Back in the mists of time, there was a thing called China watching. It was more than a skill, it was almost like a game. It was fun. It involved trying to divine the state of play in the Chinese leadership from the phrasing of editorials in the Peoples Daily, the order of names appearing in photograph captions in the state media and the presence or not of individual leaders at different events. Speeches and the date of publication of those speeches were also significant clues used to try to figure out who was up and who was down, who was in which faction and how the dynamics of leadership were playing out at the highest levels. It seems like this pastime has suddenly become all the rage again.
On one side, this is surprising given the dramatically different situation with regard to media and communications today compared to the 1970s and early 1980s when classic China watching was at its height—so many words, so many channels, so different from when the media in China consisted of the People’s Daily, one newspaper in each province and a couple of ideological party magazines. Plus Xinhua News Agency. On the other hand, this is the way it has been for centuries and centuries.
We are now in the channel heading towards the 20th party Congress, scheduled for maybe October, maybe earlier, we don’t know, and this is the time when jockeying will get really serious because once the Congress is held, all of the decisions with regard to who holds what post will have been decided. What is interesting is that up until quite recently, say a couple of months ago, it was the commonly held view of all that it would be a clean sweep for the leader, and that he would also inevitably be taking a third five-year term, today that is under some discussion. In recent days, there have been all sorts of rumors about what the future might hold, none of which we will credit by discussing them in detail here. But there is clearly a dynamism to the situation which is tantalizing.
While transparency is a feature of a system that generally helps with efficiency, the complex and inscrutable nature of court politics has throughout China’s long and rich history has always fascinated people. China watching, in the old days, felt like an art, and there was a remarkably high degree of accuracy to the guesses that were drawn by the China watchers from tea leaf reading between the lines. It all sounds Byzantine and far too complicated, but that’s the nature of the system and always has been. And if China was not inscrutable and had the same level of transparency as, say, Belgium it would not be half as interesting as the culture we have here, so heavily influenced, subconsciously at the very least, by the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. What is markedly different this time is the potential implications.
In other news, employment seems to be a big big issue right now. Caixin issued a report saying that youth unemployment was now at 18%, well above Europe and US levels. There are signs many companies are shedding staff, including major listed companies, and the tech sector is being severely hit by continued lockdowns, crackdowns and other changes and trends. Tencent’s latest earnings report this week was dire. And the virus and the efforts to control it continue to dominate life in China and weigh mightily on economic prospects. Just think about this—Bloomberg reported that not one car was sold in the city of Shanghai during the the month of April.
Have a sunny weekend.