Meeting the Press

Posted: March 15, 2014 in media
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This week Chinese Premier Li Keqiang gave his annual “press conference” to cap off the National People’s Congress.

Photo: Xinhua

Photo: Xinhua

I put “press conference” in quotations because it’s hardly anything of the sort. Journalists must submit questions for Li well in advance and then negotiate with press handlers on the precise wording of how the question will be delivered. This year there were reportedly a few topics like Zhou Yongkang and the Kunming knife attack that were totally out of bounds and would result in a “blacklisting” if mentioned.

This has been going on for a long time and last year several reporters started getting fed up with it. At the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of China annual meeting last year, no topic was debated more vocally than how to respond to this issue. So I was hoping we’d see few, if any, foreign (and ideally, Chinese) reporters show up to the charade this year. But if they had to attend (after all, bombshells have been dropped there before), I hoped at the very least no foreign reporters would legitimize the farce by reciting pre-approved softballs for Li to bunt. Unfortunately, my naïve hopes went unfulfilled and an unprecedented nine foreign/non-mainland reporters were called on.

In 2012, Australian “reporter” Andrea Yu was called on repeatedly to lob disappointing softballs at officials, and it was later discovered she was being fed her questions by the Beijing-controlled media outlet she worked for (and it seems the same organization is still sending similar shills this year). After that episode, real foreign journalists were understandably miffed. But when you think about it, what she did isn’t much worse than being complicit in the way Li Keqiang’s press conference works.

Li gets to leaf through hundreds of questions and pick exactly what he wants to answer, has compliant foreigners recite their lines, and then scores big points with viewers for being bold enough to face presumably more critical reporters. This is a major point of pride for CCP leaders (former President Jiang Zemin once boasted to Hong Kong reporters about how he’d taken on Mike Wallace and Barbara Walters).

The questions that are chosen are either completely benign or just barely edgy enough to seem “sensitive” (ie – relating to corruption, pollution or hacking). At best, Chinese viewers understand what’s going on and it makes the international press corps look like hapless wusses anxious to devour any meatless bone the Chinese leadership deigns to toss them. Famous Hong Kong reporter Luqiu Luwei wrote an op-ed in Financial Times saying that “the Best Actor Award” this year must go to the foreign media.

But at worst, Chinese viewers don’t understand what’s going on and think it’s a legitimate press conference. In that case, the compliant journalists are actively helping Chinese leaders gloss over actual tough issues that viewers should be aware of.

Casual Chinese observers who catch the CCTV press conference might not ever bother scaling the Great Firewall to see what’s really going on, but they expect foreign reporters to ask tough questions. They’ve had it hammered into their heads that foreign journalists are out to smear China’s leaders and cause the country’s collapse. But when the toughest question they see is some abstract mention of debt risks, they might mistakenly get the impression that these are China’s most pressing issues. But in fact, there was no mention of Tibetan immolations, the foreign journalists who’ve been expelled, the tightening grip on domestic media, Document 9, the extra-judicial imprisonment of people like Liu Xia (Liu Xiaobo’s wife) who haven’t even been found guilty of any crime, the enormous wealth of NPC members and potential conflicts of interest, the stalling of official assets declaration (and prosecution of those who’ve loudly called for it), dissatisfaction with the political situation in Hong Kong, prostitution crackdowns that leave already vulnerable young women with even greater exposure to exploitation and violence, or the offshore holdings by the families of powerful leaders. I could go on… That none of these things were mentioned raised some serious eyebrows from foreign and domestic observers alike.

Several of the foreign reporters who were called on to ask questions are among the best in Beijing, and I have the utmost respect for them…but I think they made a bad call here. I understand that this practice also happens in many Western countries, but that doesn’t make it right there either.

I wouldn’t expect anyone to go back on their word and ask an unapproved question, but it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to refuse participation in the performance…or just skip the presser altogether, as many reporters opted to do.

As Luqiu Luwei put it: “The good thing is that foreign media finally experienced the Chinese media’s situation. Under the same pressure they had the same choice. From an ethical perspective, the choice they made deprived them of any right to be proud. Only media that didn’t attend the press conference can still talk about sticking to journalistic ideals.”

China Hang-up Relaunch

Posted: January 9, 2014 in Uncategorized
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For those of you who didn’t know I co-host a podcast, hey there, I co-host a podcast. It’s called China Hang-up and it focuses on a lot of the same Chinese sociopolitical and economic themes I cover on this blog. Just wanted to announce that we’ve moved to a new home at Project Pengyou.

Since I first announced the podcast here in 2012, it’s morphed into more of a round-table discussion on issues of interest to young China watchers. Our inaugural episode with Project Pengyou looks at one of my favorite topics: the political mindset of Chinese youth today. I’ve said before that it would be a fool’s errand to try and gauge something like this among such a large diverse population, so naturally we’ve stepped up to take on that errand. Helping us do so is someone far less foolish than ourselves: Beijing-based post-80s journalist Helen Gao. We look at how the political education system has changed since Tiananmen and whether an apparent uptick in youth-led demonstrations in recent years indicates the stirrings of a political re-awakening.

For anyone in Beijing, we’re having a re-launch party to celebrate the new partnership this coming Sunday evening at 4corners. We’re hoping it’ll be a good chance for China hands – young and old – from around the city to rub elbows over drinks. Hope to see some of you there.

China Hangup Party Flyer Link (if the picture doesn’t show up)

On separate note, I’m knee-deep in the later stages of a project I’ve been working on for the past year-and-a-half, which is why updates here have been (and will likely continue to be) sparse. But we still plan to put out a podcast every two weeks, so I hope you’ll check that out instead.

Getting “Educated”

Posted: December 30, 2013 in Education
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I recently came across this documentary called “Education, Education” (released a year ago but new to me) exploring the hardship young Chinese are facing in leveraging their education for a decent job. It follows a college graduate struggling to find work, a poor rural girl deciding what she should do after failing the gaokao, and a recruiter touting a sham private college.

The film was advertised with the question, “Has higher education become a cause of poverty rather than a route out of it?” This, I think, is a depressingly relevant question to be asking in China today.

I’ve often said that what the country needs perhaps more than anything is education – the kind that opens minds and sparks a desperately needed innovative spirit. Unfortunately, what it more often provides is “education” – the kind that puts teachers at the front of classrooms but does little other than waste students’ time and embed them with a sense of entitlement.

The film’s depiction of the two students is compelling, but the sham agent is what really grabbed my attention. The man travelled from city-to-city giving talks to students who failed the gaokao, trying to convince them to attend the expensive “private college” he works for.

He gives inspiring speeches and rattles off quotes like “Learning is the noblest of all pursuits in life.” He’s actually preaching to the parents in the room, who’ve been taught their whole lives (and often seen firsthand) that a college degree can change a poor peasant’s fate.

Between speeches, the man explains to the filmmaker how he’s scamming them. He pulls up the PowerPoint presentation he uses to show pictures of the campus’s libraries, conference halls, labs and auditorium. “None of them exist,” he said. “Just images from the Internet. 90 percent of the tutors have no teaching qualifications or experience.”

He goes on to coldly describe how much the scam hurts its victims. “With the minimum monthly wage of 1,200 yuan and spending nothing, it would take five years for a student to pay back their debts. Look at me, I’m a qualified graphic designer but have to travel around selling a scam. What hope is there for the kids that I recruit?”

At first I couldn’t believe that he would admit these things on camera with his face shown, but it dawned on me that he was probably doing it out of guilt as a sort of atonement. “Nobody can do this for a long time, everyone wants to quit,” he said near the end of the film. “[The families] are so poor. Giving money to [our school]? What the hell? Where’s our conscience?”

Earlier this year I spoke to a group of young students from rural Henan who’d been lured into a nearly identical scam hundreds of miles from home. After they failed the gaokao, they were called by a recruiter to attend the inspirational pitch. They were incredibly poor, and thought some kind of education was the only way to change their family’s status. So they paid 10,000 yuan – nearly all the money their parents had saved – just for the first year at the “college.” They planned to borrow from other family and friends for the subsequent three years.

In villages like theirs, everyone knows one-another so few would dare try to swindle others. “People in the countryside are very honest,” one of the young men told me. “So we had no sense of law.”

The recruiter from the film acknowledged how he preyed on this naiveté. “The more simple they are, the more likely they are to be fooled by us,” he said. “The clever ones don’t fall for it so easily.”

Like the school from the film, the fake college that the Henan men attended eventually folded and the ringleader disappeared with all of their money. It stole a year of their lives and left them 10,000 yuan poorer with nothing to show for it but a keen sense of disillusionment. “The only thing I learned at that school was not to trust anybody,” one of them said. “I got hurt badly. My first contact with society was full of lies.”

It had happened three years prior to when I spoke to them, but they’d all been too ashamed to ever tell their parents.

Most stayed in the city, some toiling at low-end labor jobs as they kept studying for the gaokao hoping they’d eventually pass and skirt having to tell their families anything (one man had already failed three times).

Education scams like these have become ubiquitous in China. Earlier this year it was revealed that there were at least 70 of them operating just in Beijing. They prey on the sense that any “education” is better than nothing and can provide some social mobility. They prey on the desperation of those who can least afford it.

I had to wonder though, would the young men really have been any better off had they scored a few points higher on the gaokao and been admitted to a low-tier college? About one-fourth of those who graduate now are still jobless a year later.

A few months later I met a man who’d graduated from a second-tier provincial university with a degree in Chinese in 2009. He’d spent the following three years hopping across the country working in factories and grocery stores as he struggled to find white collar work. It wasn’t until after he cut his losses and paid 10,000 yuan for a four-month computer programming course that he found a decent-paying job in an office.

I suggested to one of the Henan men that perhaps he’d be better off cutting his losses and attending a shorter term technical school, since that’s where the most demand in China is. However, that just didn’t have the same appeal. “I thought about going to technical school when my college went bust,” he replied. “But my classmates criticized me. They said, ‘your parents saved for you to go to college. How could you use their money for technical school?’”

On Xia Yeliang…

Posted: November 26, 2013 in Uncategorized
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Note: This post is in regards to an article I published in The Atlantic on October 22 about dismissed Peking University Professor Xia Yeliang. After receiving excessive scorn, I wrote this post a few days later, but ultimately decided it was too long-winded and canned it after I was invited on Sinica to discuss the issue. However, even more than a month later, people continue to misrepresent what I actually wrote and said. Given the gravity of the case, I decided to go ahead and publish it (with a few tweaks). Apologies for the long-windedness…

One thing I’ve learned over the years I’ve been writing about China is that people love simple narratives. In fact, they often demand them. Things are black vs. white, good vs. evil or a brave freedom-fighting David taking on a wholly-despicable Goliath. So if you introduce a little gray, the white camp sees you as representing everything they hate about the black, and vice-versa.

Several years ago at the university I taught at in Nanjing, there was an English professor (a Chinese woman) who would constantly use her classes to aggressively proselytize Christianity to the point that she’d sometimes stand at the podium and tell students they were hell-bound if they didn’t embrace Jesus. Over the years, there were floods of student complaints about her. The school warned her repeatedly, whereupon she’d cool down for a bit, and then quickly return to her old habits. Eventually, she was fired.

But why? This teacher had some fans (many of whom were Christian themselves). There was another, better-connected teacher in the department who did more-or-less the same thing, but she kept her job; whereas the teacher who was fired wasn’t well-liked by her colleagues. And if she’d just as aggressively preached atheism in class, I find it highly unlikely she would have been dismissed in the end. So what did her in? Was it the student complaints, her Christian faith, national politics, office politics, or more likely, some combination of all these things?

I can’t say for sure, but I think it would be a gross over-simplification to yell “religious persecution!” and call it a day. However, that’s exactly what some people on campus did.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen a similar thing play out with the case of Xia Yeliang – the Peking University (PKU) economics professor and political dissident who was recently dismissed from his post.

Most people (myself included) initially assumed this was a clear case of political persecution. Given all the very real political persecution happening throughout this country, it wasn’t an unreasonable assumption. A few weeks before the dismissal, I had even asked the head of a Sino-foreign joint venture college in Shanghai how foreign schools could justify “making a deal with the devil” when there are cases like Xia’s.

But then a few days before Xia was officially terminated, I was chatting with a friend studying at PKU. When I mentioned Xia, she said, “Actually, a lot of students at the school are upset with the way the media’s been covering that story.” She said that he was exceptionally unpopular because of his terrible teaching.

Intrigued, I thought I’d follow up on the story and see if it led anywhere. I figured I’d find some fans and some critics, and then pit them against each other in an article. Unfortunately, that’s not what I found.

When I was seeking out students of Xia’s, there were a few types of people I wanted to avoid. Obviously, I didn’t want anyone arranged through Xia himself or PKU. I also didn’t want to cherry-pick commenters on Weibo who, for whatever reason, had self-selected themselves to speak out on the issue. I tend to avoid Weibo and online forums like the plague when reporting – too many people with disingenuous motives. For the same reason, I sure as hell wasn’t going to quote anything or anyone dredged up online where I couldn’t verify that the person was actually a PKU student who had taken Xia’s class. I also didn’t really want to spend time trying to find current students. Xia had known since the beginning of summer that his job was in danger and his dismissal vote was coming up. If it were me, I’d dramatically alter my teaching methods this semester.

I wanted to choose random people who hadn’t yet expressed an opinion and contact them out of the blue. So starting with some contacts I had from PKU (none of whom were employees, Communist Youth League members or anyone with a vested interest or political axe to grind) I started making some calls and sending out queries to try and track down Xia’s students. The secondhand sources I muddled through were relating similar accounts that Xia was widely disliked. Eventually, I landed on four students who had actually taken his classes across several years.

I contacted them out of the blue and separately from one another. Had they started listing the exact same bullet points and buzzwords, I would have been suspicious. However, that wasn’t the case. They all had their own complaints, but there were some consistent themes: that Xia was boastful, dogmatic and preachy in his political beliefs (which he argued incoherently), that he was awful at teaching the subject matter, and that he would spend huge tracts of class time on completely irrelevant topics.

As I was wrapping up the story, PKU came out with a statement (here’s a later English translation) which more-or-less seemed in line with what the students had already told me (in terms of the specific complaints; nobody’s quite sure what’s up with the procedures used to oust Xia).

Had I found a single student that said a positive (or even neutral) word, I would have quoted them in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, I didn’t find this, and I wasn’t about to “balance” out the students I’d methodically sought out in order to avoid bias by quoting an unverifiable and easily manipulated source found through far less methodical means.

I don’t doubt Xia has fans out there though. I can’t think of anyone in history who’s had a 100 percent disapproval rating. But since I didn’t find any of them, I decided I would still present the segment of the student population that felt their voices were being ignored (a segment that seemed pretty large) and then give plenty of room for Xia to respond (but it seems a lot of people missed the half of the article where I laid out Xia’s side of the story).

In the end, I was only able to convince one of the students to use her (English) name in the article. This is something I wrestled with. No journalist likes to use anonymous sources – especially in a situation where they’re criticizing someone else. But having interviewed scores of Chinese students before, I knew that – even on completely benign stories – insistence on anonymity isn’t unusual. Whereas in the West, people are instinctively excited by the prospect of seeing their name in the paper, in China it’s often the opposite – especially among educated people who are well-aware of the country they’re living in (Helen Gao recently did a great piece exploring this). I considered myself lucky that the students even proceeded to talk to me when I said I was a reporter.

This case was extremely politically charged, but the students were more worried about being indicted by the greater public outside of PKU, which was firmly in Xia’s favor. They worried about being labeled wumaodang “50-centers” or CCP-stooges (labels I’ve unsurprisingly been given several times since). So I weighed the gravity of the case, the students’ reasons for wanting anonymity, Xia’s stature as a public figure and the fact that numerous people independently told me similar things. After weighing these things, I decided the story was much better off being told than shelved.

Some have dismissed what I found, saying it was “just a handful of students” and can’t be representative. I agree that it’s not at all on par with a comprehensive scientific survey, but I don’t think it’s negligible either. When two people corroborate the same things, maybe it’s a coincidence; three, a big coincidence. But when you have four people contacted randomly and separately without forewarning corroborating the same things, then that’s enough to make me comfortable that they represent a fairly sizeable group.

This is not the type of article a journalist gets excited about publishing. David vs. Goliath stories are straight-forward and a slam dunk in terms of public reactions. When you report that David might be flawed, however, many people don’t take very kindly to it. I knew I’d get backlash, and that publishing this story would bring me nothing but headaches. But when you find a story like this, you do a great disservice by sitting on it. I knew it would be a lonely few days, but I was more than confident in my reporting. I expected that eventually others would come out and confirm the same things I did, which is indeed what ended up happening (and here and here).

Still, even weeks later, the backlash continues to trickle in – some fair, some absolutely absurd.

The most frequent criticism I’ve gotten goes along the lines of “How can you rule out politics with all the other political repression going on in the country and all the other terrible teachers who are never fired?!” As it turns out, I never did rule out politics. But again, people like latching on to black and white views.

The debate after my article was framed as “Xia Yeliang: bad teacher or victim of politics?” Of course, that’s a false contradiction. There are plenty of possible scenarios involving varying degrees of both of those things. There are indeed countless terrible teachers that are never fired in China, but there are also outspoken dissidents that aren’t fired. Nobody knows for sure why Xia was dismissed though except for his superiors. You can’t rule out politics as a factor or definitively say it was the only factor.

You also shouldn’t ignore aspects of this case just because they complicate the nice neat David vs. Goliath narrative. Academic freedom is an important cause– one that I’ve written on many times – but letting an incomplete narrative prevail doesn’t help that cause; quite the opposite in fact.

Another criticism that I’ve received goes along the lines of “Yes, students are saying these things, but this is China. They’re either brainwashed or being instructed on what to say.” Another variation of this criticism involves the fact that I used to write for Global Times (a newspaper I quit writing for in disgust over two years ago and have written critically of many times since).

According to a group of surprisingly influential professors in the U.S., this is all some conspiracy wherein students were instructed on what to say and, being the government stooge that I am, I gleefully went along with the ruse (never mind that the majority of what I’ve written in the past is critical of the Chinese government – in Global Times, this blog, several Western media outlets and the newspaper I worked at for 18 months that’s nearly been shut down by the government several times).

If it’s easier for you to believe in a massive conspiracy than it is to believe in the possibility that there are real complaints about Xia’s teaching, then fine. I learned long ago not to waste time trying to sway conspiracy theorists.

Were the students told what to say though? Given the way I contacted them (and the other reports that have come out since mine) that would have to involve the university sending out unique instructions to thousands of different students going back seven years – many of whom aren’t even at the school anymore – without the instructions being leaked. If you think that’s a possibility, I suggest you read what happened when this obscure Chinese high school tried that route.

Are the students just brainwashed nationalists taught to hate people like Xia? I suppose I can’t definitively rule that out except to say I bore this possibility in mind while interviewing, and the students I spoke to certainly came off as very open-minded and intelligent.

The students all told me they’re happy (or at least tolerant) to see liberal politics discussed in the classroom in general. Two of them said they were huge fans of He Weifang, a PKU law professor and signatory to Charter 08 who’s been aggressively critical of the government in the classroom.

I appreciate all the people who emailed to inform me that China is under a Communist dictatorship (who knew?), to tell me what Chinese universities are REALLY like, and to explain that I was duped into writing this piece. But to anyone who’s spent even a cursory amount of time in a Chinese university over the past few years, the idea that Chinese college students are all programmed conformist robots that would unanimously fall in line when pushed to do so should be patently absurd.

While plenty do ride the herd mentality, there are A LOT of independent individualists out there today that wouldn’t think twice about speaking out against injustice if they saw it. Again, see what happened at this much lesser school when administrators pushed students to fall in line. And let’s not forget about the college students across the country that uploaded pictures of themselves with their faces shown to support Southern Weekend in the name of free speech and democracy last January.

Also, if you’re going to believe the “brainwashed” angle, you have to believe that Valentina Luo, a former researcher for The Telegraph and AFP, is also brainwashed (or in on the massive conspiracy with me).

Some have said since Xia has been branded a political pariah, students who support him wouldn’t dare speak out now; so it’s useless to try and get balanced comment on his teaching from student interviews. This seems like a big cop out to me – one that conveniently allows people to dismiss information that challenges their views. Why not try to randomly contact multiple students out of the blue and see what they say? I know that in the internet era, which allows people to simply quote from Weibo and “report” in their pajamas, actually speaking to people has become a novel concept. But catching them off guard is the best way to get their true feelings. So if they really loved Xia, perhaps they’d say so. See if they’ll even say something supportive anonymously. Heck, even if they hang up the phone, that would tell you something.

Tracking these people down takes effort though – a lot more effort than it takes to track down Xia Yeliang. But if people wanted to challenge what I and other reporters have found, this seems like the best way to do so.

Still, the debate goes on…which it should. There are many unanswered questions. There are ideological politics, office politics, and at Chinese state-run institutions, often a very blurry line between the two. I don’t doubt for one second that there are political components to Xia’s story. As I addressed in my article, Xia sees some big irregularities in the university’s position and the dismissal procedures, which need to be clarified.

Skepticism is good. I absolutely welcome RATIONAL skepticism of my piece and my work in general. But in the absence of any concrete evidence, skepticism should be divvied out to all sides. People who are skeptical of my piece should ask themselves honestly if they applied that same skepticism to earlier reports that sourced nobody other than Xia himself.

People (especially those not actually in China) should also remember that even though the country has scarcely changed politically in the past few years, it’s changed by leaps and bounds socially.Things can get more complicated than we’re able to fully comprehend. This government does indeed give us plenty of clear cut black and white, good vs. evil stories. So it makes it all the easier to miss the complications when things aren’t so simple. The story I did is certainly a complication I would have missed had it not been for a random conversation I had with a PKU student.

That conversation allowed me to realize that my initial knee-jerk bias meant I wasn’t as critical of the prevailing narrative as I should have been. When a fair number of people who had firsthand experience with Xia challenged my assumptions, I REPORTED what they said (which is quite different than ENDORSING what they said). You can make your own judgments about why they said it or if it warrants a dismissal. I expected to get quite a bit of heat for this piece, but at the end of the day, self-respecting reporters can’t sit on stories just because they don’t like their implications. I believe I did this story fairly and as thoroughly as the circumstances allowed, so I stand by it without regrets.

On one of the first mornings after I’d just moved to China in 2007, I was awoken at 6am to People’s Liberation Army marching songs being belted out by university freshmen. When I walked outside, I was taken aback by the droves of students decked out in camouflage intently walking in lock stop – that is, before they saw me and broke out into giggles. Ever since then, I’ve been more intrigued by Junxun than just about anything else I’ve seen during my stay in China.

Junxun refers to the military training all Chinese university freshmen must go through when starting college. What’s intrigued me is how in many ways it seems to be a microcosm of how Chinese youth today both embrace and subconsciously resist the carrots and sticks that the Communist Party uses to keep their support.

Two years ago I did a feature for Foreign Policy on Junxun. After returning to Tsinghua again this year to take some pictures of the new “cadets,” I thought it’d be worth making a little video based more-or-less on that feature. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but I think if you get a feel for what goes on during Junxun, it makes it a bit easier to understand the wider relationship between the Communist Party and the “Post-90s Generation.”




Link (if the embed doesn’t work)

Will Zhou Stay or Will He Go?

Posted: September 1, 2013 in Politics
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For the last several days I’ve been keeping an eye on rumors that China’s former security czar Zhou Yongkang might be in the crosshairs of the anti-corruption authorities. If Zhou were charged, it Zhou Yongkangwould be BIG. Until last year, he was on the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) – China’s most powerful body – where current and former leaders have been safe for the past four decades.

Unreliable overseas Chinese rumor mills like Boxun have been reporting that Zhou’s downfall is imminent for more than a year-and-a-half, so I don’t tend to give much weight to these rumors. But now there’s good reason to suspect he really is in danger. He seems to be getting painted into a corner, as his allies are being placed under investigation for corruption one-by-one. It’s just been reported that Jiang Jiemin, head of the State Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) and previous chairman of the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC), is on the chopping block. This is a very high official and a very close ally of Zhou’s. Before him several other officials from CNPC – China’s biggest oil producer – were placed under investigation.

I remain skeptical that Zhou himself will be taken down. The government is just beginning to breathe a sigh of relief now that the whole Bo Xilai affair is over. Taking down Zhou would be unprecedented and would risk stirring up the pot again. However, it would make sense in a lot of ways.

Xi Jinping has claimed he intends to go after both the “flies” and the “tigers” in his corruption crackdown. Contrary to what state media would have you believe with cases like Liu Zhijun and Bo Xilai, I would argue that a tiger has yet to fall. Bo Xilai was close, but he was a mere member of the 25-person Politburo. Its members have proven expendable for the past 15 years.

Taking down a former PBSC member though would be a strong signal that indeed nobody is above the law (that signal wouldn’t reflect reality, but that’s irrelevant). Xi and his campaign would be given serious legitimacy.

But more important, I think, is that taking down Zhou could actually have some practical effects. U.S. Embassy cables released by Wikileaks in 2010 appeared to confirm what many had long suspected: that some of China’s highest level leaders have extreme vested interests in certain monopoly industries. Li Peng’s family reportedly controls electricity, Wen Jiabao’s family the precious stones trade and Zhou Yongkang China’s oil monopoly (he used to head CNPC).

Xi Jinping has made it pretty clear that he has little intention of launching serious political reforms. In lieu of that, he appears to be pushing some fairly serious economic reforms. But even that’s fraught with landmines.

Serious economic reform requires breaking up, or at least dramatically overhauling these state-owned monopoly juggernauts that are controlled by some very powerful vested interests.  Going after any of these industries is politically risky, but now that Xi has more-or-less consolidated his power, Zhou and his oil cronies offer a good first target.

In March, after People’s Daily ran an attack piece on Apple called “Smash Apple’s Incomparable Arrogance” Caijing asked Chinese consumers in an online survey which arrogant company they’d like to smash. China’s big three oil companies were all voted among the top.

The big oil companies have been very slow to invest in cleaner technologies because they haven’t really had to. In practice, they’ve had more power than the Environmental Ministry that’s theoretically supposed to regulate them. This no doubt comes in part from the industry’s powerful patrons.

Many see the oil companies as largely responsible for the horrible air pollution in cities like Beijing. Indeed, more of Beijing’s local PM2.5 pollutants come from vehicle emissions than any other source. Then on the other side, you have people who despise the inefficient and highly-corrupt oil monopolies for making gas prices higher than they need to be.

Going after one of China’s top oil companies and its patrons sends a message that business as usual for vested interests won’t be tolerated like it has been in the past; and that if reform comes a knockin’, these vested interests better not stand in the way. That message might already be working. As all these CNPC executives started being placed under investigation, Sinopec, one of China’s other big three oil companies, announced it would be upgrading its fuel standards three months ahead of schedule.

Then there’s Zhou Yongkang himself. South China Morning Post said taking down Zhou “could send even bigger political shockwaves through Beijing than the trial of Bo Xilai,” but I don’t think so. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more hated leader than Zhou – the man who was at the heart of China’s violent and frequently law-breaking “stability maintenance” apparatus. Bo Xilai was a high-profile populist leader who had a lot of detractors, but also a lot of fans. Zhou Yongkang on the other hand quietly and ruthlessly ran China’s security apparatus with an iron fist. If someone in China knows enough about Zhou to have an opinion about him, that opinion is almost certainly negative.

Zhou probably doesn’t have many supporters within the government either. Allegedly, because he supported Bo Xilai and had overseen the security apparatus so recklessly (and incompetently. See Chen Guangcheng), Zhou was forced to informally give up most of his powers months before he formally retired. If this is true, it’s unlikely he has many high-level friends left that would stick their neck out to protect him. The writing has been on the wall for some time now that Zhou could be a political pariah. It’s doubtful that Xi would face too much resistance in taking him down.

Again though, as many good reasons as there are for targeting Zhou, I’m still pretty skeptical that it will actually happen. The Communist Party is very risk-averse and Xi could still accomplish a lot just by dismembering Zhou through his allies rather than beheading the man himself.

If it does happen though, don’t get your hopes up for any other high leaders to follow. Nobody else at the top is nearly as vulnerable as Zhou. And if Xi starts picking off multiple officials who were thought to be above reproach, it’ll spook a lot of powerful people. Xi could then become the one with a target on his head, and not necessarily a figurative one.

The long-running debate as to whether China will dethrone the U.S. as the world’s top superpower or buckle like Japan or the Soviet Union is heating up again. Slowing growth and a slew of ominous data has people talking about just how serious this crunch will turn out. You can check out two great discussions about this at ChinaFile and New York Times (or to simplify, just read the opposing viewpoints of Michael Pettis and Justin Lin).

Whether there will be a crash and what that says about China’s economic model is certainly very significant, but I think when looking at the big picture of China’s future, it’s hardly THE most significant issue. I don’t fear a Chinese hard landing nearly as much as I fear the hard long slog unfolding much more quietly.

Right now China is barrelling down the economic rapids trying to avoid crashing, but there’s already a hole in the bottom of the raft. Even if it avoids a crash, there are much worse things in store. And China doesn’t have just one big hole in its raft, it has (at least) four.

1.  The Aging Population
In 2010, about 13 percent of China’s population was over 60-years-old. Or in other words, there were five working age people for every retiree, and even that’s already causing problems. With China’s enormous “floating population” of migrant workers, about half of all elderly live by themselves or with just an elderly spouse. This leaves many migrants the choice of essentially straddling their hometown and work-destination in order to care for ailing parents, or paying to put them up in the city. Both options can cause huge financial strains, which is made worse by the fact that the one-child policy has left plenty of couples to solely support four parents. But as tough as it is now, we ain’t seen nothing yet:

population aging chart

That 5-to-1 ratio of workers-to-retirees will fall to 3-to-1 just by 2020 and continue to get worse from there until the over 60 crowd goes above and beyond a third of China’s population. Some may point out that this is very similar to what Japan and several other countries are going through, but there’s one very important thing to keep in mind:

 japan china gdp2

Thanks to the one child policy wreaking havoc on demographics, China is facing a first world problem while it still only has third world resources to cope with it. Japan may be able to afford it, but in all likelihood, China won’t. The facilities and the trained personnel to care for these elderly just aren’t there, and putting them there will be incredibly difficult with the meager means China has at its disposal. It will put unmanageable strains on families, pensions and China’s healthcare system…not to mention the economic dividends China’s large population of workers have been supplying over the past two decades.

2.  The Pollution
I don’t even know where to begin on China’s pollution problems. For starters, an estimated 750,000 Chinese die prematurely each year from air pollution-related respiratory diseases. Hundreds of “cancer villages” dot the countryside. And the country’s carbon emissions, which are already the highest in the world, aren’t expected to peak for at least another two decades.

But the most frightening implication of China’s pollution is what it’s doing to the food and water supply. Wall Street Journal reported last week that “anywhere between 8% and 20% of China’s arable land, some 25 to 60 million acres, may now be contaminated with heavy metals. A loss of even 5% could be disastrous, taking China below the ‘red line’ of 296 million acres of arable land that are currently needed, according to the government, to feed the country’s 1.35 billion people.”

Many farmers that used to produce healthy food are now growing food they know can’t be sold just so they can qualify for compensation from the government or polluting factories. Or worse, they’re growing food they know isn’t safe to sell, but they’re sellling it anyways. On top of this, desertification resulting from global warming and deforestation is claiming arable land the size of Rhode Island every year.

After decades of growth policies that used the “grow GDP first and clean up later” principle, China is realizing that it all may be too expensive to clean up. A researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has estimated that if you factor in environmental costs, China’s real annual GDP growth would be nearly halved. However, no matter how much money is thrown at the problem, there are some resources that may never be recovered…which leads to the next big problem.

3.  The Water Shortage
Demand for water in China is skyrocketing, while at the same time supply is dwindling and being contaminated.  The Tibetan glaciers, which supply the water for all three of China’s major rivers – The Yangtze, Mekong and Yellow – are disappearing by as much as 7% per year. About half of the rivers that existed in China in 1990 have already dried up, and of those rivers and lakes that remain, about 75% are severely polluted. 28% are so polluted that their water can’t even be used for agriculture.

The water shortage will also have severe effects on industry. As much as 17 percent of China’s water is now used by the coal industry and other power stations. And as you can see, China’s coal use has been shooting upward for the past decade with no promise of slowing any time soon.

 coal chart
Chart via U.S. Energy Information Administration

Over the next two decades, this water crisis is poised to come to a head with demand far outstripping supply by nearly 200 billion cubic meters. What this will mean for China’s economy and the everyday lives of its citizens is scary to think about, to put it mildly.

 waterrisk
Chart via Business Insider and China Water Risk

4. The Gender Imbalance
The one-child policy, a patriarchal culture and sex selective abortions and have come together in what will eventually create a population of surplus men that rivals the overall populations of many large countries. According to a Chinese population researcher from Xi’an Jiaotong University, the number of these “bare branches” aged 20 to 49 in China will reach 20 million by 2015 and continue to grow to around 44 million by 2040. At current birthrates, eventually one in five Chinese men will be hopelessly single. These numbers are unprecedented in human history, and experts are expecting very little good to come from it.

Times and places in history with large male surpluses – from the American Wild West to mid-19th century Northern China – have been marked by lawlessness and exploitation of women. Rises in violent crime rates have been attributed to the imbalance that already exists in contemporary China. And since those left without wives tend to be the very poorest men – who are increasingly finding themselves clustered in “bachelor villages” – other grievances could easily consolidate them into a violent force. This is exactly what scholars Valerie Hudson and Andrea Den Boer have argued preceded historical Chinese conflicts like the Nien Rebellion, the Black Flag Army, the Boxers and the Eight Trigrams Rebellion.

Furthermore, if the Chinese government gets worried about the social upheaval bare branches could cause, they may try to channel that angst into the Chinese army. In that case, it could result in ultra-nationalism and a foreign policy that’s “swaggering, belligerent, provocative,” as Hudson and Den Boer put it.

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I try to be an optimist. I have confidence that new technologies and targeted policies can mitigate some of these problems before they become catastrophic. But the fact that these four things are happening in concert is downright terrifying and presents the probable scenario that they’ll exacerbate one-another. The worsening health effects from pollution could make it more expensive to care for the elderly. The water shortage and soil degradation could cause food and utility prices to rise, making it harder to eke out a living and keep the bare branches content. You get the idea.

So by all means keep an eye on the present economic hurdle. It will certainly have enormous implications on the quality of life in China and the extent to which the country is able to address other issues. But don’t forget that even if China gets over this hurdle, there are much bigger ones on the road ahead. Keep a very close eye on these hurdles, because they won’t become apparent in any abrupt crash. But they have the potential to be much more crippling to the country’s sustained growth.