekly look at what the Chinese censors are telling mainland media they can and can’t report on, the Chinese government was also keeping a wary eye over the demonstrations taking place in Hong Kong over the incident.

The Global Times translated instructions from the so-called Ministry of Truth as reading:

‘The purpose of the demonstrations in Hong Kong is not pure. (Those demonstrations) are releasing dissatisfaction towards the mainland.  All websites are to properly report on demonstrations in Hong Kong, and not allow themselves to be taken advantage of by anti-mainland sentiment in Hong Kong.’