Delegates at China's National People's Congress meeting in March 2012. Photo: Getty
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China’s billionaire politicians quadruple their wealth

Despite their low official government salaries, at this week’s National People’s Congress annual meeting, there will be 86 renminbi billionaires and China’s richest politicians have quadrupled their wealth in the past eight years. But is there a right level to set politicians’ pay?

On paper, Chinese politicians are pretty hard up compared to their US counterparts: China’s president, Xi Jinping, earns $19,000, compared to Barack Obama’s $400,000 salary, according to the International Business Times. And yet, while most Chinese politicians are at pains to hide their real incomes, the Financial Times reported that this week’s annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, the country’s legislature, will include 86 renminbi billionaires (equivalent to being worth over £97,725). According to the FT’s calculations, the country’s wealthiest politicians saw their wealth quadruple over the past eight years, while the richest 1000 people in the country saw their wealth triple – suggesting that most ordinary people in China are right that the best way to get rich is via political connections. The Chinese government’s high-profile anti-graft campaign doesn’t seem to be having much effect.

In 2012, it was estimated that the richest 70 members of China’s NPC have a larger combined wealth ($89.8bn in 2011) than that of all 535 members of the US congress, the president and his Cabinet and the nine Supreme Court judges. US politicians are not exactly poor, and according to World Bank estimates GDP per capita in the US is $51,749 compared to $6,091 in China. And, on paper at least, China’s billionaire politicians are communist officials. 

This raises some interesting questions about how much politicians ought to be paid. The most important defence against corruption is strong and well-enforced anti-graft laws combined with a much harder-to-define shift in social norms: in too many countries public officials believe themselves entitled to bribes and sweeteners and when corruption is pervasive, it becomes normal.

But there is an argument to be made that if you pay officials too little – and $19,000 to head up a country of over a billion is probably too little – this only encourages them to seek extra incomes elsewhere.

Some argue that high civil servant and politician salaries also promotes professionalism – Singapore is often held up as an example of a country that has managed to attract the brightest talent into government by offering salaries that compete with the top private-sector jobs. The counter-argument is that you want to attract people into politics who aren’t especially motivated by money.

The Economist published interesting data comparing MPs salaries to GDP per capita across various countries. Nigeria comes up top, because MPs are paid over 116 times more than the country’s per capita GDP – suggesting that high official income alone isn’t a strong disincentive against corruption. Kenya and Ghana are next on the list, with a ratio of 76 and 30 respectively. In Britain, politicians are paid around 2.7 times GDP per capita, while in the US it’s almost quadruple.

But, if Nigerian, Kenyan and Ghanaian officials were paid, say just triple per capita GDP, they’d be earning $4,655, $2,829 and $4,815 respectively. Should we also consider levelling the playing field so that officials of low-income countries aren't the paupers at the tables of international summits?

Setting the right level for official government salaries is a complex issue, but China is clearly getting it very wrong indeed. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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“Journalists are too scared to come”: Refugees on the forgotten war in Yemen

Only the few who have managed to flee the war-torn country can reveal the suffering of those left behind.

Last weekend’s BBC Our World report on the humanitarian crisis caused by the Yemen civil war highlighted that not only is the conflict a forgotten war, it is also an unknown war. Since war broke out 18 months ago in March 2015, surprisingly little has been written about the conflict, despite its similarity to ongoing and widely-reported other conflicts in the region, such as the Syrian crisis.

The main conflict in Yemen is taking place between forces allied to the President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and those loyal to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced Hadi to flee the capital city Sana’a in February. The loyalties of Yemen’s security forces are split, with some units backing President Hadi and others his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is seen as the leader of the Houthi forces.

While these two forces have been at war, separate terrorist groups have been gaining more and more influence on the ground. Opposed by both the Houthis and Hadi’s forces, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have staged deadly attacks from strongholds in the south and south-east. They are also opposed by Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings in Sana’a.

After rebel forces closed in on the president's southern stronghold of Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by Hadi to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets.

I have spent the last couple of months working in the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, home to refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia – to name just a few. Having heard very little about the civil war, I was surprised to meet a handful of Yemeni men living inside the camp.

Hussein*, 28, is a film producer and dancer from Yemen who fled the country two years ago and has travelled through 11 countries to reach the Calais camp, where he has been living for just over a month. In a mixture of English and French, he tells me how groups of Houthi militia forcibly try to confiscate cameras and notebooks from both local and international journalists. He knows local journalists, friends of his, who have been threatened, tortured and even killed by Houthi forces.

He pulls out his phone and shows me a picture of his friend, Mohammed, who worked as a photojournalist, documenting brutality as a result of the war. Mohammed’s friends and family have not heard from him since April; the best-case scenario is that he is being detained, but Hussein seems pretty certain that he is dead. As a result, many who otherwise would have reported on the conflict have fled from besieged cities such as Sana’a, Aden and Taiz to the relative safety of the countryside in the north of the country, or have left Yemen altogether.

His friend Jamil, with whom he shares a tent, adds: “from other countries journalists [they are] too scared to come”. He claims that there are only “five or seven” foreign journalists in the capital city, Sana’a and tells me about journalists from the UK, France and the US who, after spending days being held up by countless militarised checkpoints while trying to reach the main cities, are then interrogated and detained by Houthi forces. If they are let go, they are harassed throughout their visit by National Security officers.

After watching his mother die during an airstrike in the city of Hodaida in January, Jamil took the decision to flee Yemen and claim asylum in Europe. He is worried about his father and his friends who are still in Yemen, especially after hearing reports that random border closures and cancelled domestic flights have been preventing crucial aid convoys of food, medical supplies and trained aid workers from accessing the citizens who are desperately in need of humanitarian assistance. Jamil reminds me that Yemen was in economic crisis even before war broke out, with widespread famine and limited access to healthcare or clean water.

Movement within the country is restricted and dangerous, and in the last twelve months alone, four Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) facilities have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes. Writing on 15 September 15, MSF head of mission in Yemen, Hassan Bouceninem spoke of:

“Other health centers, schools, markets, bridges . . . [that] have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes, shelling, or bombs. Such attacks create direct victims but the war (economic failure, access problems, closing of hospitals, no health staff etc.) also causes a lot of indirect victims within the population.”

Such widespread instability and the resultant lack of access for journalists and aid workers means that it is difficult for the world to know how much Yemen is suffering. Only by speaking to the few who have managed to flee can even begin to grasp the realities of daily life for those left behind.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of our sources.

Neha Shah has been volunteering in the Calais camp.