March 06, 2017

NEED TO KNOW

Guns Versus Butter

Howls of derision greeted Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to shoot for 6.5 percent economic growth this year at the annual National People’s Conference.

That target is slightly less than last year’s growth of 6.7 percent – a 25-year-low for the world’s second-largest economy and most populous country – and represents a rare acknowledgement that once-booming China won’t easily shake off its recent slump, USA Today reported on Sunday.

But many observers thought 6.5 percent was still an overly ambitious number that illustrated what ails the Chinese economy.

Risky debt is driving Chinese demand, corrupt deal making remains rampant and China’s authoritarian government continues to protect bloated industries that sooner or later will go bust unless political reforms put them on a more sustainable course, argued Barron’s.

Xi’s leadership faces an important test, the New York Times wrote on Saturday.

“The question now is whether he was ever really serious about taking the painful steps needed to repair the economy, or merely paying lip service to reform to justify his tightening grip on power,” the paper said.

The Times reported that Xi has sought to centralize political control and stifle dissent in his five years in office rather than letting Chinese banks run themselves and dropping barriers to foreign investment, moves that should deflate the country’s debt bubble and entice new money to enter the economy to help make up for the shortfall.

The newspaper dedicated a sidebar to the challenges Xi faces and how he’s been tackling them or not.

But it’s hard to see Xi making the reforms that the Times claimed were essential.

The Shanghai-based Hurun Report recently found that an elite cadre of communist billionaires who are members of the National People’s Congress have accumulated around $700 billion under the current system. That’s around the GDP of Belgium.

The report was not made public in China because it might embarrass Xi, who “made his presidency all about cracking down on corruption and decadence,” the Australian Broadcast Corporation noted.

In other areas, Xi isn’t equivocating in making bold steps.

China also on Sunday announced that its defense budget would hit a record high of $145 billion, CBS reported.

That money would presumably fund China’s new aircraft carrier, which Nikkei Asian Review called a “tool of gunboat diplomacy,” and the country’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, which have caused much consternation throughout Asia and beyond.

The world can only hope Xi achieves the proper balance of the age-old question of guns versus butter.

WANT TO KNOW

A Mass Exodus

The fierce battle for Mosul resulted in a mass exodus over the past week.

More than 40,000 people fled the city, as a new push by US-backed forces accelerated the pace of displacement, Reuters reported.

On Sunday, Iraqi forces pushed into the old city center held by the Islamic State and closed in on the main government complex. Since the start of the offensive in October more than 206,000 have fled Mosul, up from 164,000 on Feb. 26. But there could be an even larger wave on the horizon, with the United Nations warning last month that some 400,000 people, more than half the remaining population in western Mosul, could be forced to flee the city.

Beating IS in Mosul would effectively end the Iraqi wing of the caliphate, which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared over parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014. It took Iraqi forces 100 days of fighting to recapture the eastern half of the city in January. The assault on the western half began Feb. 19.

Going Ballistic

Still in the news for the alleged assassination of dictator Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, North Korea launched four ballistic missiles into the sea off Japan early on Monday, with one of them landing as close as 300 km (186 miles) to Japan’s northwest coast.

US and South Korean officials said there was no indication that the test included intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, Reuters reported.

The launch followed closely after Pyongyang promised to take action in response to US-South Korea military drills that the North sees as a preparation for war. It also prompted South Korea’s acting president Hwang Kyo-ahn to push for swift deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system – which has raised hackles in Beijing.

Following a similar test last month, which was the first since the election of Donald Trump, the US president’s national security deputies have reviewed responses including direct missile strikes on the North’s launch sites and again placing nuclear weapons in South Korea – from which they were removed in 1991.

No Disrespect, But….

Conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon responded to the announcement that France’s Republican party would meet to discuss “a respectful exit plan” by insisting he would not drop out of the race.

“No one can stop me from being a candidate in this race,” CNN quoted Fillon as saying in an interview with a French television channel.

Criticized for not withdrawing from the race over allegations that he paid his wife and children huge sums for work they never really performed, Fillon might be replaced on the ballot by former Prime Minister Alain Juppe – whom Fillon defeated in the primaries – according to current speculation.

Fillon also faces an investigation into possible criminal wrongdoing.

A senior member of Fillon’s party said the Republicans were trying to get Fillon to stand down respectfully, on the grounds that his damaged campaign could allow National Front leader Marine Le Pen to take power.

Recent opinion polls showed Emmanuel Macron, who broke from the Socialist Party to launch a new progressive party called “En Marche,” leading Le Pen and Fillon. But the poll also showed Juppe would lead all candidates if he re-entered the race.

DISCOVERIES

A True Rock Artist

Everyone’s been accused of living under a rock at one point in his life.

But French artist Abraham Poincheval took that expression one step further by living inside a rock – for an entire week.

Poincheval entombed himself for seven days in a body-shaped slot carved in a limestone boulder displayed in the Palais de Tokyo, a contemporary art museum in Paris.

He survived his rocky ordeal by eating stewed fruit and purée while breathing through an air vent, wrote Reuters.

Last week, Poincheval emerged from the boulder to the applause of spectators who gathered to witness his return to sunlight and fresh air.

“I’m a little dazed, which I imagine is totally normal after one week living in a rock… which hosted me well,” Poincheval told reporters. “I thank it very much for having been so enthusiastic about welcoming me.”

It’s not the first time the 44-year-old artist has bunkered down for his art either: In 2014, he spent nearly two weeks living inside a hollowed-out bear sculpture to mimic a bear’s diet.

Check out some pictures of Poincheval’s installation here.