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Mysterious Suicides in China's Leadership

A spate of suicides among officials in China has caught the country’s attention. Beijing’s censors have quickly moved to end speculation about the deaths, indicating the Communist Party’s sensitivity, but everyday people remain suspicious.

The body of Xu Yean, 58, of the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, was discovered on April 8th in his Beijing office. He was the fourth high-ranking official to take his own life in recent months. 

India Goes to the Polls

On Monday, voters started to go to the polls in what a recent Economist editorial called “the largest collective democratic act in history.” When voting ends on May 12th, Indians will have chosen a new parliament—and a new leader of their democracy, the world’s biggest.

Manmohan Singh, the 13th and current prime minister of India, is stepping down. His party, Indian National Congress, has dominated politics since independence in 1947. Yet it is now conducting a dispirited campaign under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, the fourth generation of the country’s most famous political dynasty

Taiwan Protests Engulfing Beijing

Over the weekend, citizens from around Taiwan converged on their capital of Taipei for demonstrations over a trade agreement with China. On Saturday, a few thousand citizens rallied to support the beleaguered President Ma Ying-jeou as he pushed for ratification of the unpopular pact. On Sunday, more than a hundred thousand citizens—estimates ranged from 116,000 to 700,000—turned out to “write history,” opposing the deal and supporting students who had taken over the legislature last month.

On the evening of Tuesday, March 18th, students broke into the Legislative Yuan and blocked the entrances with chairs. At the time, they said they would leave by the following Friday, but they have since decided to stay and remain in place. 

China Courts South Korea

On Sunday, China’s Xi Jinping and South Korea’s Park Geun-hye met on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, their fourth meeting in less than ten months.

The two leaders discussed cooperative projects they have been working on since last year, including a memorial hall in China to honor Ahn Jung-geun, a Korean independence fighter known for his 1909 assassination of Hirobumi Ito, when he was Japan’s first governor general of Korea. Xi also said his country would dedicate a stone marker honoring Korean independence fighters. Park, for her part, said Seoul would repatriate 400 sets of remains of Chinese soldiers from the Korean War.

Michelle Obama’s ‘Non-Political’ Trip to China

With her mother and two daughters, Michelle Obama will travel to Beijing and two other Chinese cities beginning Wednesday. It will be just her third solo trip outside the US. Even before she leaves Washington, the first lady is being criticized for going easy on China’s Communist Party, but in surprising ways her visit could be just what America needs to deal with an unfriendly Chinese leadership.

During her week in China, Obama will focus almost exclusively on one of her primary interests. “I make it a priority to talk to young people about the power of education to help them achieve their aspirations,” she said this month. “That message of cultural exchange is the focus of all of my international travel.”  This emphasis will, to the greatest extent possible, allow her to avoid the troublesome issues now plaguing Sino-US ties. As the Washington Post noted, “Obama’s effort to avoid controversy will be particularly pronounced.”

Replace Failed Diplomacy with Sanctions on North Korea

“Some dialogue is better than none, and better early than late,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at his press conference on Saturday in Beijing, talking about China’s hopes for denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.

These remarks seem to be directed against the US for not wanting to resume the long-stalled six-party talks. Beijing has been trying to jumpstart the discussions, begun in August 2003, after North Korea abandoned them in April 2009. Russia, Japan, and South Korea are participants along with China, North Korea, and the US.

The Obama administration had tried hard to come to terms with Kim Jong Un, who took over as leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on the death of his father in December 2011. In early 2012, Washington had even reached an interim arrangement, termed the Leap Day Deal because it was announced on February 29th. In return for 240,000 tons of food aid, the North promised to stop work on a uranium-enrichment facility in Yongbyon, suspend nuclear and missile tests, and permit International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors back into the country.

Beijing–Hong Kong Tensions Rise After Stabbing

A senior Chinese official took to the airwaves in Hong Kong on Thursday to condemn the brutal stabbing attack on Kevin Lau, the former editor of Ming Pao, a local newspaper, who had been abruptly dismissed from his job in January. “We’re closely watching the attack … and strongly condemn the unlawful act of the criminals,” said Yang Jian, deputy director of China’s Liaison Office in the city. “We firmly support the Hong Kong government to spare no effort, arrest the culprits, and punish them in line with the law.”

The statement will do little to lessen the damage to Beijing’s reputation in Hong Kong, which has been a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic since 1997. Many in the city suspect that Mainland Chinese individuals or pro-Beijing thugs staged the near-fatal attack on Lau, who sponsored, among other things, exposés on the “hidden” wealth of Chinese leaders.

Are Chinese–North Korean Ties Starting to Fray?

The special relationship of China and North Korea has stood for more than a half century, and they are now each others’ only formal military ally, but contacts between Beijing and Pyongyang appear now to be conducted at a lower level than during the time of Kim Jong Il, the ruler who died December 2011, and the contacts during his rule were lower than those at the time of his father, Kim Il Sung. During Kim Il Sung’s reign, diplomacy with China was conducted on a personal basis with Mao Zedong. These days it would appear that the Chinese might be having trouble keeping track of their only formal ally.

Japan’s Gigantic Stockpile of Plutonium

On Monday, Beijing said it was “extremely concerned” that Japan had resisted returning more than 300 kilograms of plutonium, most of it weapons-grade, to the United States. The material, purchased from America in the 1960s for research purposes, is enough to make 50 nuclear weapons.

Some think Tokyo will agree to hand back the fissile material in March, at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague. Even if it does so, the loss will hardly put a dent in its stockpile: the Japanese possess 44 tons of plutonium. Three-quarters of this fissile material is stored in other countries, but Japan has kept 10 tons on its own soil. Those 10 tons are enough to build about 1,500 nuclear weapons. 

Putin, East Asia’s New Power Broker

Russian President Vladimir Putin had a busy few days of diplomacy in Sochi as the Winter Olympics opened there last week, meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Saturday. Analysts say that, by scheduling the meetings as he did, Putin was using the occasion to expand his influence in East Asia.

Up until now, the dour Russian leader has shown little interest in that part of the world, preferring to devote himself to the “near abroad,” his country’s western border, and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Yet an increasingly nasty struggle embroiling China and Japan has given Putin an opening in East Asia—and leverage. Says Liang Yunxiang of Peking University, “Both countries attach great importance to their relationship with Russia as they hope he will play an active role in regional security and they want his support amid the dispute over the uninhabited islands.”

Mao and Militarization at China's Spring Festival Gala

China Central Television’s Spring Festival Gala, which bills itself as “the most watched television event in the world,” was heavy on Cultural Revolution images this year. The show, a five-hour variety program airing the evening of January 30th, featured a performance of a portion of The Red Detachment of Women, one of the “eight model plays” endorsed by the notorious Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife and ringleader of the Gang of Four. The host of the event, Zhu Jun, appeared in Mao-like apparel to introduce the much-discussed segment.

There were other propagandistic elements to this year’s gala, such as the patriotic “My Chinese Dream,” a song reinforcing one of the major themes of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s rule. Organizers also included two revolutionary ballads. That there was propaganda in CCTV’s show is not news. It is noteworthy, however, that the state broadcaster reached back in such a heavy-handed way to Maoist times.

The Cycle of North Korean Provocations

North Korea is now telling the world that South Korea’s joint military exercises with the US might trigger an “unimaginable disaster.” This warning, delivered in New York on Friday by Pyongyang’s ambassador to the UN, looks like the beginning of the third stage in the North’s most recent campaign of provocations.

Analysts correctly see the Kim regime as unpredictable, but there are some observable patterns in its behavior, and this year it looks as if the North is following a classic one. In his New Year’s speech, young ruler Kim Jong Un expressed hope for better relations with South Korea. There was a catch, however. The offer, as it became clear, was conditioned on the South dropping its annual military exercises with the US. This was Stage 1, an apparently friendly gesture.

Hanoi's Symbolic Pushback Against Chinese Expansionism

For the first time, Hanoi has formally marked the deaths of 74 South Vietnamese sailors killed in an attempt to dislodge Chinese forces occupying several of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The Vietnamese government, many believe, is trying to stay ahead of public sentiment. On Sunday, the 40th anniversary of the sea battle, activists in Vietnam’s capital shouted anti-China slogans and laid flowers at the statue of Ly Thai To, a nationalist figure. Police allowed the unauthorized event to go on for about a half hour before dispersing the crowd.

Why Is China Blaming America for Its Flawed Dam Project?

The Upstream Ayeyawady Confluence Basin Hydropower Co. (ACHC) issued its first social responsibility report in late December on the Myitsone dam, which it is building in northern Burma. Activists immediately—and accurately—called the report “propaganda.” 

In 2009, ACHC, a Sino-Burmese consortium controlled by a Chinese state-owned entity, began work on Myitsone, located at the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River. It will be the first dam on that vital waterway and a part of a seven-dam cascade, a $20 billion undertaking.

China’s Water Crisis Made Worse by Policy Failures

On Friday, the National Development and Reform Commission announced that China will, by the end of 2015, put in place a three-tier pricing structure for water. Heavy users will pay more under the new system, which will cover all cities but not all towns. The Wall Street Journal called it “the first stab at actual resource-sector reform” after November’s Third Plenum.

Technically, it’s the first announcement of a future stab because it remains to be seen whether significantly higher charges, which will surely be unpopular, will in fact be imposed. If there were political will, the NDRC would likely have put the new and urgently needed price restructuring system in place much sooner.

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