East Asia Theater
As expected, Xi Jinping was chosen as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party at the 18th Party Congress in Beijing's Great Hall of the People Nov. 15. The process, concealed from domestic and international observers, was thoroughly choreographed; Xi, the incoming president, and Li Keqiang, the new premier, were probably chosen years ago. The 2,270 delegates also named the new Central Committee, a ruling council of some 200 full members and 170 non-voting alternates. The leadership change happens every 10 years. The congress had an official theme of "Accelerating the Transformation of the Economic Growth Model," with the official report opening: "We need to expedite the improvement of the socialist market economic system." The target of doubling gross domestic product growth by 2020, set during the 16th congress, was raised to doubling both GDP and per capita income. Xi's remarks called for addressing "corruption" and "inequality," but made no mention of Marxism or Mao Zedong Thought. (China Digital Times, Xinhua, BBC World Service, Nov. 15; Caixin, IOL, BBC News, Nov. 14; Worldpress, Nov. 6)
It was the South Korean government that attempted on Oct. 22 to halt the planned balloon-drop of some 200,000 anti-North Korea pamphlets across the border into the DPRK by activists (similar to the parachute-drop of teddy bears into Belarus earlier this year). North Korea had threatened military action if the South Korean activists carried out their plan. In a post to its official Korean Central News Agency site, North Korean authorities stated that the plan "was directly invented by the group of traitors and is being engineered by the [S]outh Korean military," pledging that if any leaflets were detected on the north side of the border to respond with a "merciless military strike." So South Korean police closed roads and evacuated residents from the border zone—but activists nonetheless were successful in releasing the balloons, and no military response from the North has been initiated (yet).
Adam Minter of the Shanghai Scrap blog has a piece on Bloomberg casting doubt on recent reports of massive labor unrest at a Foxconn plant in China last week—an apparent sequel to the wildcat strikes last year. Minter asserts that the whole thing came down to a single Oct. 5 press release from China Labor Watch, which asserted that some 4,000 workers had walked off the job at a plant in Zhengzhou, Henan province. The grievances: "In addition to demanding that workers work during the holiday, Foxconn raised overly strict demands on product quality without providing worker training for the corresponding skills. This led to workers turning out products that did not meet standards and ultimately put a tremendous amount of pressure on workers. Additionally, quality control inspectors fell into to conflicts with workers and were beat up multiple times by workers. Factory management turned a deaf ear to complaints about these conflicts and took no corrective measures."
Violent forced evictions in China are on the rise as local authorities seek to offset huge debts by seizing and then selling off land in suspect deals with property developers, Amnesty International said Oct. 11. In a new report, "Standing Their Ground" (PDF), Amnesty International highlights how forced evictions—a longstanding cause of discontent within China—have increased significantly in the past two years in order to clear the way for developments. Local governments have borrowed huge sums from state banks to finance stimulus projects and now rely on land sales to cover the payments. This has resulted in deaths, beatings, harassment and imprisonment of residents who have been forced from their homes across the country in both rural and urban areas. Some were in such despair they set themselves on fire in drastic protests of last resort.
Well, it finally came to an actual clash—albeit, thank goodness, with water cannon, not actual munitions—over the contested East China Sea islands, and it was not China but Taiwan that provoked the escalation. On Sept. 25, some 40 Taiwanese fishing vessels accompanied by 12 patrol boats dispatched by Taipei entered waters off the islets that the Chinese call Diaoyu, the Japanese call Senkaku, and the Taiwanese call Diaoyutai or Tiaoyutai. When a Japanese Coast Guard ship fired a water cannon to disperse the fishing boats, a Taiwanese patrol ship fired its own water cannon at the Japanese ship. The Taiwanese ships were apparently given a warning to clear off but refused, asserting that they had the right to be in their own territorial waters. Many of the Taiwanese ships were flying banners declaiming their national right to the islands. The Taiwanese fleet, which approached the islands at around 8 AM, departed by midday, according to Japanese authorities. (Japan Times, Sept. 26; The Telegraph, Sept. 25)
Japan's cabinet on Sept. 19 failed to approve recommendations of a special government-appointed panel to phase out nuclear power by 2040, in a move openly portrayed in the country's media as a capitulation to pro-nuclear businesses interests. The panel had called for a 40-year limit on the lifespan of nuclear power plants, no new plant construction, and no expansion of existing nuclear power facilities. The cabinet decision came on the same day that Japan launched a new body to oversee the industry, the Nuclear Regulation Authority, which replaces the existing Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. But critics say the new agency lacks any greater powers than the old one, and protest that its head, Shunichi Tanaka, who oversaw decontamination efforts at Fukushima, is a nuclear industry insider.
It was pretty surreal to hear Leon Panetta warning of an actual war between China and Japan, arriving in Tokyo just as the two Asian powers are facing off over contested islands in the East China Sea. What made it so incongruous is that despite the obvious lingering enmities from World War II (which for China really started in 1937, or maybe even 1931), in the current world conflict that we call World War 4, warfare is explicitly portrayed even by Pentagon planners as an instrument of globalization—bringing the light of "free markets" and "integration" to benighted regions of the globe that continue to resist their lures. Warfare is now "asymmetrical," posing a single superpower and its allies against "terrorists" and insurgents, or at the very most against "rogue states." The old paradigm of war between rival capitalist powers has seemed pretty irrelevant for the past generation. In the Cold War with the Russians, the superpowers manipulated proxy forces while the US aimed for strategic encirclement of the rival power. In the New Cold War with China that is now emerging, the US again seeks strategic encirclement, and while there aren't any proxy wars being waged (no contemporary equivalent of Vietnam or Angola or Nicaragua), Japanese and South Koreans should beware of their governments being entangled in Washington's containment strategy—as Panetta's own comments acknowledge, games of brinkmanship can get out of control. And, as we noted, even as he made his warning, he was in Japan to inaugurate a new anti-missile radar system, ostensibly designed to defend against North Korea, but certain to be perceived in Beijing as a part of the encirclement strategy...
The prospect of an actual shooting war between China and Japan got a little realer this week as both sides raised the stakes in the showdown over the barren East China Sea chain known as the Diaoyu Islands to the Chinese and as the Senkaku Islands to the Japanese. Over the weekend, angry anti-Japan protests spread to 85 cities across China. In Beijing, protesters besieged the Japanese embassy, hurling rocks, eggs and bottles. Police fired tear gas and used water cannon on thousands of protesters occupying a street in Shenzhen, Guangdong province. Protesters broke into a Panasonic plant and several other Japanese-run factories as well as a Toyota dealership in Qingdao, Shandong province, ransacking and torching. In Shanghai, hundreds of military police were brought in to break up protesters outside the Japanese consulate, who chanted: ''Down with Japan devils, boycott Japanese goods, give back Diaoyu!'' (China Digital Times, SMH, Kyodo, Sept. 17)