The year 2012 was for Beijing a year to display its dragon-like qualities of authority, dignity, and honor. The dragon is also the symbol of the emperor, so it may have been auspicious for a new leader to be chosen during November’s meeting of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. While the once-in-a-decade leadership change peacefully transferred authority to Xi Jinping, some dignity was lost as details of the Bo Xilai affair were revealed over the summer, and Chinese citizens felt their honor challenged over sovereignty issues with Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines in the South China Sea. Despite these setbacks, 2012 was largely characterized by a more dominant, fire-breathing Beijing, aggressively defending its sovereignty in the South China Seas, refusing to be bottled up by the Obama Administration’s pivot toward Asia, and taking an ambitious, more prominent role in international affairs.
The following are some of the biggest stories of 2012:
The Bo Xilai Affair
On February 6, the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu received an unexpected visitor — Wang Lijun, former deputy mayor of Chongqing and police chief. After leaving the next day, Wang was later convicted of covering up the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, by Gu Kailai, wife of Chongqing’s former Party chief Bo Xilai. Wang was found guilty of defection, abuse of power, taking bribes and bending the law for personal gain, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Gu Kailai was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve for committing intentional homicide while her husband Bo awaits his fate, his soaring political ambitions coming to an abrupt halt.
Human Rights and Freedom of Speech
Following in the footsteps of his compatriot Wang Lijun, the Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng found shelter in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, after escaping from house arrest. Chen was ultimately successful in securing safe passage to the United States, and now studies law at New York University.
According to Reporters Without Borders, China moved further away in 2012 from a free press, falling three slots in its 2011-2012 Press Freedom Index, just ahead of Iran and Syria. International correspondents in Beijing and Shanghai reported more difficulties in reporting, coming under greater scrutiny by security forces and having to work under the continual threat of expulsion or having their visas withdrawn. Journalists were also prevented from covering most of the events that might have given it a negative image. The year saw more journalists, bloggers and cyber-dissidents being sent to prison, and the new Standing Committee in China made it clear that in the near future, the Internet will see further tightening constraints.
A Potential Flareup over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands
The ties between China and its neighbors were strained by territorial disputes in the South China Sea, most notably with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu island chain, especially after the Japanese government announced the “purchase” of Diaoyu Islands on September 11. China responded by sending maritime surveillance ships to waters around the islands to assert its sovereignty. Nationalistic Chinese citizens staged large-scale protests and demonstrations in dozens of cities, and mobs smashed Japanese cars and looted Japanese-owned stores.
Shortly thereafter, China’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning officially entered service, making China the 10th country in the world to have such a vessel in active service. In November, China’s home-made fighters successfully completed takeoffs and landings on the Liaoning. China’s neighbors grew increasingly anxious over a more assertive and powerful China.
China Steps out on the International Stage
Following its veto of a U.N. resolution to impose sanctions on the administration of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, China instead offered a four-point plan: 1) maintain a ceasefire and work with Brahimi’s mediation efforts; 2) appoint interlocutors who can negotiate a political transition; 3) increase support from the international community for the efforts of Brahimi and “relevant Security Council resolutions”; and 4) increase humanitarian assistance. While the U.N. welcomed China’s rare effort to involve itself in the sovereign issues of another country, international discussion was limited given the proposal’s lack of punitive measures, for leaving open the possibility of Assad staying on in a power-sharing agreement, and for not significantly adding to previous failed peace plans. Nonetheless, Beijing was praised by many for attempting to take a greater role in international affairs.
A New Leadership and the Promise of Reform?
At the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping was elected the new general secretary of the CPC Central Committee and chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission. During his first address to the media, Xi spoke of “the people” 18 times, and vowed to crack down on corruption, a major concern of the people. His “southern tour”, in the footsteps of the reformer Deng Xiaoping twenty years earlier, held out the promise of significant reform.
The Year of the Water Snake, 2013
February 10 will usher in the Year of the Water Snake, when we are likely to see significant developments in the area of science and technology — a vital area recognized by China’s new leadership as essential for China’s continued growth. While the Water Snake is the Yin to last year’s Dragon Yang, the Snake will not settle for mediocrity and China will continue its push toward greatness, perhaps becoming even more aggressive over its claims in the South China Sea. Xi Jinping will continue to the peoples fight against corruption using social media, while dissident voices will be more closely monitored. In the Year of the Water Snake, delusion and deception will be commonplace (according to astrologists), which could foretell Beijing having a few surprises in store for the international community in 2013.