We are delighted to welcome Malin Samuelsson as our occasional correspondent from Singapore, who will be sharing her insights about trends — from political to economic and social — impacting and being driven from Asia. Malin is a political scientist and linguist with deep experience in the region and has worked with the UNDP, NGOs and government agencies, from China to Mongolia, Sweden and Switzerland. In her first blog she explores the Chinese leadership transition from a Singaporean perspective.
As an old China hand returning to Asia a couple of months ago, I was looking forward to immersing myself in up-to-date and insightful accounts of the forthcoming transition of power to the fifth generation of post-revolutionary leadership in China. Clearly these imminent changes must be a topic of interest here in Singapore? The greatest changes in three decades are expected at the very top of the ruling Communist Party – 14 of the Politburo’s 24 members are expected to step down, along with seven of the nine members of its powerful Standing Committee. A huge change.
But there is surprisingly little to read about it. The sudden disappearance for a few weeks in September of the man who is expected to become the next president, Xi Jinping, was breaking news, but in terms of domestic policy there has been much more focus on the – arguably ‘juicier’ – ousting of former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai and its aftermath. On the other hand, Singaporean media is filled with reports about the domestic and foreign policy challenges that whoever takes the helm in China is going to face.
Among these challenges, the most popular topic is the territorial disputes over islands in the East China Sea, reignited by Japan’s purchase of the islands from its private owner, and in which Taiwan has now re-emerged as a contender. The issue goes back to the late 1800s and became even more complex after the Second World War, when it became unclear in which post-war treaty some groups of islands were included. Their attractiveness lies in their fishing waters, natural gas potential, shipping lanes, and not least national pride for the respective countries.
In a recent visit to China, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared that Singapore will not take sides in the disputes, stressing that conflicts should be resolved according to international law, and that Singapore’s trade-based economy required uninterrupted passage on the South China Sea. He also underlined the critical role of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) as a regional, uniting force, and urged China to continue its productive relationship with the multilateral organization even in the heat of the territorial disputes. PM Lee’s position is part and parcel of Singaporean foreign policy. As a small country, regional cooperation and multilateral partnerships are of the essence. Singapore has a history of trying to engage China in both regional and global multilateral frameworks, hoping that this will keep the northern neighbor in line and help maintain peace and stability in the region. Mirroring the country’s official neutral position, Singaporean media are also demonstrating objectivity by consistently referring to the disputed islands by both the Chinese and Japanese names (i.e Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China).
Another main area of Singaporean interest in Chinese affairs is the recent economic downturn. Last week China’s largest steelmaker, Baosteel group, reportedly shut down a mill in Shanghai due to lack of demand in construction and shipbuilding. Even the economic powerhouse of Shenzhen – the export hub bordering Hong Kong in southern China – has been affected. Wages have been slashed and workers let go due to a sharp decline in incoming orders, resulting in migrant workers returning home to their villages for good. Official migrant worker unemployment figures are not currently available, although are not as yet estimated to have reached the 20 million strong migrant worker exodus of 2009. These developments have spurred fears of further labor unrest, such as the recent troubles at the (iPhone-producing) Foxconn factory in northern China, where 2000 workers protested over increased productivity demands, halting production and prompting a major security operation.
Singaporean interest in China’s economy is certainly understandable. Increasing instability, particularly in China’s export industry, is unlikely to go unnoticed in Singapore. The city state is the fourth-largest foreign investor in mainland China (investing over USD 6 billion last year), and its eighth largest trading partner – quite an achievement considering Singapore’s diminutive economy.
Clearly there is a great interest in China’s domestic and international affairs in Singapore. This is no surprise, given the close economic ties and the fact that 76% of Singapore’s population is ethnic Chinese. However, can we draw the conclusion that regional territorial disputes and China’s economy have a potentially greater impact on Singapore than having a new generation at the helm in Beijing? What reasons could there be for the seeming lack of interest in the latter?
One possible reason could be that Chinese top leaders are known to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors, so the reshuffle may well have a negligible impact on Sino-Singaporean relations. The intra-party democracy and the traditional consensus-based decision-making system ensure that changes are few and slow. In addition, despite the closed selection process, many nominations are known beforehand. Some reports claim that because of the recent scandals within the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) the nominations are expected to be kept even more conservative than usual and only safe compromise candidates will be selected. Furthermore, others argue that the current Japan – China standoff could be a stabilizing force in South East Asia as attention is drawn northwards, away from the islands in the South China Sea claimed by China and some if its southern neighbors in the vicinity of Singaporean shores.
So there may well be ample reason for Singaporeans to be more interested in the maritime territorial debacle than the upcoming power reshuffle in China. However, it remains to be seen if this changes as we approach decision time at the Politburo Standing Committee meeting in November.
China’s Bo Xilai likely to face criminal charges
ASEAN – Association of South East Asian Nations
Safety first in China’s leadership line-up (New Straits Times) http://www.asianewsnet.net/home/news.php?id=35815&sec=1
How China’s Mysterious Leadership Changes Work (Yahoo Finance/Business Insider)
PM Lee Sien Loong’s speech at the Central Party School in Beijing