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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 China, Indonesia, and Myanmar, and commission work by other scholars on the broader region. The program also holds a robust series of dialogues and events on the politics of the region, independently and in partnership with other organisations.

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On North Korea, China’s interests are unchanged

China's recent move to close North Korean businesses operating in China is undoubtedly welcome news to Australian and US policymakers. However, this is should not be seen as a shift in China's approach to North Korea. Rather, it is a tactical manoeuvre – China's goals and interests regarding the Peninsula remain the same.

In the last few weeks, we have seen China undertake several measures in relation to North Korea. Aside from the order for all North Korean businesses operating in China to close, China's central bank has ordered all Chinese banks to stop working with the North Korean regime. China also announced last week that it would cut off gas and limit the amount of refined petroleum products it ships to North Korea.

These moves should not be understood as a shift in China's mindset towards North Korea or Kim Jong-un's regime. China's agenda for the Peninsula is fundamentally different from that of Australia or the US. While all three want to see denuclearisation, regime collapse is absolute anathema to Xi's government. For China, concerns about a wave of North Korean refugees flooding into China (and the instability that would cause) as well as the potential for a unified, US-allied Korea bordering China outweigh fears of nuclear war. While there is debate within China about policy towards North Korea, there is little to suggest that avoiding regime collapse has ceased to be the primary goal.

So what has motivated China to undertake these measures now?

It's hard to say with any real certainty, but one possible factor could be concerns about regional stability and security (both central to China's own development and prosperity). Another could be China's frustration at the poor state of relations between China and North Korea, which are at their lowest for many years and show no signs of improving. It is also conceivable that China wants to dampen US President Donald Trump's bellicose rhetoric, given that it seems to be further inflaming the situation. How China is perceived by the international community and the desire to be seen as a responsible global actor could also play a role. The upcoming National Congress and the importance for Xi that the Chinese population see him as a powerful and relevant global leader may be a consideration as well. It is critical for Xi's legitimacy that he be seen as able to manage the US-China relationship – taking action that diminishes US criticism of China could play well for him at home.

While all of these are possibilities, the extent to which any of these factors is causal remains to be seen. What we do know is that while China has undertaken some measures, it has not yet done all it could to squeeze the Kim regime. For example, it has not mentioned any plans to reduce crude oil shipments to North Korea, which are an important part of China's energy supplies to the country. This would suggest that China remains unwilling to put the kind of pressure on Kim Jong-un that could really threaten the viability of the regime. By the same token, the measures China has taken indicate that China is increasingly frustrated with the direction the situation on the Peninsula is heading.

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