Osborne's tax cut dilemma

Cutting taxes could cause at least as many problems as it solves for the Chancellor.

Ever eager to distinguish himself from the coalition, Boris Johnson has called for a programme of tax cuts to "stimulate growth". The National Insurance rise, he says, should be reversed and the 50p rate should be scrapped to demonstrate that London is "open for business". George Osborne, who has long hinted that he will abolish the top rate by 2013, must be tempted to take up Johnson's call for a supply-side revolution. Even today's Sun attacks him for refusing to accept that a "dash for growth is not incompatible with reducing the deficit." (Although in a post-hacking age that may no longer be a surprise.)

But it's worth noting that cutting taxes could cause at least as many problems as it solves for the Chancellor. The Lib Dems are willing to support the abolition of the 50p rate but only if it is replaced by a range of new property-based taxes - exactly the sort of measures likely to enrage the right-wing press. Worse, the spectacle of a Conservative Chancellor cutting taxes for the richest one per cent while VAT remains at 20 per cent would be political gold for Labour. It would destroy Osborne's already dubious claim that "we're all in this together." Polls have consistently shown that the 50p rate is popular with voters. A recent Sunday Times/YouGov survey, for instance, found that 33 per cent think the top rate should be scrapped, compared to 49 per cent who think it should be made permanent. Significantly, 51 per cent would like to see the starting threshold brought down from £150,000 to £100,000, with 29 per cent opposed.

In addition, unless Osborne can demonstrate that his tax cuts would be self-financing he would either have to slow the pace of deficit reduction (something he has repeatedly ruled out) or make even larger spending cuts. The five-year departmental budgets, we have been repeatedly told, are set in stone (the average cut is 11 per cent; 19 per cent if we exclude the NHS and international development - the ring-fenced departments.), which leaves Osborne with the option of making further cuts to welfare spending, something hardly likely to appeal to the Lib Dems. The Chancellor's room for manoeuvre, it is becoming increasingly clear, is shrinking by the day.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The age of China's female self-made billionaires – and why it could soon be over

Rags to riches stories like Zhou Qunfei's are becoming less common.

Elizabeth Holmes, 33, was the darling of Silicon Valley, and the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire. Then, after a series of lawsuits, the value of her healthcare firm plummeted.

Holmes might have abdicated the billionaire crown, but another tech queen was ready to take it. Only this time, the self-made female billionaire was not a blonde American, but Zhou Qunfei, a 47-year-old from China. She dropped out of high school and began working at a watch lens factory as a teenager. In 1993, when she was in her early twenties, she founded her own company. Her big break came ten years later, when Motorola asked her to develop a glass screen for smartphones. She said yes.

Zhou is in fact more typical of the SMFB set than Holmes. Of those listed by Forbes, 37.5 per cent come from China, compared to 30 per cent from the United States. Add in the five SMFB from Hong Kong, and the Middle Kingdom dominates the list. Nipping at Zhou’s heels for top spot are Chan Laiwa, a property developer who also curates a museum, and Wa Yajun, also a property developer. Alibaba founder Jack Ma declared his “secret sauce” was hiring as many women as possible.

So should the advice to young feminists be “Go East, young woman”? Not quite, according to the academic Séagh Kehoe, who runs the Twitter account Women in China and whose research areas include gender and identity in the country.

“I haven’t seen any of these self-made female billionaires talking about feminism,” she says. Instead, a popular narrative in China is “the idea of pulling yourself up by your boot straps”. So far as female entrepreneurs embrace feminism, it’s of the corporate variety – Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In has been translated into Mandarin.

In fact, Kehoe believes the rise of the self-made woman is down to three historic factors – the legacy of Maoist equality, and both the disruption and the opportunity associated with the post-Mao economic reforms.

Mao brought in the 1950 Marriage Law, a radical break with China’s patriarchal traditions, which banned marriage without a woman’s consent, and gave women the right to divorce for the first time.

In Communist China, women were also encouraged to work. “That is something that was actively promoted - that women should be an important part of the labour force,” says Kehoe. “At the same time, they also had the burden of cooking and cleaning. They had to shoulder this double burden.”

After Mao’s death, his successor Deng Xiaoping began dismantling the communist economy in favour of a more market-based system. This included reducing the number of workers at state-owned enterprises. “A lot of women lost their jobs,” says Kehoe. “They were often the first to be laid off.”

For some women – such as the SMFBs – this was counterbalanced by the huge opportunities the new, liberal economy presented. “All this came together to be a driving force for women to be independent,” Kehoe says.

The one child policy, although deeply troubling to feminists in terms of the power it dictates over women’s bodies, not to mention the tendency for mothers to abort female foetuses, may have also played a role. “There is an argument out there that, for all of the harm the one child policy has done, for daughters who were the only child in the family, resources were pushed towards that child,” says Kehoe. “That could be why female entrepreneurs in China have been successful.”

Indeed, for all the dominance of the Chinese SMFBs, it could be short-lived. Mao-era equality is already under threat. Women’s political participation peaked in the 1970s, and today’s leaders are preoccupied with the looming fact of an aging population.

“There has been quite a lot of pushback towards women returning to the home,” says Kehoe. Chinese state media increasingly stresses the role of “good mothers” and social stability. The one child policy has been replaced by a two child policy, but without a comparable strengthening of maternity workplace rights.

Meanwhile, as inequality widens, and a new set of economic elites entrench their positions, rags to riches stories like Zhou Qunfei's are becoming less common. So could the Chinese SMFBs be a unique phenomenon, a generation that rode the crest of a single wave?

“Maybe,” says Kehoe. “The 1980s was the time for self-made billionaires. The odds aren’t so good now.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.