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About the project

The East Asia Program conducts research on the politics and foreign policies of the countries of East Asia, with a focus on how domestic politics in these countries shape external behaviour. Researchers focus on the countries and territories of North and Northeast Asia, including China, Japan, Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. From 2020, the Institute's extensive research on Southeast Asia - including Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Myanmar - is now incorporated in our newly-dedicated Southeast Asia Program. Each Program also commissions work by other scholars on the broader region. To complement their written research, Lowy Instiutute experts hold a robust series of dialogues and events on the politics of the region, independently and in partnership with other organisations.

Photo: Jung Yeon-Je-Pool/Getty Images

Latest publications

Beijingers keep calm and carry on

In the lead-up to the 19th National Congress this October, Beijing has been undergoing some physical changes. As yet more gleaming architectural marvels are being unveiled, other parts of the city are being cleaned out and 'tidied up', with buildings being knocked down or bricked in. Many have been affected by the roughshod approach, but the resilience of Beijingers is something to be admired.

The part of Beijing I usually stay in is between the quiet, peaceful 'hutongs' (or streets of the old neighbourhoods) and the hyper-modern Sanlitun commercial district. The hutongs are winding and narrow, with their one-storey grey brick buildings, old people sitting on stools playing chess, and children out playing or doing their homework. Over decades, the traditional 'siheyuan' or courtyard homes have been subdivided, re-subdivided, extended, and had extra stories added with little regard for the niceties of urban planning. The result is higgledy-piggledy to say the least, but enormously charming to an outsider. This is no place for rushing efficiency – there will always be a part of the road that is being dug up, or people playing badminton, or some other obstacle to speedy transit.

It's a jarring contrast with Sanlitun, a buzzing hive of shiny, modern, conspicuous consumption. The buildings are jaw-dropping marvels of modern architecture and even if you don't like that kind of thing, you get the message: this is the future.

That message has been underlined without subtlety over the past few months, as the Beijing equivalent of pop-up shops (though many of them have been operating for decade or more) and home additions have been systematically knocked down and bricked up. I can find no clear reason for this. Some people understand it as a drive to clean up the city and clear out unregistered migrants. Some have said it is because the Beijing Mayor is politically ambitious and keen to show President Xi how well he is managing the city in the lead-up to the National Congress;  if that is the case, it would help explain the sense of urgency. Shop or home owners are not given a notice of eviction or time to clear out and find new premises. In many cases, people are told that their building will be knocked down or bricked up within days. Contracted labourers then turn up, often protected by a ring of riot police, and proceed to knock the building down and brick up holes. They leave behind a mess of glass, timber and nails

Those I know among the affected seem to accept their losses with equanimity. The owner of one small shop which has been bricked up continues to sell supplies through the tiny window space left in the wall, eight feet above the ground. Customers buy their water and toilet paper by stretching up to scan a WeChat QR code on their phone to pay. It is an odd situation, to say the least.

Not far away, a tailor whose hometown is outside Beijing simply sits in the shade outside his former shop, chatting with his friends and neighbours, with his tape measure and order book in his bag. Customers try clothes on in the nearby public toilets. He will move soon, but hasn't found a place yet. He simply shrugs and says with a wry smile, 'It's because of Xi Jinping, he's improving things, you see.'

Western businesses are also being affected by the Beijing clean-up, but apparently for different reasons. Even those in well-established (and even iconic) locations that have been operating for many years, employ Chinese staff, are fully registered and pay their taxes are being shut down. One international restaurateur has, inexplicably, had his food licence revoked after operating for more than a decade. Other cafes and restaurants, many of which are institutions that draw Chinese and international tourists, are likely to suffer a similar fate.

The result of the efforts to shut down and brick up large parts of Beijing is certainly a tidier city. However, the the lack of transparency, accountability, or any appeals process suggests the Beijing government has taken a rather blunt approach. The primary impulse of decision-makers seems to be to please those above them in the hierarchy by meeting or ideally exceeding neatly quantifiable targets. There appears to be little regard for the wellbeing or livelihoods of the people affected, or the liveability of the city as a whole.

While that may be rather depressing, the humour and resilience of the Chinese people is still apparent. As has so often been said, for every measure from the top, there are multiple creative ways to sidestep it. The people of Beijing accept, reshape, and reinvent. They are the embodiment of flexibility and adaptiveness.

China: No country for old men?

On 18 October the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party will kick off, and the new makeup of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) will be revealed. The policy direction and success of President Xi Jinping's next term depend on who makes the cut.

A mostly informal set of rules govern eligibility for a spot on the PSC. One important convention holds that promotion to or retention on the committee is dictated by the candidate's age when the National Congress is held. This precedent, started and upheld since 2002, is encapsulated by the catchphrase 'seven up, eight down' (七上八下) – if a candidate is 67 at the time of the congress, they may advance upwards in the ranks. If a candidate is 68 or older, they probably expect to be retired.

In theory, this norm precludes five out of seven members from staying on the PSC this October. According to the age norm, only one member of the PSC (apart from Xi, aged 64) will not be of retirement age come October: China's second-in-command, Premier Li Keqiang, who is 62.

If the age precedent is upheld, which candidates will fill the remaining five spots in China's leadership? How will the leadership line-up change? What the age rule means in practice has sparked a flurry of speculation in the run-up to the National Congress – but perhaps a more illuminating question is whether Xi will uphold the 'seven up, eight down' convention at all.

Last October, Deng Maosheng, a senior Party official from the Central Committee's Central Policy Research Office (overseen by one of Xi's top policy advisors), called the notion of a binding rule on age 'folklore', saying that age limits 'are party practices that can be sometimes adjusted as needed'. Since then, speculation has been rife that Deng's statement aimed to create space to bend the rules, perhaps to keep one man in particular by Xi's side on the PSC: Wang Qishan.

Wang, who will be 69 by the time of the National Congress, is the PSC member for whom Xi would be most inclined to negotiate an exception to the age norm. Wang's achievements stand in sharp relief against those of his colleagues. He has spearheaded Xi's signature anti-corruption campaign, cleaning up the Party and eliminating Xi's opponents, and has gained a reputation as a 'firefighter' due to his deft handling of economic, political and health-related challenges. He may be one of Xi's most irreplaceable allies.

Xi could easily argue that Wang must stay on the PSC because he is the lifeblood and sine qua non for the success of the anti-corruption campaign, which is still ongoing. But Xi might also be keen to knock the age convention on the head so he can put Wang's 'firefighting' ability to use in new, more critical roles. If 'everything Wang Qishan touches turns to gold' (as one senior government official reportedly put it) then why not install him as head of a new National Supervisory Commission? Or even as Premier, in place of Li?

In a poll conducted by Sinocism's Bill Bishop, 66.4% of respondents believe that Wang will stay on, suggesting that about two-thirds of China-watchers think that Xi will override the 'seven down, eight up' norm and keep long-time ally Wang Qishan on the PSC. If Wang remains, Xi will be breaking with a 15-year precedent – but it's hardly a doctrine steeped in Party tradition. CSIS's Christopher K Johnson argues that former President Jiang Zemin introduced and used these age rules for political purposes to eliminate his rivals, and that his successor Hu Jintao adhered to the convention because of his 'political impotence'.

Xi might feel confident breaking with precedent, especially with the greater authority that his entitlement as 'Core Leader' has brought. But after five years at the helm of an anti-corruption campaign that has seen over a hundred high-ranking officials arrested, Wang may well have more foes than friends in the Party, making the retention of Wang a challenge for Xi. Ultimately, breaking with the status quo might cause a headache for Xi inside the Party, but one that he can probably manage and endure for the stability that Wang's skills promise.

For Xi, any type of instability is a failure. In this context, keeping Wang on could help Xi weather the economic, political and social challenges that lie ahead. Though breaking with the age norm would signal that Xi's power is not constrained by informal precedents, it could also reveal a dependence on Wang – not just a desire but a need for him to remain.

But there still remains a sizeable chance that Xi does not have the stomach for a tussle over age norms. In the 'Wang retires' scenario, Xi might instead concentrate his political capital in the traditional horse-trading that precedes the National Congress by brokering deals within the Party and ensuring eligible and loyal allies have a place on the Politburo and its Standing Committee, stacking the odds in his favour.

He could plausibly mix these two – retain Wang and stack the PSC full of his allies. But this is perhaps the hardest option of all. It would require a high-octane performance from Xi, as he would need to build consensus in his favour without making too many concessions to his adversaries within the Party. This is not inconceivable for a man who has gained a reputation as 'Chairman of Everything', but it would certainly be a challenge.

The way in which Xi deals with the age question in the make-up of the PSC will be a good indicator of the nature of his power and the extent of his success. It will indicate if and when Xi is willing to compromise, his future policy priorities and perhaps even his political insecurities.

Quick comment: Milton Osborne on Cambodia’s crackdown

In the middle of the night on Saturday, hundreds of police surrounded Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha's house. Despite his parliamentary immunity, they arrested him and took him to the notorious Correctional Center 3 on the border with Vietnam.

On Monday, prosecutors announced that they had charged Kem Sokha with treason for conspiring with the United States to overthrow the government. As evidence, they produced a video of a talk he had given in Melbourne four years earlier describing US support for democratisation in Cambodia. Under the Cambodian Constitution, parliamentary immunity is void if a member is caught committing a crime in flagrante delicto, or in the act, and the prosecutors said the video qualified.

At the same time, the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has been cracking down on Cambodia's English-language press, handing a disputed $6.3 million tax bill to the Cambodia Daily that forced the paper's closure on Monday. The Cambodia Daily's final headline ('Descent into Outright Dictatorship') summed up the high drama of the weekend's crackdown.

In this Quick Comment, I speak with former Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow Milton Osborne, one of the world's leading historians of Cambodian politics, about these developments, and how to put them in the context of Cambodian history.

Southeast Asian perspectives on US–China competition

Southeast Asians inhabit a region increasingly shaped by competition between the United States and China. This joint Lowy Institute–Council on Foreign Relations Report seeks to highlight the perspectives of leading scholars of international affairs from Southeast Asia on important issues facing the region.

Photo: Getty Images/Mikhail Svetlov

Thailand’s triple threat

Thailand’s status as a relatively stable and predictable partner, in both business and geopolitical terms, is now imperilled (Photo: Getty Images/Borja Sanchez Trillo)

How China views the plight of refugees

With assistance from Zixin Wang, an intern with the Lowy Institute's East Asia Program.

Following World Refugee Day on 20 June, Chinese netizens have been heatedly debating whether China should accept refugees.

'Debating' may be too strong a word – social media users are for the most part heatedly agreeing with each other that China is in no position to take refugees. While many in China feel that the country should (and does) have a role in global peace and security, the vast majority support the official view that the 'problem' of refugees, particularly from the Middle East, is not China's responsibility to solve. They feel that the best way to contribute to global humanitarian issues is to continue to build a prosperous and stable China.

Chinese official media has been reporting on China's positive role in international humanitarian issues for several months. For example, Xinhua covered World Refugee Week with evocative images of refugees in need of help, and CCTV New has provided consistent reporting of the situation of refugees since at least April. The People's Daily Chinese-language International Edition has reported on China's ongoing willingness to contribute to international humanitarian issues.

While this coverage represents both refugees as needing help and China as a responsible global actor on international humanitarian issues, there is no suggestion that China should accept more refugees. This sentiment appears to be broadly shared by Chinese netizens. Some surveys show that the vast majority of Chinese strongly oppose the idea of accepting Middle Eastern refugees and especially Muslim refugees.

Counter to this finding, a 2016 Amnesty International report found that Chinese people, at least theoretically, were some of the most welcoming to refugees in the world. As another report notes, these findings are very different from government policy. This does raise questions over the extent to which opinions expressed on Chinese social media are shaped by the government. However, it also raises questions about the wording of the survey.

In the recent online discussions in China, there are three main themes as to why China should not take in refugees.

Firstly, many Chinese netizens argue that accepting refugees will cause social tension in China. Comments included '难民随便去哪一个地方都是灾难不要圣母心啊' ('Wherever refugees go, there will be a disaster. Don't try to be a god now'); and '之前报道了跟几个欧洲国家收留难民,抢劫强奸的事层出不穷,虽然跟同情,但还是不希望他们来到中国' ('There are always reports related to refugees raping someone or refugees robbing someone. Even though I feel sorry for them, I don't want them in China.') Another netizen argues:'别来我们国家祸害。我们国家以前也是这样,谁同情过我们?是我们的先辈浴血奋战换来今天,不是某神赐予的!他们不为自己国家而战,难道是等他们的神去赈救他们?' ('Don't come to my country to mess around. My country is like this before, and who showed their sympathies to us? Our ancestors fought for today's China, not gods. They don't fight for their countries, but wait for their god to help them?')

These views mirror a recent article in the Global Times, which argued that 'an excessive influx of refugees will have a huge impact on social order' in China. In a society that places a very high value on stability, anything that could pose a threat to that stability is immediately seen as extremely undesirable.

The second theme is the notion that as China is not responsible for the problems that have caused refugees to leave their homes, it is not China's responsibility to accept them. For example, '冤有头,债有主,前面左拐美帝府。' ('No debts without creditors. Go find the US.') and '肆年-鹤顶红:难民交给欧洲人就好,千万别放到中国来。' ('Leave them with the Europeans. Don't come to China.') These views become particularly resonant when combined with the perceived risk refugees pose to social order. They also reflect broader notions of responsibility in China, and ideas of who is obliged to whom. As I have written elsewhere, cosmopolitan obligation is not a strong feature of current Chinese social patterns.

The third theme is that as China is still a developing country, it cannot be expected to take on the burden of helping others, particularly when combined with perceptions that the problem causing the refugee outflows was nothing to do with China, and that accepting refugees poses a risk to Chinese society. Celebrities who publicly welcomed refugees to China such as the actress Yao Chen were criticised for being out of touch with the situation of most Chinese people. One social media user put it very bluntly: '比你妈的嘴吧。 你站在道德制高点因为你有钱,中国还有那么多穷人呢,你咋不想着先帮帮他们,捐点你的钱呢?闭嘴吧您。' ('Shut the f*** up. You guys have money to stand on the moral high ground, but there are many Chinese people still live in poverty. What about donating your money to them first, otherwise just f*** off.') Netizens also attacked academics who argued that accepting refugees could improve China's global image as being unrealistic: '你觉得中国有这个能力去接受那么多难民吗?你是中国的学者,不是搞慈善的,好好想想吧' ('Do you think China has the capability to deal with refugees? You are scholars, not philanthropists. Try harder.') Despite some non-Chinese commentators arguing that accepting refugees would have a positive impact on China's economy, refugees are equated with an economic burden China cannot afford to shoulder. The notion that China is still a developing country and does not have the capacity to help others again reflects Chinese notions of obligation. It is a theme that also comes up in the sensitive issue of communicating Chinese foreign aid to its domestic population.

So where does China stand officially on the issue of refugees and asylum seekers? China is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. However, its Exit-Entry Law did not mention the right to apply for asylum until 2012. It now includes provisions for persons to apply for refugee status and remain in the country during the screening of their applications. As China does not have a refugee status determination procedure, the UNHCR currently manages all applications for refugee status. According to the UNHCR, the total population of refugees and asylum seekers in China is currently around 300,000. Of those, the majority came from neighbouring countries several decades ago. From 1978-1979, China settled 260,000 Indochinese refugees (mostly from Vietnam), and in the early 1980s, China accepted around 2500 refugees from camps in Thailand, mostly from Laos, as well as some Cambodians. Since then, the number of people seeking refugee status in China has dropped dramatically. In 2015, UNHCR reported the number at around 200. As of mid-2016, China had accepted fewer than 30 Syrian refugees.

The emphasis in China is that refugees can be helped just as well outside of China. As the Global Times explained it, '解决难民问题的根本之道是确保难民本国的发展和稳定,帮助他们回到自己的国家' ('The true way out to solve the refugee problem is to achieve stability and development in refugees' own countries and help them return to their own homes.') According to Xinhua, Foreign Minister Wang Yi noted in a recent visit to Lebanon that '难民不是移民,国际社会应该通过解决首要问题,为难民回归创造必要条件' ('Refugees are not migrants, and the international community should strive to create appropriate conditions, through seeking a swifter solution to hot-button issues, for the refugees to return to their homes.') President Xi Jinping announced at the UN Office at Geneva in January that China would allocate an additional 200 million yuan (US$29.26 million) in humanitarian aid to help refugees in the Syrian crisis – but this is not for supporting refugees in China. According to a report in the People's Daily, this money is for the World Food Program.

It may seem difficult to reconcile China's reluctance to accept refugees with China's view that it is a responsible global stakeholder and good global citizen. However, the Chinese position is that its most valuable contribution to the global humanitarian good is the development and stability of China itself, and the lifting of the Chinese population out of poverty. In other words, China is doing its share if it isn't adding to the world's problems.

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