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Hu's Paradise

China and North Korea's growing list of worries.

6:00 PM, Jul 31, 2009 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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Unconfirmed reports that Kim now suffers from pancreatic cancer have struck fear into the hearts of more than one Asian government and have forced Beijing to think about the near-term future of the isolationist state. "If the reports are true then Kim will never live long enough to ensure that he can install Kim Jong Un (his youngest son at age 26) as his successor," said a Beijing-based source, "and who takes over has some significant implications for China." The scenario that is believed to be playing out now is that Kim's multiple provocations of the past few weeks--a second nuclear test, multiple missile launches--are designed to curry favor with the DPRK military in the hope that the generals will still support the younger, 26-year old Kim's ascension to the throne.

Buying into these reports on Kim's health is problematic in that they are leaked from South Korea's intelligence service and "you never know what the agenda for leaking these reports is," said a source based in Beijing. "Traditionally the Japanese have had better information that the South Koreans" on the true situation inside of the DPRK. Japanese intelligence officers are able to collect a fair amount of HUMINT (human-sourced intelligence) from the sizeable colony of pro-North Zainichi Koreans that reside permanently in Japan and travel back and forth to deliver gifts of consumer goods and cash to their relatives.

Recent photos of Kim showing a sizeable loss of weight, a generally gaunt appearance, a limping gait in his walk and the decline of his bouffant hairstyle seem to support the cancer theory. Other analysts dispute it by using the old "who made more visits this year to more collective farms" technique that was one of the few insights into the Soviet leadership's maneuvering in the former USSR.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies, has discounted the cancer rumors on the basis that there has been a spike in the number of what are called "field-guidance" visits by Kim to factories and (of course) collective farms to date this year. From January to June 2009 Kim has reportedly made 77 of these visits while in the first half of 2008 he made only 49 such appearances. An advanced case of cancer, so his theory says, would prohibit Kim from such a busy schedule of personal visits. President Hu and Co. are undoubtedly hoping that Yang's assessment is the correct one.

But, the uncertain DPRK situation and the recent riots in Xinjiang province are only two of an expanding list of problems for Beijing. Not the least of which is the impact of the worldwide economic downturn.

Official government statements are crowing that the PRC is the only nation to experience robust economic growth at 7.9 per cent. The population at large has greeted this "official" news with no small degree of contempt--the Chinese equivalent of people complaining loudly about a "jobless recovery." This is not surprising because anyone familiar with the structure and dynamics of China's economy will tell you that anything less than 9 percent expansion translates into negative growth despite what the government's numbers might say. Moreover, most of the growth seems to have been fueled by massive lending into the local economy by Chinese banks and not due to any major increase in manufacturing output.

There are many Chinese websites that are forums for people to vent their dissent against the party line. The reaction to the economic news had the state security apparatus working overtime last week--breaking into those forums that had bloggers complaining that the government's announcement on the economy amounted to no more than a feeble attempt to put lipstick on a pig. A Chinese colleague in Beijing told me "you cannot believe the deluge of people talking angrily about what a joke this supposed 'economic growth' is on these news sites." The same colleague checked back a few hours later and found all such comments had been deleted.

Beijing can stick its head in the sand all it wants, but it does not detract from the reality that there are palpable levels of discontent in the population. More important is the fact that they may be ignited by ethnic tensions or economic hardship, but at the core there is increasingly hostility all over China towards local and regional government officials and their rising levels of corruption.

The anger is not limited to one part of the country either. Most of the world is aware only of the clashes in Xinjiang province in the capitol city of Urumqi, but more deadly riots between minority Uighurs have also taken place in the last week. Only these occurred 3,000 miles away on the other end of the country in the city of Shaoguan in China's southern Guangdong province.