A MAN pedals a brand-new, orange and silver bicycle to his office door. He dismounts in the middle of the pavement, flicks down the kickstand and disappears inside. A woman approaches and waves her smartphone over a QR code near the rear mudguard. The lock snaps open and off she rides.
These days, China’s once bicycle-clogged streets are choked with cars. But some urbanites are getting back on two (motorless) wheels, lured by the ease of using shared “dockless” bikes controlled by high-tech gadgetry.
For years, bike-sharing schemes have been common in big cities around the world, including in China. Examples include Paris’s Vélib and London’s Santander Cycles (“Boris bikes”). But these require customers to return the bicycles to docking stations. In China, a more user-friendly approach is spreading rapidly. It involves bikes that can be paid for using a smartphone and left anywhere. GPS tracking enables them to be located with a mobile app. A ride typically costs only one yuan ($0.15) on a sleek-framed bike in an eye-catching colour.
The first such service was launched in June 2015 by a startup called Ofo. The company now has around 2.5m yellow-framed bikes in more than 50 cities in China. Its main rival, Mobike, which started up only a year ago, says it has “several million” of its orange-wheeled bikes spread across a similar area. Bluegogo has half a million bikes in six Chinese cities. It plans to add a new city every two weeks.
Several other companies are piling in, as are investors who believe the firms have global potential. Bluegogo was the first to launch overseas, in San Francisco in February. Ofo has recently started services in Singapore and San Diego, California. It was due to launch another one in Cambridge, England, as The Economist went to press. Mobike, too, is operating in Singapore and is eyeing other markets.The dockless system is prone to abuse. Some riders hide the bikes in or near their homes to prevent others from using them. Another trick involves photographing a bike’s QR code and then scratching it off to stop others from scanning it. With the stored image, the rider can then monopolise the machine. But customers caught misbehaving can have points deducted from their accounts, making it more expensive for them to rent the bikes.
A bigger problem for the new firms is persuading people to use bikes instead of cars. Thirty years ago, 63% of Beijingers pedalled to work. Now only 12% do. Many people think that cycling is only for the poor. A dating-show contestant famously quipped in 2010 that she would “rather cry in a BMW than smile on a bike.”
Cycling is also dangerous. About 40% of road accidents involve bicycles, according to a report in 2013. (Many bike lanes have been eliminated to make room for cars.) Some city authorities accuse the bike-sharing firms of causing congestion. This month the southern city of Shenzhen ordered limits on the number of shared bikes. Other cities, including Shanghai and Beijing, are considering similar measures.
But Chinese leaders like the services—they represent the kind of green innovation that China says it wants. In January the prime minister, Li Keqiang, told Mobike’s co-founder that her business model was “a revolution”. Not, presumably, the kind that Mao led, but one that would have made the chairman feel at home with its profusion of two-wheelers.
At the government-subsidised ration shop in Sargasan, a village in Gujarat, Chandana Prajapati places her thumb on a fingerprint scanner. A list of the staples she and her family are entitled to this month appears on the shopkeeper’s computer: 10kg of rice, 25kg of wheat, some cooking oil, salt and sugar. The 55-year-old housewife has no cash nor credit card, but no matter. By tapping in an identifying number and presenting her thumb one more time, Mrs Prajapati authorises a payment of 271 rupees ($4.20) straight from her bank account. It is technical wizardry worthy of Stockholm or New York; yet outside buffaloes graze, a pot of water is coming to the boil on a pile of firewood and children scamper between mud-brick houses.
Like most Indians, Mrs Prajapati would have struggled to identify herself to the authorities a few years ago, let alone to a faraway bank. But 99% of adults are now enrolled in Aadhaar, a scheme which has amassed the fingerprints and iris scans of over 1.1bn people since 2010. With her authorisation, any government body or private business can check whether her fingerprints or irises match those recorded against her unique 12-digit identifying number in its database. When it comes to identification, India has unexpectedly leapfrogged every country with the possible exception of Estonia, a tiddler with a penchant for innovation.
Being visible to the state is assumed in rich countries, if only because the taxman insists on it. But India had no equivalent of a Social Security number, and less than half of all births are registered. Only a small minority are required to pay income taxes. Plenty of those entitled to government services, meanwhile, have not received them, because they have not been identified as eligible or because middlemen have stolen their share. At the same time, the benefits rolls are filled with fake beneficiaries, created by those seeking to palm undeserved rations of fertiliser, food or some other subsidised good.Ghosts v the machineLinking ration cards to an Aadhaar number, and thus to the biometric data tied to it, means a single person cannot have more than one and ghosts can have none. The original pitch to politicians—the scheme was adopted by the previous government, but has been embraced by Narendra Modi, the prime minister—was that Aadhaar would help make welfare more efficient. The potential gains are huge. One official estimate suggests that “leakage” in subsidy payments meant that only 27% of the money ended up in the right hands: not so much a leaky bucket as a sieve.
Over 400,000 ghost children were struck off school rolls in just three states after schools were required to match their pupils to Aadhaar numbers to keep receiving state funds. By weeding out false claims, authorities say they have saved $8bn in two-and-a-half years; the annual central-government budget for subsidies is about $40bn. That may be an exaggeration, and critics say there are other ways to improve the administration of subsidies. But the savings clearly outstrip the roughly $1bn cost of deploying Aadhaar.
Changing the mechanics of how a benefit is received is often just as important as the benefit itself. Development experts like the fact that, at least in theory, a villager can gain access to a subsidy in a distant city. This removes a big barrier to internal migration. A project to purge electoral lists found 800,000 fictitious voters in Punjab, a state of 30m. The authorities suspect that 30% of driving licences are fake, many of them duplicates to help drivers evade bans—a ruse that would be impossible if all licences were linked to Aadhaar.
Indeed, the improvements in accuracy and efficiency are so enormous that the government now wants to use Aadhaar more broadly than originally advertised. Recent edicts propose to make it compulsory for everything from booking train tickets to owning a mobile phone. If implemented, these new uses would put paid to the notion that enrolling in Aadhaar is voluntary, which was the promise of its backers—led by Nandan Nilekani, an IT grandee who used to chair the agency that set up Aadhaar. This in a country with no overt privacy laws, let alone a tradition of handling sensitive data competently (many ministries’ websites contain spreadsheets teeming with Indians’ personal data).
But Aadhaar is a poor way to build up an Orwellian panopticon, Mr Nilekani argues, given the wealth of information already available from telephone records, GPS data, bank statements and the like. A bigger problem may be the impracticalities of the system. Unlike reading an ID card, checking someone’s identity through Aadhaar requires an internet connection and, often, electricity. Ration-shop owners in out-of-the-way places are known to march their customers to the top of a hill, roof or tree—wherever a phone signal can be found—to check their identity. Even then, samples seem to show that roughly a third of authentications come back negative, an extraordinarily high failure rate for a technology that people rely on for necessities. The chafed fingers of manual labourers often cause problems, for example.
Those high failure rates are just teething troubles linked to Aadhaar’s many new uses, says Ajay Bhushan Pandey, the head of the agency overseeing the scheme. Devices that scan irises (which offer more reliable readings) are becoming cheaper and should become the norm, he says. Already the Aadhaar database is being tapped 20m times a day, 20 times the rate of a year and a half ago. That thrills cheerleaders as much as it alarms critics.
CHINESE parents pride themselves on the importance they attach to education; it is, they say, the most important gift they can bestow on the next generation.
That makes them all the more willing to shell out, if they can afford it, on expensive boarding schools which they believe will enable their children to concentrate fully on their studies. Poor families in the countryside pack their children off to board, too. But that is because they have no choice: daily commuting would be too expensive or arduous. In the cities, boarding schools are usually far grander. Attending them is more a badge of privilege than evidence of pragmatism.There is considerable demand for such urban schools. In many rich countries, parents often fret about sending their children away to board, partly because of the high cost and partly because these days many parents prefer to have their children with them. In China, by contrast, it is considered very normal for a couple to live apart from their child (they usually only have one). For urban boarders, the distance is seldom great: parents usually send their children to schools very close to where they live.
Boarding school offers an alternative to foisting a child on grandparents, which parents often do, sometimes for days on end. It may be costly, but parents reckon that such schools can do more to help children study after class than the elders can at home. In a country where siblings are so rare, many also see communal living as good for their offspring. Some 3.5m children now board in cities, around 4% of the urban school population. The vast majority of them do so at high school (8% of secondary-school pupils board, compared with 1% of primary schoolers).
A few of the boarding schools court the country’s elite by offering to prepare children for admission to universities abroad (in China, foreign education is another much-desired symbol of privilege). The redbrick quadrangle of the recently built Keystone Academy in a suburb of Beijing resembles a boarding school in New England. The institution’s annual boarding fee of 360,000 yuan ($52,000) is higher than tuition at Harvard University.
But the most expensive boarding schools may have had their heyday. Many parents with that much cash to spare would often prefer to send their children to board abroad: enrolments in American and British boarding schools are rising fast. Social trends are also changing. A wife who can afford not to work—and who has time to parent a child—is increasingly seen as someone who enjoys high status: traditional gender roles are making a comeback. In 2014 Yin Jianli, a popular author and former teacher, included an essay entitled “Boarding is a Bad System” in a book she wrote about education. It argued that if dorm-life really fostered the “sense of collectivism” that its proponents claim, then children from orphanages would score top marks. She said that mothers should be more involved in child-rearing.
For ordinary middle-class parents, less fancy state-run boarding schools are becoming more affordable: often they cost only a few thousand yuan a year. But even their future may be threatened. President Xi Jinping’s anti-graft drive is making it harder to secure a place in the best ones by using the once common methods of paying backhanders and pulling strings. These days having a child at a good state boarding-school can be a sign of corruption. No one wants that badge.
THROUGHOUT Chinese history, the dawn of new dynasties often involved moving the entire capital, imperial palace and all, to a new city. By those dynastic standards, Xi Jinping’s ambitions are modest. He simply wants to shift some of Beijing an hour’s drive to the south. But by the standards of modern urban development, his vision is grand indeed. All going well, the new area, known as Xiongan, will cover 2,000 square kilometres, nearly three times the size of New York City or Singapore.
A “first-class international city”, as the planners put it, will rise from land that is home today to scrubby fields, a large lake and a series of drab towns.China, which sometimes opts for modesty in unveiling plans lest they fall flat, did not hold back on April 1st when it revealed those for the “Xiongan New Area” in Hebei province. An official statement described Xiongan’s development as a “strategy crucial for the next millennium”. It compared the project to the creation of China’s two most spectacular built-from-scratch urban expanses: Shenzhen, a metropolis next to Hong Kong, and Pudong, Shanghai’s glittering financial district.
The point of Xiongan is to tame Beijing’s surging population, which has caused gridlock on its streets and exacerbated a chronic shortage of water. The capital has been trying for several years to encourage people to move out of its core districts. To make commuting easier, it has been improving transport links with nearby cities. By the end of 2017 the municipal government is due to relocate from the centre to Tongzhou, a suburb to the east. But Xiongan is the first entirely new city to feature in the effort. It is named after Xiong and Anxin, two counties in Hebei that will form the bulk of its territory along with a third county, Rongcheng—see map.
Beijing will still serve as the capital. But businesses and universities unrelated to that function will be urged to move to Xiongan. Mr Xi wants the new city to have a “beautiful environment”, with high-tech industries and efficient transport. By the end of its first phase (time unspecified), it will cover 100 square kilometres, almost double the size of Manhattan.
In China bedlam often ensues in the rush to build. There has already been a taste of this in Xiongan. Within hours of the announcement about the new city, speculators were flocking to the area’s existing property developments to buy up whatever was available. Highways leading to it were clogged with cars. Its housing prices tripled. To rein in the exuberance, the government ordered a halt to all property transactions in the new area.
Jokes abound on social media about the wealth that Xiongan’s rural residents will soon enjoy (if officials forgo their common practice of seizing land for little compensation). One was a spoof ad, written as if by someone from the countryside whose marriage prospects now look bright: “Male, 53, two acres in Xiongan, seeking woman, 25 or younger, beautiful, preferably with study-abroad experience”.
It would be unwise to bet all on Xiongan’s rise. Over the years China has tried to build numerous new cities, several of which have been costly failures. More than a decade ago the government declared that the Binhai New Area, a vast development in Tianjin, would be north China’s answer to Shenzhen and Pudong. It has never taken off. Another stillborn project was Caofeidian, an “eco-city” in the Bohai Gulf. Internet censors have been deleting any doubts that netizens have been raising about Xiongan. An article asking whether the new city would be the second Shenzhen or the second Caofeidian disappeared soon after it was published online.
But Xiongan has a big thing going for it: the full backing of Mr Xi. News broadcasts showed the president touring the area and chairing a meeting about its development. So long as Mr Xi remains China’s leader—ie, at least for the next five years—building Xiongan will be a priority.
Whether this is a good idea is another question. Taking Beijing as it exists today—a city of more than 20m people with 19 subway lines, dozens of universities, a large cluster of high-tech firms and umpteen road and rail connections to other large cities—and trying to make it work better might be more sensible. Yet given all of the capital’s urban maladies, the temptation to start with a clean slate is hard for planners to resist.
One of China’s top universities is preparing to open a campus at the heart of British academic life, just months after President Xi Jinping called for Chinese universities to be transformed into strongholds of Communist party rule.
Peking University, an elite Beijing institution where Mao Zedong once worked as a librarian, will open a branch of its HSBC Business School in Oxford early next year, financial magazine Caixin reported on Thursday.
The school is setting up camp in Foxcombe Hall, which it recently purchased for a reported £8.8 million (US$11.97 million). The 19th century manor was home to the eighth earl of Berkeley.
Peking University said courses at its Oxford campus, which is not connected to the University of Oxford, would focus on “professional knowledge of China’s economy, financial market and corporate management”.
Wen Hai, its dean, said Peking University had beaten off competition from three rivals, including an unnamed Oxford college, by offering a “very tempting price” that left the sellers “little room to say ‘no’”.
Wen said the university had been able to do so thanks to its close ties to China’s Communist Party. Those connections allowed it to “to expedite the transfer of money transfer needed for the acquisition” despite tight capital controls imposed by Beijing in an attempt to stop firms and citizens shifting large sums of money overseas.
Last summer’s vote by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, which has seen the pound plummet against the Chinese yuan, will also have helped the buyers.
Caixin said the university’s decision to expand into the “city of dreaming spires” came as Beijing pondered ambitious plans to boost the global standing of China’s top universities. Peking University, currently ranked the world’s 29th best university, had been handed billions of yuan by the government to “improve its research facilities and recruit teaching staff from top universities abroad to boost its international profile”, it said.
International schools in China attract more pupils
Prestigious British schools have set their sights on mainland China over the last 15 years with public schools including Harrow, Dulwich College and Wellington all opening spin-offs. British universities have also made moves into the mainland, where it is now possible to study at campuses operated by the University of Nottingham and the University of Liverpool. Last month the University of Leicester said it would open a campus in the north-eastern province of Liaoning.
Peking University described its Oxford campus, designed for students from both Europe and China, as “a bold step” and “an important milestone for the development of China’s higher education, given its inferior position globally over the past century”.
“It is our hope that the new initiative in Oxford will further strengthen the school’s international reputation as well as its teaching and research capabilities,” Lin Jianhua, its president, said in a statement.
The acquisition comes a few months after Xi, whom liberal scholars accuse of presiding over a severe clampdown on freedom of expression, declared Chinese universities should be party “strongholds”.China’s top colleges to face ideological inspections
Echoing a 1932 speech by Joseph Stalin, Xi called teachers “engineers of the human soul” whose “sacred mission” was to help students “improve in ideological quality [and] political awareness”.
Mainland China now has two universities in the world’s top 40, according to the Times Higher Education rankings. Even so, senior Communist party leaders have looked abroad to educate their offspring.
Xi Jinping’s daughter, Xi Mingze, studied at Harvard while Bo Guagua, the son of jailed party chief Bo Xilai, studied PPE at Balliol in Oxford where he built a reputation as an inveterate party animal.
“[It was like when] you take the cork out of a champagne bottle and it explodes for a bit,” Andrew Graham, the college’s former master, told the BBC in a recent series about the scandal-hit Bo family.
AS DONALD TRUMP prepares to welcome Xi Jinping next week for the two men’s first face-to-face encounter, both countries are reassessing their place in the world. They are looking in opposite directions: America away from shouldering global responsibilities, China towards it. And they are reappraising their positions in very different ways. Hare-like, the Trump administration is dashing from one policy to the next, sometimes contradicting itself and willing to box any rival it sees. China, tortoise-like, is extending its head cautiously beyond its carapace, taking slow, painstaking steps. Aesop knew how this contest is likely to end.
China’s guiding foreign-policy principle used to be Deng Xiaoping’s admonition in 1992 that the country should “keep a low profile, never take the lead…and make a difference.” This shifted a little in 2010 when officials started to say China should make a difference “actively”. It shifted further in January when Mr Xi went to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and told the assembled throng that China should “guide economic globalisation”. Diplomats in Beijing swap rumours that a first draft of Mr Xi’s speech focused on the domestic economy, an uncontroversial subject that Chinese leaders usually like to talk about abroad. Mr Xi is said to have rejected this version, and brought in foreign consultants to write one dwelling more on China’s view of the world. Whether this story is true or not, the speech was strikingly international in tone and subject matter.
A day later Mr Xi made it clear whom he had in his sights. At the UN in Geneva, he talked about a “hegemon imposing its will on others” and warned America about a “Thucydides trap”—the disaster that befell ancient Greece when the incumbent power, Sparta, failed to accommodate the rising one, Athens. In February Mr Xi told a conference on security in Beijing that China should “guide international society” towards a “more just and rational new world order”. Previously Mr Xi had ventured only that China should play a role in building such a world.
Your consensus is nonsense
There was a time when America was urging China to step up its global game. In 2005 Robert Zoellick, then America’s deputy secretary of state, urged China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. But nothing much happened. After the financial crisis of 2008 there was excited talk in China and the West about a “China model” or “Beijing consensus”. This was supposedly an alternative to the so-called Washington consensus, a prescription of free-market economic policies for developing countries. But those who promoted a China model did not say that it should be adopted by other countries, only that it was right to reject what they saw as a one-size-fits-all Washington consensus. Is there more to it this time? Is China challenging America for global leadership?
To answer that, it is important to begin with the way China’s political system works. Policies rarely emerge fully formed in a presidential speech. Officials often prefer to send subtle signals about intended changes, in a way that gives the government room to retreat should the new approach fail. The signals are amplified by similar ones further down the system and fleshed out by controlled discussions in state-owned media. In the realm of foreign policy, all that is happening now.
Soon after Mr Xi’s comments in Davos and Beijing, the prime minister, Li Keqiang, gave his annual “work report”—a sort of state-of-the-nation speech. It included an unusually long passage about foreign policy and mentioned quanqiu (meaning global) or quanqiuhua (globalisation) 13 times. That compares with only five such mentions last year.
As is their wont, state-run media have distilled the new thinking into numerical mnemonics. They refer enthusiastically to Mr Xi’s remarks on globalisation and a new world order as the “two guides”. And they have begun to discuss the makings of an idea that, unlike the old one of a China model, the country would like to sell to others.
This is the so-called “China solution”. The phrase was first mentioned last July, on the 95th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. Mr Xi’s celebratory speech asserted that the Chinese people were “fully confident that they can provide a China solution to humanity’s search for better social institutions”. The term has gone viral. Baidu, China’s most popular search engine, counts 22m usages of its Chinese rendering: Zhongguo fang’an.
No one has defined what the China solution is. But, whatever it means, there is one for everything. Strengthening global government? There is a China solution to that, said the People’s Daily, the party’s main mouthpiece, in mid-March. Climate change? “The next step is for us to bring China’s own solution,” said Xie Zhenhua, the government’s special climate envoy, in another newspaper, Southern Metropolis. There is even a China solution to the problem of bolstering the rule of law, claimed an article in January in Study Times, a weekly for officials. Multi-billion-dollar investments in infrastructure in Central Asia are China’s solution to poverty and instability there. And so on. Unlike the China model, which its boosters said was aimed at developing countries, the China solution, says David Kelly of China Policy, a consultancy, is for everyone—including Western countries.
This marks a change. Chinese leaders never praised the China model; its fans were mainly Chinese academics and the country’s cheerleaders in the West. (Long before the term became fashionable, Deng advised the president of Ghana: “Do not follow the China model.”) Most officials were wary of it because the term could be interpreted as China laying down the law to others, contradicting its policy of not interfering in other countries’ internal affairs. In contrast, it was Mr Xi himself who broached the idea of the China solution. His prime minister included it in his work report. China now seems more relaxed about bossing others around.
This reflects not only the determination of the leadership to play a bigger role, but a growing confidence that China can do it. China’s self-assurance has been bolstered by what it sees as recent foreign-policy successes. Last year an international tribunal ruled against China’s claims to sovereignty in much of the South China Sea. But China promptly persuaded the Philippines, which had brought the case, implicitly to disavow its legal victory, eschew its once-close ties with America and sign a deal accepting vast quantities of Chinese investment. Soon after that Malaysia, another hitherto America-leaning country with maritime claims overlapping those of China, came to a similar arrangement. China’s leaders concluded that, despite the tribunal’s ruling, 2016 had been a good year for them in the South China Sea.
It was certainly a notable one for Mr Xi’s most ambitious foreign policy, called the “Belt and Road Initiative”. The scheme involves infrastructure investment along the old Silk Road between China and Europe. The value of contracts signed under the scheme came within a whisker of $1trn last year—not bad for something that only started in 2013. Chinese exports to the 60-odd Belt and Road countries overtook those to America and the European Union. In May Mr Xi is due to convene a grand summit of the countries to celebrate and advertise a project that could one day rival transatlantic trade in importance.
But talk of “guiding globalisation” and a “China solution” does not mean China is turning its back on the existing global order or challenging American leadership of it across the board. China is a revisionist power, wanting to expand influence within the system. It is neither a revolutionary power bent on overthrowing things, nor a usurper, intent on grabbing global control.
China is the third-largest donor to the UN’s budget after America and Japan (see chart) and is the second-largest contributor, after America, to the UN’s peacekeeping. Last year China chaired a summit of the Group of 20 largest economies—it has an above-average record of complying with the G20’s decisions. Recently it has stepped up its multilateral commitments. In 2015 it secured the adoption of the yuan as one of the IMF’s five reserve currencies. It has set up two financial institutions, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank, which are modelled on traditional ones such as the World Bank. Global rules on trade and finance, it seems, are too important for Mr Xi not to defend.
China is becoming a more active participant in the UN, but it is not trying to dominate it. It reacts to, rather than initiates, sanctions policy towards North Korea. And despite its own extensive anti-terrorist operations at home, it shows little interest in joining, let alone leading, operations against Islamic State.
There are domestic constraints on Mr Xi’s ambitions. China’s vast bureaucracy is resistant to change in foreign policy, as in everything else. During a recent trip to Australia the foreign minister, Wang Yi, said China had “no intention of leading anybody”. He was not contradicting Mr Xi, but neither was he echoing the president’s desire to guide a new world order. Ding Yifang of the Institute of World Development, a think-tank in Beijing, is similarly cautious about the China solution. “We don’t have universal ideals,” he says. “We are not that ambitious.”
Globalism with Chinese characteristics
So what might China’s unassuming new assertiveness mean in practice? A template can be found in climate-change policy. China was one of the main obstacles to a global climate agreement in 2008, but now its words are the lingua franca of climate-related diplomacy. Parts of a deal on carbon emissions between Mr Xi and Barack Obama were incorporated wholesale into the Paris climate treaty of 2016. China helped determine how that accord defines what are known as “common and differentiated responsibilities”, namely how much each country should be responsible for cutting emissions.
As chairman of the G20 last year, Mr Xi made the fight against climate change a priority for the group. But China’s clout at that time was bolstered by its accord with America. Now Mr Trump is beginning to dismantle his predecessor’s climate policies. Li Shou of Greenpeace says China is therefore preparing to go it alone as Mr Xie, the climate envoy, said in January that it was prepared to do. It may be that a “China solution” to climate change will be the first practical application of the term.
Soon after Mr Xi’s speech in Davos, Zhang Jun, a senior Foreign Ministry official, put his finger on China’s changing place in the world. “I would say it is not China rushing to the front,” he told a newspaper in Hong Kong, “but rather the front-runners have stepped back, leaving the place to China.” But officials have far fewer qualms than Deng did about being at the front. “If China is required to play a leadership role,” says Mr Zhang, “it will assume its responsibilities.”
Liu Fenghai has made his fortune in the ivory trade. There was a time when he had 25 craftsmen working exclusively on elephant ivory at his factory in the northern city of Harbin.
He would buy the raw ivory and then have it turned into the pendants, paperweights and statues that once filled shelf after shelf in his shop, as well as the much larger, elaborately carved whole tusks proudly displayed on plinths of their own.
At the height of the market some of them could sell for many thousands of dollars.
Now, to the delight of conservationists everywhere, China is calling a halt to this lucrative end of a brutal and bloody trade.
But Mr Liu, as you might expect, is far from happy. “I feel sad,” the 48-year-old said. “I don’t feel good at all. This tradition has been carried on for thousands of years but now it will die in the hands of our generation.”
“I feel like a sinner,” he added. “In a few hundred years time, we will be seen as the sinners of history.”
Mr Liu says he will mourn the end of the legal ivory trade in ChinaIn fact, although ivory carving can indeed be traced back centuries in China, for much of that time it existed only as a niche art form and the Chinese made barely a dent in the global ivory trade.Throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries, the mass slaughter of elephants was carried out at the hands of the European colonial powers and then later North American entrepreneurs.
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Western demand for ivory ornaments, jewellery, piano keys and billiard balls helped reduce the African elephant population from more than 20 million in the year 1800 to just two million by 1960.
Then came Japan’s post-war economic rise and the slaughter was propelled through the 1970s and ’80s, by which time the elephant was teetering on the brink of extinction.
It was only with the international ban on the trading of elephant ivory in 1989 that the species was given a brief respite.
Once again though, it was another major shift in the global financial order that signalled further disaster – China’s emergence as a major economic power.
An explosion of wealth coupled with the Communist Party’s unique blend of corruption and crony capitalism made ivory the perfect repository of value, both for ostentatious displays of success and discrete gift giving.
The facts and figures behind China’s ivory tradeAn art form became an industry and in a few short years China began to account for up to 70% of the global demand for ivory.
Today, as a result of the surge in poaching, the elephant is once again facing complete annihilation, with estimates suggesting there are fewer than half a million left in Africa.
There may be no more wild populations within a decade.
If Mr Liu believes it is a sin to lose an ancient art, how much more of a sin to lose an ancient species in the name of the mass-produced – often machine-carved – ivory tat that makes up the bulk of the products on sale in China today?
Not a moment too soon, the Chinese government has decided which side of history it wants to be on.A ‘game changer’
This week, by the end of business hours on Friday, almost half of China’s authorised, government-approved ivory factories and shops will have closed their doors for good.
A team of officials from the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) will be on hand to witness the shutdown.
The rest of China’s legal trade will be gone by the end of the year – a total of 34 factories and 138 shops.
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It is a deeply symbolic moment, a “game changer” according to campaigners, with one of the most high profile and vocal, the UK’s Prince William, publically applauding the Chinese government’s decision as “an important commitment”.
No small irony, perhaps, given the role the prince’s own ancestors played in promoting the trade, with more than 1,000 ivory items still held in the royal collection.
China’s move could put pressure on other markets where ivory is traded, like Hong Kong
Estimates suggest poaching has reduced the African elephant population to less than half a million
Campaigners say China’s move could be a “game-changer” for elephants.
But closing China’s carving workshops and retail outlets is so important, it is argued, not only for its own sake, but because this legal business acts as cover for a much bigger black market trade.In 2008 China was allowed, under the Cites system, to buy a 62-tonne stockpile of seized African ivory.
The theory was that, with careful monitoring and a system of certificates, the stockpile would provide a controlled supply to China’s factories and therefore dampen demand for illegal ivory by helping to keep prices low.
It has had the opposite effect. It appears to have in fact stimulated demand by giving consumers the green light that ivory was ok to buy. Coupled with poor enforcement, corruption and fraudulent certifications a huge amount of illegal, newly poached ivory flooded into China and on to the market, some of it under the guise of Cites authorised stock.
Demand rose further and prices, rather than going down, skyrocketed. Research suggests that the illegal stockpile of ivory in China today may stand at 1,000 tonnes or more, far in excess of that supposedly well regulated and controlled quantity purchased back in 2008.
Now, although there are undoubtedly other factors at play – not least the slowing Chinese economy and the crackdown on official graft and gift giving – the announcement of the ban on the legal trade does appear to be helping to bring the speculative frenzy to an end.
Consumers and dealers have been sent a strong signal that the game is up and prices of ivory have recently been dropping, from more than $2,000 (£1,611) per kg in 2014 to around $700 per kilo today.
Big questions remain, however. As in other markets, like the UK, the Chinese announcement appears to allow for the continued trading of antiques, which campaigners fear may act as a loophole.
Meanwhile, the government has not said what it will do with the remaining stockpile of legal ivory and how it will prevent it from leaking on to the black market.
And while the new policy may well drive the illegal trade further underground, controlling it will still depend on the resources given to law enforcement agencies.
Our own research suggests a less than wholehearted willingness to tackle wildlife crime.
For more than two decades, trade in rhino horn has been completely prohibited in China. Selling, purchasing, transporting or mailing it has been punishable by harsh sentences, including life imprisonment for the worst offenders.
And yet, via a quick search on the internet, traders can be found openly offering rhino horn for sale as whole pieces, as jewellery or for use in Chinese medicine.
The risk attached to both buying and selling appears to be small.
“Trust me, I’ve never had any problems before,” one of the online vendors said, after sending us pictures of rhino horn bracelets.
The subtleties of soft powerChina is spending billions to make the world love itCan money buy that sort of thing? From the print edition IMAGES of China beam out from a giant electronic billboard on Times Square in the heart of New York city: ancient temples, neon-lit skyscrapers and sun-drenched paddy fields. Xinhua, a news service run by the Chinese government, is proclaiming the “new perspective” offered by its English-language television channel. In Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, children play beneath hoardings advertising swanky, Chinese-built apartment complexes in the city.
Buyers are promised “a new lifestyle”. Across the world, children study Mandarin in programmes funded by the Chinese state. Some of them in Delaware don traditional Chinese robes and bow to their teachers on Confucius Day.
For many years, shoppers around the world have been used to China’s omnipresence: “Made in China” has long been the commonest label on the goods they buy. More recently, however, the Chinese government has been trying to sell the country itself as a brand—one that has the ability to attract people from other countries in the way that America does with its culture, products and values. A decade ago the Communist Party declared a new goal: to build “soft power”, as a complement to its rapidly growing economic and military strength. It spends some $10bn a year on the project, according to David Shambaugh of George Washington University—one of the most extravagant programmes of state-sponsored image-building the world has ever seen. Mr Shambaugh reckons that America spent less than $670m on its “public diplomacy” in 2014.
The party borrowed the idea of soft power from an American academic, Joseph Nye, who coined the term in 1990. Mr Nye argued that hard power alone was not enough to wield influence in the world. It had to come from “the soft power of attraction”, too. China was acutely conscious that it lacked it. Many in the West were deeply suspicious of its authoritarian politics. In Asia people feared China’s emergence as a regional hegemon. China knew it could use its economic might to win over governments, such as by building roads, railways and stadiums for them. But Mr Nye saw those kind of investments as expressions of hard power. China decided it needed more of the soft kind as well, so that foreigners would feel naturally inclined to do its bidding.After several years of debate about soft power, or ruan shili, among Chinese academics, China’s then president, Hu Jintao, spoke up on the topic in 2007, telling a party congress that China needed to build it. Mr Hu’s successor, Xi Jinping, has stepped up the effort. In 2013, about a year after he took over as China’s leader, Mr Xi convened a meeting of the ruling Politburo to discuss soft power. Its members agreed that it was a vital ingredient of Mr Xi’s “Chinese dream of the great revival of the Chinese nation”—the term “Chinese dream” being one of Mr Xi’s favourites.
Mr Xi has made himself promoter-in-chief of this new form of power (helped when he travels abroad by the highly visible presence of his elegant, smiling wife). His efforts to boost it were on display at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, where he won plaudits for extolling globalisation and calling for unity in the fight against climate change. Even Mao Zedong, who enjoyed a cult status abroad among some left-wing academics, put far less work into winning over foreigners.
Raise the red lanterns
According to Mr Nye, whom Chinese officials acknowledge as a guru on the topic, there are three main ways that a country can gain soft power: through its political values, its culture and its foreign policies. But winning on all fronts is not easy. The party knows that its ideology has little chance these days of attracting others. Arguably China’s soft power was stronger in the 1950s and 1960s when Mao, a brutal but charismatic dictator, espoused a socialist Utopia that inspired many people around the world. Nowadays some Chinese academics speak of a “China model”—the winning combination, in their view, of authoritarian politics and somewhat liberal economics (with a big role for the state). But Chinese leaders prefer to gloss over the politics when describing their country to foreigners. In 2008 the opening ceremony of the Olympics Games in Beijing barely hinted at the party or its principles.
Instead, China’s soft-power strategy focuses mainly on promoting its culture and trying to give the impression that its foreign policy is, for such a big country, unusually benign. The culture that the party has chosen for foreign consumption is mainly one that was formed long before communism. Confucius, condemned by Mao as a peddler of feudal thought, is now being proffered as a sage with a message of harmony. Since 2004 China has established some 500 government-funded “Confucius Institutes” in 140 countries. These offer language classes, host dance troupes and teach Chinese cooking. Many of them are on campuses (an activity involving one, at the University of Delaware, is pictured). China has also set up more than 1,000 “Confucius Classroom” arrangements with foreign schools, providing them with teachers, materials and funding to help children learn Mandarin.
China hopes foreigners will take up some of its traditional customs. For example, it has set out to make Chinese new year as popular as Christmas. In 2010 the government put on fewer than 100 new-year events in foreign countries. This year it sponsored some 2,000 of them in 140 countries to mark the year of the chicken. Red-coloured Chinese lanterns swayed in city streets thousands of miles from the home of the lunar festival. The Communist Party wants China’s cultural presence to reach everywhere: it recently staged a fashion show in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, featuring the qipao, a sleeveless dress that gained popularity among fashionable Chinese women in the 1920s.
China’s diplomats have been busy trying to convince foreigners that China’s rise is nothing to fear. Mr Xi speaks of a “new type of great-power relations”, suggesting that China can co-exist with America without the kind of rivalry that caused the two world wars. His “One Belt, One Road” scheme—involving Chinese investment in infrastructure across Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe—aims to reinforce China’s image as a country eager to use its newfound wealth for the good of the world (see article).
To help craft such an image, China has been investing massively in its foreign-language media. Xinhua, the government’s main news agency, opened nearly 40 new foreign bureaus between 2009 and 2011, bringing its total to 162—at a time when cash-strapped media organisations elsewhere were shutting them down (it hopes to have 200 by 2020). The number of Xinhua correspondents based overseas doubled during that time. In December the state broadcaster rebranded its international media service, calling it China Global Television Network. Its six channels aim to compete with global services such as the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera. (Mr Xi urged the network to “tell the China story well, spread China’s voice” and “showcase China’s role as a builder of world peace”.) China Daily, the government’s main English-language mouthpiece, pays for inserts in newspapers such as the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.
The government is trying to extend its reach online, too. Last year a government-affiliated media group spent 30m yuan ($4.35m) to launch a free, English-language website called Sixth Tone. It tries to sell China’s message by being more sassy, and sometimes more critical, than other state media. With the party’s blessing, private companies are getting involved, too. In 2015 Alibaba, China’s biggest e-commerce firm, paid $260m for the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s flagship English-language newspaper which has incisive—and often critical—reporting on Chinese politics. The deal has raised fears that Alibaba will try to turn the newspaper into a cheerleader for the party. China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, is trying to buy film studios and production companies in Hollywood, the epicentre of American culture (China’s clampdown on capital outflows may have been frustrating his efforts recently—earlier this month he withdrew a $1bn bid for Dick Clark Productions, an iconic Hollywood firm).
China wants its message to be clearly visible in the heartland of America’s capitalist culture. It began advertising itself in Times Square in 2011 (see picture). Last year Xinhua used its billboard there to broadcast a video 120 times a day for two weeks defending China’s territorial ambitions over disputed rocks in the South China Sea. Sometimes the party uses covert means to sway foreign opinion. In 2015 an investigation by Reuters, a news agency, revealed that a Chinese state broadcaster, China Radio International, controlled at least 33 radio stations in 14 countries, including the United States, but was using front companies to mask its ties with them. Reuters said the stations avoided airing anything that might portray China in a negative light.
Sweet and sour
But when Mr Nye wrote about soft power, he suggested that governments could not manufacture it. He argued that much of America’s had sprung from its civil society: “everything from universities and foundations to Hollywood and pop culture”. The party is distrustful of civil society; its soft-power building has been almost entirely state-led. China has tried to combine elements of soft power with the hard power of its illiberal politics. Far from enhancing China’s global image, this approach has often served to undermine it.
Take the Confucius Institutes and Classrooms. In 2007 a senior party leader described these as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.” But many cash-strapped universities have gratefully supplanted their own language courses with ones led (even funded) by Confucius Institutes. In some places Confucius Institutes have replaced or started up entirely new China-studies programmes. Most of them do not actively push the party line, but Confucius Institutes usually skate over sensitive political topics such as the crushing of pro-democracy protests in 1989.
They often attract controversy. In 2013 McMaster University in Canada severed ties with its on-campus Confucius Institute after one of the institute’s employees was forbidden to follow Falun Gong, a spiritual sect that is banned in China (the institute subsequently closed down). At a European Chinese-studies conference in 2014, the Chinese head of Confucius Institutes worldwide ordered pages referring to a Taiwanese educational foundation to be ripped from each programme. Such attempts at censorship only help to reinforce Western misgivings about China’s politics and undermine its soft power.
China’s efforts to use its global media to paint a rosier picture of the country also face a tough challenge. Its television networks employ foreign anchors (and plenty of panda footage) to try to win audiences abroad. But foreigners can also see the Chinese state’s heavy hand, such as when it mobilises pro-China crowds to drown out protesters during visits by Chinese leaders, or when it arm-twists foreign politicians not to complain about China’s human-rights record (Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese human-rights activist who was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 2010, languishes in a Chinese jail, rarely mentioned in public by Western leaders). In February an official at the Chinese embassy in London warned Durham University not to host a vocal critic of the party: a former Miss World contestant who was born in China and raised in Canada—the country she represented.
As for China’s message of peace to other countries, many in Asia are far from convinced. Its grabs for territory in the East and South China Seas have fuelled widespread resentment. The rapid expansion of its navy and air force, and its build-up of missiles, have sown anxiety in America, too.
China’s soft-power push has made some gains. In global opinion polls respondents from Africa tend to be more positive about China than people from other regions. That is partly because of the money China has poured into the continent—in Angola every professional football match is staged in one of four, Chinese-built, stadiums. Younger people everywhere often view China more favourably than older people (see chart). This is a sign, perhaps, that the country is capable of being cool—who does not get a buzz out of Shanghai’s skyline? Portland Communications, a public-relations firm, has conducted surveys of public attitudes towards 30 countries—most of them, apart from China, rich ones. China ranked bottom in 2015. Last year it crept two places higher, above the Czech Republic and Argentina.
But money has not bought China anything like the love it would like. A year before Mr Xi took over, just over half of Americans had positive impressions of China, according to the Pew Research Centre. By the end of 2016 that share had fallen to 38% (see chart). Pew found a similar trend in other countries. In 14 out of 19 nations it polled between 2011 and 2013, views of China became less friendly.
No thanks to the party
China’s rapid economic development has won it many admirers. But the social and environmental costs of this have also produced many critics. A country can have soft power and smog as well (America has had plenty of both in much of its recent history). But China’s air pollution undermines its soft power: it is widely seen as evidence of a callous government that cares more about making the country richer than the health of its people or the planet. Many foreigners now associate the country with smog—an important reason why 37% fewer international tourists visited China in 2015 than in 2007. (Other reasons for the drop included the cost and increasing hassle involved in obtaining visas, and the yuan’s exchange rate.) Mr Xi’s eagerness to join the fight against global warming is partly driven by a desire to regain the soft power China has lost owing to its environmental horrors.
Some people in China privately grumble that the party itself, with its intolerance of dissent, is the biggest obstacle to the country’s soft-power development. Since taking office, Mr Xi’s relentless efforts to clamp down on civil society have hardly helped. He has also been trying to strengthen the party’s control over the arts: in 2014 he said they should promote socialism rather than be “slaves to the market”. That is unlikely to help China emulate the success of America’s television shows, which project an attractive vision of American culture into people’s living rooms the world over.
Few people outside China want to watch its programmes, which are often thinly disguised propaganda. The success of China’s most successful film globally, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, a co-production involving American companies, has not been repeated since its release in 2000. “Kung Fu Panda”, an American-made animated film series, has perhaps done more to boost China’s soft power than any movie made by the country itself. Small wonder that China was keen to enter into a co-production for the third in the series, which came out last year.
State-controlled media in China have reported with relish on commentary in America suggesting that Donald Trump’s presidency may deal a heavy blow to the United States’ soft power. If that arises from the appeal of a country’s culture, political ideals and foreign policies, as Mr Nye reckons, then America’s soft power is threatened in two of these domains. China’s political system may not exert much of a global pull, but it could begin to look a bit more attractive to some people when compared with America’s.
China has some attributes that it can play to its advantage. For example, it has no colonial history beyond its current borders and has started no wars in nearly 40 years. In a turbulent world, China’s leadership appears relatively stable and predictable (at least to the casual observer—Mr Xi’s determination to crush dissent suggests he sees serious threats to his power).
When Mr Xi became the first Chinese president to address the global elite at Davos, only days before Mr Trump was inaugurated, he appeared to sense an opportunity to bask in a rare glow. But the upswing in China’s soft power is likely to be limited. Chinese officials themselves quietly ask whether China’s strategy can ever succeed. In 2015 a senior official, Zhou Hong, wondered aloud what state-sponsored soft power could achieve. “Without the broad participation of the people,” he wrote in the party’s main mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, “the external propagation of culture not only loses its meaning, but also loses its intrinsic energy.” Mr Zhou was right about the Chinese people’s role. China will find it hard to win friends and influence nations so long as it muzzles its best advocates.
Some of China’s largest food suppliers have pulled Brazilian beef and poultry from their shelves in the first concrete sign that a deepening scandal over Brazil’s meat processing industry is hitting business in its top export market.
The moves by Sun Art Retail Group (6808.HK), China’s biggest hypermarket chain, and the Chinese arms of global retail giants Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N) and Metro AG (MEOG.DE) come days after China temporarily suspended Brazilian meat imports.
Safety fears over Brazilian meat have grown since police accused inspectors in the world’s biggest exporter of beef and poultry of taking bribes to allow sales of rotten and salmonella-tainted meats.
A spokeswoman for Sun Art Retail, which operates 400 Chinese hypermarkets, said on Wednesday the chain had removed beef supplied by top Brazilian exporters BRF SA (BRFS3.SA) and JBS SA (JBSS3.SA) from its shelves from Monday. Brazilian beef accounts for less than 10 percent of Sun Art’s beef supply, she said.
Wal-Mart has also removed Brazilian meat products from its stores, said a person familiar with the matter. He declined to be quoted because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Germany’s Metro has withdrawn Brazilian chicken legs and wings from its Chinese stores, said a manager, who declined to be named as he was not allowed to speak to media. The retailer, with 84 stores in China, does not sell Brazilian beef.
While Brazilian officials sought late on Tuesday to reassure consumers that the investigation had revealed only isolated incidents of sanitary problems, the reaction by Chinese retailers suggests that the probe could have far-reaching repercussions for the world’s top meat exporter.
Hong Kong, the second-biggest buyer of Brazilian meat last year, has also issued a ban on imports, following similar steps by Japan, Canada, Mexico and Switzerland.