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China’s Silk Road Looks to Revive its Economic Fortunes

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On January 18 a locomotive with 34 carriages pulled into Barking Rail Freight Terminal in London’s east end. Normally, this would not be in any way out of the ordinary. This particular train, however, had travelled 7,456 miles to reach its destination. Departing from Yiwu, China, the journey took 16 days and travelled across eight different countries to deliver its goods to the UK market.

The Yiwu-London route is just the most recent development of China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) policy; a massive international infrastructure development program which spans Eurasia and aims to remove the divide between separate European and Asian trading blocs. This investment program is the brainchild of current president Xi Jinping who sees it vital to the success of his presidency and China’s future economic prosperity.

A Slowing Economy

As Mr. Xi succeeded the outgoing Hu Jintao in 2013, it became clear that the country as a whole was also beginning to transition. China has been the engine of world economic growth for the last several decades due to its large manufacturing sector, powered by an almost unlimited supply of cheap labor in a constant human stream moving from rural areas to urban ones. This job powered movement has been described as the greatest migration of people in human history. The parallel construction of factories and accommodating infrastructure helped China achieve double digit economic growth rates during Mr. Jintao’s decade long presidency.

This remarkable growth started to slow as Mr. Xi took office partly due to the increasing wages and gradual aging of the working population. With an annual growth rate of 6.7% in 2016, the lowest in 25 years, concern has started to spread. Foreign owned factories began looking towards other regions to build their facilities. Countries like Vietnam have seen an increase in investment both in their development and in migrants working across the border in China for smaller wages. Worldwide commodity prices have tumbled at any rumor of a slowdown of the Chinese economy. Additionally, the 2008 economic crisis brought with it a massive debt burden. Currently nearing 44% of debt to GDP, China’s borrowing has not slowed, which makes it susceptible to another 2008 style crisis.

Mr. Xi’s answer to the economic slowdown came in the form of a throwback to China’s Golden Age; a time when a romanticized silk road linked the European and Asian markets in a constant stream of merchants, goods, and ideas. Much more than a romanticized notion, the economic benefits of an infrastructure and capital injection of a scale not seen since the post-war Marshall Plan, could rejuvenate a faltering economy and make Beijing a center of world trade and diplomacy.

Silk Road Redux

OBOR, at its heart, is a trade infrastructure investment program which aims to build or upgrade existing overland and maritime trade routes. The official figures associated with OBOR are so impressive that it is difficult to find a historical precedent which matches it in scale (apart from the aforementioned Marshall Plan). There are roughly 900 projects currently underway according to official state media. This puts a total valuation of both overland and maritime routes at approximately $890 billion. The Chinese ambassador to the UK even boasted that OBOR would include 60 different countries with about two-thirds of the world’s population. Clearly these figures should be taken with a grain of salt, but if they are anywhere close to reality, then it would be plain to see that China is tying much of its economic and strategic future to OBOR.

Individual projects include a planned dam in Pakistan, a new railroad in Uzbekistan, a transport hub in Germany as well as a stake in Greece’s second largest port, among many others. The Chinese government finances these projects through its sovereign wealth fund as well as through an investment bank created specifically for OBOR, called the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). These combined funds currently provide a startup amount of about $140 billion. Additionally, private enterprise is encouraged to take part with Chinese regions and companies attempting to connect to the Silk Road network.

The increased activity of Chinese construction companies is a central facet of OBOR as the country looks abroad for economic opportunity. As part of its attempt to reign in state credit lending and debt, China is trying to offset the increasing production costs associated with Chinese goods with lower transportation costs to European and Asian markets. It also stands to make Chinese banks attractive to foreign lending as they standby to lend increasing amounts of currency in the form of Yuan to Silk Road countries to finance OBOR construction. Naturally, there are also some soft power incentives for Chinese officials as well. At a time when the struggles for influence over Central Asia, the Middle East, and even parts of Europe dominate the headlines, a potential finance power like China could consolidate its influence over these regions through strategic lending. If managed correctly, OBOR could be a multi-pronged approach to ensuring long term economic and diplomatic success for China.

If managed incorrectly, however, China could potentially be in a more precarious economic situation. As discussed previously, the $140 billion raised through the sovereign wealth fund and the AIIB is far short of what is needed for an $890 billion valuation of the projects. There has been little mention of how China may go about funding the rest of OBOR, but if the decision is made to risk borrowing the required funds, the world’s second biggest economy will be disappointed with anything short of complete success. The situation may become more unstable when taking into account the endemic corruption and potential for default of many of OBOR nations. Also, any nation involved in such an extensive undertaking would be in untested waters. Would Chinese construction companies and banks be capable and flexible to manage diverse projects in dozens of countries? And finally, the lack of clear framework and timeframe for completion leaves plenty of ambiguity for what a completed Silk Road may look like.

The One Belt, One Road development program is still in its initial stages. What becomes of it is still entirely up in the air with plenty of variables, moving parts, and agreements still to be made. The program’s ambition, however, cannot be doubted. If nothing else, an attempt to seamlessly link European and Asian markets is a noble one in terms of diplomacy. Economically, China has much riding on OBOR’s outcome. Its economy will not return to being what it once was, nor do most Chinese want that to happen. With new environmental regulations and a growing middle class, China seeks a new more modern way to prosperity. The foreign adviser to Mr. Xi, Yang Jiechi, who is also closely tied to OBOR, outlined China’s aims of being a well-off society by 2020 and a strong and prosperous one by 2050. If China’s future reality matches its present ambitions, then it is extremely likely that Mr. Yang’s aims will be realized.

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Implications of French President’s Visit to China on the International Arena

Mohamad Zreik

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French President Emmanuel Macron pursues a policy of opening up to China and solving problems that may arise peacefully and diplomatically. France and Germany are the main pillars of the European Union, and the French opening to China is a European recognition of the importance of China’s role internationally.

Last Monday, the French president paid a three-day official visit to China amidst the US-China trade war. The French president has previously promised to visit China once a year throughout his term. These official exchanges between China and France strengthen China’s international standing, and prove the theory that China is a peaceful country seeking cooperation and opening up to the world.

Fifty-five years after the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and France, a bilateral relationship based on respect and friendship despite some differences in regimes or strategic alliances. The Chinese model is mainly based on people-to-people communication and peaceful cooperation, and these are the main pillars of the Belt and Road Initiative launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013.

Despite Washington’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement in 2015, Beijing and Paris have kept their promises to contain global warming, a positive point in the bilateral relationship. The French president considered that China and France should lead the climate agreement. Cooperation between the two countries has emerged considerably in the industrial sector, such as the development of nuclear energy, aerospace, and the automotive industry. Academic cooperation between the two countries has also been boosted through student exchange programs and the high demand for Chinese language learning in France, which was previously rare.

Commenting on the importance of trade exchanges between China and the EU, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce showed that trade between China and the EU exceeded 322.5 billion US dollars in the first half of 2018, up 13 percent year on year. Chinese Ambassador to France Zhai Jun recently expressed that China and France are to expand cooperation in agriculture, energy, advanced manufacturing and artificial intelligence.

From the ancient city of Xi’an, the French president announced that an alliance between Beijing, Europe and Paris should be established for a better future for the world, and Macron stressed the need for a balanced relationship between China and Europe. The French president praised the Belt and Road Initiative and called for its activation in order to enhance the trade role of Asia and Europe.

France was the first Western country to recognize the People’s Republic of China. In a meeting with French ambassadors, the French president stressed that the West is in a moment of decline and China is progressing at a tremendous speed. During his visit to China, the French president took advantage of the trade war between the United States and China and worked to develop France-China trade relations, increase French trade partners to China, and promoting the French tourism, agriculture and services sectors.

France is seeking to strengthen Sino-European relations because of its great benefit to the European economy, but it is contrary to the Western orientation. China is also a beneficiary of good relations with France, because France has influence in Africa and many regions in the world and is a permanent member of the Security Council and it is a developed country at the military, technological and technical levels. China’s cooperation with a powerful country like France will bring many benefits and opportunities.

China’s great economic, technological and military progress indicates that China has become an important country in international relations, and it is in the interest of any country in the world to establish good relations with China. The best evidence is that France is seeking to establish good relations with China, as well as the European Union countries to make their relationship with China distinctive.

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Tension in Hong Kong

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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After about three months of riots, often particularly violent and destructive, on October 23, 2019 the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, aliasChen Yuet-Ngor, withdrew the bill on mandatory extradition to China, which had sparked protests in the former British colony.

 Never evaluate a mass protest on the basis of the reason triggering it, which can often be irrelevant.

 The extradition bill, announced in September, was withdrawn a few days after the resumption of works in Hong Kong’s Parliament.

With a view to partially repressing the insurgency, the now former Chief Executive of the city-state resorted to emergency legislation, by mainly using the colonial law of 1922, which prohibits the use of masks and disguises during public demonstrations.

 The protesters were and still are approximately one million, out of about eight million inhabitants.

 The subsequent riots, designed to last well beyond the bill withdrawal, strained the always tense relations between the former British colony and China, with the result of throwing into crisis also the Chinese governance of the city-State and, in particular, the traditional Chinese model of “One Nation, Two Systems”.

 If this model fails, the formula devised by Deng Xiaoping will not even apply to Taiwan, or possibly to the North Pacific islands, and it will anyway undermine the current Chinese idea of peaceful expansion and win-win collaboration between the Chinese motherland and all the bordering areas both in the Pacific and in Central Asia.

Since 1977 – when the Fragrant Harbour came under Chinese control – all riots in Hong Kong have been triggered by strong dissatisfaction with the Chinese motherland.

The deep economic and social dissatisfaction has always been targeted against China and never towards local power elites. In psychoanalysis, this phenomenon is called transference.

 In 2003 many thousands of people living in the former British colony had protested against a law that, in their opinion, would make it difficult to express opinions and feelings defined as “anti-Chinese” and the law was postponed indefinitely.

Further riots broke out in 2012, when a clearly pro-Chinese school program was proposed and once again the local authorities (upon direct instructions from the national government) avoided implementing that law.

In 2014, there were the sit-in street protests of the Occupy Central movement, the so-called “Umbrella Revolution”, which lasted three months to ask – this time unsuccessfully – for the Chief Executive of Hong Kong to be elected by universal suffrage.

Currently, however, the real reason underlying the protests in Hong Kong is not so much the request for implementing – in the former British colony – democratic mechanisms typical of the Western culture, but rather the tension resulting from great economic inequalities.

 Not to mention the broken social elevator, which is  probably the real trigger of the youth rebellion in the Fragrant Harbour.

 People, especially the skilled workers, cannot be ensured acceptable wages and salaries. This is the reason why many inhabitants of the old city-state migrate to Canada or Taiwan. Another blow to China.

Young graduates’ wages and salaries have dropped by at least 10% compared to 25 years ago. There is a very severe housing crisis, but anyway the choice to create a local oligarchy that tries to convince the other inhabitants is an old British idea.

 In Hong Kong an oligarchy of very few families dominates the local economic system, which is worth a GDP of 343.5 billion US dollars.

 The five most powerful families are still those led by Li Ka-shing, Kwong Siu-hing, Lee Shau-kee, Henry Cheng and Joseph Lau.

 These five families alone control 70% of the entire Hong Kong market, including real estate and telecommunications, as well as TV channels.

 The 21 leading families in Hong Kong control a wealth equal to 1,893 billion US dollars.

Obviously in China no family controls such a huge amount of wealth. In the People’s Republic of China the five major real estate operators put together control only 9% of the entire Chinese construction market.

China, however, has tried to gain support in Hong Kong,  especially among entrepreneurs, with the Greater Bay Area plan, i.e. the new megalopolis on the Pearl River Delta between Hong Kong, Guangdong and Macao.

This is, in fact, Hong Kong’s infrastructure aggregation to the  Autonomous Economic Zone of the Pearl River Delta, between Guangzou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Foshan, Zhongshan amd Jiangmen, which are the most dynamic economic areas in China.

Taxes are very low in Hong Kong, as in all business-friendly countries but, coincidentally, there is no inheritance tax.

 The administrative machinery is therefore very simple: Hong Kong’sgovernment does not gain sufficient revenue from taxation and hence has no funds to invest in schools, hospitals and infrastructure.

 A city like Hong Kong, with over seven million inhabitants, provides for a statutory minimum wage of 4.82 US dollars per hour. Almost all flats are illegal and, considering the cost of rents and properties, they are so small that they are about half of the “tiny apartments” in large U.S. cities, which are already very small.

 The average size of Hong Kong flats per inhabitant is 16 square metres, while in Shanghai the average size per inhabitant is 36 square metres.

 45% of Hong Kong’s inhabitants live in state-owned or subsidised apartments, while 90% of the Chinese people own at least their own houses.

 Hong Kong’s tax reserves are at least 147 billion US dollars, but the local political system is too fragmented – even from the viewpoint of the complex electoral system – to mediate between different interests and to really solve the main problems of the city-state, namely housing, health and education costs.

 Those who are ill must wait an average of 150 weeks before being examined, with 43 public hospitals that, however, employ  40% of the doctors available, since the private sector attracts many of the best professionals.

 The solution of employing doctors from abroad is not very practicable, considering the low attractiveness of Hong Kong’s wages and salaries and the poor quality of health facilities.

 One in six people living in Hong Kong suffers from mental disorders due to social, economic and health conditions.

 The graduates’ average wages and salaries in the former British colony have fallen by over 10% compared to a decade ago. Nowadays graduates are easily paid the best salaries and wages of workers without university qualifications.

As already said, there is no social elevator.

 The cost per square metre is much higher in Hong Kong than the average price in a central neighbourhood of  New York.

 As happens also in the West, the career prospects of young graduates in Hong Kong are very limited. They never have a house of their own and their prospects are much worse than those of their colleagues who lived in Hong Kong a few decades ago.

In Hong Kong the Gini Index, which is used as a gauge of economic inequality, is 5+, one of the highest and most unequal indexes in the world.

 This is the real political core of the issue: for those who protested in Hong Kong – as currently happens everywhere in the world – “democracy” in the Euro-American sense means above all greater social equality, many opportunities and efficient public services.

 This is obviously not true, but it is the model that took to the streets the crowds of the Arab Spring, the Euromaidan citizens in Ukraine and the “colourful” rebellions in Georgia.

 Paradoxically, just when Western democracies are turned into  States based on unearned income and the extent and quality of their Welfare diminish, they are mythicized as efficient and open.

In this case, Vilfredo Pareto would have spoken of “residues”, i.e. memories of a time that no longer exists, but that are still in action in the crowds’ deep psyche.

 In 1997, at the time of unification based on the “One Country, Two Systems” model, Hong Kong’s GDP accounted for 18% of  whole China’s GDP.

Currently, after China’s fast growth, the importance of the Fragrant Harbour is the same as the relevance of Guangdong or Shenzhen.

 The current protests, however, have also put Hong Kong’s business community in severe difficulty.

The majority of Hong Kong’s leading companies do most of their  business with China. It is not by chance that last August the Chinese authorities gathered 500 of the most important businessmen and political leaders in Shenzen to support the Hong Kong government and, possibly, sufficiently improve the social situation of the city-state, which, however, remains explosive.

 Hong Kong’s financial market has suffered the greatest damage.

The Chinese company Alibaba has postponed its listing on the local Stock Exchange until the uprising has finally abated, while Fitch has lowered Hong Kong’s rating.

Pending a systemic integration with the regulatory network of  mainland China.

 Another problem that the riots in the Flagrant Harbour may cause  is migration.

 Last year 24,300 highly-skilled young people left the country and the rate of  migration requests has risen by 15% per year.

Where do they go? To Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan.

 On the other hand, the number of Chinese people migrating to Hong Kong has decreased by 14,000 per year.

Furthermore, this November there will be the Hong Kong District Council elections and it is very likely that youth discontent will find a way to assert itself in the polls.

 A fragmented society under crisis creates many problems for those planning business cycles and Hong Kong is likely to see its growth rate decrease by at least 3%.

Where will capital go? Obviously in the Chinese area bordering on Hong Kong, with an expected investment growth of almost 6.5%, largely consisting of capital outflows from Hong Kong.

 The differences between Hong Kong and China, however, are much wider than those shown with violence during the recent long protests, which often followed the same tactics of the color revolutions organized by the US Services, according to the old model developed by the Einstein Institute.

 For China, Deng Xiaoping’s criterion “One Country, Two Systems” means that China takes over Hong Kong despite the differences in political and economic systems, which will eventually tend to overlap. Conversely, for Hong Kong leaders the “Country” is just lip service paid in view of maintaining the separation from China, both from a cultural as well as an economic and political viewpoint.

 China has so far controlled Hong Kong with the same logic with which it has supervised its “dangerous” territories, namely Tibet, Xinjiang and Manchuria.

 The current Chinese centralization stems from the analysis of the inglorious collapse of the almost federalist Soviet Union. In this regard, suffice to recall the ironic smiles that welcomed Gorbachev on his visit to China, just when the Tiananmen Square protests had reached their climax.

 It does not matter that the right to secession was established in Lenin’s Sacred Texts. The fact is that, for the Chinese leadership, the unity of the Country and the repression of every regionalist secession is fundamental to the permanence of the State – and of  the Party.

 China, however, still depends on the financial hub of Hong Kong, the only one completely open to the world capital flows.

According to 2018 data, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange capitalizes 29.9 trillion local dollars.

 Shenzhen and Shanghai cannot replace Hong Kong in this respect.

 Therefore, China could not intervene in Hong Kong because otherwise it would have destroyed on its own the way connecting China to international capital flows.

 Furthermore, the repression of the Hong Kong movements would have destroyed the model “One Country, Two Systems”, which is exactly the one that will be applied to Taiwan, at the right time.

 Nor should we forget that, pending the New Silk Road promoted by China, the Western Powers are conceiving political mechanisms for disrupting and possibly stopping the “Road”, by organizing rebellions and anti-Chinese parties and movements in the various countries where the passage of the Chinese One Belt One Road (OBOR) is planned.

Obviously China does not stand by and wait to see.

From this viewpoint, the Hong Kong uprising is a model that will soon be imitated and that China will oppose exactly with the same political tactics.

As is recommended in the Thirty-Six Stratagems, “Befriend a distant State and strikes a neighbouring one”.

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The final front in the South China Sea: Vietnam against China

Sisir Devkota

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A few years back, political tensions in the South China Sea was rife. China was seen as the main aggressor in trying to claim island areas for resource extraction. Now, the political climate in the rich region is changing at the expense of Vietnam’s interest. More so, in the legitimate interest of Vietnam. In the past few years, Chinese diplomacy has managed to take both Malaysia and the Philippines into its plans. Both the nations are on the verge of sanctioning new energy deals with China. On the other hand, Vietnam is resisting. In the midst of Chinese bullying, it is standing alone.

The South China Sea is making news again for a good reason. In what would best describe an economic proxy tool, foreign companies from the USA and Spain are investing on Vietnam’s share of resources, in the sea. China asserts itself with its self-designed nine-dash line, which separates its sphere of influence along the coastal borders, circling all three nations. Because of foreign interests in the region, it is not nations themselves, indulging into a confrontation. Exxon Mobil, which is the world’s largest energy enterprise, has entered into the picture. While Exxon’s initial plans were backed up by America’s political meddling; now, the multinational is facing a crisis that does not seem to escape from the China-Vietnam row.

Legitimately, the blue whale oil block, is a region inside the Vietnamese jurisdiction. As much as the oceanic geography is tricky to comprehend, China is closely monitoring Vietnam’s deal with Exxon, in order to extract natural gas reserves. Scientifically, the resources belong to Vietnam, but there could be possible twists in the favour of China. For instance, oceanic topographies have a history of breeding territorial tussle between coastal nations. Turkey and Greece are yet to settle their own set of similar crisis. The point of the matter is that Vietnam’s gas rich rocks might emanate inside the seabed leading to or from the Chinese territory. The Chinese government is not protesting the Exxon deal, but there is no prize for an obvious guess. They are saving the topographic argument for and if the need arises.

In fact, China is keeping peace under Exxon’s own credit problems. There are reports of the company facing capital crunches to fund similar projects in South America. A couple of years after it signed a deal with the Vietnamese government, the energy giant is looking to exit the troubled high seas. Exxon will also be looking to avoid the kind of embarrassment that PetroVietnam forced upon RepsolSA, a Spanish energy giant. While the Chinese started cruising their military vessels around the area, Vietnam succumbed to pressure and decided to end their extraction plans. Although the exact trade-offs cannot be accrued, the Spanish company incurred losses of more than $200 million after the exit. These events will be playing on the minds of Exxon hierarchy. A similar fate is possible in the face of Chinese intimidation. Exxon is also not sure if the Trump administration would come for a rescue; if things go horribly wrong.

Nevertheless, Vietnam is resisting. With more than $2.5 trillion at stake, China is succeeding in its pursuit to persuade both Malaysia and the Philippines for joint benefits. The Blue Whale project is important to Vietnam, as it would meet energy demands for the next twenty years. Amid its own financial problems and geopolitical standoff, Exxon will also be considering selling the project. The South China Sea is inviting another international standoff in the coming time. This time, the stakes are high. China is on the verge of controlling the waters, on its will.

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