Gaza and how it came to this, again; the T-word is finally admitted in Washington. By Hamish McDonald.

Xi keeps rubbery grip on corruption purge

Former Politburo member Xu Caihou has been arrested on corruption charges.
Former Politburo member Xu Caihou has been arrested on corruption charges.
Condom sales are down in China by a million a day, apparently due to the anti-corruption drive mounted by Communist Party chief and state president Xi Jinping. 

While we shouldn’t be worried the broad masses are not getting any − it’s not that much off total yearly sales of nine billion − it seems party members and officials are toning down the carousing while Xi gets to a critical point in his campaign. Plummeting imports of French cognac are another vital indicator.

In recent weeks, Xi has knocked off two very big “tigers” in the Chinese system, along with thousands of “flies”, or small offenders. First, the arrest of a vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xu Caihou, amid publication of the pharaonic wealth amassed by the People’s Liberation Army general. Xu had been a member of the party’s Politburo, its second-tier leadership body. Then last week, the purge moved into the inner ring, the Politburo Standing Committee, with the arrest of its recently retired member Zhou Yongkang. Until now, past and present standing committee members have had immunity for this kind of thing.

The website of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the instrument of the purge, gets up to two million page views every day, the magazine Caixin reports. As well as the public security (police) network, one of Zhou’s fiefdoms was the oil sector. A score of his allies in top executive ranks at the huge China National Petroleum Corporation have been arrested, disrupting investments in Canada, Iran and Indonesia. Caixin reports that all senior executives now have to report in every day. If they are not heard from, it is assumed they’ve been arrested and a replacement is moved up.

But is this as far as Xi goes? To strike a systemic blow at corruption, Xi would need to go after many more tigers. Maybe he will: on July 31, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection announced it had sent a team of inspectors to Shanghai, famously the power base of party elder Jiang Zemin.

What is our interest in all of this? First, the purge puts the frighteners on power groups likely to oppose the “rebalancing” of the Chinese economy that Xi has set as his urgent goal. That involves transferring wealth to households and away from the state sector, the trough for major corruption, and easing the transfer of population from villages to cities. 

“Some see the campaign and the government’s latest market reforms, such as the effort to find private investors for certain state-company assets, as two sides of the same coin,” Caixin noted. In the short term, that means subdued demand for our iron ore and other metals. China’s growth has slowed to an official 7.5 per cent a year. The International Monetary Fund says it could safely go a bit lower. But if the rebalancing is successful, it reduces the risk of a major financial implosion in China, which would cause an instant recession here.

Second, Xi is distracting the old guard, and the PLA, with stepped-up nationalism. There are the assertive moves in disputed maritime zones; targeting of foreign investors for alleged abuses (McDonald’s for “tainted” meat, Starbucks for overpricing, and GlaxoSmithKline and Microsoft for monopolistic practices); and media campaigns against Western cultural influences from “universal” values to Spiderman and dog ownership. 

We’re the whipping boy while Xi gets on with it.

1 . Gaza and how it came to this, again

Gaza went quiet again with the latest attempt at a ceasefire; let’s hope it lasts this time.

While we think about where things go from here, the International Crisis Group’s Middle East specialist Nathan Thrall has provided an illuminating study of how the latest catastrophe happened. It’s in the London Review of Books and worth a read for anyone moved by the casualties and puzzled by the logic of the two sides. 

It started in the testy aftermath of an earlier ceasefire, in November 2012, when Hamas agreed to stop firing rockets into Israel and Israel said it would stop aerial strikes and assassinations and ease its blockade. It held, in large part, but Israel was cautious about lifting the trade barriers. Then, in July last year, the Egyptian Army seized power and cut the cross-border tunnels into Gaza that sustained the population and provided Hamas with the customs duties to pay its administration. Foreign allies turned away from Hamas: Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah demanding support for the Alawite regime in Syria, Turkey preoccupied internally. Gaza descended into deeper misery, to the point where early this year Hamas agreed to the best of several bad options: handing over control to the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority it had ousted in the 2006 elections. But that brought little change. 

The abduction and murder of three Israeli students in the West Bank on June 12 ignited the explosive mix. Israel blamed the Hamas leadership, though Thrall says several Israeli officials believe the crime was an unauthorised one at low level. Israeli and Palestinian Authority agencies arrested Hamas figures in the West Bank, including about 50 of the 1027 former prisoners released in 2011 in return for the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The retaliatory murder of a Palestinian boy in East Jerusalem, allegedly by six Israelis now under arrest, further inflamed Palestinians. Protests broke out across the West Bank and non-Hamas factions in Gaza resumed firing rockets. Seeing a chance to capitalise on the Fatah leadership’s co-operation with Israel, Hamas called for a third intifada (uprising) and joined in the rocketing. 

All sides are battered and bruised. The Israeli Army has suffered some 60 combat deaths, without completely destroying the Hamas tunnel network. Hamas has failed to spark an intifada, or capture a single Israeli soldier it might use as a bargaining chip. The Palestinian Authority hasn’t shown it can deliver the goods in Gaza, or stop Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The Americans have looked helpless, with the latest truce brokered by Egypt. 

“The obvious solution is to let the new Palestinian government return to Gaza and reconstruct it,” Thrall writes. “Israel can claim it is weakening Hamas by strengthening its enemies. Hamas can claim it won the recognition of the new government and a significant lifting of the blockade. This solution would of course have been available to Israel, the US, Egypt and the PA in the weeks and months before the war began, before so many lives were shattered.”

2 . The T-word – truth – will finally out

The T-word is finally admitted in Washington.

The US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s “hostile interrogations” of terrorism suspects after the September 11, 2001 attacks avoids using the term “torture” but describes the techniques as such, according to the Associated Press, which also reports the US Department of State has endorsed the committee findings.

But the POTUS himself, Barack Obama, who stopped waterboarding and other interrogation violence on taking office, has stepped up to the awkward word. “In the aftermath of 9/11 we did some things that were wrong,” Obama said at a press conference on August 1. “We tortured some folks.” It’s an admission that will reverberate, including in Canberra, where officials have long insisted the US ally did not resort to torture. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 9, 2014 as "Xi keeps rubbery grip on corruption purge".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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