This is the second article in a two-part series about the ten developments that have shaped China in 2014. To read about the first five developments, click here.
China has suffered from a spate of terrorist attacks this year from Uighur separatists, who are from the largely Turkic-speaking Muslim province of Xinjiang.
Uighur minorities have been long unhappy with the Chinese rule in their homeland and some of the more radical elements have turned to violent tactics.
The outburst of violence is attributable to a confluence of factors, including Beijing’s longstanding oppressive policies of curbing religious practices, economic grievances owing to the resource-rich province, as well as the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in Xinjiang thanks to its geographic proximity to troubled states like Afghanistan and Pakistan.
7. A diplomatic turnaround?
For the past few years, China’s international reputation has been marred by its overtly aggressive policy towards its neighbours including Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
More importantly, China has also adopted a more confrontational approach with the United States in the region. Many pundits and analysts are becoming increasingly pessimistic about China’s intentions.
However, the world was pleasantly surprised when Beijing announced its cooperation with the US on climate change. Many have described it as a game-changer. At the APEC Summit, Xi also reluctantly reached out to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is deeply unpopular in China.
Xi and his Premier have also been travelling extensively around the region and indeed the world, offering trade deals as well as economic assistance. There appears to be a diplomatic turnaround, though it is still early days.
The intransigence of Putin and his efforts to bully Ukraine into submission also help to make China look better. It is interesting to observe that Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Yang, a leading reformer said in the US that China accepted global rules and “we have neither the ability nor the intent to challenge the United States”.
8. Tackling an impending environmental crisis
When China was hosting the APEC Summit in early November, the government ordered thousands of factories to cease production and tens of thousands of cars to be off the streets. Intense smog disappeared for a week and this gave rise to a new sarcastic phrase “APEC blue” – indicating something beautiful and ephemeral.
Beijing is showing more seriousness this time in tackling the country’s dismal environment problem. 40 per cent of the country’s underground water table as well as 10 per cent of soils are polluted, and the life expectancy of people living in North China has been reduced by few years, thanks to smog.
The government is imposing tougher penalties and perhaps more importantly, curbing the country’s excess capacity in many heavily polluting industries such as steel, coal and cement. Hebei, a big steel-producing province has suffered a significant decline in GDP growth due to Beijing’s increasingly tougher stance on pollution.
9. Ever-tightening censorship
While Beijing is adopting a more enlightened policy on economic reform, it is also at the same time pursuing a much more intolerant attitude towards dissent.
Many influential voices or ‘big Vs’ on popular social media platform Weibo have been silenced and journalists and activist lawyers have been arrested and put behind bars.
Journalists and their colleagues, including those working at state media, are becoming increasingly disillusioned as well as frustrated. A moderate Uighur scholar and his students have also been sentenced to lengthy jail terms for voicing modest criticisms of the government.
The editor in chief of 21st Business Herald, a reputable business publication with reformist leanings, was arrested on more dubious charges as well.
10. Xi, the new emperor
Since the passing of the former Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, the country has adopted a more or less collective leadership at the top.
The standing committee of the Politburo effectively rules the country, with the party secretary general taking the position as the first amongst equals. This is especially true under the last Hu Wen administration.
However, analysts and China watchers have been surprised at how fast Xi managed to consolidate its power over key institutions of the party and state. Many regard him as the strongest Chinese leader since Deng and his standing has also been boosted by his impeccable princeling lineage as well as a popular wife, who is also a folk singer.