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The Economist: China



China



 



China wages war on apps offering news and jokes

Thu, 19 April 2018 14:48:20 GMT

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AT THE end of last year Bytedance, one of China’s most talked-about technology firms, seemed to have the world at its feet. Since its founding in 2012 more than 700m users had tried out its apps, which serve people with a diet of news, funny videos and memes, tailored to individual users’ tastes by clever algorithms. The Beijing-based company had been valued at more than $20bn and embarked on a buying spree abroad in a bid to go global.

The picture now is less rosy. On April 9th state media reported that Chinese regulators had suspended Bytedance’s flagship app, Jinri Toutiao (Today’s Headlines) for three weeks. They had also banned outright another of its products, a joke-sharing app called Neihan Duanzi, which specialised in bawdy humour and had more than 20m active users. Officials said its “vulgar and banal” content had upset people. Two days later Zhang Yiming, the firm’s founder, issued an apology online saying he was “filled with guilt and remorse” that his apps had taken “the wrong path...




Why a licence plate costs more than a car in Shanghai

Thu, 19 April 2018 14:48:20 GMT

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LIU LEI has been waiting to buy a car for more than seven years. Sadly, Mr Liu, an engineer from Beijing, has had no luck in the capital’s licence-plate lottery. Introduced in 2011, this system for allocating number plates aims to tackle the city’s problems of rage-inducing congestion and asphyxiating pollution. Under the scheme, the city imposes annual quotas on the issuing of new licence plates. Buying a car requires proof that one is in hand. Obtaining a plate involves entering a bimonthly draw. The odds of winning fell from 6% in February 2011 to an all-time low of 0.2% this February (see chart). In the latest one 2.8m people contended for 6,460 plates.

...




On a tropical island, China seeks to evoke an Alpine schmoozefest

Thu, 12 April 2018 14:54:49 GMT

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DELEGATES to China’s highest-profile annual gathering of the global elite had been promised something big. Amid the country’s mounting trade tensions with America, they were to get the most “authoritative explanation” of China’s plans to make its economy more open. On April 10th Xi Jinping, the country’s leader, gave the opening speech at the Boao Forum for Asia on the southern island of Hainan—his first public appearance since he was officially given permission last month to remain president for life. China Daily, an official mouthpiece, called it a new chapter for “Xiplomacy”. Mr Xi, however, delivered the authority, but not much else.

The president stuck largely to generalities and well-worn themes. He promised that the door to foreign businesses would “open only ever wider” under his stewardship, but offered no specifics that are likely to placate Donald Trump (notwithstanding a tweet from the American president saying he was “very thankful”). It was left to China’s...




China wants to be a polar power

Thu, 12 April 2018 14:54:49 GMT

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WHEN the occupants of “Snowpanda House” in Ahtari zoo, Finland, were first allowed to play in the open air in mid-February, they bounded out and rolled in the white stuff. Xi Jinping, China’s president, had said the furry animals would act as “messengers of friendship” when he promised them to Finland during a visit last year en route to America. On the same trip Mr Xi used a refuelling stop in Alaska to butter up his hosts there, too. The American north was “a mythical, almost mystical place”, a local spokesperson quoted him as saying—a bit “like a Shangri-La”.

Mr Xi has been showing a growing interest in Arctic countries. In 2014 he revealed in a speech that China itself wanted to become a “polar great power”. Last year he met leaders from seven of the eight members of the Arctic Council, a group of northern countries that admitted China and four other Asian states as observers in 2013. In January the Chinese government published its first policy document outlining its Arctic strategy. The...




Could Tibetan clouds save China from drought?

Thu, 05 April 2018 14:51:20 GMT

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DIVERTING water from the south of China to the north is not the country’s only crazily ambitious drought-alleviation scheme. The government is also thinking about setting up what would be the world’s largest cloud-seeding operation in Tibet.

China already uses the technique more than most. Now, says the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper, a state-owned defence company has built 500 burners on Himalayan ridges in the path of the monsoon. They are testing a system that involves lofting particles of silver iodide from the machines into the atmosphere. When the water-laden air of the monsoon hits the particles, ice crystals are supposed to form and later fall as rain or snow. The hope is to build tens of thousands of these burners and increase rainfall by up to 10bn cubic metres a year in an area the size of Iran that feeds the Yangzi and Yellow rivers as well as others upon which China’s neighbours depend.

But the largest study of...




China has built the world’s largest water-diversion project

Thu, 05 April 2018 14:51:20 GMT

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FOR the past drought-stricken year, most of the drinking water consumed in Beijing has travelled 1,432km (895 miles), roughly the distance from New York to Orlando, Florida. Its journey begins in a remote and hilly part of central China at the Danjiangkou reservoir, on the bottom of which lies the drowned city of Junzhou, reputed to be the birthplace of Taoism. The water gushes north by canal and pipeline, crosses the Yellow river by burrowing under it, and arrives, 15 days later, in the water-treatment plants of Beijing. Two-thirds of the city’s tap water and a third of its total supply now comes from Danjiangkou.

This winter and spring, the reservoir was the capital’s lifeline. No rain or snow fell in Beijing between October 23rd and March 17th—by far the longest drought on record. Yet the city suffered no supply disruptions, unlike Shanxi province to the west (see map), where local governments rationed water. The central government is exultant, since the project which irrigates Beijing was...




China’s law-enforcers are going global

Wed, 28 March 2018 15:36:13 GMT

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LAST year’s big blockbuster in China, “Wolf Warrior 2”, assured citizens not to fear running into trouble abroad: “Remember, the strength of China always has your back!” That is doubtless a comfort to patriots. But for those who seek to escape the government’s clutches, its growing willingness to project its authority beyond its borders is a source of alarm. In pursuit of fugitives, the Chinese authorities are increasingly willing to challenge the sovereignty of foreign governments and to seek the help of international agencies, even on spurious grounds.

Fugitives from China used to be mainly dissidents. The government was happy to have them out of the country, assuming they could do less harm there. But since Xi Jinping came to office in 2012 and launched a sweeping campaign against corruption, another type of fugitive has increased in number: those wanted for graft. Though they do not preach democracy, they pose a greater threat to the regime. Most are officials or well-connected business folk, insiders familiar with the workings of...




China is trying to prevent the formation of a vocal Uighur diaspora

Wed, 28 March 2018 15:36:13 GMT

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WHEN the authorities manage to lure or drag home a fugitive accused of corruption, they crow. But they are quieter about their equally successful campaign to repatriate Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic group from Xinjiang, in China’s far west. Many Uighurs chafe at the growing presence of Han Chinese in their region, and at increasing restrictions on their personal and religious freedom. Some travel abroad, both to escape this repression and for more mundane reasons. A small number have become radicalised, and have launched terrorist attacks in Xinjiang and elsewhere. But in addition to hunting for fugitive extremists, China is also trying to prevent a big Uighur diaspora forming that could foment support for Uighurs in China, much as Tibetan exiles campaign to free their homeland.

According to human-rights groups hundreds of Uighurs have been forced back to China in the past decade from Egypt, Thailand, Vietnam and elsewhere. Far more...




Can Xi Jinping make use of the power he has accumulated?

Wed, 28 March 2018 15:36:09 GMT

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MUCH has been made of Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power, which began long before the National People’s Congress (NPC) agreed in March to abolish term limits on the presidency. During his ascent, Mr Xi has displayed ruthless skill. The anti-graft campaign he launched in 2013 is what Kevin Rudd, a former Australian prime minister, calls a “masterclass in political warfare”. In addition to reducing theft, Mr Xi used it to remove potential rivals, install loyalists and cement his own power at the top. A new super-agency, the National Supervisory Commission, will take the campaign outside the Communist Party to educational institutions, hospitals, village governments and more. Far more than any previous member of China’s supposedly collective leadership, Mr Xi personally heads a score of top-level committees and commissions. In mid-March Xi Jinping Thought was incorporated into the constitution. The Chairman of Everything, as another Australian, Geremie Barmé, calls him, looks bent on staying in power throughout the 2020s—and perhaps for life.

...



China bungles changes to its blood-donation system

Thu, 22 March 2018 15:48:01 GMT

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PU BAOZHEN sold her house and car and moved to Beijing to seek treatment for aplastic anaemia, a rare blood disease. In early February, just minutes into her first session of chemotherapy, the hospital pulled the plug. Writing on Weibo, a Chinese social-media site, Ms Pu says doctors were worried that they would not have enough blood to support her through a gruelling bone-marrow transplant. A sudden change to the city’s blood-donation rules had given them a fright.

Blood shortages are common in China—particularly around Spring Festival, when lots of potential donors leave the cities to holiday in their hometowns. Only about 1% of Chinese give blood each year, slightly below what might be expected given its level of development (see chart). Some people worry that even a modest loss of blood is unhealthy, and no one has forgotten a grim scandal that began in the 1980s, when middlemen paying for blood infected hundreds of thousands with HIV.

Paying people to give blood was outlawed in 1998. Instead, to encourage donations, the...




China’s President Xi Jinping designates some sidekicks

Thu, 22 March 2018 15:48:01 GMT

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IT SEEMS almost quaint to focus on the officials elevated to leadership positions under Xi Jinping, China’s president. Mr Xi, after all, is now being called the Communist Party’s core, helmsman of the country and the people’s leader—all titles associated with Mao Zedong. Mr Xi’s thought has been written into the constitution, to which all members of the party must pledge allegiance. State media report on him in ever more fawning terms and pay less and less attention to everyone else.

Television news showed delegates to the annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s ersatz legislature, weeping for joy when Mr Xi’s re-election as president was announced. His unusually bellicose speech to the NPC, on March 20th, in which he warned the world that “not one inch of the motherland’s territory can be carved off”, was rapturously received. Yet even a one-man show needs its stage hands. Mr Xi has assembled a new team, anchored by two officials who will go a long way to determining...




As China tightens rules on religion, unregistered churches wince

Thu, 15 March 2018 15:50:13 GMT

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XU YONGHAI’S flock gathers weekly to worship in his small studio apartment in west-central Beijing. On a chilly winter morning a dozen people climb the concrete stairs to his door, dump their coats on his Snoopy bedsheets and gather around a table laid with tea and Bibles. The service begins with some devotional songs, accompanied by music from a battery-powered speaker. The pocket-sized gadget packs up halfway through the medley, forcing the pastor to dig out a spare.

Many tight-knit services such as this one take place across China each week. The small congregation meets without the permission of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, a government umbrella under which all China’s Protestant congregations are supposed to huddle. It meets on Fridays rather than Sundays, an arrangement considered less likely to provoke officials. Authorities know what goes on and occasionally post a watchman to a security box outside the building. But they tend not to interfere, says Mr Xu, because they know...




An overhaul of China’s bureaucracy enhances the party’s authority

Thu, 15 March 2018 15:50:09 GMT

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“WOW!” That was what China’s state-owned flagship newspaper, People’s Daily, claimed ordinary citizens thought about an elaborate government shake-up, announced on March 13th, which will axe, merge, reorganise or create 26 ministries and departments. In truth, the reaction of many young Beijingers was lighthearted. They started taking selfies outside ministries that are soon to vanish.

Still, the newspaper’s enthusiasm was understandable. In the past 35 years the structure of the Chinese government has been reformed seven times, roughly every five years. The only change on anything like this scale happened in 1998 under a tough-as-nails prime minister, Zhu Rongji, who closed or merged 15 ministries. The changes unveiled by the current, less combative prime minister, Li Keqiang, are the biggest since then, and perhaps since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976.

The Chinese government has long been a behemoth. Even after the reshuffle it contains 47...




China’s share of global and Asian exports is falling

Thu, 08 March 2018 15:55:07 GMT

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CHINA’s exporters once had little to offer the world and everything to learn from it. In the 1960s intrepid entrepreneurs ventured across the border from Hong Kong to the Canton Fair to buy wooden toys from China’s rudimentary factories. One visitor threw away a sock in his hotel, according to the book “Toy Town” by Sarah Monks. It was later mailed back to him, darned and washed.

In 1978 when the country began to reform and open up, it accounted for less than 1% of global exports of goods. For the next 37 years, its share grew remorselessly, accelerating around the time of its entry into the World Trade Organisation in 2001. In socks, for example, China accounts for about 40% of world exports.

But in 2016 something unusual happened. China’s share of global merchandise exports slipped: from 13.9% to 13.5%, according to IMF data. That might have been a blip in a tumultuous year. But in the first 11 months of 2017 (the latest data available) its share fell again, to less than 13%.

...




Xi Jinping is using his growing authority to amass even more

Wed, 07 March 2018 15:13:24 GMT

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IDEOLOGICAL flexibility has long been critical to success in China. The office of a state-owned company in Wuhan, a big central city, testifies to its enduring importance. On the bookshelf behind a senior manager’s desk are a few red-bound Communist Party tracts, including a collection of speeches from a recent meeting where “Xi Jinping Thought” was written into the constitution. Stacked alongside these is literature of a different breed: two analyses of blockchains, a primer on the “industrial revolution 4.0” and a recently published guide to life and business by Ray Dalio, an American hedge-fund billionaire.

The manager sees no contradiction. Like many of his peers, he is as fluent talking about the business models of semiconductor-makers as he is reciting Mr Xi’s contributions to socialism with Chinese characteristics. Yet the latter has, over the past few years, taken up more and more time. One staff member says they must regularly gather in study groups to pore over Mr Xi’s words and write essays of self-criticism, identifying their...




Xi Jinping decides to abolish presidential term limits

Thu, 01 March 2018 10:49:30 GMT

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BLOGGERS in China surpassed themselves in their ingenuity after the Communist Party announced its plan to get rid of presidential term limits, which would have required Xi Jinping to step down as head of state in 2023. One online commentator posted a picture of Winnie-the-Pooh hugging a jar of honey, with the caption “Find the thing you love and stick with it.” The Bear of Very Little Brain is used in China as code for the portly Mr Xi—the post was swiftly deleted by humourless censors. Others posted mock condom advertisements with tag lines such as “Doing it twice is not enough” and “I like how you’re always on top.” (The manufacturer solemnly informed readers that these were fakes.) Other banned terms included “I disagree”, “Animal Farm” (the novel), “emigrate”, “board the plane” (dengji, which also sounds like “ascend the throne”) and “Yuan Shikai”, an early 20th-century warlord who declared himself emperor and died six months later.

Censorship makes judging public...




China portrays racism as a Western problem

Thu, 22 February 2018 15:47:13 GMT

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THE annual “Spring Festival Gala”, broadcast on the eve of the lunar new year, is the most-watched television programme on Earth. It is also one of the most vetted by the authorities, for it is intended not merely to entertain its 800m-odd Chinese viewers. Less-than-subliminal messaging is designed to showcase how contented all Chinese are under a wise Communist leadership—and, in recent years, how gratefully the world welcomes China’s benign activities in it. So what could one make of an excruciatingly crass sketch in this year’s show that put racist stereotypes of Africans at the heart of the supposed jollity?

The skit’s topic was, for sure, a sketch-writer’s nightmare: celebration of a Chinese-built fast train in Kenya. And if the savannah backdrop and tribal dances with which the scene opened were the stuff of cliché, at least real Africans were used in the making of it. But then a Chinese actress appeared in blackface and African dress, with exaggerated fake buttocks and a bowl of fruit on...




Lessons from China’s rust belt

Thu, 22 February 2018 15:47:13 GMT

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MAO ZEDONG called China’s three north-eastern provinces—Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning—the country’s “eldest son”. In the Chinese tradition the family’s future rests on that child’s shoulders. But this one is failing in his duties. Debate rages over what has gone wrong and what to do. Many experts conclude that the regional economy needs to be run a different way. Their analysis has lessons for the national economy, too.

Mao made the north-east the centre of heavy industry. It still contains many of China’s largest makers of cars, aircraft and machine tools. In 1978, on the eve of Deng Xiaoping’s economic opening, Liaoning, the most populous of the trio, had the third-largest economy among mainland China’s 31 provinces. Its GDP was 20% bigger than that of Guangdong, the southern province with the biggest population. But 40 years of rapid national growth have left the north-east lagging behind. By 2016 Liaoning had fallen to 14th among provinces by income and had only one third of Guangdong’s...




China is trying new ways of skimming housing-market froth

Thu, 15 February 2018 15:48:22 GMT

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PAN JINGYUAN has little time for traditional family values. The 26-year-old says she has no intention of ever getting married and loves living far from her parents. But Ms Pan is traditional in one way—she sees a home as the best investment for her savings. She plans to buy a small flat in the southern city of Shenzhen, where she works at the headquarters of a restaurant chain. “There is no way the government would ever let prices really fall,” she says.

Such confidence has long been rewarded. Property prices in cities have roughly quadrupled this century, a rate of growth far exceeding that of the American housing bubble of the early 2000s, albeit from a lower base. This has led to a series of concerns: that homes are increasingly unaffordable, that the economy is too reliant on property and that housing prices, having gone up and up, might someday crash.

The government has, until now, tried to reduce the risk by periodically applying brakes on the market. Whenever real estate...




China will soon have air power rivalling the West’s

Thu, 15 February 2018 15:48:22 GMT

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THERE is no question which country gets the starring role in “The Military Balance”, the latest annual review of the world’s armed forces by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think-tank. Amid renewed jostling between the world’s great powers, it is the pace of military modernisation in China that stands out.

China’s president, Xi Jinping, wants to be able to challenge America’s military might in the western Pacific. He is making big progress. China’s once bloated armed forces are becoming leaner and a lot more capable. They are also benefiting from a defence budget that is growing at a steady 6-7% a year, in line with GDP. The IISS declares that China has become an innovator in military technology and is “not merely ‘catching up’ with the West”.

For some of the most advanced science, Mr Xi is tapping the private sector. Non-state firms are helping the armed forces to develop quantum technologies that will boost their ability to...