Archive for January, 2018

31/01/2018

Theresa May unveils education deal at start of China visit

Theresa May has announced new education links with China as she arrives for a three-day visit to boost trade and investment after Brexit.

The initiative includes the extension of a Maths teacher exchange programme and a campaign to promote English language learning in China.

The UK prime minister has claimed her visit “will intensify the golden era in UK-China relations”.

But she has stressed China must adhere to free and fair trade practices.

In an article for the Financial Times ahead of her arrival, she acknowledged that London and Beijing did not see “eye-to-eye” on a number of issues – and she promised to raise concerns from UK industry about the over-production of steel and the protection of intellectual property against piracy.

‘Two great nations’

Other issues likely to be discussed include North Korea and climate change. It is not clear whether they will include human rights in Hong Kong.

Mrs May, who will hold talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, is travelling at the head of a 50-strong business delegation, including BP and Jaguar Land Rover, as well as small firms and universities including Manchester and Liverpool.

Her first stop, Wuhan, in central China, is home to the largest number of students of any city in the world.

The education deal includes:

  • Extension of a maths teacher exchange programme for a further two years to 2020, enabling around 200 English teachers to visit China
  • Joint training of pre-school staff in the UK and China
  • Better information-sharing on vocational education
  • The launch of an “English is GREAT” campaign to promote English language learning in China
  • Education deals worth more than £550m, which it is claimed will create 800 jobs in the UK

Mrs May said new agreements signed on her trip would “enable more children and more young people than ever to share their ideas about our two great nations”, helping to ensure that “our golden era of co-operation will endure for generations to come”.

During the three-day trip, Mrs May is expected to focus on extending existing commercial partnerships rather than scoping out new post-Brexit deals.

She said she expected China to play a “huge role” in the economic development of the world, adding: “I want that future to work for Britain, which is why, during my visit, I’ll be deepening co-operation with China on key global and economic issues that are critical to our businesses, to our people, and to what the UK stands for.”

She acknowledged that her agenda “will not be delivered in one visit: it must be our shared objective over the coming years”.

Hong Kong concerns

But she added: “I’m confident that, as China continues to open up, co-operation and engagement will ensure its growing role on the global stage delivers not just for China, but for the UK and the wider world.”

In a statement ahead of the visit, a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman said Beijing saw Mrs May’s trip as “an opportunity to achieve new development of the China-UK global comprehensive strategic partnership”.

But asked whether the UK had achieved its aim of becoming China’s closest partner in the West, he replied: “Co-operation can always be bettered. As to whether China and Britain have become the closest partners, we may need to wait and see how Prime Minister May’s visit this time plays out.”

Pro-democracy protester in Hong KongImage copyrightEPA
Image captionCritics accuse China of abandoning its “one country, two systems” pledge on Hong Kong

In recent years, both countries have hailed a “golden era” in UK-Sino relations.

China has signalled its desire to invest in high-profile UK infrastructure projects, including the building of a new nuclear reactor at Hinkley Point – although its involvement has raised some national security concerns.

British trade with China has increased by 60% since 2010 and UK ministers are expected to use the trip to stress that the UK will remain an “excellent place to do business” after it leaves the EU next year.

The UK has said it will prioritise negotiating free trade agreements with major trading partners such as the United States, Australia and Canada after it leaves the EU in March 2019.

Earlier this year, the UK said it would not rule out becoming a member of the Trans Pacific Partnership free-trade zone, whose members include Japan, South Korea and Vietnam and which is considered by many as a counter-weight to Chinese influence in the region.

Chinese President Xi Jinping with his US counterpart Donald Trump in NovemberImage copyrightREUTERS
Image captionUS President Donald Trump and French counterpart Emmanuel Macron have both visited China recently

Lord Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, has urged Mrs May to use the visit to privately raise what he says has been the steady erosion of freedoms and rights in the former British colony in recent years.

Hong Kong is supposed to have distinct legal autonomy under the terms of its handover to China in 1997.

In a letter to the PM, Lord Patten and ex-Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown said its residents needed assurances that the UK’s growing commercial relationship with China would not “come at the cost of our obligations to them”.

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22/01/2018

China’s ambitions in space are growing

America is keeping its distance

The base in a township of Wenchang city is the newest of China’s four space-launch facilities. It is also by far the easiest to visit—thanks in part to the enthusiasm of officials in Hainan, a haven for tourists and rich retirees. Wenchang’s local government has adopted a logo for the city reminiscent of Starfleet badges in “Star Trek”. It is building a space-themed tourist village near the launch site, with attractions that include a field of vegetables grown from seeds that have been carried in spaceships.

If the dream is to turn this palm-fringed corner of Hainan into a tourist trap comparable to Florida’s balmy space coast, there is still a lot to do. Several idle building sites suggest that some investors have gambled rashly. Signs have been taken down from a patch of scrub that was once earmarked for an amusement centre. On a recent weekday, pensioners wintering nearby were among the few visitors to the launch site. A local says that people often come out feeling like they have had a lesson in patriotism, but not much fun.

Perhaps this will change when Wenchang gets up to speed. The base is crucial to China’s extraterrestrial ambitions because it is the only site from which it can launch its latest and largest rocket, the Long March 5 (pictured). Narrow railway tunnels limit the size of the components that can be delivered to the three other bases. Rockets are anyway more efficient the closer they are launched to the equator, where the faster rotation of Earth provides extra lift. Of China’s launch centres, Wenchang is by far the nearest to that sweet spot.

The Long March 5 can carry about 25 tonnes into low orbit, roughly double the maximum load of China’s next most powerful rocket. This is only a bit less than the biggest rocket currently used by America’s space agency, NASA, can carry—but far less than the Falcon Heavy, a behemoth being developed by SpaceX, a private American firm (see article). The Long March 5’s maiden launch, in 2016, was a success. But the second one last summer failed a few minutes after lift-off. Wenchang’s two launch pads have stood empty ever since.

That failure, and another one last year involving another type of Long March rocket, slowed China’s space efforts. Officials had hoped to launch around 30 rockets of one type or another in 2017 but only managed 18 (there were 29 launches in America and another 20 of Russian ones—see chart). But they promise to bounce back in 2018, with 40-or-so lift-offs planned this year. These will probably include a third outing for the Long March 5—assuming its flaws can be fixed in time—and missions that will greatly expand the number of satellites serving BeiDou, China’s home-grown satellite navigation system.

The next two years could see big progress in China’s two highest-profile civil programmes in space: lunar exploration and building a space station. In 2013 China sent a rover to the moon’s surface, the first soft landing there since Russia and America discontinued such efforts in the 1970s. Towards the end of this year China hopes to put a robot on the far side of the moon, a region never yet explored from the lunar surface. That landing will help preparations for an attempt—tentatively planned for 2019—to collect rocks from the surface and return them to Earth.

China talks of launching the main module of a permanent space station as soon as 2019, and expanding it with two bolt-ons early in the following decade. It is going it alone with this programme. America passed a law in 2011 that forbids NASA from sharing knowledge or resources with its Chinese equivalent. This ensured that China remained locked out of the International Space Station; America was never keen on letting it in because of the military uses of China’s space programme. China has instead experimented with two temporary orbiters of its own, the newest of which it crewed for a month in 2016 (the older one has reached the end of its mission and looks likely to tumble to the Earth sometime in the next few months).

Eventually, China would like to send its taikonauts to the moon. There is no target date for achieving this, but in 2016 an official speculated that a Chinese citizen might step on the lunar surface within 15 to 20 years. The country has Mars in its sights, too. It plans to land a rover there in 2020 or shortly thereafter. It wants to retrieve rocks from Mars sometime in the 2030s.

China still lags far behind America in its space accomplishments, but it does not appear bent on a cold-war-style race. It spends far less on its civil space programme than the $19.7bn that NASA was allocated last year. China is doggedly pursuing its goals, however. Joan Johnson-Freese of the US Naval War College compares China to Aesop’s tortoise.

One of the Communist Party’s aims is to boost national pride at home. In 2016 Mr Xi declared that April 24th would be celebrated annually as “space day”: it is the anniversary of China’s first satellite launch in 1970. Even if outshining America remains a distant goal, China is mindful of the progress being made by India, another big developing country that dreams of the stars. India is planning its first soft-landing on the moon in March, more than four years after China’s.

Europe is keen to collaborate. Chinese and European scientists launched their first joint satellite in 2003. They are now co-operating in a study of solar wind. Astronauts from the European Space Agency (ESA) recently trained with Chinese counterparts in survival skills. Karl Bergquist, an ESA official, says a few European astronauts are learning Chinese to prepare for possible joint missions.

But America’s worries are growing about the military aspects of China’s space programme. Marco Aliberti of the European Space Policy Institute in Vienna says this has been particularly evident since 2013, when China showed it could launch projectiles into the lofty orbits traced by America’s most sensitive satellites, suggesting it was developing an ability to knock them out. Many American scientists favour a more relaxed approach. But in an era of “America First”, the chances are slim of NASA being allowed to befriend China.

All this rankles among Chinese officials. They note that tense relations between America and Russia have not prevented those two countries’ space agencies from working together (since retiring the space shuttle, America has been dependent on Russian rockets to get astronauts into space). As many people in China see it, America’s behaviour is further confirmation of a long-held belief that America wants to create impediments to China’s rise. Jiao Weixin, a space expert at Peking University, says America is locked in “cold-war thinking”. If American authorities do not wish to work with China, he says, there are others who will.

This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Hainan aims high”
18/01/2018

China’s growth in 2017

China’s economy grew by 6.9% in 2017 according to official data – the first time in seven years the pace of growth has picked up.

The figure beats Beijing’s official annual expansion target of about 6.5%.

China is a key driver of the global economy and so the better-than-expected data is likely to cheer investors around the world.

But many China watchers believe the GDP numbers are much weaker than the official figures suggest.

This month alone, the governments of Inner Mongolia and of the large industrial city of Tianjin have admitted their economic numbers for 2016 were overstated.

Taking the figures at face value, the 2017 growth rate is China’s highest in two years. And it represents the first time the economy has expanded faster than the previous year since 2010.

However as Beijing ramps up efforts to reduce risky debt and to increase air quality, analysts said this may impact 2018 growth.

The numbers released on Thursday also showed that in the last three months of 2017, the economy grew at an annual rate of 6.8% – slightly higher than analysts had been expecting.


Analysis

Robin Brant, BBC China Correspondent, Shanghai

Two things stand out.

First, it looks like stronger exports – as the world economy picked up – and the final sputter of (another) government infrastructure investment spurt helped make 2017 better than expected.

But that’s the model China is trying – gently – to get away from.

Second, is it true?

China’s figures can be so stable, so in line with government targets, that it’s hard to really believe them.

In the run up to these figures being published there’s also been an unusual spate of honesty from several provincial governments, who’ve admitted faking their GDP or fiscal figures. All of which fed into the national picture.


China’s debt has risen significantly in recent years, with worrying numbers around local government loans, corporate and household debt and non-performing bank loans.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said recently that the country’s debt had ballooned and was now equivalent to 234% of the total output. It said Beijing needed to concentrate less on growth and instead help improve banks’ finances, among other efforts.

Beijing meanwhile says it has been taking steps to contain risky debt despite the impact that might have on economic growth – efforts the IMF said it recognised.

The government has promised to continue tackling local government debt, among other efforts, and on Thursday vowed to help state-owned enterprises “leverage and cut debt … and to repay their bonds on time this year”.

China's economic growth

Blue skies v economic growth

China’s strict anti-pollution measures, which were introduced across 28 cities last year, are also expected to hurt economic growth in the short term.

The measures have included shutting down or cutting back production at factories in heavy industry like cement and steel.

Households have also been asked to switch to natural gas and electricity from coal, in an effort to curb pollution.

However this policy left millions without proper heating, and so was temporarily abandoned in December.

Chinese officials have said Beijing’s air quality improved sharply in the winter of 2017 and heralded their efforts as a “new reality” for the country.

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12/01/2018

As China rushes forward, more people seek their roots

A tech billionaire’s quest exposes gaps in Chinese genealogies

WHEN Richard Liu asked for help in tracing his family history, thousands of people offered suggestions. Little wonder: Mr Liu, the founder of JD.com, a popular online mall, is worth about $10bn. There are more than 65m people in China who share his surname—some would love to connect their family branches to his bountiful tree. But constructing an accurate lineage could be tough, not only because of the huge number of Lius. In a country that in recent decades has seen the biggest movement of people in history away from their ancestral homes, genealogical records are patchy.

Veneration of ancestors is part of Chinese culture. Traditionally this required the scrupulous updating of genealogies by family elders. These were recorded in books known as zupu that listed members of each generation—though typically only the men. Zupu were often kept in ancestral shrines (such as the one pictured, dedicated to a clan surnamed Li in the southern city of Guangzhou). But war and migration in the past two centuries have complicated matters. Under Mao, the Communist Party tried to stamp out ancestor worship. Many zupu were destroyed. Mr Liu was born in Jiangsu, an eastern province, and can trace his heritage back to a branch of the Liu family in the central province of Hunan. There the trail goes cold because the relevant zupu is missing, say local media.

In the West, people trying to trace their lineage often consult websites that provide data from sources such as census records and church registers. Such sites enable users to link their trees with others. But in China there is little in the way of official historical records that contain genealogical data and are open to commercial databases. Local gazettes often provided information about members of prominent families, but were silent about the masses.

Yet not all is lost. Over the past couple of decades, clan associations have re-established themselves and worked to compile records again. Zupu that were hidden in Mao’s day, or taken abroad, have helped to fill in gaps. Some family elders have “put their collective memory down on paper”, says Huihan Lie, founder of My China Roots, a genealogy service. The paucity of surnames in China—almost 85% of people share just 100 family names—is not necessarily an obstacle. Given names can also provide clues. They are usually made up of two characters, with the first one sometimes chosen from a generational sequence of names ordained by the recipient’s clan. Mr Liu knows the sequence for eight generations in his family.

Websites are helping to make the search easier. My China Roots recently received private funding to build an online zupu database, starting with records from southern provinces where they are often more complete. Eventually the plan is to include Hunan, where Mr Liu’s search is focused. With luck, searching for ancestors will someday be as easy as online shopping.

This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Ancestral longings”
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