China 2013: A Year in Review by Malcolm Moore

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This week, China Briefing is featuring a series of specially-commissioned articles from prominent China-based writers regarding their thoughts on the key developments in the country during 2013, and what lies ahead in 2014. Today’s article is written by Malcolm Moore, the Beijing correspondent of the Daily Telegraph.

Jan. 9 – It was another twisting, turning year of surprises and reversals in China, and 2014 promises more of the same.

It is now clear – painfully clear to some unfortunate Chinese officials – that Xi Jinping, who became president in March, runs a much tighter ship than his predecessors.

This time last year, there was a large question mark over Mr. Xi’s head. Some wondered if his health was poor after his two-week disappearance before the 18th Party Congress. Others wondered whether he would be able to tame two generations of Party elders, not only Jiang Zemin, but also Hu Jintao.

Fast forward to the present and how the pendulum has swung. Mr. Xi looks to have a very tight grip on all the levers of power, perhaps tighter than any leader since Deng Xiaoping.

He finished the year by edging his premier, Li Keqiang, out of the way to take control of the “small group” on deepening reform – a key policy making body that will give him a greater say in deciding reforms without having to battle past the consensus.

The speech that Mr. Xi gave at the end of last year, suggesting that the Soviet Union collapsed because there was no “strong man” to hold the Party together, now seems to have been a signal of intent.

After ten years in which the Communist party had, by general consensus, become corrupt, bloated and self-congratulatory, this year provided a sharp shock to the system.

The fight against corruption has been the overwhelming political narrative of 2013, and last year’s final Politburo meeting promised that the campaign would continue into 2014.

Eighteen officials at or above minister level were investigated for corruption in 2013, more than three times the annual average in the five years before. In the first nine months of the year, almost 130,000 cases of corruption and breaches of party discipline were investigated, a rise of 13.5 percent from the year before.

The campaign has penetrated the People’s Liberation Army too, which returned more than 8,000 apartments that had been improperly allocated (although no doubt there are many more to reclaim).

This year could now see the biggest scalp of them all: Gao Yu, a well-connected liberal journalist, tweeted that Zhou Yongkang, the former Politburo Standing Committee member and security tsar, has been in detention since Christmas Eve.

If Mr. Zhou appears in the dock in 2014, it will be an even juicier news story than the trial of Bo Xilai last August.

The fall of Mr. Bo, the suave 64-year-old former Politburo member and party secretary of Chongqing, was set into motion well before Mr. Xi took power, though his demise was a boon to the incoming administration.

No one expected the theatre of his trial however, or that it would be played out over the internet with edited transcripts being tweeted by the court.

Instead we were treated to a damaging account of the lives and loves of top officials. There was the suggestion of a love triangle between Mr. Bo’s police chief, Wang Lijun, and his wife, Gu Kailai.

There was the villa in Cannes. There were the private jet trips for Bo Xilai’s then teenage son to Africa for safari, and the mysterious “meat from a rare animal” he brought back for his parents to taste.

It was pure soap opera, and tightly scripted too: amidst all the criticism Mr. Bo leveled at his accusers, there was not a word of criticism for the Communist party or for the legal system that was bound to convict him.

In Chongqing, meanwhile, Mr. Bo’s successors are struggling to revive an economy crippled by the enormous debts he ran up with his ambitious projects. Then there is the legal mess to clear up: the thousands of people convicted for being gangsters under Mr. Bo. Many of them are quietly now having their assets returned, but overturning their jail sentences will be a difficult process.

According to Xinhua, the state news agency, this year’s top news stories, apart from Mr. Bo’s trial and Mr. Xi’s elevation, were: landing a rover on the moon, the plan to tackle air pollution, the establishment of a new Air Defense Identification Zone (through which 800 foreign jet fighters flew in its first month), the founding of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone and the Third Plenum, which laid the foundation not only for Mr. Xi’s new small group on reform but also for a new National Security Council to oversee domestic and international security issues.

I would add to that list: the arrest of tens, if not hundreds of activists from the New Citizen movement, Edward Snowden’s flight to Hong Kong, the police investigation into GlaxoSmithKline, the apparent suicide attack on Tiananmen Square (and the bombing of a government building in Taiyuan shortly afterwards), the conviction of Liu Zhijun, the Railways minister, and the earthquake in Sichuan. Some 1,181 Chinese died in natural disasters in 2013.

And, behind the headlines, there has been a tightening of control over the media, both old and new. Newspapers have seen their remit considerably narrowed this year; to the point where the anti-corruption campaign has dominated the media landscape to the exclusion of almost everything else.

Online, meanwhile, the authorities have chased down their critics and tightened censorship. Even if the censorship machine, which some researchers believe involves 200,000 people manually combing the web, was less efficient, there is now a real fear of posting controversial material on Sina Weibo or on Internet forums. The “Big V’s”, those celebrities with huge followings online, have been silenced.

One of the abiding images of 2013 was the appearance on CCTV of Charles Xue, a princeling venture capitalist, with more than 12 million followers on Weibo, after he was arrested for allegedly visiting prostitutes.

Heading into 2014, the easiest prediction to make is that we will see more confrontation with Japan. At the end of last year, Chinese leaders said they would now refuse to meet Shinzo Abe after the Japanese prime minister visited the controversial Yakusuni shrine, where several class A war criminals were interred in the 1970s.

At the time, the Global Times said it was not necessary to “mobilize large resources for vengeance”. An editorial said China’s response “has to be simple and do no harm to ourselves”. Instead, the newspaper suggested erecting statues of Japanese war criminals on their knees.

It is a fine idea, but with tensions continuing over the ownership of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, it is easy to see that mass protests could once again break out.

Another easy prediction is that the anti-corruption campaign will continue its momentum. Reading the tea leaves over Zhou Yongkang’s fate, one source suggested that if he did not make an annual greetings list to old comrades issued by Xinhua every Chinese New Year, he is toast.

But several sources have also suggested that Mr. Zhou is not the “ultimate target” of the campaign. Now that the family fortunes of Wen Jiabao have been made public, a question mark hangs over his head too.

With the anti-corruption campaign in full flow, Mr. Xi has the perfect tool to bash down those officials with vested interests in opposing his reforms. With Mr. Xi at its head, the small group for reform has more power than the commission, which drew up the reform plans in the 1990s that cut a huge swathe through the state sector.

That means that some of the mooted reforms to the tax system, and to how local governments raise revenue, could materialize, as could reforms to land ownership in the countryside. All of which would make 2014 a year to remember.

Malcolm Moore is the Beijing correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. He arrived in China in 2008 and was previously based in Shanghai. He has also worked as the Rome and Economics correspondent for the Telegraph Media Group.



Tomorrow’s Guest Author: Chris Devonshire-Ellis