Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Ramamritham falls in love

Who is the person I hate the most ? No; not that one, whom I frankly don't care about . He is half the planet away and troubling other folks; not me. My visceral hate is reserved for somebody much closer home. The "dotard" called Ramamritham. Allow me an unhinged rant please; I badly need it !

You see, the problem is that Ramamritham has fallen head over heels in insane love. We all know how crazy he is even when supposedly normal. Now that his brain circuits have been singed with love, he has become a monster. The delectable damsel who has swept this idiot off his rockers is called Aadhaar.

For the benefit of the one American reader who claims to be ignorant about India (no; not the lady - she is an expert !), Aadhaar is the national ID that every resident of India is supposed to get.

The government introduced Aadhaar some 5 years ago ostensibly as a way to identify individuals to whom subsidies could be paid directly and thereby minimise leakages.  The government gave pious assurances (including to the Supreme Court) that Aadhaar was not compulsory or mandatory and it would never make it so.

I think the government framed this with good intentions, but had not factored that the old toothless fart, Ramamritham, would fall in love with this.  They say love makes you irrational, and if anybody needed any further proof of this, look at what this apology to the human race is doing.

He first made Aadhaar mandatory for buying gas cylinders. Then he made it mandatory to operate any bank account. Then he made it mandatory to file a  tax return.  But where he has gone completely bonkers is that he has now made it mandatory for a mobile connection !! And where it truly descends into madness is that its not just an Aadhaar number that this clown wants. He wants a fingerprint match for every mobile owner !! No; I am not joking. He wants to fingerprint you before you have a mobile phone.

Consider the logistics. There are 1.2 billion people in India. Perhaps some 800 million own a mobile phone. And we being the argumentative Indians we are,  don't possess just one connection . Almost everybody has two SIM cards. And this is what Ramamritham wants us to do.

1. Go physically to a store of the mobile company (they usually have one store for a million users)
2. Stand in a queue ; you can imagine the length of the queue yourself
3. Give your mobile number and Aadhaar number to whoever is behind the counter
4. You will get a one time password on your phone
5. Give this number to the flunkey
6. He will enter some 10 fields into a computer system that has been ordained by Ramamritham.
7. You then place your thumb on a fingerprint reader
8. If it goes through (and that's a big IF - see below), then the flunkey does some more fiddling with the system
9. You then place your thumb a second time (Ramamritham wants to make absolutely sure)
10. If it again goes through, then say four different prayers and then go home
11. You'll get a SMS saying that your request has been registered and that you will get a confirmation in 24/48 hours
12. If you get a SMS after 24/48 hours, you should follow the instructions there and type Y or N or don't do anything
13. If you fail in any of these steps, go to Step 1

Note : The big IF arises because , this being India, any sensible store has bought a cheap Chinese fingerprint reader and it is impregnated with the smudges of the half a million people who have tried to bestow their affections on it.  Therefore your fingerprint is rarely read on the first attempt. If you fail in three attempts, your Aadhaar gets locked and if you want to unlock it then you have to undergo some contortions not dissimilar to what a certain Mr Scaramucci suggested a Mr Bannon was in the habit of doing.

800 million Indians have to do this twice ( not just once, for you see everyone has two SIM cards). If you are stretcher bound, you still have to do this. Nobody else can do it for you because you have to press your damn thumb on that damn machine in the store. If you don't do this by February, be prepared to just not have a mobile phone. Cost estimates for the whole nation to cater to Ramamritham's love affair have been pegged at Rs 1000 crores.

I have lived in the most obsessed country in the world which wants to control every single bit of information you have access to - China. This is the country that has blocked Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, ............ This is the country that employs a million people to read every tweet and delete those that it doesn't like. Even in that country, buying a SIM card was as simple as going to a corner shop and just buying it. No paper, no forms, no crap. It takes all of 2 minutes. And I am now supposed to be living in a liberal democracy called India. And I have to do all of what I have outlined in this post, simply to have the privilege of talking to a friend.

Unfortunately this is not the worst of it. The other day, I had to receive a payment from some company. They demanded my Aadhaar. Very soon, if I have to pee, I am sure I will have to validate my Aadhaar.

Readers are invited to design the most creative torture that can be inflicted on Ramamritham. And to the good American referred to earlier in the post. Let's do an exchange. I'll gladly take your dear leader in exchange for Ramamritham !!

Monday, 25 September 2017

A French soap opera is about to unfold

The world's richest woman just died. If you didn't know this, please stop focusing on the tweets and turn your attention to more weighty matters of the world.

Liliane Bettencourt passed away four days ago at the age of 94. She was the heiress to the founder of L'Oréal, the world's largest cosmetic company; the only child of Eugène Schueller who founded L'Oréal in 1907. She herself worked in the company from the age of 15 and rose to become its deputy Chairperson.

The future of L'Oréal is now in play. And therein lies a story that could give a beating to any soap opera on television.

In 1974, fearing that France would nationalise the company, Bettencourt did a deal with Nestle wherein she offloaded about half her holding in exchange for shares in Nestle. Since then Nestle and Bettencourt have had one of the longest tangos in business history. Nestle, a food company, with no presence at all in cosmetics, had a 30% stake in the world's largest cosmetics company (now down to 23%). But in an agreement with Bettencourt, Nestle remained a sleeping partner and promised not to acquire any more shares or to bid for Bettencourt's own shares as long as she was alive. Presumably Nestle had thought that she would not live so long. But they kept their word and until now have not interfered at all in the business just pocketing the dividends and biding their time. So much so that very few outside the business world probably even know that Nestle is a major shareholder in L'Oréal.

In the meantime Bettencourt's life over the last decade has been another soap opera all by itself. Sometime in 2007, at the  ripe age of 84, she took a fancy to her photographer and started to bestow gifts to him worth over €1 billion. Her daughter filed a complaint with the police that her photographer was taking advantage of her weakened psychological stake to amass a personal fortune. She and her daughter had an extremely public spat with each accusing the other of having gone mad. The courts finally made Bettencourt's grandson as her overseer and the fortune was vested with her daughter and her two grandsons. But everything was in a state of limbo as long as she was alive.

Cue the events in Nestle. Nestle , for long, has waited patiently to consummate what was really a delayed acquisition. Both the last two Chairmen of Nestle sit on the L'Oréal Board. They were probably waiting for the death of Bettencourt to acquire L'Oréal . But alas they now have an activist shareholder in Dan Loeb who has a fair stake in Nestle and is pushing it to do the opposite - sell the stake in L'Oréal and return the money to shareholders. So there is no saying what Nestle will ultimately do - acquire L'Oréal or divest !

There are other big fish circling. Given how cheap debt is , there are enough and more funds of various stripes, including probably the notorious 3G Capital and their close friend Warren Buffet, who are getting all excited. Also interested would be two giants in the cosmetics field - Unilever and Procter & Gamble, who have long eyed Nestle's stake with envy and made noises about what a Foods company is doing with a stake in a Cosmetics company.

Complicating this will be nationalism, for after all L'Oréal is (very) French. Would Macron be willing to let a French institution fall into the hands of the ugly Americans ? If he interfered, the tweeter in chief would surely have something to say !!

And what will Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, Liliane's daughter and the two grandchildren to whom the 30% stake in L'Oréal passes, do ?  Would they act in concert. Or would they go their own ways ? Would they buy ? Or sell ?

Every investment banker is drooling and shivering with anticipation. It is fair to assume that no first class seats are available on all flights to and from Paris, London, New York and Lausanne !

Watch this space. The knives will be out on 18th March when the six months period after Bettencourt's death ends and  all agreements expire.    Bettencourt's life was colourful to say the least - marrying a Nazi sympathiser, losing money with Bernie Madoff,  a strange affair with her photographer, being declared mentally incompetent, accused of giving cash stuffed envelopes to Nicolas Sarkozy,  having numerous Swiss bank accounts ...... But even by those standards, what will follow in the fight for L'Oréal will be, to put it mildly, interesting.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

China's new lineup

Anybody who predicts what the next Standing Committee and the Politburo will be is almost certain to be wrong ! This is why most newspaper columnists are content with naming possible candidates and leaving it at that. This blogger does not care if he is proved wrong or even as a fool. There are no consequences to getting it dead wrong. So here's my prediction what's going to happen !

There are only two near certainties in this political game. One is that Xi Jinping will continue as Secretary of the Communist Party, Chairman of the Central Military Commission and as the President. The second is that Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zengsheng, Liu Yunshan and Zhang Gaoli will retire from the Standing Committee . Everything else is up for grabs.

Two of the key moves that is the subject of much speculation is what will happen to Li Keqiang the current Premier (most views are that he will stay on as Premier) and that of Wang Qishan (Xi's ally in the anti corruption drive, but who is crossing the informal retirement age of 68).

My guess is that Li Keqiang will be pushed out and Wang Qishan will replace him as the Premier. This is not considered likely today and if it happens, will be radical and  unexpected. If it indeed does happen, it will indicate that Xi has taken total control of the Party. My reasoning is that Li has been a disappointment as  Premier  with his management of the economy, his key job. He will also carry the can for the stock market troubles of 2015. Li belongs to the Youth League faction which has been systematically defanged. There is precedence in China of the Premier being replaced - Li Peng giving way to Zhu Rongji in 1998. Wang Qishan , as we have seen in earlier posts, is the de facto No 2 in China today.  He is an expert on the economy and if he were to be appointed Premier, he will be Xi's trusted lieutenant in the soft landing of the economy that is a big imperative for China. This will mean Xi is bending the retirement rule - something I am guessing he will do as a strawman for his own options 5 years from now when he will face this retirement rule himself.

I think Li Zhanshu is a shoo in for the Standing Committee. He is currently the Director of the General Office of the Party and is a right hand man of Xi.  Stacking the Standing Committee with his people will be a primary objective of Xi.

There is a good chance that Wang Yang, currently Vice Premier will be elevated to the Standing Committee. He is not a Xi loyalist  and was potentially a candidate for the Standing Committee  even the last time around. He is however efficient and strong and has quelled his reformer (read political) instincts. He has kept his head low over the last five years and for sheer ability is likely to rise.

Another likely name is Wang Huning. He is currently the head of the central policy research office. A  non controversial choice who doesn't belong to any faction. A theoretician whom Xi seems to rely on and is often seen on Xi's overseas trips as an important adviser.

If Xi is in total control of the Party and has not needed to cut any deals, then this is the likely Standing Committee - cut down to five members . Xi Jinping, Wang Qishan, Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang and Wang Huning.

If Xi however decides to stay with a seven member standing committee, then the two additional names, would be as my guess, Zhao Leji and Han Zheng. Both are "senior" but not powerful and therefore likely to simply make up the numbers and duly nod their heads to anything Xi says.

If my prediction is even 75% right, then it is clear that Xi is all powerful. None of these members can be a potential successor to Xi and it will also indicate that Xi is preparing to stay on after 2022 as he hasn't groomed a successor unlike what his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao did.

 Just as important as who gets in, is who doesn't get in. The disappointed persons would be

- Li Keqiang, the current Premier. He would be the biggest casualty if he were to fall. If he doesn't get dropped, Xi is just being cautious not to make too many changes. Li's power will continue to wane and he will, at best be a bureaucrat continuing to run the economy. Real decisions will  made by Xi.

- Hu Chunhua, the current party chief of Guangdong. He is of the next generation and had been touted as a potential successor to Xi even five years ago. He has recently been making noises pledging loyalty to Xi.  His elevation to the Standing Committee will mean he is the clear front runner next time around. His non inclusion will be a strong signal that Xi intends to stay on even after 2022.

- Chen Min'er, current party chief of Chongqing. He was just brought in there to replace the disgraced Sun Zhengcai, a potential successor to Xi who fell in a power struggle. Chen is a staunch Xi loyalist. Its unlikely that he would be nominated, but if he were, it would be a clear signal that he would take over from Xi at least nominally in 2022, while Xi holds real power from the backroom.

A team like the one I have predicted will mean the following for China

- Xi Jinping is all powerful. He will start to acquire Mao like cult status. It is only hoped that he wouldn't unleash horrors on the country as Mao did.

- The Party will become even more ruthless in suppressing dissent. Personal freedoms will be even more curtailed and censorship will worsen.

- The economy will be managed efficiently. Economic troubles will come but they will be managed as best as could be.

- On foreign policy China will become increasingly belligerent and muscular.  They will be difficult to deal with diplomatically and might pick up fights with other countries. The current US administration will constantly lose on anything they pick up with China.

- The anti corruption drive and the defanging of political opponents will intensify. Xi might however face a challenge when Jiang Zemin dies. Major political activity tends to happen when somebody important dies.  The two major upheavals in China happened in 1976 after Zhou Enlai died and more famously in 1989 when Hu Yaobang died which led to the Tiananmen incidents. Jiang is nowhere near as liked as Zhou or Hu were, but it may be a trigger for old timers and those who had lost out in the Xi era to maybe flex their muscles.

- Xi will stay on post 2022 and will be the main power for at least another decade. He will install one of his men as the General Secretary, but will stay on as the Chairman of the CMC and wield real power. He may even be appointed Chairman of the Party, a post that was abolished after Mao.

How wrong I am would be revealed in the days after October 18th when the line of 5 or 7, which I alluded to in the first sentence of this series of posts will walk in and be introduced.  Even if I am 50% right, I will lay claim to being a "Zhōng guó tōng" (China expert) !

Enough of politics. This blog will go back to plodding on business and economic matters. It will return briefly to China and politics when the actual line up is announced in end October.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

China's Issues

Every country faces challenges and China is no exception. But by global yardsticks, China's issues are less critical than what most other countries face.  It is after all the one country in the world which does not face a serious growth challenge (at least as of now).  China is however such a large country that even a seemingly minor issue is of gigantic scale and one that will affect the whole world. This is why everybody in the world ought to take a much greater interest in this country.

This post is a compendium of social, political, economic and moral issues that China faces at this point of time, in no particular order

Maintaining GDP Growth : The "contract" between the Communist Party and the people is a simple one - Economic growth for political control. When economic growth falters, this contract will be put under strain. There are a number of challenges to maintaining economic growth and some of them are articulated below. You can't grow endlessly at 8%+. The inflexion point has come.

Quantum of Debt  : China's debt to GDP ratio is galloping and is now above 300%. Much of the growth over the last decade has been debt fuelled. Growth will seriously falter if debt is cut. That's why the elusive "soft landing" is proving so difficult for China. Just for comparison, India's debt to GDP %, which I often cry about is "only" 130%. The United States, of course is a leader at 350% !

Income inequality : Every country faces this problem, but China faces it as bad as the US. The Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality is 0.42 (higher the number, greater the inequality). The US is 0.46. India is 0.35. China is starting to have first world problems

Ageing population : Because of the one child policy that was rigidly enforced until recently, China is rapidly ageing. It will be the first country in history to have an ageing problem before it got rich (remember, on a per capita basis, China is still middling). With a poor social security network, who is going to pay for the aged and take care of them in a decade or two. China has the peculiar problem of one grandchild for four grandparents.

Corruption : We have spoken of it in previous posts. It is a serious problem.

Environment : China faces an acute environmental problem. The government is actively tackling it, but the problem is a huge one and one that was allowed to build up to crisis levels over decades. China also faces an acute water problem (worse than India's). There aren't easy solutions. Much of the north is virtually a desert, but with teeming populations.

Restive provinces : The one thing China is absolutely terrible at is integrating people who are culturally different. 93% of China is a homogeneous Han (those who talk about diversity in China have no clue what diversity really means - come to India).  The two largest provinces Tibet and Xinjiang are restive and brutally suppressed

Rising nationalism : Very few Chinese would recognise this as an issue, but it really is. Anti foreigner sentiment is high - its easy for a large number of Chinese to be fanatically against a nation if whipped into a frenzy of perceived slights. The Chinese government is increasingly bullying in its approach - Japan (Senkaku), entire East Asia (Nine dash line), India (Doklam and Arunachal). The average citizen who only has access to government propaganda gets whipped into dangerous nationalism. The Chinese would do well to ponder over this - why do they have so few friends ?

A moral vacuum : To an outsider, this might seem to be a strange issue, but many Chinese would immediately relate to it. Firstly during the Cultural Revolution and then in the breakneck speed of economic growth, its ancient culture, beliefs and traditions have gone. Today money is the predominant (only) religion.  In other countries, religious and  social organisations provide a balance to the materialism. In China they do not exist, or if they rise, are brutally exterminated by the government (see what happened to Falun Gong). So many Chinese wonder - after money what? And they may then turn their attention to demanding a level of freedom not in consonance with what the party is comfortable with.

And so this is the real major issue that China has faced since the mid 1980s and continues to face now. What is the balance between economic freedom and growth and political and other freedoms. The first flare up came when Zhou Enlai died in 1976. The second major flare up came during the Tiananmen incident in 1989. Since then there has been an uneasy truce, but one which has never gone away. Some day it will rear its head again. How China confronts it, and who is in power in China to confront it, will have tremendous consequences for the world. 

Friday, 15 September 2017

Politics and the average Chinese

The man in the street simply does not care ! At least politically !!

In a country of 1.2 billion, such a sweeping  statement is an outrageous generalisation. But it is broadly true. The average Chinese does not care because (a) what is the real choice (b) she has very little access to information that is even remotely political in nature and (c) she doesn't seem to be hugely interested anyway

And this is despite a startling fact; the country with the maximum number of protests from citizens is actually China ! On any given day, there are probably 800 odd protests happening throughout China. If there is such vigorous activity, how come the assertion that the average Joe (Mrs Li) doesn't care ?

Two sweeping statements can be made about the average Chinese's views (a) she believes (and it does not matter where or who she is) that the local government is utterly corrupt and inefficient
and (b) she believes that the central leaders in Beijing are extremely efficient, working hard for the country, are the best humans on earth and if only they knew of their specific problem, it would be instantly fixed.

All the protests are predominantly on local issues, and mostly against land grabs by local officials. It is therefore mainly economic in nature, not political. There are simply no political protests of any sort.

A major issue in China is that public opinion is greatly hampered because of virtually no access to true political information. The following is the information environment in which the average Chinese lives

- There are no independent newspapers at all. Foreign newspapers are mostly not available.
- There is only government TV . No foreign channels, except in top end hotels. Even those are censored - can you believe that CNN's broadcast to China is routed through a Chinese government controlled satellite !
- All films are subject to censorship. Foreign films are severely limited in number and if you have anything remotely political in your film, fat chance of being cleared. Ditto books. Ditto music. Pirated DVDs are freely available but then the market is mostly for sexually explicit stuff rather than political content.
- The Great Firewall of China, behind which the internet sits in a parallel universe, is one of the most remarkable operations of all. The Hall of Fame of sites that are completely banned and inaccessible from China includes Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google plus, Maps, Docs, Picasa, Dropbox, Flickr, ..... I can keep going. Every one of these have local equivalents which are of course severely censored by the authorities
- The Chinese are avid users of social media, but only on domestic providers. These are hugely monitored by armies of machines, men and software. Every offending post is deleted . If you realise that there are half a billion internet users in China and they are as active as anybody in online activities, you can imagine the scale at which censorship takes place.

Consequently, the average Chinese is poorly informed on political matters and therefore has limited and not fully informed views. In any social gathering in the West (even more so in India), the conversation will turn political. Not so in China.  Mao has been glorified as "70% right" - very few of the younger generation know anything about the horrors of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The Tiananmen incidents of 1989 have been airbrushed from history - when I lived in China I was amazed that my colleagues knew virtually nothing about what happened.

The sum total of all this is that public opinion in China is less intense and formed than in virtually any other country. Therefore the Party and the government are under less pressure than anywhere else. You see, the true check on any government in any country is not judiciary , or the constitutional checks and balances - it is really public opinion  represented by the media. In China, that check does not exist. The Chinese have made a pact with the Party - give us continuous economic advancement and we won't care about the politics. Thus far, that pact has held good.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Who's who in Chinese politics

Xi Jinping, the current Chinese leader is easily the most powerful leader that China has had ever since Deng Xiaoping faded away in the early 90s. But in order to understand his power, we have to go back a bit in time in modern Chinese history.

Mao was a tyrant and supremely powerful in China and until his death, he was simply the sole power centre. But that degree of concentration of power resulted in chaos in China - the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution being two big disasters. When he died, the elders decided that no single person should ever be allowed to accumulate such power. Deng Xiaoping became the preeminent leader, but there was a rival power centre in Chen Yun and to a lesser extent in Li Xiannian. Multiple purges later,  Jiang Zemin was appointed the Secretary of the Communist Party immediately after the infamous Tiananmen incident in 1989.

Jiang accumulated a fair degree of power, but was never all powerful. He led the party out of the post Tiananmen crisis and then earned his own notoriety by the brutal suppression, and virtual extermination, of  Falun Gong - a cult loosely based on mysticism, but which was feared by the Party as a political movement. By the norms set by Deng, which he followed and reinforced,  he stepped down after some 12 years as the Secretary of the Party and handed over to Hu Jintao, who was handpicked by Deng himself before his death. However, Jiang continued to remain the Chairman of the Central Military Commission and therefore in his first term Hu really did not have much power and had to constantly "handle" Jiang. Jiang continues to remain a power centre and is the leader of the Shanghai faction. However he is getting old (he's past 90) and his power is fading, helped along by Xi's efforts to undermine this faction.

Hu Jintao is a colourless and plodding leader, who even while he was the Secretary of the Party, was never a charismatic leader. His hold on power was weaker. When he handed over the reins to Xi Jinping, he quit all his formal roles. He leads the Youth League, another faction, but is not a powerful leader.

Xi Jinping comes from a group called the "princelings" - their fathers were revolutionary leaders in the Mao era and their positions, at least to some measure, is owed to their parentage. When Xi took over, he swiftly started to consolidate his power with a massive anti corruption drive, the likes of which China has never seen.

Ostensibly Xi was tackling one of the greatest scourges of China - corruption. The scale of corruption in China is simply unbelievable. Nowhere has mankind seen anything like this. It is all pervasive . I won't say anything more - I still wish to travel to China !! Let me just say that whatever you think is the level of corruption in China, the reality is probably tenfold worse. It is an existential threat to the Party.  Therefore tackling corruption was a popular thing to do.

But the anti corruption drive was also a big consolidation of power by Xi. It was positioned as catching "tigers and flies" - both the small fry as well as the really powerful.  Unsurprisingly, the people targeted the most were political opponents. More than 100,000 flies have been indicted, but more importantly so have nearly 200 tigers. This includes some 100 senior people in the military including two former Vice Chairmen of the Central Military Commission (the equivalent would be Defence Secretary and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the US military being purged). The biggest tiger of all who was jailed is clearly Zhou Yongkang, a past member of the Standing Committee. Such a thing is simply not done in Chinese politics - the upper echelon of the Communist Party was thought untouchable.

Xi's main ally who has carried out the anti corruption drive is Wang Qishan, a current member of the Standing Committee and 6th in the formal order of seniority. But clearly the real no 2 in China is Wang Qishan. He is a star economic leader in China - having held a number of economic portfolios in the past. But for the last 5 years he has been Xi's enforcer in the anti corruption drive. Crucially he is 69 and by the tenets of the unofficial retirement policy, he should retire in October. All the rumours swirling around China are that Xi will keep him. 

The formal No 2 is the Premier Li Keqiang. His job is to run the economy and the general consensus is that he has not been successful. His power base is small and he belongs to the Youth League faction of Hu Jintao. In fact at the time of Xi's succession it was rumoured that Hu actually wanted Li to succeed him and not Xi. Li is only 62 and can continue as Premier for one more term.  This blogger has a view (wild guess) as to what might happen to both Wang Qishan and Li Keqiang and he will boldly articulate a prediction in a subsequent post !

Two other names need mention. When Xi and Li were appointed, there was also speculation as to who would succeed them in 10 years time (the next generation of leaders). Two names were mentioned - Hu Chunhua and Sun Zhengcai. Both were included in the politburo last time around and given important positions. Just two months ago, Sun Zhengcai was summarily replaced and an anti corruption investigation started against him. Clearly he lost out in a power struggle.

How do the Chinese themselves view all this ? You may be surprised ! Watch out for the next post.

PS - Chinese names are not easy to pronounce to Western tongues. Here is an approximation

Mao Zedong - Mao Tze Dhong
Deng Xiaoping - Dhung Hsiao Ping
Jiang Zemin - Jiang Tze Min
Hu Jintao - As written
Xi Jinping - Hsi Jin Ping
Li Keqiang - Li Khe Chiang
Wang Qishan - Waang Chi Shaan

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

This blog turns to politics

On October 18th, or immediately thereafter, a small line of people will walk in  into the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square. That will be the new Standing Committee headed by Xi Jinping. And at that time the world shall know what has happened to the "elections" in China. The stunning fact is that very few people in the world seem to even know about one of the most momentous events in world politics. Very little has been written about it in the world press and almost nothing has made it to TV. Not even the significant Beidaihe retreat that happened in August.

All this at a time when many people in the world seem addicted to the nonsense that a certain person spews sitting on his toilet seat.  The lack of interest in what is happening in China is, to this blogger, unbelievable. Perhaps unfamiliarity is the reason. And hence this blogger is breaking his vow to keep this blog completely apolitical and is launching into a series of posts on what is happening in China.

I begin with a small primer on the current Chinese political system. The Communist Party of China (CPC) is the apex body in China. The government is subservient to the Party. Even the People's Liberation Army is not the army of China; its the army of the Party. Therefore what happens in the Party is of prime (only) importance in the politics of China.

The apex decision making body in the CPC is the Politburo, currently consisting of 25 members. Consider it as the Cabinet. From amongst these, an elite group forms the Standing Committee of the Politburo. Currently it has 7 members. This is the all powerful body.

When Mao Zedong established the Party, and for as long as he ruled China, all these institutions were irrelevant. Mao was the sole power centre. But when he died and the dangers of concentrating so much power in one man became apparent, the party elders led by Deng Xiaoping, established some rules and norms  for the politics of the future. Thus far they have been adhered to. They are

The principle of retirement . The unofficial term is "qishang baxia" or "Seven up; Eight down". The unwritten rule is that if you reach 68 at the CPC Congress meeting  which is held once every five years (think of it as election year), you step down and retire. 5 of the 7 members of the Standing Committee  and 11 of the 25 members of the Politburo have crossed 68.

  • The General Secretary and the Premier usually serve for two terms - 10 years - and then stand down. The current incumbents are finishing their first term and can therefore continue for one more term.

  • An all powerful single power centre , a la Mao, was never allowed to happen post his death. Even Deng was not all powerful - he had an equivalent power centre in Chen Yun. Factions  abound ; the Shanghai faction, the Youth League, etc. These factions and their powerful overlords jockey for power behind closed doors. Retired leaders don't keep quiet - they exercise power by placing their underlings on these bodies.

  • The norm in China is for leadership changes to happen with great turmoil, purges and the like. Only two peaceful transitions have ever happened - the handover from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao and from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping. Even the transition from Hu Jintao saw the dramatic fall and subsequent imprisonment of Bo Xilai.

  • There are three powerful positions in China - The President of China (a mere titular position), the Secretary of the Communist Party (the real powerful position) and the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission that governs the armed forces. Currently all these three positions are held by  Xi Jinping. That was the case with Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao as well, but in the Deng era, he was simply the Chairman of the CMC and the other positions were held by his chosen people. A fourth, and less powerful position is that of the Premier - currently held by Li Keqiang and is the No 2 position in China.

  • Every year in the summer, the power brokers in China retire to a coastal town called Beidaihe , where all the skullduggery, bargaining and negotiations happen. Each faction tries to get its people on to the Politburo and the Standing Committee. Usually most of the big decisions are made here on the beach behind thick closed doors. This is the real "election" in China. The Beidaihe meeting happened last month and this blogger is mystified that not only have there been very little leaks, there has been scant reporting in the press as well. Next to the US elections, this is the most important political activity in the world. And we don't hear even a squeak.

  • In the last two peaceful transitions, at the end of the first of the two terms of the incumbent leaders, the top of the subsequent generation is usually nominated to the Standing Committee. This gives the clue as to who would subsequently take over as leaders. If the past 20 years is a guide, then this should happen in the current change and the successor to Xi Jinping who would take over 5 years from now, would at least be indicated. But as we would see in subsequent posts, there is a good chance that this won't happen.

In the next post, we will assess the current political landscape and who are the power brokers in China.

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