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Asia Behind the Headlines

by Elizabeth C. Economy
January 7, 2012

A man rides a tricycle carrying a couch on a road amid heavy smog in central Beijing on October 31, 2011. A man rides a tricycle carrying a couch on a road amid heavy smog in central Beijing on October 31, 2011. (Jason Lee / Courtesy Reuters)

Jared Mondschein looks at the key stories in Asia behind the headlines.

Using “strength to gain friendship” – The recently released U.S. defense strategy is pretty clear on U.S. policy toward China: “the growth of China’s military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region.” China’s response? It’s only been two days since the strategy was released, so Beijing hasn’t officially responded yet. However, an editorial in the government-linked Global Times listened and responded transparently: “Since [China] has become a firm strategic target of the US, its efforts to improve Sino-US relations have proved incapable of offsetting US worries over its rise. China can only use its strength to gain friendship from the US from now on.” Over the past year, China’s use of “strength” in its own backyard hasn’t garnered many friends. Maybe it’s a translation problem.

Beijing clears the air – While everyone knew that the reality of Beijing’s air quality bore little resemblance to the official reporting, it took the U.S. Embassy to bring clarity to the situation by tweeting the real numbers. After a month-long uproar among Beijing netizens over the unwillingness of the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB) to match the U.S. Embassy efforts, the government relented. According to Xinhua, the EPB will soon put hourly readings of the finer pollution particles on their website. Chalk up another win to China’s virtual political system.

It’s also campaign season in China – Reminiscent of “red” versus “expert,” Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai and Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang are “campaigning” for seats on the new Politburo Standing Committee in the fall of 2012 on radically different platforms. The “red” Bo Xilai has brought about a Maoist revival, with grand-scale campaigns, major gang-busting, and Mao-esque pet projects.  “Expert” Wang, often seen as the anti-Bo, was most recently lauded for his peaceful handling of the Wukan protests. Though adversarial for obvious reasons, the two recently had a get-together where they had nothing but nice words for each other. Why? Perhaps they were “pushed” by Beijing, or maybe they realized that united they stand and divided they fall. Whichever the case, expect some real fireworks if both make it to the top.

Super energy ministry for Beijing – Beijing is at it again with another attempt to make bureaucratic sense of its rapidly proliferating energy interests. Reuters reports that Beijing plans to create a “super-ministry” that will both replace the current National Energy Administration (NEA) and gain energy-related portfolios from other parts of the government. While the NEA was created for similar bureaucratic reasons, it has appeared adrift for much of its short tenure. Unless and until someone can take on the powerful National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), which in various incarnations has guided the Chinese economy for decades and refuses to give up its energy portfolios, any new institution seems destined for the same fate as the beleaguered NEA.

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