Archive for the ‘Prospect’ Category

An article for Prospect, a British political magazine, looking at the phenomenon of the growing diffusion of power in China. Not a subject I have done a huge amount about, and is really an off-shoot of other work, but it is a fact that I have encountered in China and that I find increasingly interesting and relevant. The picture, btw, is of Beijing and the building on the far right is the new CCTV building – CCTV being the Chinese national television channel.

Can China’s Centre Hold?

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI

25th November 2011  —  Issue 189 Free entry

As regions such as Xinjiang and Guangdong get richer and more powerful, it may be harder to govern from Beijing

Next year, China’s leadership changes. But as Chinese scholars, experts and officials are constantly reminding me, we should not expect any sudden or major shift in government policy. The rigid structure of Chinese government means that policy decisions are locked into place before leaders get a chance to shape them. And former leaders retain positions of influence and power behind the scenes.

Xi Jinping will likely become the international face of the Communist party, but Hu Jintao will, like his predecessors, retain a powerful position within the Chinese system. World leaders will find themselves dealing with a new character, though, as a Shanghai-based scholar told me: “leaders are not that important in foreign policy formation.”

Beneath this smooth exterior, however, there are fierce debates within the party about new “interest groups” in the system. This is shorthand for the growing fractionalisation in Chinese policymaking, a result of an increasing diffusion of power throughout the country. On the face of it, China remains a one-party state ruled by a central Politburo Standing Committee of nine men, but in reality an increasing number of actors influence the decision-making process.

Understanding the different roles these actors play is a parlour game among China watchers, but the trend is undeniably important. In a report late last year, entitled Inside the growth engine: a guide to China’s regions, provinces and cities, British bank HSBC advised: “anyone hoping to conclude a business deal in China…don’t assume you only have to deal with decision-makers in Beijing.”

A few months after the report came out, I met a local business representative from a European company in China. He described business in Shanghai and nearby provinces where his company had operations as typically opaque: what happens on the ground often differs substantially from the official line issued in Beijing. As the old Chinese saying goes: “the hills are high and the Emperor is far away.”

The regions’ newfound power is not all that surprising. China’s growth, after all, is mostly generated in a few coastal provinces. Guangdong, the nation’s powerhouse, accounts for over ten per cent of GDP and almost 30 per cent of the country’s exports (according to 2010 and 2009 figures respectively). This gives the regional governor a certain amount of power both domestically and on the international stage.

In October last year, Guangdong Governor Huang Huahua made a trip through Egypt, Israel and India in which he signed deals worth $9.12 billion and was hosted like a visiting state leader. During the trip he met with Israeli President Shimon Peres who “spoke highly of Guangdong’s energetic economy,” according to the official press release, and the two discussed ways that Israel and Guangdong could cooperate better on high technology development.

In some cases, provinces seem to be resisting central rule. On a trip to the Xinjiang province in China’s far west last year, a local guide told me how weak the current leadership in Beijing was and how the then Xinjiang Communist Party chief Wang Lequan would refuse to pay money earned in resource-rich Xinjiang to Beijing. I have been unable to confirm the details independently, but they resonate with a strong sense of independence from the center I found in the province. In a separate instance, a foreign researcher friend told me how Beijing policymakers had taken an interest in a project they were working on, which provided insights into the regional government in Yunnan province capital Kunming—they were grateful for insights on what was happening in the southern province.

State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) are also an increasingly powerful counterweight to the central government. They control about a third of total enterprise assets in China. The largest are under the direction of the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC)—a body the Chinese government established in 2003 to try to rein in the SOEs, which accounted collectively for about 60 per cent of GDP in 2009. Usually run by senior Communist party members, the sheer size of the SOEs gives their leaders disproportionate importance and in some cases seems to put them beyond state control.

Liu Zhenya is a particularly well-placed SOE head: he is CEO of China’s State Grid Corporation, the world’s largest utility company, ranked 7th in Fortune’s list of the top 500 global corporations. Having worked his way up through Shandong’s electricity industry, Liu turned the power companies into conglomerates managing billions in assets. During his time as head of Shandong Electric Power, he diversified the company’s portfolio into finance and securities, IT, business travel, real estate, culture and a local football team.

When State Grid took the same approach outside China, its attempts to move into copper mining in Chile were blocked. According to company insiders quoted in the Financial Times, it was Chinese regulators who blocked the deal, saying that State Grid was not a mining company. Characterised in the Chinese press as a “Frankenstein” company, State Grid has become almost a state within a state. Fleets of limousines shuttle executives around high-end compounds where they dine at private restaurants and consider the fates of their one-and-a-half million staff.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), meanwhile, has also emerged as a strong force on the global stage. As well as rhetorical sparring with the United States, it has started to assert itself along China’s sea borders with its south east Asian neighbours, much to their and others’ concern. An academic from the Party School suggested that the PLA’s assertiveness in recent years stems from a bargain they made with political leaders under Deng Xiaoping.

According to the Party School professor, when Deng was pushing his economic reforms through in the 1980s and 1990s, he asked the military to accept tighter budgets while the party focused on the economy. Now that the economy has picked up, the PLA is having its moment in the sun and flexing its muscles. When former US defence secretary Robert Gates visited China in January this year, the PLA Air Force showed off their new stealth fighter jet, in an apparent display of one-upmanship. It put Hu Jintao in an awkward position: he was apparently as surprised as his American guests when the subject came up in a meeting.

The key lesson here is that nine men in Beijing are increasingly finding the current political system difficult to control. The booming economy has brought prosperity to China, but it has also meant that there are more powerful actors in the country than before. Without the checks and balances that a free press or a more open political system would provide, it is difficult to keep track of them. Although the internet could (and in some limited cases does) fill this gap, strict government controls mean that it is not a completely reliable watchdog. Now the Politburo Standing Committee finds itself struggling to balance an ever more complex set of power networks around the country, as it tries to keep control at the centre.

A new piece for Prospect, looking this time at al Shabaab and its foreign recruitment. A rich topic that I keep coming back to, though one thing I realized I missed after publishing it was any mention of Shabaab’s TV channel. As ever, any tips or thoughts are warmly appreciated.

Jihadi MCs

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI — 12TH APRIL 2011

The Islamist group al Shabaab is attempting to make jihad trendy. But is it having any success?

“I obsesses not depress for martyrdom success” raps hip-hop enthusiast and keen Islamist, Omar Hammami, in his recent comeback song. This track wasn’t intended to top any charts, but instead to prove that the elusive Omar was still alive. That the Alabama-born twentysomething, who is believed to be a senior figure in the Islamist group al Shabaab, chose to do this through the medium of rap is typical of the Somali terrorist group that has brought the notion of socially networked revolution to a whole new level.

Jihad is a young man’s game. Old codgers like Osama (54) or Ayman al-Zawahiri (59) may be able to provide some ideological and operational support for cells, but for the most part it is young men who are on the frontlines. As a result, Islamist networks trying to recruit fresh blood are increasingly using new media, social networks and other non-traditional means to spread their message. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group behind the “underpants bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and last October’s parcel bomb scare, even produces a flashy magazine called Inspire—full of funky imagery and slang, it looks more like a fanzine than a terror manual. Closer to home, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) releases bilingual videos with colloquial German subtitles to appeal directly to its core audience in Germany.

But it is Somali group al Shabaab (“The Youth”) that is at the forefront of this new media approach. Omar Hammami’s recent hip-hop release is merely the latest from the jihadi MC. In his earlier work “First Stop Addis” he rapped about his earnest desire to become a martyr, over shots of him and his “brothers” training and fighting in Somalia. Released through extremist websites, but also widely available on YouTube, the MTV-inspired videos and songs seek to show kids how cool it is to be a mujahedin. Other videos released by the group show young warriors from around the world speaking happily into the camera as they boast, sometimes in perfect English, of how much fun it is to be fighting against the “kuffar” (unbeliever) government in Somalia.

Videos and songs are all very well, but as any good PR manager will tell you, a multipronged approach is what’s really needed. Recognising this, al Shabaab encourages its young warriors to phone home in order to inspire others and raise money. Using dial-in conference calls, the warriors in the field tell those back home of the fun they’re having, and urge those who cannot come to send money instead. They shoot guns in the background while on the phone, “to see they are working ok” and to show off. And online, members have ongoing conversations with the friends they left behind, sending them Facebook messages along the lines of, “’Sup dawg. Bring yourself over here” to “M-town.” Meanwhile websites like al Qimmah provide a forum for the fighters in the field and the fundraisers at home to interact, keeping the flame of jihad in Somalia alive.

This holistic media outreach program seems to be reaping dividends for the group, who continue to attract a steady trickle of young warriors from across Europe and North America. Most recently, in Canada, police pulled 25-year old Mohamed Hersi off a plane he was about to take to Cairo on his way to join the group. A bored Toronto security guard, it seems he was only the most recent of a number of young Canadians who have joined the group. Similar cases can be found in the United States, United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark and Australia, among others.

The danger for western countries is that while al Shabaab is currently using its trendy web strategy to draw fighters to Somalia, a time may come when they attempt to punish the west directly for supporting Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government. They have already turned their attention to neighbouring Uganda, which contributes soldiers to a peacekeeping mission in Somalia. If the recruitment drive succeeds, al Shabaab will have at their disposal a network of western passport-holding men, all of whom are at home in our hyperlinked society and know how to use technology to aid terrorism.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR)

Something for a new outlet, Prospect magazine, the British equivalent of the Atlantic or the New Yorker. It shrunk a bit to appear on their blog, and an addition I tried to get in late didn’t make it. I should have also mentioned the case of Arid Uka, the young Kosovar who shot a couple of US servicemen in Frankfurt last week. I am planning a longer piece on him, and I have a feeling this might prove to a significant event. It looks like there might be similarities with Roshonara Choudhry, and that the notion of individual jihad is catching on.

Oh What a Western Jihad!

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI —  4TH MARCH 2011
As al-Qaida’s lure seems to be diminishing in the middle east, why does the group’s ideology still resonate with disaffected young men in the west?

As change sweeps across North Africa and the Middle East, al-Qaida is nowhere to be seen. Aside from a few comments from the sidelines, the group has not been able to play a role in the recent revolutions. Instead, the group’s influence has recently been most visible in the west, where a series of stories have shown the ongoing appeal of “global jihad” to a diverse collection of young aspirants.

In London, a court convicted Mohammed Gul, a young British student at Queen Mary University, of producing radical material promoting al-Qaida’s ideology online. The judge characterised Gul as “thoroughly radicalised.” A week later over at Woolwich Crown Court, a jury found Rajib Karim, an IT worker for British Airways, guilty of plotting with Yemeni-American preacher Anwar al-Awlak to blow up a plane.

While Gul was being sent down, federal agents in Texas moved in to arrest Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, a 20-year old Saudi student who had allegedly been accumulating materials to build a bomb. As he put it on his blog, “after mastering the English language, learning how to build explosives and continuous planning to target the infidel Americans, it is time for Jihad.” Elsewhere in the States, Zachary Adam Chesser, a 20-year-old convert, famous for encouraging attacks on the creators of South Park for having mocked the Prophet, was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Last week in Germany, authorities moved in to arrest two Turkish-Germans who were sending money to an al-Qaida affiliate in Waziristan, having previously trained with the group. Another four individuals on police radars also had properties searched. Connected with the Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan, an al-Qaida affiliate that fights alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, the men were part of a community of young Germans who have been drawn to Waziristan by the mystique of jihad.

Although al-Qaida does not seem to be directly linked to any of these cases, their message clearly is. All of the young men in these stories bought into the group’s violent ideology, each attempting in their separate ways to advance its aims. Yet while this message continues to find support among certain disaffected young men in the west, the al-Qaida narrative has not found much support amongst the rebellious youth taking to the streets in North Africa and the Middle East.

Interpreting this is tricky. After all, it is early days for the waves of revolution sweeping the Arab world. But in many ways it is not that surprising. Al-Qaidaism was always a movement predicated on global anti-establishmentarianism. For it to find a natural home amongst young men in the west seeking direction in life is a logical conclusion. For these western wannabe terrorists, the issues at home lack the immediacy that domestic issues have for young people in North Africa and the Middle East, and so they have more time for dreamlike notions of global jihad. For their counterparts, on the other hand, it is the near enemy in the shape of a local tyrant that remains the focal point of attention.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR)