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China vows to boost economic growth by balancing reform, national security

TAIPEI, TAIWAN — China’s ruling Communist Party concluded a highly anticipated party conclave Thursday, promising to boost economic growth through comprehensive reform while reiterating the importance of maintaining national security.

The Central Committee, in a communique at the end of the four-day, closed-door Third Plenum, laid out reform objectives to be completed by 2029, the 80th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.

The party’s top decision-making body also vowed to finish “building a high-standard socialist market economy in all respects” by 2035.

“All of this will lay a solid foundation for building China into a great modern socialist country in all respects by the middle of this century,” the communique said.

To achieve these goals, the communique said China must better utilize market mechanisms and double down on efforts to promote “high-quality development,” which includes prioritizing investment in advanced technologies and facilitating growth through technological and scientific innovation.

“We must deepen supply-side structural reform, improve incentive and constraint mechanisms for promoting high-quality development, and strive to create new growth drivers and strengths,” the communique said.

The key political meeting comes as China’s economic growth slowed to 4.7% in this year’s second quarter, prompting banks such as Goldman Sachs to lower their 2024 gross domestic product growth forecast for China from 5.0% to 4.9%.

Meanwhile, China’s property crisis continues as investment in the sector dropped 10.1% in the first six months of this year compared to a year earlier, and consumer confidence remains weak.

To address these challenges, Beijing promised to implement measures to defuse risks in the property sector while improving income distribution, the job market, social security, and the health care system.

“Ensuring and enhancing the people’s well-being in the course of development is one of the major tasks of Chinese modernization,” the communique said.

As local governments across China face mounting debt resulting from the real estate crisis, the communique stressed the need to roll out fiscal and tax reforms and facilitate better integration between cities and the countryside.

“The Party must promote equal exchanges and two-way flows of production factors between the cities and the countryside, so as to narrow the disparities between the two and promote their common prosperity and development,” the statement said.

As foreign investors closely monitor signals coming out of the plenum, the party said it would remain committed to the state policy of “opening to the outside world” and promised to “expand cooperation with other countries.”

“We still steadily expand institutional opening up, deepen the foreign trade structural reform, further reform the management systems for inward and outward investment,” the communique said.

Some analysts say the communique shows that Beijing is focusing on areas critical to China’s national strength, including technology and advanced manufacturing.

“This isn’t Western-style market liberalization; it’s about reinforcing China’s existing strategy,” Lizzi Lee, a fellow on the Chinese economy at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis, said in a written response to VOA.

“The document cements Xi’s governance approach and his brand of reform, which focuses on consolidating power rather than adopting new liberal economic paradigms, endures,” she wrote.

Balancing reform and national security

In addition to laying out the long list of reform goals, the communique also highlighted the need for the party to balance development and security.

“We will strengthen the network for preventing and controlling public security risks so as to safeguard social stability [and] improve public opinion guidance and effectively deal with risks in the ideological domain,” it said.

The document also reiterated that the party’s top leadership, especially Xi Jinping, remains the “fundamental guarantee” for deepening reforms.

“We must uphold Comrade Xi Jinping’s core position on the Party Central Committee and in the Party as a whole and uphold the Central Committee’s authority and its centralized, unified leadership,” the communique said.

Some experts say the communique’s emphasis on upholding public security and following the guidance of party leadership shows Beijing is trying to tighten control over efforts to reform China’s troubled economy.  

“Tightening control is at the heart of [Beijing’s] dilemma because in order for the reforms to work, they need to loosen control,” Dexter Roberts, a nonresident senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, told VOA by phone.

While other specific reforms are expected to be rolled out in other plenum documents in coming days, Lee said she expects consumer spending in China to remain sluggish and that recovery in the property sector remains slow in the short term.

“The prolonged transition period poses significant risks. It could lead to reduced investments and slower economic growth,” she told VOA, adding that the Chinese government will likely use targeted interventions to boost key sectors.

However, some analysts think that Beijing’s state-led economic growth model is unlikely to yield the results the government hopes for.  

“China’s state-led investment, which concentrates resources on areas such as semiconductors and artificial intelligence, is going to take years to pay dividends, and meanwhile, the economy will continue to fail to deliver growth and jobs,” Andrew Collier, managing director of Orient Capital Research in Hong Kong, told VOA in a video interview.  

He said unless the government takes concrete steps to reduce its involvement in economic reforms, the country’s economic downturn could grow worse in coming years. 

China’s Third Plenum does nothing to revive economy, observers say

Taipei, Taiwan — China’s ruling party has concluded the Third Plenum of its 20th Central Committee with a communique described as vague and cliché by China watchers, who said it lacks specific measures to address China’s economic difficulties.

Shi He-ling, an associate professor of economics at Monash Business School at Monash University in Caulfield, Australia, said the communiqué was disappointing and that its writers were completely unthinking.

The 5,000-word communiqué, issued on Thursday, touted the Chinese Communist Party’s achievements in “comprehensively deepening reforms” and said the future will be critical for comprehensively advancing “Chinese-style modernization,” building a strong country and rejuvenating the nation.

Shi said that while Chinese President Xi Jinping has set out a new vision of “Chinese-style modernization” to highlight his differences from previous party leaders, the communiqué does not provide any specific definitions that are measurable.

“It does not make macroeconomic adjustments at all but is like a philosophical article, which is basically a cliché,” Shi told VOA.

In addition to “socialist market mechanisms” and “new quality productivity,” the communiqué stressed that national security is an important foundation for the steady and long-term development of Chinese-style modernization; that the modernization of national defense and the armed forces is an important part of it; and that “party leadership” in particular is the “fundamental guarantee” for promoting this policy.

Yeh Yao-yuan, chairman of the Department of Political Science at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, said that under the framework of “Xi Thoughts,” it is difficult for the economic exposition of this communiqué to be new.

Even if the “socialist market economic system” is repeatedly touted, it will not be able to reverse China’s economic decline, he said, adding that Xi’s economic reform is in fact “changing things to their old ways.”

These include forcing the private sector to retreat in order to help the state advance and tightening controls over foreign capital, which will hit the market economy hard.

Ming Chu-cheng,  professor emeritus of political science at National Taiwan University in Taipei, offered a similar assessment on Thursday at a seminar in Taiwan.

Xi “is touting the market economy, but what he really pushes is ‘the people retreat and the country advances,’ which is completely opposite to what he says,” Ming said. “I don’t have great hopes for the Third Plenum. Even if you relax the economic restrictions, you will encounter exactly the same problems in another 20 years because politics is choking the economy.”

The communiqué received more than 100 million views on Weibo and made it to the hot search list hours after its release. However, there was hardly any substantive discussion online among Chinese people in the comment areas. Most just reposted and recited some of the communiqué text to express their concerns.

The personnel changes made at the plenum attracted a lot of attention as the CCP officially approved the removal of its former foreign minister, Qin Gang, from its Central Committee.

Qin, who has not been seen in public since last summer, is no longer a member of the Communist Party leadership. He was dismissed as foreign minister in July last year and removed from the post of state councilor three months later.

His resignation from the top body had been accepted. No further details were provided, and the reasons behind Qin’s disappearance remain unclear. He was allegedly investigated for having an extramarital affair, leaking secrets and endangering national security.

The plenum also confirmed the expulsion of former Defense Minister Li Shangfu. Li Yuchao and Sun Jinming of the People’s Liberation Army’s Rocket Force were also removed from the Central Committee.

Many online comments focused on Qin being called “comrade” in the party’s published decision while others were calling Qin’s ousting a “soft landing.”

After the discussion on Qin’s removal became a hot topic, the Weibo accounts of various media outlets seemed to be alerted and comments were concealed.

Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, said that Beijing dislikes Chinese people arguing online about the CCP’s high-level personnel because comments might call into question the party’s decisions and judgment, especially as Qin was previously Xi’s close confidant and the foreign minister.

“What happened to Qin has not been particularly public so far,” Chong told VOA, “and too many of these discussions [about Qin] will also distract public attention from the economic reform plan the Third Plenum wants to promote.”

Adrianna Zhang, Yang An, Joyce Huang contributed to this story.

Recent outages highlight need for stronger African internet

Nairobi, Kenya — Experts say Africa needs to invest in robust infrastructure if the continent is to have reliable internet after recent outages due to underwater cable failures highlighted the continent’s reliance on single-path connectivity.

Disruptions in March and May caused online banking problems and communication delays. Businesses experienced interruptions in many countries.

In March, on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, four submarine cables that deliver the internet to at least 17 countries went offline.

Less than two months later, Eastern and Southern Africa experienced outages after two undersea cables were damaged. In Tanzania, the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam closed for two days due to the disruption.

Ben Gumo, a Kenyan who relies on the internet to sell clothes, shoes and children’s wares, said he lost business during the May disruption.

“Someone … puts stuff in the [online] basket, but because of the outage he cannot complete the sale, so he cancels,” Gumo said, adding that he couldn’t update his website with new products.

According to the telecommunications research company Telegeography, over 100 cable cuts occur globally each year. Experts blame undersea volcanic activity, rock falls, recent rainfall and currents in rivers that are much stronger than when some of the cables were built.

Manmade activities also cause disruptions. According to one report, a ship was attacked in the Red Sea and drifted, its anchor pulling up three underwater cables.

Mike Last works with the West Indian Ocean Cable Company, which operates in 20 African countries and has built 36 data centers. He said recent disruptions prompted government officials and businesspeople to recognize the need for better internet infrastructure.

“What it made people realize is that you have to invest in a reliable network, you have to invest in redundancy,” Last said, meaning that internet service is provided by more than one source. “We’ve seen a real boom in clients coming to us wanting connectivity on the new subsea systems.”

Some countries can stay online when one internet source is cut off, although service is often slow and not stable, because service providers and telecommunication carriers invested in more than one international connection.

According to the World Bank, sub-Saharan Africa’s digital infrastructure coverage, access and quality are far behind those of other regions.

However, Africa is embracing the digital future. According to the Submarine Cable Networks, 37 countries have at least one subsea cable connection, and 20 countries have more than two subsea cables.

Last said cables planned by Google and Meta will improve connectivity.

One of the new cables, he said, has a high capacity. Another new cable — named 2Africa and led by Meta, the parent company of Facebook — is being built all the way around Africa.

“It brings a lot of capacity to Africa, and that will help,” Last said.

Experts warn that disparities in connectivity across Africa are expected, but that the development of infrastructure, government policies and private sector investments can accelerate growth.

Actor Bob Newhart, famous for deadpan humor, dies at 94

LOS ANGELES — Bob Newhart, who fled the tedium of an accounting job to become a master of stammering, deadpan humor as a standup comedian and later as a U.S. television sitcom star, died on Thursday at the age of 94, his publicist said.

Newhart died at his home in Los Angeles after a series of short illnesses, said his longtime publicist, Jerry Digney.

Newhart had two hit shows — first playing a psychologist on “The Bob Newhart Show” from 1972 to 1978, and then portraying a Vermont innkeeper on “Newhart” from 1982 through 1990. In both shows he relied on a bland, cardigan-clad everyman character who is confounded by the oddball people around him.

Newhart was nominated for Emmy Awards nine times, beginning in 1962 for writing on his short-lived variety show, but he did not win until 2013 when he was given the award for a guest appearance on “The Big Bang Theory.”

Newhart’s career began in the late 1950s, with a comedy routine in which he played straight man to an unheard voice on the other end of a telephone call. Tommy Smothers of the Smothers Brothers duo called Newhart “a one-man comedy team” because of his dialogues with invisible partners.

His 1960 live album, “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart,” was a big hit that was also highly influential. It became the first comedy album to top the charts and earned him three Grammy awards.

Newhart’s characters had a trademark stammer, which he said was not an act but the way he really talked. He said a TV producer once asked him to cut down on the stammer because it was making the shows run too long.

“‘No,’ I told him. ‘That stammer bought me a house in Beverly Hills,'” Newhart wrote in his memoir, “I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This!”

He ended his “Newhart” show in 1990 with an episode regarded as one of the most unique in the annals of U.S. television. In the last scene of the series, he awakens in bed with his wife from the first series after “dreaming” his life in the second series.

Newhart sprung from an era of angry, edgy standup comics such as Lenny Bruce, Shelley Berman and Mort Sahl, but his act was subtly subversive, without the profanity or shock used by his contemporaries.

He exploited his hesitant, bashful ordinariness to skewer society in his own fashion — including sketches about how a publicity agent would “handle” Abraham Lincoln or one featuring an inept official on the phone with a frantic man trying to defuse a bomb.

In the late 1950s, Newhart had a boring accounting job — in which he claimed that his credo was “that’s close enough” — and began writing comedy sketches with a colleague as a diversion.

Those led to radio performances and eventually a record deal with Warner Bros.

“Probably the best advice I ever got in my life was from the head of the accounting department, Mr. Hutchinson, I believe, at the Glidden Company in Chicago, and he told me, ‘You really aren’t cut out for accounting,'” Newhart told an interviewer.

Before winning an Emmy in 2013, Newhart had been nominated three times for his acting on “Newhart,” once for writing on his 1961 variety show and twice for appearances on other shows. He also was a frequent guest on variety shows and talk shows.

He appeared in several movies, including “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” “Catch-22” and “Elf.”

In 2002, he was awarded the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Asked by the New York Times in 2019 whether he felt 90 years old, Newhart said, “My mind doesn’t. I can’t turn it off.”

Newhart was introduced by comedian Buddy Hackett to his future wife, Virginia, whom he married in 1964. The Newharts had four children.

US appeals court blocks remainder of Biden’s student debt plan

WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court blocked the implementation of the Biden administration’s student debt relief plan, which would have lowered monthly payments for millions of borrowers.

In a ruling Thursday, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals granted a motion for an administrative stay filed by a group of Republican-led states seeking to invalidate the administration’s entire student loan forgiveness program. The court’s order prohibits the administration from implementing the parts of the SAVE plan that were not already blocked by lower court rulings.

The ruling comes the same day that the Biden administration announced another round of student loan forgiveness, this time totaling $1.2 billion in forgiveness for roughly 35,000 borrowers who are eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

The PSLF program, which provides relief for teachers, nurses, firefighters and other public servants who make 120 qualifying monthly payments, was originally passed in 2007. But for years, borrowers ran into strict rules and servicer errors that prevented them from having their debt canceled. The Biden administration adjusted some of the program’s rules and retroactively gave many borrowers credits toward their required payments.

Two separate legal challenges to Biden’s SAVE plan have worked their way through the courts.

In June, federal judges in Kansas and Missouri issued separate rulings that blocked much of the administration’s plan to provide a faster path toward loan cancellation and reduce monthly income-based repayment from 10% to 5% of a borrower’s discretionary income. Those injunctions did not affect debt that had already been forgiven.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling that allowed the department to proceed with the lowered monthly payments. Thursday’s order from the 8th circuit blocks all aspects of the SAVE plan.

The Education Department said it was reviewing the ruling.

“Our Administration will continue to aggressively defend the SAVE Plan — which has been helping over 8 million borrowers access lower monthly payments, including 4.5 million borrowers who have had a zero-dollar payment each month,” the administration said.

New US sanctions target Houthi financial network

WASHINGTON — The United States issued Yemen-related counterterrorism sanctions on Thursday targeting individuals and entities linked to Houthi financial facilitator Sa’id al-Jamal.

The Treasury Department said the actions affected a dozen people and vessels, including Indonesia-based Malaysian and Singaporean national Mohammad Roslan Bin Ahmad and China-based Chinese national Zhuang Liang, “who have facilitated illicit shipments and engaged in money laundering for the network.”