A Split in the Party? Contradictory reports raise questions on China's economic direction

Ed Bithell

When asked to name a country with a lively political debate in its newspapers, few would name China. And so, when even indirectly expressed, political tensions in the leadership may indicate serious fault lines.

An anonymous but "authoritative person" was interviewed on Monday in Communist Party standard bearer the People's Daily, playing down expectations of any imminent economic upswing. The source leaned heavily on "supply-side structural reform" and reduced state intervention in markets, as well as debt-led growth, rather unlike the emphasis from Premier Li Keqiang in March that failing to meet growth targets was "impossible for me to say". 

It is thus easy for the editorial to be interpreted as an attack on Li and the State Council's management of the economy, with inflationary measures in place throughout early 2016 for growth that is now flagging. However, it can also be read as instead supporting the wider message of the key reform meeting of the 3rd Plenum in 2013, with its commitment to market-driven growth. Whichever the true intent (and it may well be a combination of the two, if not more, factors), the article has widely been taken as a move by actors loyal to President Xi Jinping, who has made further moves towards greater overall control of the Party with proposals to abolish the powerful Politburo Standing Committee by 2017.

"You can’t have both 6.5 percent growth and painless reform, even in China" - Michael Every, Rabobank HK

In its phrasing, the article ties in closely to recent policy statements by Xi himself, who the same day hosted a meeting in which he emphasised again "supply-side structural reform", a policy dedicated to state-sponsored improvement of the economy through efficiency, quality and cutting excess capacity - and explicitly not neoliberal in its outlook. Last week, he outlined his vision for improving Chinese economic performance, bemoaning that "the problem in China is not about insufficient demand or lack of demand, in fact, demands in China have changed, but supplies haven’t changed accordingly". In managing private companies and state-owned enterprises to meet the new demand, says Xi, supply-side structural reform will be achieved.

However, commentators both within and without China have been questioning this official narrative, that until now has been consistent from all parties - that the economy will be both radically transformed and also continue to comfortably grow. "We have the promise of a painless reform process with no mass bankruptcies or layoffs, and without radical liberalisation of the services sector to boost growth there," said Michael Every, head of financial markets research at Rabobank Group in Hong Kong, back in March. "You can’t have both 6.5 percent growth and painless reform, even in China." It appears that despite Li's recent promises of a "win-win" growth projection, Xi is determined to make sure his reform agenda remains the top priority.

The State Council, however, issued a rebuttal the same day, asserting that growth remained stable, and Li personally hit back with a statement framing the economic future in terms of necessary evil, declaring that the reforms "must be endured for the country, for the good of the people". While these comments hardly seem to be the inflammatory rhetoric we expect of political rivals in the West, even before the most recent personal politics of the EU referendum and US presidential election, such subtle variations in official policy statements can reflect major differences in viewpoint, especially between the marked ideologue Xi and his reserved and technocratic premier. In a time marked by the anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, and state galas hailing Xi as the heir of Mao, such tensions in the Chinese leadership may merely be the beginning of major storms to come. 

Brazil’s Political Upheaval: Too many greased palms makes for one sticky situation

Leo House

Black and white, good and evil. Corrupt president Dilma Rousseff and her crooked communist cronies at the Workers' Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT) cling to power in the face of mass protests calling for her impeachment. Mainstream coverage of the Brazilian political crisis has been overly simplistic, and some even argue that this is purposeful misinformation, not naïveté.

Brazil is undergoing its worst financial downturn in decades, but it’s important to understand that crises of all sorts are piling up.

In March the World Health Organisation revealed that in Brazil a suspected 6,480 babies had been affected by the Zika epidemic.

Meanwhile fraudulent state oil giant Petrobras is beginning to crumble under the weight of its own Wolf of Wall Street-esque scandal. The company’s officials have pegged the overall total bribes given at nearly $3 billion. The anti-corruption investigation, named ‘Operation Car-Wash’, has revealed that bricks of cash were delivered with extravagant gifts of ‘Rolex watches, $3,000 bottles of wine, yachts, helicopters and prostitutes’. Petrobras has lost more than half its value over the last year. It was one of Brazil’s largest financial products, sold worldwide in emerging-market bonds, and its downfall has caused a huge international loss of faith in Brazilian market stability. Operation Car-Wash has also revealed that $200 million of those bribes were pocketed by members of the ruling PT. Thus the economic crisis feeds the flames of political scandal, just months before the global spotlight is turned to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics in August.

If we take a second look, it becomes clear that the loudest cries for impeachment come not from the masses, but the élite and upper middle class. Brazil’s strongest business lobby, the São Paulo Federation of Industries (FIESP), currently has its headquarters flashing the national anti-Dilma colours yellow and green, and the message ‘Resign now!’ Polls showed that the people who have gathered beneath to protest are significantly older, whiter and richer than the wider population; 40% were over 51 years old, 77% had higher education and 37% earned over £2,200 per month.

It should also be noted that FIESP’s vast sphere of influence covers media conglomerate Globo Group, and the two biggest newspapers in São Paulo. Dilma and the PT are now feeling their full smearing power. People are even avoiding wearing red, afraid being attacked as pro-government socialists.

It could be argued that historical processes are at work here; South America has recently seen a string of political upheavals that ousted long-standing left-wing leaders and brought the centre-right into power. In Venezuela Hugo Chavez’ successor Nicolas Maduro and his United Socialist Party lost control of the National Assembly for the first time in 17 years, to a landslide centre-right opposition victory. Last year in Argentina, president-elect Mauricio Macri pledged that, after the first change in power in 12 years, he would erase Cristina Fernández’s centre-left legacy. In Bolivia, Evo Morales and the Movement for Socialism party lost a referendum to amend the constitution and extend presidential terms. After 13 years of PT supremacy, this generational shift seems to be catching up with Brazil.

The key difference, however, is that in Venezuela and Argentina these transitions occurred via elections. In Brazil this change threatens to happen undemocratically, as Dilma’s opponents are agitating for the dramatic and extralegal means of impeachment. FIESP has a history of anti-left sentiment and political intervention. Adriano Diogo, chairman of the Sao Paulo Truth Commission, explains that: 

“The same way that back in 1964, FIESP financed coup-mongers to organise and throw down elected president Joao Goulart, with arms, buying union leaders and organising free trips for Armed Forces officers, now FIESP is allied with the speaker of the Lower House Cunha in his attempt to throw down Dilma Rousseff”

In 1964 FIESP’s media and business tycoons helped usher in a 21-year military dictatorship, under which Dilma Rousseff was captured and tortured for revolutionary guerrilla activity. 52 years later Brazil’s moneyed right-wing interests are once again wading into the political scene, to challenge a political opponent that has always come out on top in elections. This time they have armed themselves not with soldiers, but with newspapers and Twitter accounts - this change in political weaponry reveals much about how Brazilian democracy has matured.

The crux of the matter is that Dilma seems to be the lesser of innumerable evils; nearly all alternative leaders are embroiled in the same, or an even greater, level of corruption scandal. There is currently no solid evidence of her direct involvement in the Petrobras kickback scheme. If she were impeached, however, her Vice President Michel Temer could not serve as a replacement – he too is allegedly involved in the Petrobras bribery. The leader of the opposition and the impeachment movement, the evangelical and anti-abortion Eduardo Cunha, is even more unfit to govern by these standards. He is subject to multiple active criminal investigations, and has been found to have multiple secret Swiss bank accounts holding alleged bribe money. 

The hypocrisy is laughable: five members of Cunha’s impeachment commission are being criminally investigated themselves, most notably Paulo Maluf. He has been unable to leave Brazil due to an Interpol arrest warrant and a sentence to 3 years in French prison for money laundering.

So, predictably, things are not as black and white as they first seem. Corruption seems to have infected every organ of the Brazilian state, to the point that one is barely fit to judge another. One thing is for sure: Dilma’s impeachment would be a serious subversion of Brazilian democracy, orchestrated chiefly by the ruling classes.

Beyond the Louvre: the French art of the political cartoon

Marianna Hunt

Home to world-famous art galleries such as the Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay, the real place to discover the art on everyone's lips in France is in the pages of its political cartoons and satirical magazines.

French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, takes a "no holds barred" approach to its attacks on politics and society. From right-wing extremists, to the radical left, even entire religions - no sphere is sacred for this anti-institutional, anti-authoritarian magazine. Mocking caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad have appeared regularly in editions and are widely considered the catalyst of an attack on the magazine by Islamist gunmen in which four cartoonists were killed. Nevertheless, the attacks did not dampen the magazine's provocative tilt and recent editions have depicted Muhammad being beheaded by a member of the Islamic State.

Though cartoons enjoy similar influence and popularity in many other countries (the manga craze in Japan for instance), French cartoons are differentiated by their overtly political nature. Moreover, Charlie Hebdo is not a lone exception in this field. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, professor at the University of Glasgow and expert on French cartooning, Laurence Grove declared: “The attack today was really on a national institution”.

Among  the magazine's many, similar rivals, the most well-known is Le Canard Enchaîné, another example of this quintessentially French blend of art, politics, and satire. The provocative nature of these publications have earned them the nickname journaux irresponsables (the irresponsible newspapers).

The phenomenon of using cartoon as a means of political commentary and protest is by no means a new one in French society. In the build-up to the French Revolution of 1789, political cartoons regularly mocked the monarchy. After the revolution, artists even turned against their former idols. This image shows a two-faced monument to Napoleon built upon a pile of skulls and inert bodies. The statue resembles that of the doubled headed Roman god who presided over the beginning and end of wars. This reference to Napoleon's persistent waging of war throughout Europe and the skulls which uphold the memorial suggests that this political leader's legacy was built upon the death and suffering of others - debasing the traditional Napoleonic legend. 

The tradition of this art form as an ideological weapon continued in the 20th century when, in the post-war period, both radically conservative Catholic groups and left-wing Communists attempted to use cartoons as a propaganda means to win over the young people of France.

It seems fitting then that, in the aftermath of the November shootings in Paris, the reaction, both in France and world-wide, was to take up pen and ink and turn the internet into a gallery of cartoons and sketches showing support for the victims.  The Islamic State of Iraq claimed the attacks were a retaliation against the French government's foreign policy and decision to launch air-strikes in Syria - making the political aspect of the attacks unmistakeable. Eiffel Towers made of tears, tricolour flags draped over corpses, and the Statue of Liberty rushing to the rescue of France, were just a number of the artistic commemorations to the deadliest attack on France since World War II. French graphic designer, Jean Jullien's 'Peace for Paris' illustration became a world-wide symbol of unity in the wake of the event. Jullien's rough and simple brushstrokes, illustrating the Eiffel Tower inside a peace sign, were printed on t-shirts and flags, splattered across the press front pages, and shared across the internet by everyday social media and the world's celebrities alike. In total the image was retweeted more than 42,000 times.

The case of French political cartoons illustrates, quite literally, the thorny aspects of freedom of expression and its capacity to be both the fuel of hatred and the instrument of peace. Clearly this "children's" medium, is not one to be treated lightly after all. 

Crimea: Settlement and the problem with historical context in questions of sovereignty

One of the most frequent issues arising from questions of sovereignty is that of historical context vis-a-vis self-determination. When Woodrow Wilson put forward his Fourteen Points at the deliberations in 1918, his support for self-determination (if not consistently applied personally) appeared to many to be a powerful and decisive recognition of the ideal of the nation as ‘sovereign state', as fought for in 19th century literature and revolutions. The idea that a people, united by a common culture, language, or custom, should be able to govern themselves, is an important expression of liberty and its ideal. Stability is of course important, but the freedom of decision making, of self governance, is the very reason for stability in the first place — not the other way around.

What I argue is that the notion of self-determination has been applied inconsistently. Rather than respect the will of a people, commentators and governments often decline to accept self-determination when it conflicts with their own political pragmatic ends, even though this constitutes an inconsistent application of their own ideals.

Take Crimea, for example. Putin’s paramilitary sponsored invasion of Crimea can be seen as a gross violation of international law and a terrifying expression of thuggish, expansionist tendencies reminiscent of the 1930s. Amidst all the condemnation of Putin’s actions, and bewildering support of maverick sympathizers, what was lost was self-determination. Obama said in a 2014 press conference that the “United States supports [the Prime Minister of Ukraine’s] government’s efforts and stands for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and democratic future of Ukraine.” The issue of ‘territorial integrity’ if referring to safety from invasion is absolutely essential. Yet the ambiguity of the term ‘territorial integrity’ is reflective of popular attitudes towards the Ukraine and Crimea – that’s to say that this is black and white: either you sympathize with Russian annexation, or you support Crimea being a part of Ukraine in absolution regardless of consequences. Given controlled and comfortable conditions, it seems right to say that the people of Crimea should be allowed to have a democratic, monitored plebiscite on their sovereignty.

Of course the difficulty with a plebiscite is that status-quo in Crimea has been severely challenged and altered – people have left, fears have been raised, and others have migrated to the region. Principally, fears of Russian intervention or pressure from other powers would undoubtedly affect the outcome of any democratic vote. In that sense, perhaps any democratic vote on Crimean sovereignty, whether to be Ukrainian or Russian, is a flawed venture. With the passing of time perhaps a vote is more conceivable, but equally integration of Crimea into the Russian Federation may simply increase Russification in the region.

Alternatively, perhaps Crimea can serve as an important historical example – a warning of the dangers of rejecting tensions of sovereignty and regional identity, if we take it that that Crimean uncertainty over being part of Ukraine is a factor prior to Euromaidan. The 'possibility' of Crimeans feeling like they should be part of Russia rather Ukraine should be acknowledged and treated seriously, rather than written off as a far-fetched oddity. People all too often forget that Crimea was part of the Russian SFSR until 1954, but also that the Crimea was up to 50% ethnically Tartar in the 1920s – until Stalin’s policy of forced-deportation and violence decimated the population. Foreign policy should not be about suiting the interests of a particular nation, but should serve to peacefully and democratically enable the freedoms of groups of people – particularly when it comes to questions of self-determination.

Europe's Teetering Anchor: the destabilisation of Polish politics and its effect on Europe

On the surface, Poland's parliamentary elections in 2015 seemed to herald a continuation of the progressive and successful political climate that the country has enjoyed in the past few years. 

Poland's politics matter. Its geographical positioning and new-found political clout have made it the anchor between Eastern and Central Europe. Since joining the EU in 2004, the GDP per head in Poland has almost doubled and the country's prosperity, stability, and pro-European leaning in recent years have earned it both respect and sway in European affairs. The recent elections were also only the second in history to have more than three parties with female leadership candidates. Such statistics seemed to augur well for Poland's political future. 

In fact, the crushing victory for the Law and Justice Party (PiS) that resulted from October's elections has sent out tremors across Europe. Seismic waves of political instability have left social, cultural, political, and economic spheres shaken in Poland and beyond. 

The origins of the PiS find their roots in the anti-communist Solidarity trade union. The party favours an overtly conservative orientation and its success heralds a distinct swing to the right in Poland's politics. Founded by Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński in 2001, the party claims to be the champion of the Catholic Church in Poland. It opposes any legal recognition of same-sex couples and, in 2005, Jarosław Kaczyński publicly stated that, though homosexuals should not be isolated, they should nevertheless, "not be school teachers for example. Active homosexuals surely not, in any case". Mr Kaczynski also warns against the dangers of immigration and the influence of Islam on society, even going so far as to claim that Muslim migrants “carry diseases”.

Aside from regression in social policy, the PiS's success also seems a harbinger of regression in political and personal freedom. In an attempt to consolidate power, the PiS has sacked the heads of Poland's intelligence and security services, replacing them with reliable supporters. Moreover, on December 31st, the Polish government dismissed managers of the public television and radio broadcasters, TVP1 and Polskie Radio, promptly giving its own treasury minister the power to appoint their successors. In protest, since January 1st, Poland’s Radio 1 has been playing the Polish national anthem and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” (the anthem of the EU) alternately every hour. The image on the cover of Polish Newsweek of an eagle (Poland's national symbol) smashed and accompanied by the caption “The rape of Poland” aptly summed up the implications for the social liberty of a nation which had to wait till the 1990s to be permitted democracy.  Despite earning itself 18th position, ahead of the US, Britain, and France, in the index of World Press Freedom in 2015, Poland now faces widespread criticism from international freedom of speech groups. 

The effect on Poland's environmental policy has also proved negative. The new government is severely opposed to Europe’s climate policies and, despite the fact that 85% of the country's electricity is already supplied by coal-fired power stations, the PiS is obstinately set on building even more.

Previously one of Europe's greatest economic hopes, Poland's financial success in recent years may be jeopardized by the PiS's new policies. The solvency of the previous government is threatened by the PiS's plans to start paying child benefits to parents, to offer those over 75 free medication, and to reduce the retirement age. Clearly aimed at building on the PiS's ageing and conservative support base, these concessions not only overlook the poorest and most needy in Poland in favour of conservative loyalists, but also threaten Poland's recent economic growth.

The consequences for the refugee crisis also give the EU reason to fear. Plans by the European Commission to redistribute migrants across the EU faced opposition by many Eastern European countries, particularly Hungary. An agreement between the EU and the Eastern European nations was achieved only thanks to the support of Poland. But with the PiS in power, and their preoccupation with Polish rather than European concerns, the stability of this agreement is beginning to crumble. The recent upheavals in Poland's political situation therefore appear to be threatening to destabilise the EU's anchor in Eastern Europe, possibly even deepening the East-West divide in Europe. The future of Poland will bear on Europe as a whole, yet only time will tell what bearing this may be.