A Challenge To And From China's Entrepreneurs

What's on your mind?
What's on your mind?
Autumn Wind

BEIJING - In China, politics is something that worries and tangles up the minds of businessmen, perhaps more than others. Two recent events shed new light on what we can call the political anxiety of Chinese entrepreneurs.

The first incident came after the remarks of Liu Chuanzhi, the chairman of tech giant Lenovo, during a forum for Chinese entrepreneurs on Zhenghe Island. Liu stated that China's "economic trend is currently in a state of uncertainty" and that "the most important thing for Chinese entrepreneurs is to mentally focus and concentrate." Responding in an article, Huang Lilu, chairman of Zhenghe Island, then interpreted what Liu actually meant by "focusing" and "concentrating."

And what did he mean? That from now on businessmen should only talk about business. “In meetings henceforth we shall only discuss business, no politics. Under the current political and economical situation doing well in business is our duty.”

Liu's "reminder" resonates well among most of the entrepreneurs of this businessmen’s club.

However, one woman resolutely refused Liu's viewpoint. She is Wang Ying, the president of an investment corporation. She flatly declared, “I don't belong among those businessmen who don't talk about politics. Nor do I believe that Chinese entrepreneurs can survive just by kneeling down. So as not to involve this club, I hereby declare that I am officially withdrawing from it."

At the same moment, another act at the crossroads of business and politics was occurring in China. Zeng Chengjie, a Hunan businessman convicted of illegal fund-raising, was executed. According to Zeng's daughter, before putting him to death the court didn't even inform the family, nor was he allowed to see his family for a final time. This cruelty set off an uproar across China's Internet.

The online discussion included a post on the microblog of Wang Shi, the founder and Chairman of China Vanke, the country's largest real estate enterprise. “Reviewing the Chongqing incident: During the period of Bo Xilai as Secretary of Communist Party and the Red Culture Movement (in which he put forward a series of Mao-style campaigns to revive the Red Culture and crack down on crimes), a large number of Chongqing businessmen were forced into prison and their properties were confiscated. Their lives and dignity lost, no legal protection and even the lawyers who defended some of them were wrongfully jailed. At that time, I chose to stay silent. Reflection: that was cowardly, mistaken behavior. We should clearly say "NO" to those authoritative departments that violate the laws and infringe on people's lives and property."

Wang Wei and Ren Zhiqiang, two other famous Chinese entrepreneurs have given their support for Wang's declaration.

Chinese entrepreneurs are of two mindsets, both of which can be attributed to China's unfettered governmental power.

Since governmental power is not constrained, that power is everywhere. If a Chinese businessman wants to do business, and in particular, big business, he or she cannot avoid having connections with governmental officials to obtain their support, or at least their recognition. Of course, since economic construction is at the core of Chinese authority and local officials need to show good economic performance, they also need the businessmen's support. They are very willing to deal with business people and provide them with benefits preferential treatment. Nowhere else in the world is there a closer relationship between politicians and businessmen than in China.

Nevertheless, such close ties are not necessarily what Chinese entrepreneurs would prefer. Indeed, such relations often create serious anxiety for them. This is because such institutions based on guanxi - the good connection – are not rational.

The fact that Chinese politicians and businessmen can have such tight relations is precisely because China doesn't have a sound democracy and a complete rule of law to properly administer justice.

To any entrepreneur at all, such an institution is inherently uncertain. The probable result is that an entrepreneur could be put in jail just like those who experienced this during the rule of Bo Xilai in Chongqing. This was mentioned by Wang Shi. When power is abused, a once glorious Chinese entrepreneur can instantly become very fragile, as his property and person lose institutional protection.

Thus comes the dilemma for Chinese businessmen, how to avoid suffering such an experience?

There are two strategic choices for them. Liu Chuanzhi chose the first kind. In a recent interview with CCTV, he expressed in detail his attitude. "I can only obey the environment. I have never imagined that I can confront the environment or anything of the sort. Neither do I have the ambition, nor do I dare. If it is impossible to change the larger environment, one can make efforts to change the smaller one. Were it also impossible to change the small environment, one might as well adapt oneself to it and wait until the moment is ripe to change it. I am a reformist. If I count as a successful businessman today it's because I do not victimize myself in reform. If the reform is not to be, I keep myself out of danger."

Wang Ying is instead the one who opts for the second kind of choice, and she is supported by certain Chinese entrepreneurs such as Wang Shi. That is, through open conceptual efforts a civil society can strive to change unreasonable institutions.

The two strategies look seemingly opposed to each other. But, maybe they are actually complementary.

Entrepreneurs actively engaged in cultural undertakings to build a civil society merit great esteem. China needs such entrepreneurs today, and the more the better. It in fact doesn't imply confrontation. Even so, this choice requires greater courage, of which not every entrepreneur is capable. However, the ones failing to stand up should still show their respect to the others because the others' efforts are beneficial to the entire group of Chinese entrepreneurs and to the whole of society.

As to "businessmen should talk about business", even though it is seemingly passive, it can nonetheless contribute to institutional rationality. Of course businessmen are to talk about only business. In interpreting correctly "Businessmen are to make good business sense", this can play a positive role in transforming China's institution. If businessmen are really to stick to only business, they are to focus on business innovation and integrity. They should have self-restraint, and be clean themselves. They should not collude with authority, refuse to bribe governmental officials and adhere to businessman's ethics.

Were this the true practice of all Chinese businessmen, the current deformity of political-business relations would have ceased to exist. But if instead, a businessman on one hand declares to only talk about business, but on the other hand turns around and gets very close to the authority, this is a symptom of schizophrenia that can only harm the functioning of the nation.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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