Beijing cleaning its house for leader’s showpiece
Australians could be swept up in a war we did not choose
No liquids or powders — including infant formula — can be received by post or online orders. No openair markets can be held. No sports such as badminton in gyms.
No singing in public — “go home”, a soulful teenager was instructed by police. No travel permitted by Uighurs or Tibetans. No petitions — thousands of petitioners have been arrested and sent home.
Beijing is in familiar lockdown as the countdown begins to the 19th national five-yearly Communist Party congress, opening in the Great Hall of the People on Wednesday.
The city’s recently appointed party secretary, Cai Qi, a protege of President Xi Jinping, says the congress is “our top priority, every necessary measure will be taken to safeguard it”.
In the spirit, he said, of “not a single drop of water being allowed to leak”, Beijing is “resolutely cracking down on political rumours and harmful news”. Recently, internet giants Tencent, Baidu and Weibo have been fined heavily for failing to censor online content.
A much-anticipated new film, Youth, by director Feng Xiaogang, had its opening cancelled by the authorities with just a few days’ notice, apparently because it touched on the sensitive topic of the grim 1979 war with Vietnam — for which disabled soldiers frequently complain they have not been adequately compensated.
All police leave in Beijing has naturally been cancelled, with thousands of reinforcements deployed to the capital from elsewhere in China.
The main market for building materials has been relocated in Hebei province, since it was perceived to attract too many migrant workers who may not be fully vouched for.
Massive banners along roadsides, on buildings and at subway stations proclaim: “Unite tightly around Xi Jinping as the core of the party, elevate Chinese socialism to fresh heights!”. Major boulevards are festooned with knotted red ribbons to symbolise party unity. But no public event even loosely associated with the congress is being staged, since the party is characteristically anxious about large gatherings of people.
Thus dim echoes are aroused of dynastic days, when as emperors conducted ritual sacrifices around the city, Beijingers were told to avert their gaze and remain silent as the divine presence was carried past. A People’s Liberation Army navy song-and-dance spectacular this week to celebrate the congress was titled Sailing under the eyes of the Leader — using a term for Xi, Lingxiu, not heard since the days of Mao Zedong.
Xi is the focus of TV series being run at prime time, with replays on video screens at train stations, airports and other public venues. A common theme is of foreign deference: “African friends will not forget what Xi said … American friends will not … European, Asian friends.”
The series claims that “President Xi has travelled a million miles to spread his concept of common destiny with people all over the world”.
The Danish Cultural Centre has entered fully into the spirit of the occasion, with a new exhibition titled A Modern Royal Household containing half a million Lego pieces to create a model of the Forbidden City, the ancient imperial palace at the heart of Beijing.
State-owned funds have intervened in the stock markets this week to prevent volatility in the run-up to the congress — Xi appears to view the share collapse two years ago as the darkest event of his first five years in office.
Steel mills and other heavy industries have been ordered to wind back output in order to ensure blue skies during the congress rather than the more common Beijing smog.
Flights in and out of Beijing may be expected to suffer from delays even longer than usual, as extra precautions are taken. China’s air travel is already among the most frequently delayed in the world, with traffic controlled by the PLA air force whose priority is not commercial flights.
The ripples from the congress have reached every corner of the country. For instance, the “golden week” holiday last week following National Day was suddenly scrapped for public servants, state enterprise workers, teachers, students and many others in the vast Xinjiang region in the northwest so they could “prepare” for the great event in Beijing.
A hotel in Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong, has just been fined $3000 for accommodating a Uighur guest. Members of this ethnic group — mostly Muslim — and Tibetans are viewed as potential troublemakers so are barred from travel at this “sensitive” time.
All 89 million party members, not just the 2273 delegates participating in the congress, are being required to devote considerable time to studying the works of Xi in these days before the event. And universities throughout China are holding mandatory ideology classes for students.
The year in North Korea always begins with the Supreme Leader. Kim Jong-un stands at a wooden lectern, flanked by the emblem of the Workers Party of Korea, which symbolises unity between workers (a hammer), farmers (a sickle) and intellectuals (a brush). He sings the praises of revolutionary accomplishment for the year just ended and lays out priorities for the year ahead. Television sets across the country will run the new year’s address on a loop, so that no one can miss the Respected Leader’s message, although the content is fairly predictable.
This year, however, Kim ended with a startling confession: “As I am standing here to proclaim the beginning of another year, I feel a surge of anxiety about what I should do to hold our people in greater reverence …
“My desires were burning all the time, but I spent the past year feeling anxious and remorseful for the lack of my ability. I am hardening my resolve to seek more tasks for the sake of the people this year and make redoubled, devoted efforts to this end.”
It was a revealing moment in which Kim showed his populist sentimentalism, his willingness to admit shortcomings and his drive for success. But the lament received scant attention outside North Korea. Instead, the world heard just a single sentence from the long speech, the one in which Kim noted that his military “entered the final stage of preparation for the test launch of (an) intercontinental ballistic missile”.
US president-elect Donald Trump fired back a tweet: “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the US. It won’t happen!” The stage was set for a year of crisis that would keep North Korea near or at the top of Trump’s foreign policy agenda.
It is tempting, in looking back at this year of crisis between North Korea and the United States, to see it all as one big act. Trump and Kim are like professional wrestlers who go round after round, with plenty of trash talk and muscle flexing and cheers and boos from the crowd, but never really come to blows.
But then we remember that these two characters are commanders-in-chief of real armies — the most powerful in the world in terms of sheer might versus one of the most sophisticated in terms of asymmetrical threats. Either leader could go down in history as the first to order combat use of nuclear weapons since the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Both can be seen as highly theatrical figures who revel in antagonism, pursue high-risk/high- reward gambits, and think well of themselves as strategists. Neither man is crazy but both are often labelled as such and may erroneously think it of one another. Their most senior advisers are smart men and women, but they have never visited one another’s countries or interacted with their respective counterparts. Neither speaks the other’s language or has an intuitive sense of his profoundly different culture. Their governments have never officially recognised one another’s existence and see each other as enemies — brutal totalitarians versus bullying imperialists.
In these conditions of mutual hostility and ignorance, things could go wrong, fast.
This year’s ongoing provocation cycle, with the underlying risk of conflict, will continue so long as the root cause of the problem is misunderstood or ignored. The reason for the North Korea crisis is not the capabilities on either side but, rather, the hostile intent that comes with them. In other words, the key issue is the political relationships among the principal actors: North Korea, South Korea and the US. But Trump administration officials, top military officers and the American public are focused almost exclusively on North Korea’s weapons capabilities.
The preoccupation is with the prospect of an operable nucleartipped ICBM — something Americans consider “intolerable” and “unimaginable”. But North Korea’s nuclear-missile program, like the US’s extended nuclear deterrence and joint military exercises with South Korea, is symptomatic of an underlying disease: the hostile relationship. And the treatment requires a longterm strategy of transforming the nature of US-North Korea and inter-Korean relations.
The theory of victory should be defined in terms of terminating the enmity between the North on one side, and the South and the US on the other. A gradual process of denuclearisation can be a measure and outgrowth of that transformation, but not its precondition.
Terminating hostility is a longterm strategy that should be pursued doggedly by leaders in Washington and Seoul. It needs to start immediately, by negotiating some version of the much-discussed “dual freeze” idea.
The original “dual suspension” proposal actually came from the North Koreans in January 2015. Through the UN channel in New York, they offered to suspend nuclear testing in return for a US promise to suspend joint military exercises with South Korea.
The Obama administration shot down the proposal out of hand, without even exploring it. Recently, the Chinese foreign ministry proposed a new version of the “dual freeze”, hoping Pyongyang would impose a mora- torium on nuclear and missile testing in return for the US suspending joint military exercises.
Beijing further proposes that, taking advantage of the lowered tension and positive atmosphere generated by a dual freeze, denuclearisation talks could be resumed in parallel with a new track of “peace talks”.
Conceptually speaking, the Chinese proposal is useful. The problem is that it’s a Chinese proposal, not a North Korean one. President Xi cannot speak for Kim. We do not know what Pyongyang wants and where it is willing to compromise, beyond the general principle that the nuclear deterrent can be put on the negotiating table only if and when the US ends its “hostile policy and nuclear threat”.
That is a general framework for — and invitation to — negotiation. The details can be probed, bartered and eventually set only in the process of dialogue and negotiation. Until senior US officials sit down across the table from their North Korean counterparts, the process cannot even begin.
If a diplomatic process is not initiated, the situation looks likely to continue to deteriorate. If it were to reach the point of military conflict between North Korea and the US, Australians would have much to lose. Australia sent 17,000 troops to fight in the Korean war and remains an active and engaged “sending state” to the UN Command, the military structure under which US and allied troops maintain a presence in South Korea — participating, for example, in the joint military exercises.
Malcolm Turnbull recently reminded the public, “If there’s an attack on the US, the ANZUS Treaty would be invoked and Australia would come to the aid of the United States, as America would come to our aid if we were attacked.” Even if Trump initiated a conflict, it would be difficult militarily and agonising diplomatically to break ranks with the Americans. In other words, Australians would be swept up in a war they did not choose.
Fighting in a conflict started by the US could put severe strains on the relationship with China, which has a formal defence treaty with North Korea and adamantly opposes military options. Like China, South Korea and Japan, Australia’s economy could suffer intensely from the toll of a war that US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis expects to be “tragic on an unbelievable scale.”
Australia therefore should do what it can, in concert with South Korea and other concerned nations, to encourage the US and North Korea to pursue the path of dialogue, negotiation and settlement.
There is a natural temptation, especially when a problem seems far away and the adversary inscrutable, to stick to the script of a loyal ally. But the consequences of getting North Korea wrong are dire, and they directly affect Australia’s security and economic interests.
Simply declaring loyalty to Washington or echoing calls on Beijing to apply more pressure does not move us closer to progress, even when judged by the metric of America’s own longterm national interest. A smallminded ally says “yes” even when it is thinking “no”, whereas a true ally voices its disagreement without compromising its fidelity.
Australia has a stake in Korea, but also enjoys enough distance to see the bigger picture. Canberra can resist getting sucked into the theatrical and ideological maelstrom of the “main event” between Kim and Trump.
To start the shift from perpetual crisis to lasting settlement, Trump and Kim will need all the help they can get. John Delury is a senior fellow of the New York-based Centre on US-China Relations and an assistant professor of international studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. He has taught Chinese history and politics at Columbia, Brown and Peking universities, and received a PhD in Chinese history at Yale.
Three’s a crowd ... riding past a billboard for the Communist Party national congress this week
Liu Xia as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, top, and superimposed on Freda Kahlo’s self-portrait
Kim Jong-un with some of his younger subjects; US President Donald Trump
This is an edited extract from the launch issue of Australian Foreign Affairs: The Big Picture, Towards an Independent Foreign Policy (Black Inc Books, $22.99), out on Wednesday.