Posts Tagged ‘shanghai’

And another piece, this time for The Diplomat, linked to Xi’s visit through Central Asia, this time focusing on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit now happening in Bishkek with my friend and co-author Li Lifan. I have also been doing various media bits around this trip, including an interview with RFE/RL among others.

Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Not Quite the New Silk Road

By  Raffaello Pantucci and Li Lifan

September 12, 2013

SCO-400x267

Presaging his stopover in Kyrgyzstan, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech in Kazakhstan in which he spoke of establishing a “Silk Road Economic Belt” that would bind China to its Eurasian neighborhood. A trip so far focused largely on Afghanistan and trade, the stopover in Bishkek for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization(SCO) summit is the capstone to what has been a successful trip, tidily wrapping the two subjects up in a bow largely of China’s making.

Of course, there are numerous other topics on the table at the summit beyond Afghanistan. Expanding membership looks like it is going to remain unresolved again – India and Pakistan continue to knock loudly on the door. Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani has announced he will attend, possibly highlighting the new regime’s diplomatic approach (although it is unclear what the SCO means within this context), and it seems likely that further agreements about closer cooperation and discussion are likely to be held. Beijing will undoubtedly push an economic agenda – though this will find hostility from the other member states fearful of dominance. The question over the SCO development bank will remain unresolved.

Inevitably, Afghanistan will feature as a major topic of conversation. Just prior to the delegates meeting in Bishkek, units from SCO member states will have just completed a training exercise near Lake Issyk-Kul in the northeast of Kyrgyzstan. This comes after an earlier SCO flagged exercise, in which Chinese and Kyrgyz troops trained in their border areas, and a larger “Peace Mission” exercise involving Chinese and Russian formations. All of these training missions are described as being focused on countering terrorism: large-scale military activity that in fact seems more aimed at border protection and countering insurgent groups rather than urban terrorists. Useful skills if you are worried about overspill from Afghanistan.

The reality, however, is that the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is still largely considered the main regional security player by most Central Asians, backed as it is by Russian guarantees and equipment. The Chinese-led SCO still plays a second fiddle to the Russian endeavor, though the SCO has spoken at length about counter-narcotics, countering the “Three Evils” of “extremism, separatism and terrorism,” and now has a Chinese head of its security structure in Tashkent – the unfortunately namedRATS center (Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure).

The problem for the SCO is that it remains an organization lacking a clear sense of its role in the world. This is a problem that is fundamentally about the very divergent views among the member state capitals (all of whom have equal weighting within the institution’s decision-making processes), and in particular Beijing’s desire to create a positive umbrella under which to shelter its efforts in Central Asia, even as other members worry about Chinese dominance.

The result is a half-baked multilateral vehicle that focuses on arcane discussions about membership with no conclusion, and holds military exercises aimed at unspecified enemies. On the one hand, this helps develop relations and bonds in a region rife with internal tensions, but on the other it fails to deliver much in the way of practical progress. The real progress during Xi’s trip has already been made. The SCO summit merely provides a tidy bookend.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the co-editor ofChina in Central AsiaLi Lifan is secretary general of the Centre for SCO Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

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A short post for Whose World Order? on the pending birthday of the CPC. I am planning on doing another one on the upcoming film that is being released to coincide with it. Will undoubtedly be a big melodrama – Chinese friends are already warning me about it.

Shanghai View: Happy Birthday CPC!

Date: 24th June 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: , ChinaShanghai

July 1st marks the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) 90th Birthday, and the country is gradually gearing up for the big event, with large red Communist party flags going up all over the place. I noticed a giant flag appear on the huge shopping mall near me: a somewhat incongruous location for the hammer and sickle logo of socialism to appear, but strangely in keeping with the slightly surreal nature of this anniversary.

The mall itself has a certain history. Ba Bai Ban (八佰伴) was one of the first giant malls to appear in Shanghai (and I believe China), established in December 1995 by a Japanese company. It has eight floors of retail space and is somewhat comparable to something like Selfridges in London – selling high end consumer goods with concessions inside dedicated to recognisable brands like Hugo Boss, Zegna, and so on. According to a factoid I picked up online, it remains a leader in terms of volume of sales, shifting the most goods nationally for a single day’s sales on December 31st, 2008.

So to see the giant symbol of socialism to appear on it is a bit strange, though apt within the general contradiction of viewing Shanghai as a city in a Communist state. The city is awash with conspicuous consumption, with Ba Bai Ban long having been overtaken as the most high-end mall in Shanghai. Liujiazui, the most recognizable part of Shanghai, is littered with giant malls, an Apple Store and- I noticed the other day – a new Ferrari and Maserati showroom, which is soon to open.

Yet at the same time, Shanghai-ren are still proud of their Communist heritage. The city boasts the location of the first Communist Party of China National Congress, and has one of the three main national Party schools in it. But even the site of the first CPC meeting has been swept up in China’s more capitalist recent history, located as it is in the middle of Xintiandi, one of the city’s most affluent tourist attractions. It is surrounded by branches of Starbucks, and some of the Shanghai’s priciest restaurants whose prices top (or match) London’s best.

This contradiction exists at an ideological level too. For a planned central government to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship is bizarre, but the very ongoing existence of Party Schools is also strange. Senior individuals, or individuals who are tipped for the top, have to pass through these institutions of higher learning before they ascend further. As far as I can tell, while they are there they are drilled in the latest party doctrine and reminded that Mao and Marx are still their ideological forefathers.

I was asking around the institute whether people are excited about the CPC birthday, and for the most part received blank stares. Everyone is aware of it, and everyone will attend the big party meeting that is going to take place, but few seemed that enthused – dismissing it as “politics.” This is likely because, as they tell me, they are not getting a national holiday to mark the anniversary. That decision is probably intended to emphasise that it is industry and not indolence that should be celebrated, though I imagine productivity will be quite low.

For the time being, however, everything is going red, and the hammer and sickle is emblazoned everywhere. The newspapers are full of stories praising the CPC and looking forward to next period of high growth and success. An unnamed party official recently claimed that party membership has risen to 80 million – more than the population of France – though it remains the case that most people join because they think it will advance their careers. Whether it really makes any difference or not, the fact that people think it does shows the ongoing power that the CPC continues to have after nine decades.

A post over at Whose World Order? for ECFR after a protracted silence on that front due to travel. Am going to hammer out a few more of these over the next few days as we have quite a busy period here in Shanghai with an upcoming conference I am helping run which should produce some interesting insights that would be interesting in this format.

Shanghai View: What are you watching?

Date: 13th June 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: ChinaHollywoodSiffSoft PowerShanghai International Film Festival

The Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF) got underway this weekend. Amongst the speakers that they attracted to the opening events, media mogul Rupert Murdoch made an appearance, lavishing praise upon the rapidly growing Chinese film market – from $150 million in box office takings in 2005 to $1.5 billion in 2010 – but also highlighting the still highly restrictive nature of the market to outsiders. Few outside China know that the government only allows 20 foreign films onto Chinese screens every year.

To clarify, this does not mean 20 American films (though of course the 20 tend to mostly be American), but the Chinese government only allows in 20 films from outside the nation every year to be screened legally in Chinese cinemas. These are also edited for extreme violence or sexuality, leading to some rather odd cutaways. I went to see GI Joe – not a proud admission – and at a crucial point when a character was having his face altered, it cut rather abruptly to the next scene. It took me a moment to figure out what had happened and most of the rather simple film to figure out what had taken place in the missing minute or so. The idea is to protect the Chinese public from the amoral depravity of some foreign films (something that is also practiced in Singapore for example), but also it is a way to keep out films with questionable political content. This equally applies to television, though in a more curious way since while Korean soap operas are hugely popular, western ones cannot be found on Chinese television.

An underlying logic of all this is to give the Chinese film industry a chance to develop and grow in a protected environment. The result of Chinese blocking of websites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter has been to create a raft of local alternatives (Youku/TudouRenren and Weibo) some of which are now floating on international exchanges like the NASDAQ. By keeping foreign films out, they hope a domestic industry will develop that can compete with Hollywood or Bollywood. But it is unclear that this is working. In a Wikileaked US diplomatic cable from March 2007, expected incoming leader Xi Jinping was reported stating, “Chinese moviemakers neglect values they should promote.” In contrast he thought that Hollywood made movies well and the films “have a clear outlook on values and clearly demarcate between good and evil.”

I feel like the demarcation between good and evil in Chinese films is usually pretty clear. But what is missing is a level of quality and diversity. Chinese films tend to fall into categories of being Romantic Comedies (with storylines like Friends), epic historical films (like the Founding of a Republic, a massive film starring just about every famous Chinese actor, that came out to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC), or elaborate special effects laden Kung-fu films (into this category I also put Sci-fi, fantasy and other such movies). Very few introspective or profound Chinese movies are released. The result is that they do not get a huge amount of airplay outside China – occasional breakthroughs do appear, but they often tend to have some heavy outside influence as well. For example, the hugely successful Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a Chinese-Hong Kong-Taiwanese-American production.

Despite the availability of pirate DVDs (have a look around Youku and Tudou) this deprives the US and EU of a key part of their soft power – or at least puts it in a legal grey area. This is unfortunate as the free-flow of stories from the West to China and back is clearly one of the most effective ways to foster deeper understanding between the two. Clearly the next Chinese leader likes American movies; surely Xi Jinping can see the advantages of bringing more of these stories to the population he is about to lead.

A short post for Whose World Order, based on an interesting encounter I had the other day. More substantial things on China en route.

Shanghai View: the Soldier Sociologist

Date: 18th April 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: ChinaDivorceSociology

I met a soldier today from the northern Shandong province, who had quit his 13-year army career to go and become a sociologist looking at divorce. He told me it was because the work in the army was hard and he had found it boring and repetitive. When asked what he had done as a soldier, all he could muster was “exercises.” He hadn’t had any opportunities to travel and had managed to rise a bit in the ranks, but not a huge amount – I couldn’t figure out the specifics of his rank, but he gave the impression of it being somewhat mid-range.

But what was fascinating was what he had decided to do instead. Having quit the army, he signed up to Renmin University (People’s University) in Beijing to do a PhD in sociology. His particular research was focused on divorces, and understanding how they work from the inside. His thesis project was focused on a particular couple who had divorced. He identified his subjects by hanging around a family court and watching a number of divorce proceedings. Having identified his ideal couple, he approached them separately. Of course, they initially refused to participate, but he treated them separately to dinner and was able to persuade them to become his subjects.

This was not entirely surprising as he was a charming chap, though I was impressed that he was able to persuade them to agree to undergo repeated interviews and then to also open up their network of family and friends to inquisition. From this, he was able to assemble the anatomy of their divorce and why it took place, and to learn some broader lessons about modern Chinese society. Unfortunately, he was not able to tell me much more about his findings than this, and when I pried he hemmed and hawed, leading me to suspect he had not quite finished.

Curious about divorce in China, I went online and discovered that in 2009 an official survey uncovered that one in five marriages in China ended in divorce. That figure is increasing, so research on the topic is clearly salient. There is ultimately nothing wrong with a former soldier deciding to do that research, even if it seems to be a somewhat dramatic life change. What the vignette captured, however, was how increasingly western China is becoming in many ways – different life options are still open to people at relatively advanced stages in their careers. Rather than a planned economy where everyone does the same, centrally-determined thing for life, there is now fluidity within the system. As their divorce rate catches up with the west, other features of society are also emulating western tendencies. The bigger question that remains unanswered, however, is whether this convergence is also taking place within the domestic and personal spheres.

A new post for Whose World Order – cut a bit awkwardly, but oh well.

Shanghai View: Rampant Aspiration

Date: 11th April 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: ChinaShanghai

Take, for example, a visit earlier this week to a Shanghai government official with some visiting ECFRers. The meeting itself was par the course for Chinese government officials – we got the party line and not much else. One amusing thing did stand out for me, however, and that was the painting of Pudong’s skyline that filled one wall behind the main two chairs (Pudong is new Shanghai, and up until the mid-1990s was mostly flat). This is a picture of Pudong’s current impressive skyline:

An addition to this painting, however, was this building:

The building, which is going to be the crowning jewel in Shanghai’s skyline is, still under construction (I could not get a picture of the actual image in the room since I did not have my camera with me). They broke ground before the Expo, only to shut it down for the six months of the Expo and then re-start work at a frenetic pace. At the moment it is a stub in the ground, with cranes popping out of it and an intended completion date of 2014. But what is interesting is that in the Shanghai government’s mind, this building is already a done deal. That might well be true, but at the same time we are dealing with a nation that has been plagued by all sorts of problems. Shanghai might be pretty efficient, but slapdash efforts have caused problems in the past. I know of one of Shanghai’s glass buildings that has lost four large window panes that were not stuck in properly. Each one was about the size of two doorways side by side, and would have killed anyone they hit on the way down – fortunately, they missed.

So is the municipal government simply trying to save money by pre-emptively including this building in its artwork, so that it doesn’t need to spend money on interior re-decoration in three years? Given how cheap and plentiful art material and artists are, this seems unlikely. Instead, the painting is a symbol of China’s most ambitious and bullish city reaching for the stars in its usual rampant manner, something reflective of the nation’s general sense of itself.

 

A new post for Whose World Order?, drawing on some of my more interesting experiences here in Shanghai. I am constantly surprised at how similar the Chinese and American outlooks are. Hopefully in the longer term this bodes well and does not augur conflict.

Shanghai View: Reading Orwell in Shanghai

Date: 10th March 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: 1984Jane AustenOrwellShanghaiChina

I am sometimes asked at my institute to interview prospective employees, to assess their level of English. It is usually a pretty depressing experience, as most of these young Chinese speak excellent English (certainly infinitely better than my Mandarin). After starting off with some getting to know you questions, I try to dig into something substantive that they are interested in. Recently I decided to ask them all what books they had read and liked in English.

The position that was being recruited for was an administrator’s role, and those (mostly young women) interviewing for it were English language or literature graduates. When confronted with the question what book they liked most, Jane Austen scored the most, with Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility most common (one girl had to whip out her ipad mid-interview to tell me the name of her favourite – “Sense and Sensibility”). William Faulkner’s short story A Rose for Emily did well, and a girl who had done French language and literature at University was a fan of Hugo’s Notres Dame de Paris(the Hunchback of Notre Dame in English). All pretty standard stuff and probably course texts chosen by nervous job interviewees who wanted to say the right thing.

A couple were a bit more revelatory – one girl who had done her dissertation at University on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby said she liked the book because of the parallels she saw in the “American dream” and the new “Shanghai dream.” One of the few males said that he was a fan of Moby Dick because of the idea of an everlasting chase to beat the enemy, a situation he empathized with. But even these were tempered reactions, and I was very surprised to learn that the girl who had studied Fitzgerald had not read any other books by the author. A lack of inquisitiveness that is surprisingly common amongst some students I come across.

But then, at the end, a friend asked if I could interview her daughter as well, so she could practice her English. Sure thing, I said, and did the same questions I had before. This time, she launched off into telling me that Orwell was her favorite writer and in particular 1984 and Animal Farm. Why? Well, the book, she said, had a lot to teach us. In particular, she thought that it could show the Communist Party how it might try to improve itself and its image in the world. The lessons that could be learned from 1984 could help the Party show the world that Communism does not have to be that bad.

Now of course this girl did not have anything to lose in her interview and so was less inhibited. But it was an interesting perspective that highlights something I have touched on before – the patriotism that stirs within many young Chinese. Even a book which might be seen as damning for China (I recently re-read it while on a long car journey across China’s restive Xinjiang province and certainly saw some parallels) is seen by some of China’s youth as another opportunity for their great country to do better. They are fundamentally part of the system and proud of it, seeing a country before them in which one can reasonably talk about an aspiration to a “Shanghai dream” being a reality. These are by no means cock-eyed optimists, but instead young people with outlooks that to me seem very similar to those of youth in the United States or Europe. Does this mean that the system as it is will simply continue into perpetuity? Not necessarily, as, in parallel to this growing desire to aspire, there is clearly a growing desire to reform – just at a Chinese pace, rather than something pushed from the outside. At least, let us hope it is going in this direction, as otherwise dystopian visions similar to 1984 or Brave New World that were painted in subversive best seller The Prosperous Time: China 2013 last year might come to pass.

A new post over at Whose World Order?, this time looking at what I feel is a rather overheated speculation about the implications of the current revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East for China. I might be writing more on this subject later in the week, and would appreciate any other’s thoughts and views.

Shanghai View: Jasmine Tea Revolutions?

Date: 25th February 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: EgyptJasmine RevolutionLibyaTunisiaChina

A lot has been made of the implications for China of the current wave of revolutionary zeal in North Africa and the Middle East. From Shanghai, however, much of this seems overplayed; I have found few colleagues or friends who genuinely believe that this means much of anything for China. There are sporadic protests one hears about – the Shanghai one was very small – and in Beijing I understood that it was hard to tell how many actual protesters showed up in Wangfujing.

Having said all this, it seems clear that central government here is concerned about things. The press has waited until events have clearly reached a critical mass before coverage of a revolution becomes substantial (a sign that editors are waiting to see which way the political winds are blowing before they express a view). Net searches about things related to China and the revolutions remain sensitive (as in they don’t work), and some searches including outgoing US Ambassador Jon Huntsman’s name were sporadically blocked after a video surfaced of him at the protests in Beijing.

The US Embassy has claimed the Ambassador was on his way to a museum and had stopped to have a look around, but the story the video tells is an interesting one. In it, a Chinese member of the crowd shouts at the Ambassador asking him: “You want to see China in chaos, don’t you?” Huntsman, quite prominently wearing a jacket with a US flag emblazoned on it, denies this but quickly leaves as people start shouting at him: “Yes, China has many problems! Reform, livelihoods, morality, faith – our problems are many! But we don’t want to be another Iraq! We don’t want to be another Tunisia! Nor another Egypt! If the nation should descend into chaos, will the US and these reformers put food on the table for our 1.3 billion people? Don’t f****** mess with it!”

This seems quite telling, as it highlights one of the many reasons why it is unlikely that we are going to see a revolution on a similar scale in China. People are too invested in the system and too fearful of what might come instead to rip it all down. Certainly in Shanghai, friends have all talked about the revolutions with heavy unspoken comparisons with China, but no one is planning mass protests in People’s Square. A non-Chinese friend astutely pointed out that unlike the centrally focused autocracies of the Middle East and North Africa, there is no central figure to focus anger on – no Gadaffi or Mubarak to focus attention and anger.

There is an order amongst chaos in China. Things generally work, and while there is an endless volume of angst about corruption in which the poorer members of society suffer disproportionately, heads do roll, giving some sense that accountability does exist (most recently it seems as though the minister for trains has fallen victim). Things aren’t perfect, but people have a sense that through hard work they might be able to elevate themselves, giving them a capacity to aspire to reform the system rather than want to overturn it.