(CNN)The President of the United States is 79 years old.
Chinese politics has become even more of a black box under Xi Jinping – The Globe and Mail
It should be easy to prove a coup hasn’t taken place.
Over the weekend, however, as unfounded claims Chinese President Xi Jinping had been deposed spread first from Chinese dissident outlets to Indian media and then across Twitter – based on non-existent or willfully misinterpreted evidence – even respectable China watchers were cautious in their debunking: This almost certainly isn’t happening, but we can’t say for sure.
“The inherent opacity of the system just gives these rumours more room to spread, even if not based on reality,” said Washington-based analyst Bill Bishop.
Mr. Xi hasn’t been seen for a few days, most likely because he is in quarantine after returning from a trip to Central Asia last week – he similarly disappeared from public view after a visit to Hong Kong in July. On Sunday, state news agency Xinhua included him in a list of senior cadres attending next month’s Communist Party Congress.
At that meeting, far from being overthrown, Mr. Xi is expected to secure an unprecedented third term as leader. There are no serious challengers, and he could yet stay in power for another decade.
Even that prediction, however – while the consensus view among analysts – is ultimately a guess based on pronouncements in Chinese state media, Mr. Xi’s own actions and perceived Party norms – many of which have already been broken during Mr. Xi’s decade in power.
“This is analysis imposed on a system by people who have no experience inside the system,” said Drew Thompson, a senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. “It’s a political black box at the top.”
Mr. Xi’s fate ultimately rests with the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee and a handful of retired Party grandees. Outside that circle, few others know what is going on, whether Mr. Xi is truly in the position of strength he appears to be or frantically making deals and compromises to stay the course.
We may get some clarity at the Party Congress itself, but what goes on behind the scenes will remain shrouded in secrecy.
This applies both to foreigners and ordinary Chinese, who often have scant insight into how key decisions are made on their behalf. But as China faces growing challenges and the spectre of conflict rises with its neighbours and rivals, the lack of transparency becomes more dangerous.
“Beijing’s radical opacity has real-world consequences,” Richard McGregor, an expert on Communist Party politics at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, wrote recently. “How would Xi, for example, make any decision to invade Taiwan? What would happen if the military pushed back? Could the politburo vote to overrule Xi? Does Xi feel pressure from the public to take the island?
“Almost anything China does has global fallout these days, but its internal debates and its decision-making processes are almost entirely hidden,” he added.
Mr. Thompson, a former U.S. Defence Department official, said that even during the Cold War, Washington and other Western powers had greater insight into how decisions were made in the Kremlin, and what to look out for, but “we don’t have any of that with China.”
“So we’re ripe for misperception, for misunderstandings and miscalculations, because we don’t know how they’re signalling,” he said.
Nigel Inkster, a former director at British spy agency MI6, now an analyst with London-based Enodo Economics, agreed Chinese politics can be remarkably hard to parse, even for those who make a career of it.
“We have a number of areas where China seems to be saying one thing and doing another and it can be genuinely be very difficult to work out what their intentions are,” he told The Globe.
Because of the opaque nature of Chinese elite politics, theories about the Party’s functioning depend on historical analyses, which are not always good at predicting the future, or even elucidating the present.
During Mr. Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao’s two terms as Chinese leader, there was much focus on supposed factions within the Party, and a perceived tussle for power between Mr. Hu’s Communist Youth League allies and the “Shanghai gang” around former leader Jiang Zemin.
But Mr. Xi upended this model. Many of his key allies have been linked to factions believed to be in fierce opposition to each other – either he has negotiated (or forced) a peace between warring sides, or the divides were never as great as outsiders once believed.
David Shambaugh, a long-time scholar of the Communist leadership, favours the latter interpretation.
“Since 1989, I don’t think factions have been a very useful or even identifiable thing when it comes to studying Chinese politics,” he said. “We just can’t clearly identify them.”
Even settled history when it comes to China often isn’t as certain as is presented.
Former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping is often credited – by both Chinese and foreign sources – with kick-starting capitalist reforms and encouraging collective leadership within the Party in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Recent research has challenged both claims. Not only do many now credit Mr. Deng’s predecessor Hua Guofeng with key economic policies, but, as academic Joseph Torigian writes, “the Deng era was emphatically one of continued strongman rule.”
If we are only now understanding one of the most scrutinized periods of modern China – that which followed Mao Zedong’s death – hope of gleaning what is currently happening within the Party’s top ranks can sometimes seem next to impossible.
So inevitably, in the run-up to major events like the Party Congress, we enter the “silly season” of Chinese politics, when rumours abound – and people start shouting coup just because Xi Jinping stayed inside for a few days.
55 Tufton Street: The other black door shaping British politics – BBC
On a rainy afternoon earlier this month, Liz Truss walked through the famous black door of No 10 Downing Street for the first time as prime minister.
But under a mile away, there’s another black door that’s had a lasting effect on the previous decade in British politics – and looks like being influential under this administration too – No 55 Tufton Street.
The building houses organisations including the TaxPayers’ Alliance and the Global Warming Policy Foundation – and is the former home of many others, such as Vote Leave and Brexit Central.
Just hours after Liz Truss made her first speech on the steps of Downing Street, she announced that her new economics adviser would be Matthew Sinclair, a former chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
And a couple of weeks later, the new chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, delivered the most consequential financial statement for a generation, ripping up decades of economic orthodoxy.
He was pictured celebrating with Mr Sinclair – a man who made his name working behind that other black door.
The influence of TaxPayers’ Alliance began in 2008, when the financial crash led to bank collapse around the world.
“If you didn’t want that to happen in the UK, you had to get growth higher,” says Andrew Lilico, chairman of Europe Economics and Matthew Sinclair’s former boss.
“One way you could get growth high was just to get spending down and it might not be a very pleasant way of getting growth higher, but needs must in these kinds of circumstances.
“There was a TaxPayers’ Alliance report called How to Save £50 billion, which to some extent breached the dike on where things were going. And very shortly after that, others all chimed in. So quite quickly there were proposals for cutting spending by £150bn and £200bn.”
In 2010, David Cameron became prime minister and ushered in a new age of austerity.
The TaxPayers’ Alliance was no longer a fringe group frustrated with the Conservatives’ approach to the economy. Instead, they became a key public backer of the government’s approach to the economy.
“The newspapers or the broadcast media would have a spokesperson from an organisation, it could be the TaxPayers’ Alliance, it could be another think tank,” says Nicky Morgan, a Treasury minister in the coalition government.
“As a minister, if you’re going to advance a difficult or a controversial idea, it’s no surprise that before you announce such a thing, what you try to aim for is that phrase ‘rolling the pitch’. You’ve got people outside saying, ‘this is what we need’. So when you announce it, one hopes that it’s going to be well received.”
But the organisations at No 55 had started to attract controversy too.
Many of them have a long-standing policy of protecting the anonymity of their donors, something the Lib Dems wanted to change.
The coalition government did change the rules on lobbying. But the BBC understands the Lib Dems wanted those changes to go further – and to include think tanks, which do not come under lobbying rules.
Few would suggest that David Cameron and his chancellor George Osborne were Tufton Street’s natural allies – one senior member of Osborne’s Treasury team describes the TaxPayers’ Alliance as “a bit of a joke”. But they were useful in helping sell those austerity policies to the public.
After the 2015 election, David Cameron pledged to hold a referendum on EU membership – and that’s when the relationship changed.
Vote Leave, which would go on to become the official leave campaign, was originally based at No 55 as well. Andrew Lilico, who was Vote Leave’s chief economist in the latter days of the campaign, says the think tanks there were natural Brexiteers.
“I think that they are people who are quite optimistic about what the market can achieve. And they’re quite pessimistic about grand state projects.
“So the European Union, as a supranational, multinational body would be an iconic example of something that they would be sceptical about.
“Matthew Elliott, in particular, who’s the chief executive of Vote Leave, comes directly out of that that setting. He was the chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.”
After the Leave campaign won the referendum, the fight shifted again. The battle over how exactly to define Brexit had begun.
“People thought that the referendum would be the end of it, and of course in many respects it was just the beginning of the argument,” says David Jones, minister for exiting the EU from 2016.
“Vote Leave wound itself up so there was there was nobody there. A number of other organisations did spring up to fill that vacuum.
“And Brexit Central was a very important one.”
Headed up by Jonathan Isaby, another former chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, Brexit Central also ended up being based at 55 Tufton Street.
“So it became almost required reading for those who were on the pro-Brexit side of the argument,” says Mr Jones. “Every day you’d check in at Brexit Central and see what they were reporting.”
Boris Johnson’s victory in 2019 – and his pledge to take the UK out of the EU’s single market and customs union – was another huge moment for Tufton Street.
After the financial crash, once-fringe views on public spending had become mainstream – and now the same happened with Brexit.
The apparent influence made the argument around who funds these groups rear its head again.
But while privately critical of where the money comes from, the Labour Party hasn’t made it a public priority to reform the rules governing this area of politics.
“55 Tufton Street shouldn’t have any more influence than any other street in the UK,” says Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader.
“That street seems to dominate particular policy and what’s happening in government and legislation and it’s not transparent enough.
“Labour would consult on the wider definition of what lobby groups are – so that would include what is currently known as think tanks because we don’t believe that the definition is wide enough, but also around transparency around where their funding comes from as well.”
The BBC did ask representatives from the organisations mentioned for an interview, but no-one came forward.
Labour may want to change the rules – but for now, that’s not in their gift.
Instead, last week’s financial statement seemed to confirm that Liz Truss is more aligned with the ideas floating around No 55 than any of the previous recent occupants of No 10.
So what sort of new policies might the government start to enact?
The TaxPayers’ Alliance has had a long-running campaign to crack down on paid time off for trade union officials, including when Mr Sinclair was chief executive.
The new Business Secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg, met the TPA in March.
The BBC has used a freedom of information request to discover that the meeting was called to discuss paid time off for trade union officials – something Liz Truss has now pledged to crack down on.
Still, no one can be sure exactly what will take place behind the famous black door of No 10 over the next few years.
But perhaps by paying closer attention to what’s happening behind the other black door, we might get a good idea.
‘The Other Black Door’ will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 20.00 BST on Monday 26 September, and will also be available on BBC Sounds.
Politics Podcast: Why Biden’s Unpopularity Doesn’t Seem To Be Tanking Democrats – FiveThirtyEight
A president’s approval rating is traditionally tied to how his party performs in a midterm election, but Democrats have been outpacing President Biden in the polls for months. In this installment of the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast, the crew discusses how Biden’s approval rating may impact the midterm election and how the Democrats’ performance in November could influence the president’s 2024 reelection plans.
The team also debates whether tracking Google search terms over time is a better barometer than traditional polling when it comes to understanding the issues shaping American voting patterns. Lastly, politics reporter Alex Samuels and visual journalist Elena Mejía break down their reporting on how Black voters are changing the political landscape of Georgia.
You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button in the audio player above or by downloading it in iTunes, the ESPN App or your favorite podcast platform. If you are new to podcasts, learn how to listen.
The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast is recorded Mondays and Thursdays. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on iTunes. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.
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