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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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”