Power and gun barrels

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Greetings and happy year of the pig! With apologies to vegetarians and Muslims, here’s a picture from a recent holiday of a particularly apposite golden piggy.

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Last night, as China residents will be all too well aware, was the last day of the 15 New Year celebrations and marked by a six hour long barrage of fireworks that made the capital feel as though it was once again encircled by hordes of invaders, this time equipped with gunpowder and little else. Previously banned, fireworks were allowed back in 2005 in Beijing and residents seem to be making up for lost time. However, despite occasional displays of truculence, Beijingers are basically a law-abiding lot and when the last stroke of midnight sounded there was barely a pop to be heard, as dictated by municipal authorities.

Speaking of military matters, a recent announcement that just-opened annual session of China’s quasi-parliament, the National People’s Congress, would include an 18 per cent rise in military spending in its budget is rattling some cages, putting the fox into the dovecote (or is that chicken coop?) or whatever the appropriate cliche is. Predictably enough (and this will be a recurring theme for years to come), some commentators warned of the dangers of Chinese hegemonism, confrontation in the Pacific with the U.S. and so on. Aware of the impact the announcement would have, China’s spin doctors spread the word that the increase was mostly for soldiers wages, not new weapons (like anti-satellite missile, for example; presumably the funding for those is well in hand), that it was to make up for a 6 per cent annual real decline in military spending that occurred from 1979-1989, that even with this raise, the budget was only 6 per cent of the annual U.S. military expenditure etc. Like all numbers in China, the defense budget is more of a suggestion about a trend than an actual, verifiable set of numbers. Still, there’s no doubt military spending is rising and will continue to do so. My feeling is that building a better military is an inevitable result of any nation acquiring greater economic and political power and frankly, there’s not much the rest of the world can do about it. The main danger is that with so many toys available, senior generals might feel the need to do something with them. That’s particularly the case with regard to Taiwan, obviously. The Peoples Liberation Army has been massing its forces for the last year and more in coastal provinces opposite Taiwan to the point that Washington felt the need to send a message to Beijing politely enquiring what was going on. Still, while relations between the civilian government and the PLA are a complex issue, if anything the power of the generals has declined in recent years. I haven’t seen many serious suggestions that there’s a danger a Chinese version of Dr. Strangelove would be capable of starting a war in the straits. We should worry about making sure the country doesn’t implode from the huge pressures its delirious growth rate is exerting, not if Guam is in danger of being invaded.

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