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Sensemaker: The first 100

Thursday 1 July 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Turkey formally withdrew from the Istanbul Convention, a 2011 international treaty to prevent violence against women.
  • Xi Jinping wore a Mao-style jacket to address his party in a speech in which he vowed the world would never be allowed to bully China again.
  • Donald Rumsfeld, former US defence secretary and coiner of the “known unknown”, died at 88.

The first 100

The Chinese Communist Party is 100 years old today. Its birthday is being celebrated at home with fireworks, pageantry, history lessons, a speech from President Xi Jinping and attack helicopters flying in the shape of the number 100. Abroad, it’s being marked with acres of commentary with a clear unifying theme: this is not a communist party like the Soviet one that collapsed in 1991. Brace for another CCP epoch (if not century); for continued Chinese growth; and possibly for war over Taiwan.

This could be the future. But only if Xi is lucky, and only if his eventual successor is cut from the same cloth. No modern authoritarian state has lasted this long. China has serious weaknesses that it works hard to hide, and being out of sight may make them more corrosive rather than less. They include:

Factionalism. Jiang Zemin’s rule (1993-2003) marked the rise of the Shanghai Gang. Under Hu Jintao (2003-13), power was shared between Jiang loyalists and a rival clique drawn from the Chinese Communist Youth League. Xi’s own faction now dominates, but that doesn’t mean the others have vanished. 

  • Rumours of a high-level defection to the US last month may or may not be true, but something prompted Xi to issue a new plea for “loyalty and love for the party” only this week. He reminded members they were expected to “dedicate everything, even your precious life, to the party and the people”.

Corruption. A rolling anti-corruption campaign has led to investigations of more than 200 senior party officials and generals on Xi’s watch, and of thousands of more junior officials every year. The campaign is partly a cover for purging potential political rivals (see ‘Factionalism’ above), but also a sticking plaster for party corruption that remains endemic and heartily resented. Last year Cai Xia, a retired professor from the CCP Central Party School, broke cover to call Xi a “mafia boss” and the party a “political zombie”.

140 members of China’s rubber-stamp parliament have personal fortunes of more than two billion Yuan ($320 million), the Economist reports. No one believes political connections did not help build them.

Taiwan. The slow-motion crushing of democracy in Hong Kong may be intended as a rehearsal for reunification with Taiwan, which Xi has said he will incorporate into Greater China by force if necessary. There is political capital to be made among Chinese nationalists with these threats, but the risks in following through on them would be immense. Taiwan is a fully-functioning democracy with a free press, free speech, three times Hong Kong’s population and twice its GDP. Xi’s sabre-rattling across the Taiwan Strait will also unite the West against him at least as effectively as his mass incarceration of the Uyghurs of Xinjiang. 

The CCP is an ideological colossus that by dint of mass indoctrination (and murder, during the Cultural Revolution and since) has helped turn China into an economic one too. That does not mean it’s destined to rule for another century. Far from it. Xi should enjoy the party while he can.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Zero Covid
Kim Jong-un is unhappy with his officials. At an expanded meeting of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ party, he said their neglect of important party decisions in a health crisis “caused a grave incident that poses a huge crisis to the safety of the nation and its people”. Bureaucrats showed “chronic irresponsibility and incompetence”. It’s unclear what exactly he was referring to. After all, the dictatorship is still claiming zero – yes, zero – cases of Covid since the start of the pandemic. But at the same time it has closed itself off from the world even more completely than before in an apparent attempt to control the virus. The increased isolation has likely only made things worse. Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, tells the Financial Times (£). Kim’s statement “could pave the way to the self-isolated country finally accepting international pandemic assistance”. North Korea has essentially followed a New Zealand Covid strategy, without the transparency or the world-class science and healthcare. If nothing else it will be an epidemiological case study. 

New things technology, science, engineering

Amazon Khan fight
When Joe Biden appointed Lina Khan to the chair of the Federal Trade Commission, it seemed like a turning point in the regulation of big tech firms. Khan, a 32-year-old lawyer, established her reputation with a paper called “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox”. In it she argued that antitrust regulation was outdated because it only allowed policymakers to intervene based on price rises, while companies like Amazon keep prices low but dominate entire sectors of the economy. Now Amazon has filed a request with the Federal Trade Commission seeking Khan’s recusal from antitrust investigations of the company because of “her long track record of detailed pronouncements about Amazon, and her repeated proclamations that Amazon has violated the antitrust laws”. Heaven forbid that an expert should opine.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Putin problem
After months of calling Russia’s response to Covid a success story, Vladimir Putin went on his annual television call-in show and said of the virus: “It’s dangerous, dangerous to your life… the vaccine is not dangerous.” Russia’s official number of new daily cases doubled to more than 20,000 in recent weeks, and this is probably an underestimate. The latest wave is spreading largely because only 15 per cent of Russians have received at least one vaccine dose. It’s not a supply problem. Russia produces four different Covid vaccines. Its Sputnik V is considered safe and effective, but Russians are avoiding it and the other shots. Why? They don’t trust the authorities and, for months, they heard Putin say that the virus had been defeated.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Hyperthermia Americana
We are going to keep on about the heatwave in the Pacific Northwest, because it’s deadly serious and potentially a reality check that actually changes policy and behaviour. In British Columbia, heat records have been broken three days in a row. The province’s chief coroner recorded a spike in deaths running into the hundreds which she thinks can be attributed to the extreme weather. Oregon’s medical examiner’s office attributed 63 deaths over the same period to the heat. Washington state officials reported nearly a dozen deaths due to hyperthermia on Wednesday alone. “Climate change is increasing the frequency, intensity and duration of heat waves,” Kristie Ebi, a professor in the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the University of Washington, told the New York Times ($). “When you look at this heat wave, it is so far outside the range of normal.” This is all happening much sooner than even pessimists expected.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Criminal organisations
New York prosecutors filed criminal charges against the Trump Organization and its chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg. The charges are sealed, but the Guardian reports that they involve alleged tax violations related to the company’s benefits for top executives, including cars and apartments. No charges are expected to be brought against Donald Trump himself, but this case jeopardises his return to politics and prosecutors are still investigating allegations of real-estate price manipulation and “hush money” paid on Trump’s behalf to women who said they had sex with the former president. Prosecutors have been pressuring Weisselberg to cooperate. That they have now charged him suggests he thinks he has a fighting chance.

Thanks for reading, and please share this around. 

Sophia Sun

Giles Whittell

Photographs Getty Images

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