Climate finance in the Asia-Pacific

Eventually, my piece on climate finance in the Asia-Pacific has been published on the UNESCAP website! If you want to have a look, you can find it here under “Contributing pieces”: http://www.unescap.org/publications/transformation-for-sdg/resources

(And yes, they didn’t get my surname right…)

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Chinese migrants in Africa

Was meant to post it a few days ago but totally forgot – anyway, here’s an interesting interview with Ben Lampert and his new book on Chinese migrants and Africa’s development: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6aR-Jx_NPZQ.

There is still a great degree of myths when it comes to Chinese migrants to Africa and whether this will eventually benefit the continent’s own development or not..

The “umbrella revolution” in Hong Kong

The last few days have been pretty intense in Hong Kong, as the city has been invaded by crowds of students and democracy activists demanding more democracy.

On the 1st of October, which is the 65th anniversary of Communist rule in China, students started to occupy the streets of Hong Kong leading anti-government demonstrations and demanding democracy. Allegedly over 100,000 people took to the streets armed with umbrellas, which became the protests’ symbol, so that many had named it the “umbrella revolution”.

The protests sparked as a consequence of Beijing’s August ruling over the 2017 elections in Hong Kong. This will be the first occasion on which the Hong Kong Chief Executive is chosen directly by its voters. China, though, ruled that candidates must be approved by a dedicated Chinese committee first. This decisions angered democracy activists and pushed them to take over the Central business district, under the slogan of “Occupy Central”.

Historically, this is the first big student-led protest since 1989 and it presents Beijing with several challenges. At the beginning of 2012, on New Year’s Day, people started another protest against a 2001 court decision that children who were born in Hong Kong to mothers from Mainland China had the right to abode. This initiated contrasts between natives and mainlanders, who have been depicted as “locusts” since then. This year’s debates over the 2017 elections have only reignited these tensions and differences within the two groups remain palpable.

However, discontent amongst Hong Kongers has deeper motivations that go far back and are entangled in a past of Western colonialism and capitalism, as well as a nationalist sentiment motivated by a century of humiliation.

Beijing had always feared the so-called “One Country, Two Systems” that the two arranged after Hong Kong gained independence from Britain in 1997. This agreement will guarantee the region’s autonomy until 2047, which entails: a British common law system, a British education system, and non-interventionist economic policies. As a result, Hong Kong has long boasted the freest economy in the world, excellent schools and universities, and accomplished civil rights. Considering that the region has “enjoyed” over 150 years of British rule, Hong Kongers’ identities have been indelibly shaped by those years and this had effects on the way Hong Kong natives perceive themselves with respect to the Chinese people. The population in Hong Kong remains divided into two sides when it comes to attitudes towards Mainland China: one side is pro-Beijing, while the other regards China’s rule as colonial – only 31% of the population consider itself as Chinese, whereas 67% see itself as Hong Kongers.

One of the most controversial aspects of the tensions between Hong Kong and China is that the territory became rich thanks to the Chinese, not to the British. When Deng Xiaoping launched his ambitious program of economic reforms in 1978, China began to grow at a rapid pace, and so did Hong Kong. Multinational companies and banks were attracted to invest there as a way to access the flowering Chinese market. Those who prefer to identify themselves with westerners rather than mainlanders do so because Mainland China made them richer than their natives counterparts, not because they had enjoyed democracy in previous years: the British, in fact, never allowed them any form of it.

Things have changed from 1997, as Hong Kong has been dwarfed by other financial centres such as Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing itself; many Hong Kong Chinese still need to adapt to this new reality. They are struggling to accept the fact that releasing themselves from China’s grip might be harder than they thought.

One of the effects of the British rule is that Hong Kong’s authorities are expected to react to protests in a different way than the Chinese would do in Mainland China (such as through bargaining, violence, and tightening controls over the media). They are instead expected to handle unrest in a more democratic way. It is also in the interest of Beijing, though, to treat the protests in a milder way, as a harsh response could easily undermine one of the world’s wealthiest economies as well as Xi Jinping’s image.

The territory’s leader, Leung Chun-ying, repeatedly stressed its endorsement of the elections plan, claiming that it would finally give Hong Kongers the universal suffrage they have been long expecting, and urged citizens to end the protests. As a consequence, protesters are now also calling for Leung’s resignation.

Xi Jingping is presented with hard challenges here. More than any other Chinese leader so far, he has consolidated his power effectively and tightened control over the media, and opposed intellectuals and activists. With regards to separatist movements, he has had a tough stance on border tensions such as those in the Xinjiang region. Also, the way Beijing will handle the Hong Kong protests will also affect cross-strait relations with Taiwan. As it happened with the Scottish vote for independence, which encouraged the Catalans to again raise their voice against Spain, Taiwan’s model was of inspiration to the Hong Kongers as how democracy can be successfully implemented. The Sunflower Movement inspired protesters in the territory and there have been exchanges of solidarity between students in both places. At the same time, what is happening now in Hong Kong might serve as a warning for Taiwan, which has repeatedly been offered the “One Country, Two Systems” formula as a means of unification by Beijing. The Taiwanese are now getting worried that the situation in Hong Kong might become their own situation, if they ever decided to accept this solution. Therefore, a positive and quick solution to the “umbrella revolution” does not only entails relations between Hong Kong and China, but also between the latter and Taiwan, which makes it even harder for Xi Jinping to adopt any measure.

So long as political solution is not put forward, it is likely that the protests will continue to fill the streets for days to come. And given the differences between those who feel more Chinese and those who rather feel Hong Kongers, there is still no clear end to it.

The Chinese media

One of my first articles last year was about the media and how they have developed through the years since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. Since then, there have been major changes that now heavily affect politics and the way the government address their people in China.

The economic reforms launched by Deng in 1978 brought substantial changes in the way the media were conceived. In the early 1980s, there was a sudden proliferation of newspapers, TV and radio stations, and, most of all, the Internet. These changes not only came from the economic reforms, but also from the gradual commercialisation of the media and their consequent pluralisation, which in turn was the result of a greater integration of China into the global community and its increased interactions with the outside world. All this, however, happened under the close supervision of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party), which always had a strict control over the flow of information to and from the country. With the spread of new technologies though, it seems that the grip on the media is increasingly harder to keep.

The CCP has its own idea of how the media should be and this is based on Marxist theories: the means of communication are to be considered as a national body and their main function is to reflect the regime’s opinion on ideological issues. During the 1950s, the CCP assumed full control of newspapers, the publishing industry, and TV and radio stations; thus, the media became the Party’s “loyal eyes, ears, and tongue” (Won Ho Chang, 1989, Mass Media in China). They had the first chance to perform their function during the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, when the disastrous consequences and the failures of Mao’s policies were deftly hidden by the newspapers. Overall, until 1976 mass media mostly focused on communication objectives rather than a faithful representation of reality. They were aimed at building a top-down approach whereby orders coming from Beijing hierarchically spread to the rest of the country.

This system became even more complex in 1978 with Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, when China burst into the global market and embraced globalisation. The CCP took many initiatives in order to break the Anglo-American monopoly over communications, while strengthening China’s international influence. Firstly, the top-down approach was transformed into a more complex network on various levels. The communication system was divided into two categories: government agencies and CCP organisations. Both these categories are under two types of control: on the one hand, the horizontal sector coordinating system; on the other hand, the vertical four-tier linkage (which includes national, provincial, prefectural and county levels). Every government agency is then subject to the Central Department of Propaganda (DOP), which in turn reports to the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the CCP: this is the most powerful decision-making body in China.

Given the complexity of this system, it is not surprising that the Chinese media have often been the subject of Western criticism. The main contradiction is precisely the fragile balance between maintaining control over the most sensitive information and the promotion of the role of the media as a means to encourage both the market economy and the image of a rich and powerful Chinese nation.

There are three major reforms concerning the media. The first one dates back to 1978 and aimed to remove the state’s rein on advertising. Hence advertising became the main source of the media’s income. The second policy was launched in 1983 and it established the four-tier vertical system I mentioned before. Finally, the third was laid out in 1992 and its objective was to dismantle inefficient state enterprises. The government required all newspapers to become financially independent by 1994, with the exception of some state organs such as the 人民日报, Rénmín Rìbào, the People’s Daily. Furthermore, in 2003 the CCP decided to divide the media industry into two main groups: public cultural institutions and commercial cultural enterprises, each of them with its own specific missions. While the first sector includes the main state-owned media agencies, the commercial sector is open to foreign investments. However, foreign investments are only allowed within the publishing realm, while the editorial sector remains state-monopolised. The West had therefore criticised these measures of being only a partial opening-up of the media, its main aim being to absorb capital and technology rather than to liberalise the means of information. To this end, globalisation is a threat to the CCP’s control over the media, as it represents an unstoppable force towards China’s opening-up and the realisation of new reforms. China’s entry in the WTO in 2001 further contributed to urge the CCP’s leaders to liberalise the media market.

The Internet has somehow managed to overcome the state’s restriction and censorship, and it thus represents another threat to the Party’s authority. In recent years, new technologies helped spark a debate on the existence of public sphere and opinion in China, as understood by Habermas in his “On the concept of a public opinion“. An increasing number of citizens is gaining access to more information every day, despite the “great firewall” and other restrictions. Nonetheless, the democratising effect of the Internet should not be exaggerated, as the Party still plays a fundamental role in the censorship process and the majority of the Chinese people still do not have access to the web, especially in rural areas. But then again Chinese citizens are now less dependent on state-owned media, as they have gained access to information coming from outside the country.To conclude, since 1978 the media not only continued to perform the traditional role as the Party’s mouthpiece, but they undertook different functions, which include creating a more favourable environment for political and social stability; competing with multinationals, above all British and American; and show some commercial success within the busy global market. These expectations cannot be satisfied unless the media will become more autonomous in the near future. A complete independence is, however, pretty far to be realised, as it would require a complete removal of the CCP’s authority and control over information. But then without autonomy the Chinese media will continue to lack of credibility, caught in an endless struggle for  their legitimacy.


References

Xiaowei Zang, Understanding Chinese Society, 2011

Intro

So, I finally made up my mind and started my very own blog.

I have been writing about China since the spring of 2013, working with a couple of Italian blogs and dealing with everything that concerns China: from culture to economy, from its traditions to the new media, but mostly its politics and relations with the rest of the world.

I am now about to start a PhD in International Relations, and I felt like I needed my private space to write down whatever I find interesting and worth talking about – also because I fear the next 3-4 years of my life will pretty much consist in being in the library all day in front of my computer….

This blog might end up talking mainly about China-Africa as this is my PhD thesis’ topic. Well, it could be a lot worse! It’s a fascinating area of study and unfortunately too many people know too little about it, and what is known is often the result of misperception.

I will probably start by posting a translation of some of the most interesting articles that have been posted to the other blogs over the last year and a half; then, in the next few weeks, when I will be back to real life (= the library), this will hopefully help me out with my dissertation.

So please, all of you who will have the patience to read my posts, do make comments if you want and help me grow in this writing process.

Thank you,

Ilaria

(And yes, the title recalls Raymond Carver’s collection of stories. Not really about China, but a must-read regardless.)