Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Is China planning to take Taiwan by force in 2020?

CommentInsight & Opinion

Deng Yuwen believes Beijing is coming to the conclusion that if it is to achieve reunification with Taiwan, as Xi Jinping has pledged to do at the 19th party congress, it has to do so by force, and sooner rather than later

Does Beijing have a timetable for seizing control of Taiwan? This has been a hot topic for the media and among experts on cross-strait relations. I believe such a timetable exists. If the timeline was rather vague in the past, it has become clearer now. And the US security strategy that President Donald Trump recently unveiled will hasten the pace of Beijing’s plan to take back the island, probably in 2020.

President Xi Jinping’s report at the 19th Communist Party congress offers some clues. In the address, he identified “one country, two systems” and the reunification of the motherland as a fundamental strategy of a “new era” for China. This provides a clue to Beijing’s timeline for resolving the Taiwan problem.

According to the report, the new era refers to a period from now until the middle of this century. By 2050, China is to achieve the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and become a modern socialist power.

A list of 14 items describe this new era, and one of them involves reunification with Taiwan. This means Beijing must take control of Taiwan by 2050 at the latest.

Plainly, as long as Taiwan remains outside the Chinese fold, the “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation cannot happen.

No surprise, then, to hear Xi say that Beijing would never allow “any individual, any organisation, any political party, at any time or by any means, to split any single piece of the Chinese territory”.

Last month, a Chinese diplomat’s fighting words over the idea of the US sending navy ships to Taiwan were also revealing. Li Kexin, a minister at the Chinese embassy in Washington, warned that port-of-call exchanges between the US and Taiwan would not be tolerated.

“The day a US Navy vessel arrives in Kaohsiung is the day that our People’s Liberation Army unifies Taiwan with military force,” he told mainland media.

While it is unlikely the PLA would really start a war over a US Navy visit to Taiwan, the words reflect a consistent belief of Chinese leaders: that Taiwan has to be taken back by force.

Since Xi came to power, the party has been open about its wish for the PLA to be battle-ready. No doubt the army’s first target would be Taiwan.

Also, Xi’s sense of calling would never allow him to tolerate Taiwan’s indefinite separation from the mainland. Whatever one may think of Xi, most people would agree that he is driven by a strong sense of national pride.

That is why, as soon as he came to power, he launched the “Chinese dream” campaign and set out the goal of achieving national rejuvenation. In the party congress address, he painted a picture of the new era that reflected his thinking and linguistic style.

As a leader who is bent on raising China’s global stature to a level that rivals the nation’s glory years in Han and Tang times, Xi would surely not tolerate an indefinite split between Taiwan and the mainland.

Nonetheless, the points raised so far only signal that Beijing has a timetable in mind to unify Taiwan with China, but they do not explain why the PLA could move to take Taiwan by force in 2020.

A combination of factors could point to a military confrontation.

They include Trump’s labelling of China as a strategic rival in his administration’s national security strategy; Beijing’s worry about the pro-independence movement in Taiwan and its belief that it now has the ability to resolve the Taiwan problem once and for all; a misjudgment by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen; and Xi’s sense of his own legacy.

First of all, why would Beijing opt for unification by force, rather than through the peaceful negotiation it has always championed? There are four reasons. First, after extending economic help to the island for years, Beijing has still failed to win the hearts and minds of its people. Instead, cross-strait relations have deteriorated.

Second, as one generation of Taiwanese replaces another, the “Chinese” identity among the people will only grow weaker.

Third, the influence of Taiwan’s political parties is waning. Even if the Kuomintang wins back power, it would not be in a position to lead cross-strait unification.

Fourth, more and more Chinese are calling for unification by force.

Thus, though on the surface Beijing has continued to call for a peaceful reunification, it has in fact ditched the idea.

As Beijing believes it has to use force to reunite with Taiwan, the next step would be to find a good time to do so. The year 2020 offers such an opportunity.

That’s the year when China would be approaching the first of its “two centenary” goals – the establishment of a xiaokang, or moderately prosperous, society by 2021, the 100th year of the founding of the Communist Party.

This would act as a driving force for China to take back Taiwan by force. If China becomes a well-off nation with Taiwan in its fold, it would mean a historic achievement for Xi.

Next, Trump’s national security strategy not only labels China and Russia as America’s “strategic rivals”, it also pledges to maintain strong ties with Taiwan. This will quicken Beijing’s plans to take back Taiwan by force.

In reality, China and the US are, of course, strategic rivals. But by stating it in its security strategy, the US indicates a shift in its long-term policy on China, letting it be known that it would seek to contain China rather than work with it. This would lead Beijing to conclude that it should resolve the Taiwan problem sooner rather than later.

Is the PLA ready for such a battle? In a recent interview, China analyst Ian Easton said he believed the Chinese military would not be ready for an attack in 2020 because of the slow pace of military reform. However, many Chinese analysts would not agree with that view.

At the 19th party congress last October, Xi pledged a major upgrade in mechanisation and the communications systems in the armed forces by 2020, which would greatly enhance the country’s strategic capabilities.

By 2035, he said, China would have completely modernised its defence forces; by the middle of the century, it would become a world-class military force.

The military has come a long way since reforms were launched four years ago. And fighting a war would be the best way to gauge its improvements.

In today’s China, more and more people are advocating the use of force to unify Taiwan with the mainland.

A series of military drills focused on Taiwan in recent days has also raised speculation that the mainland is preparing itself for a military invasion. It is likely that such “encirclement patrols” might become routine.

All is set for Beijing to unify with Taiwan by force, except for one thing – a pretext or a reason to take action. Emboldened by US support, the Taiwanese government that Tsai leads may well test China’s bottom line by further cementing its ties with America, such as with the proposed exchanges between US and Taiwanese navies.

Finally, whether Beijing decides to mobilise against Taiwan in 2020 will still depend on the decision of its leaders.

Xi may be tempted to secure the historic achievement of reunification as part of his legacy. Furthermore, if war breaks out, the peacetime systems and procedures will have to be set aside.

This will allow Xi to stay in power beyond his expected retirement in 2022, to give him more time to work on realising the Chinese dream of rejuvenation.

If Beijing takes up arms against Taiwan in 2020, there will be formidable changes for East Asia and the world. North Korea may also risk waging war on South Korea, if its nuclear capabilities are not eradicated earlier.

I do not want to see war breaking out. For this reason, we must pay more attention to what happens in 2020.

Deng Yuwen is a researcher at the Charhar Institute think tank. This article is translated from Chinese


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Hong Kong should waive the debt of disqualified lawmakers, following Australia’s example

CommentInsight & Opinion
Grenville Cross says the practice in Australia of not pursuing the debt of ejected parliamentarians – provided they have discharged their duties ‘in good faith’ – offers Hong Kong a way forward

Although the president of Hong Kong’s legislature, Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen, says the Legislative Council Commission acted on legal advice in seeking the full repayment of salaries and allowances from four disqualified lawmakers, the advice has been queried in some quarters.

The fact remains that the disqualification of Nathan Law Kwun-chung, Leung Kwok-hung, Lau Siu-lai and Edward Yiu Chung-yim meant that their original election was void. As such, they were disentitled to the sums paid, and the commission is within its rights in seeking their return, however imprudent that course may be.

But this is not its only course.

In October, several lawmakers in Australia, including the deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, also lost their seats. The Australian High Court decided they were ineligible because they were dual nationals, which is constitutionally prohibited. As the ejected lawmakers had already taken part in parliamentary proceedings for over a year, the repayment of salaries and entitlements would, if enforced, be a significant burden for them.

A similar situation also arose in April, when the High Court – for constitutional reasons unrelated to citizenship – found that Senator Bob Day had not been validly elected in 2016. Although the question of repayment arose, the responsible minister, Scott Ryan, said it would be unfair of the government to pursue the debt, given that Day had discharged his senatorial duties “in good faith”.

In Australia, the convention is to waive such debt. Ousted parliamentarians are given two options: pay up or apply for a waiver from the government. Provided there is no evidence of bad faith, the application of a waiver will normally be granted.

In Hong Kong, the four lawmakers seemingly acted in good faith in the Legislative Council after they were sworn in. Although they took their oaths in an irregular fashion, with two being required to retake them, they were all nonetheless ultimately seated. By contrast, the extreme antics of two other lawmakers, Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching, at their oath-taking resulted in them being excluded altogether.

The four seated legislators would have assumed that they had been accepted as Legco members.

In these circumstances, the Australian approach provides valuable guidance for the Legco commission, which should now reconsider its demands in light of it. This, after all, was not a case in which someone tricked their way into Legco, as happened in 1985, when Tai Chin-wah, having falsely represented himself to be a solicitor, was elected to the chamber. He was unmasked six years later.

There can be no possible objection to the commission enforcing repayment of the debts owed by Sixtus Baggio Leung and Yau, whose abusive conduct violated basic norms. Their four colleagues, however, were not in that category, as the Legco president himself accepted. Ejection from Legco is itself a severe sanction, and basic fairness requires the waiver of the debts.

If, however, this does not happen, it is fanciful for people to suggest that Legco proceedings in which the four participated should be retroactively undone. Even if feasible, this would produce chaos.

In 1907, the Australian High Court resolved this very issue when it ruled that votes on legislation remain valid, even if a parliamentarian is subsequently deemed to have been invalidly elected, and this remains good law. As the judgment put it, “the proceedings of the Senate as a House of Parliament are not invalidated by the presence of a senator without title”.

Grenville Cross SC is a criminal justice analyst

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Beijing’s cruel eviction of its migrant workers is a stain on China’s urbanisation drive

CommentInsight & Opinion

Audrey Jiajia Li says the rural masses who go to the cities in search of a better life do not deserve to be treated as disposable labour, particularly given their contribution to China’s development


The popular Chinese comedian Guo Degang tells this joke: a millionaire once claimed that while he couldn’t care for all the poor in the world, he would never turn a blind eye to people suffering from poverty in his neighbourhood. Later, he evicted them all from his neighbourhood and, sure enough, there have been no poor people there ever since.

In her 2012 science fiction story Folding Beijing, Chinese writer Hao Jingfang imagined a future Beijing divided into three spaces, where residents of different social classes share the same area in a 48-hour cycle: at the top, the ruling class of 5 million people occupy the space for 24 hours, after which the Earth’s surface would turn, moving residents of the second, then the third class up, and those 25 million middle-class people and 50 million low-class people would have the city for 16 and 8 hours respectively.

It’s hard for those of us who are comedy and science fiction lovers to believe that these stories would one day come close to reality.

Recently in Beijing, a fire broke out in a building crammed full of migrant workers, killing 19. The municipal authorities soon ordered citywide safety checks, in the process of which apartments identified as not meeting certain standards were targeted for immediate demolition. Tenants were given just a few days’ – in some cases, just hours’ – notice to pack up and vacate their home, or their water and electricity would be cut off. Many were chased away in the freezing Beijing winter.

A new expression – “low-end population” – went viral on social media. It was initially thought to be some kind of satire made up by internet users. That was before some seemingly official documents calling for action to “avoid the massive influx of the low-end population” and demanding “tight control of the low-end population” were revealed.

After four decades of development, China is well along the path of urbanisation. In 1978, at the beginning of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, the number of urban residents accounted for only 16 per cent of the nation’s total population. In 2012, for the first time in history, people living in Chinese cities outnumbered those in the countryside, with the urbanisation ratio surpassing 50 per cent. This grew to 57.3 per cent in 2016.

The number of urban dwellers has grown from 170 million to 793 million over the past 40 years.

Urbanisation remains the most durable engine driving the economy, providing the biggest potential for the country to expand its domestic consumption. It boosts demand, from concrete and steel to daily goods such as food, household items and automobiles, and has led to a surge in public services and infrastructure projects.

Rural residents leave for the cities to seek a better life, given the widening income gap between the cities and the countryside. Income inequality is high in China. For over a decade, the Gini coefficient that measures such inequality has remained at a high 0.46, despite the rapid economic growth and the rise of average living standards.

Thanks to the country’s hukou residential permit system, those born in the rural areas are disadvantaged when compared with those born in cities. When a farmer’s yearly income can’t buy him a fancy iPhone, while Wang Sicong, the son of China’s richest man, could buy eight iPhone7s for his dog, going to the urban areas appears to be the best option.

Most of the country’s second-generation migrant workers were born in the 1980s and 1990s. Without farming experience and eager to be part of the city, they strive not only to make a living, but also to be accepted by the society they live in. They want a fairer, more decent and more respectful lifestyle than that of their countryside parents.

At the same time, migrant workers have contributed significantly to cities’ development, especially in the past 10 years as the e-commerce industry flourished. The on-demand service industry, like food delivery, ride-hailing and online shopping, hire a sizeable number of migrant workers because they are hardworking and poorly compensated. Sadly, as a workforce, they are not only treated as cheap but are apparently also disposable.

This is not the first time the capital city has driven away migrant workers and “low end” small businesses in the name of eliminating safety hazards. There have been waves of such evictions. In the 1990s, the target was the Wenzhou vendors and small business owners; around 2010, it was the “ant tribes” – low-income young workers sharing tiny living spaces in dark and humid basements.

It is winter time in the northern hemisphere. While life for those at the bottom is harsh all over the world, their treatment at this time of year varies. In the UK, survivors of a recent deadly blaze in London were rehoused, regardless of whether they were locals. In France, from November to March each year, landlords are prohibited from evicting tenants and the government must compensate them for any possible losses. In North America, there are shelters to help the homeless cope with the severe weather.

A couple leave with their belongings after they were required to move out due to a citywide crackdown on unsafe buildings, in Xinjiancun, Daxing district, in Beijing, on November 25. We can only hope that such tactics will not be used in Beijing’s implementation of an earlier plan to cut 15 per cent of the downtown population in two years. Photo: Reuters

We can only hope that Beijing’s action last week was not an indication of the tactics authorities will employ to implement an earlier plan to cut 15 per cent of the downtown population in two years, which would amount to a reduction of about two million people.

As a society urbanises, its “hardware” and “software” should both improve. Manual workers should be respected and cherished, not repaid with arrogance, discrimination and humiliation. The cruellest urbanisation is one coloured by social Darwinism: driving people out when, in the eyes of policymakers, they are no longer needed and have become a burden.

Audrey Jiajia Li is the 2017 Elizabeth Neuffer fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation. She is currently in residence at the MIT Centre for International Studies

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Another global financial crisis is imminent, and here are four reasons why

CommentInsight & Opinion
Niall Ferguson says that, based on the similarity between present conditions and those before the 2008 Great Recession, there is reason to believe another global slowdown is on the way

In June 2006, I observed that interest rate increases by the US Federal Reserve would sooner or later effect heavily indebted American households. In November 2006, I argued that the developed world might end up in the same mess as Japan since the 1990s, fending off deflation with monetary and fiscal expedients and stagnating.

Two months later, I found it “perfectly possible to imagine a liquidity crisis too big for the monetary authorities to handle alone … Governments would need to step in.” By autumn 2007, I argued that we confronted “a more toxic cocktail than many investors still want to believe”, and the crisis would be global.

In December 2007, I predicted a “great dying” of financial institutions as a “man-made disaster – the subprime mortgage crisis – works its way through the global financial system”. On August 7, 2008, I anticipated a “global tempest” that would swiftly make the term “credit crunch” an absurd understatement.

There is a lot about the present reminiscent of pre-crisis days. In all but a handful of housing markets, inflation-adjusted home prices are above where they were on the eve of the crisis. US home prices plunged a quarter between 2006 and 2012. They have recovered and added some on top. New York condos are 19 per cent above their pre-crisis high. And real estate isn’t the best performer of 2017.

On January 1, you would have done even better to invest in emerging market equities. Another winner for the year was the “Fang” tech companies: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google shares are up between 30 per cent and 60 per cent. The best trade of all? Bitcoin, up by a factor of seven since the year began.

Now consider the reasons to be nervous. First, the monetary policy party is closing. The Fed and the Bank of England are raising rates. The combined assets of the big four central banks – the Fed, European Central Bank, Bank of Japan and Bank of England – peak in December 2018, but the expansion rate has already started to slow. Global credit growth in aggregate is slowing.

Second, we are at a demographic inflection point. Between now and 2100, China’s working-age population is projected to shrink from 1 billion to below 600 million. Many labour markets look tight, with unemployment rates and other measures of slack leading economists to expect a surge in wages and inflation. Countries that think immigration will help matters will be disappointed as many newcomers lack the skills to easily absorb into a modern workforce. The rising dependency ratio as populations age doesn’t translate into higher saving but higher consumption, especially on health care.

The end of the 35-year bond bull market is nigh. Bonds will sell off; long-term rates will rise. The question is whether inflation will increase as much or more. If not, then real interest rates will rise, with serious implications for highly indebted entities. The Bank for International Settlements has published “early-warning indicators for stress in domestic banking systems”. Two big economies with flashing red lights are China and Canada.

Point three: a networked world – whose biggest companies are dedicated to reducing the cost of everything from shopping to searching to social networking – is a structurally deflationary world.

According to the World Bank, a range of occupations – from food processors to finance professionals – have a 50 per cent or higher probability of being “computerised”, with technology entirely or largely replacing human workers. Already, Waymo’s driverless cars are on the streets of Phoenix, Arizona.

Workers clamp pieces of pipe while drilling an oil well near Fort Stockton, Texas, on May 4. According to the International Energy Agency, the United States is presently in the midst of the greatest increase in oil output in history. Photo: Reuters

Oh, and if you debtors pin your hopes for an inflation surprise on a new Middle Eastern [17] crisis, according to the International Energy Agency, America is halfway through the biggest expansion in oil output by any country in history thanks to shale oil drillers. Even without electric cars, we would avoid a serious oil shock if Iran and Saudi Arabia went to war tomorrow.

No two financial crises are the same. But there will be a next one and, as the monetary medication begins to be withdrawn, it draws nearer.

Niall Ferguson’s new book is The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power

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If American and Chinese youth believe in closer Sino-US ties under Trump, it’s time the experts did as well

CommentInsight & Opinion

Tom Plate says optimism among randomly sampled youth about the future of the China-US relationship, and the Donald Trump presidency, may well prove the power of positive thinking

Surprise! Few parents, perhaps ­including those in brand-adoring Asia, realise that Stanford University, on America’s sunny West Coast, is tougher for kids to get into than Princeton, Harvard or Yale. One star centre to which some of its best students – and faculty – gravitate is the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Centre (Aparc), in the heart of the campus. It focuses only on the Asia-Pacific, and no one does it better – whether Harvard or anyone else.

And so, given the fallout from President Donald Trump’s jaunt through Asia, and as I’d been previously invited by the research centre to hold forth on China-US relations, the moment to head up north from southern California had come.

True confession: put me in front of avid students, and I am the happiest clam in the harbour. During the session, one laser-sharp undergraduate, born in Vietnam, had a subtle China question that almost knocked me over. The first-year ­student inquired with indignation why I (allegedly) underrated her home country’s historic and heroic resilience to China’s aggression.

I managed to evade her total moral condemnation only by ­deploying Henry Kissinger’s famous quip about how one can do virtually anything successfully with the pragmatic Vietnamese – except invade them. She liked that.

At the end of the excellent 90 minutes, a brief opinion questionnaire I’d prepared was passed out to seminar attendees. Would relations deteriorate under Trump? Was war with China all but certain? And, if politicians on both sides of the Pacific could be kept from interfering in the bilateral relationship, would the American and Chinese people, even left to themselves, wind up with a better outcome?

I took their responses back to my university – Loyola Marymount (LMU) – and put the same triad of questions to my Asia class. Would there be significant differences of perspective? After all, the Stanford group weighed in much older – ­invited were faculty as well as other adult professionals from upscale Palo Alto, in addition to Stanford students; my Los Angeles sampling was comprised entirely of LMU students, aged 20 to 23.

Surprise again! There were hardly any significant differences. By a composite near landslide of 2-1, the vote was that relations with China would get better under the controversial Trump. Secondly, only 4 per cent felt war was all but certain. (Lopsided and inspirational.) And 78 per cent assessed that US-China relations would improve if only political figures on both sides would park their big egos elsewhere and leave everything to “the people”.

That seemed like genuine California dreaming to me, but what do I know? We so-called experts tend to get bogged down in the details of transpacific tensions [4] and differences – and they are serious ones. But it would be a happy notion ­indeed were the China-US relationship not so poisoned in American public opinion as to be beyond ­redemption – as suggested by these two campus groups informally and very unscientifically surveyed.

As for comparable mainland opinion, this is notoriously hard to gauge. Just as American polling establishments have been messing up – again and again their predictions miss the mark – scientifically solid opinion-taking in China is an even tougher pursuit.

Perhaps a touch more revealing, precisely because it is self-generated and random, are the views of the Chinese people in the heat of social media usage. While monitored by government censors, their social media is nonetheless so sprawling, robust and accessed that, at this point, it counts as virtually China’s “great wall” of self-reflection and revelation. (Westerners who think the Chinese people have utterly no thoughts of their own are very seriously misinformed.)

So a bright, bilingual mainland-born LMU student undertook a survey of Chinese social media opinion of post-trip Trump. Like my quickie polls, this was no rigorous social-science sampling. But it was an ­honest snapshot – and the results were similarly unexpected.

It turns out that the Chinese like what they see of Trump because he is so atypical. Social media users, discouraged from expressing blatant political views, tend to depict him as a TV star and “web celebrity”, with “funny facial expressions” and “using interesting words”.

Reports my researcher: “For these people, Trump is not a negative character for China. He seems really funny and he is nothing like other serious presidents. For them, that seems a big plus.”

Not everyone was positive, of course. Some worried that businessman Trump is one sly fox of a trade exploiter; some referred to the Chinese saying: “A weasel paying a New Year’s call to a chicken, with no good intentions.”

They view Trump as not stupid but worry that he will drag China into the complicated North Korea issue even more.

But, on the whole, the TV star image of Trump appears to be playing nicely in China, notably better than the dreary picture presented by the East Coast US news media.

What I learned last week was no more than a split-second snapshot of the moment, at the end of the day no more conclusive or predictive than is – say – the Dow Jones Industrial stock average at midday.

But for those of us who like to stay positive about the China-America relationship, a bit of sunshine cannot be so bad for our sense of balance. Professor Gi-Wook Shin, the Aparc director, lifted his eyebrows as high as mine over the apparent optimism, in north and south California. Positive thinking can generate a power all its own.

Columnist and professor Tom Plate, whose recent book on China is Yo-Yo Diplomacy, thanks LMU Asia Media staffers Deng Yuchan and Yi Ning Wong for their assistance