BEIJING – Billionaire developer Pan Shiyi toasted VIP guests on the rooftop of his latest, space-age property, in sight of storied buildings from China’s imperial past and communist present.
The curving Galaxy Soho, designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, opened last month with a “creativity celebration” for Beijing’s movers and shakers.
China is enjoying a golden age for construction and design in the world’s largest building market, said Pan, who has more than 7 million followers on his microblog.
“No matter whether in politics, society or the economy, we long for progress, constant progress,” he said.
On Thursday, China will announce the names of the handful of Communist Party leaders who will run the country for the next 10 years.
Selected in secret and without public consent, the new leadership inherits a country that faces challenges to its economy, labor unrest, demands for political and judicial change, and outside nations standing up to China’s territorial demands.
The slowdown in the Chinese economy that upset world stock prices and metals markets appears to have subsided. China’s growth rate in the past year was half of what it was five years ago, but the projected rate of 7.5% is well above Western nations.
Signs are everywhere that China has vaulted to the No. 2 economy in the world behind the USA, from the world’s fastest trains and largest number of subway projects to soaring cityscapes and financial districts full of foreign banks. Its economy could exceed the USA’s in four years, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicts.
That economic might has allowed China to spend rapidly to modernize the People’s Liberation Army, which has developed stealth jet fighter technology and launched its first aircraft carrier in the fall. The growing military might comes as China presses its claim to ownership of the entire East China Sea, a huge body of water vital to world shipping.
China’s top leader, Hu Jintao, who will step aside for a successor this week, said China must become a maritime power and build “a harmonious world of enduring peace.”
In the U.S., President Obama has said he wants to “pivot” naval resources to the region and is likely to reinforce old and new alliances with a trip to South East Asia this weekend.
Less willing to compromise and boasting greater resources to wear down its neighbors, China has grown more assertive and antagonistic over the past five years, said Dean Cheng, an Asia research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a think-tank in Washington.
“We’re looking at a new normal,” not just succession politics caused by the leadership transition, he said. “This is a China that feels, ‘We are returning to our rightful place in Asia, as a pre-eminent power.'”
Many Chinese say it is the country’s right to throw its weight around.
“Yes, we are assertive to defend our rights,” said Shen Dingli, an international relations expert at Shanghai’s Fudan University. “In the past, we were weak, now we are strong and don’t need to accept insults.”
Le Dang Doanh, an economist and former government adviser in Vietnam, said China is strengthening its military in part to support its exploration of oil and gas fields in the South China Sea.
“China could even challenge the American presence in this region,” said Doanh, who hopes Obama and other leaders will raise territorial issues at a regional summit in Cambodia next week.
At the heart of many concerns about China lies an opaque political system that continues to jail critics. The backroom horse-trading of the tiny, elderly elite that will appoint Hu’s successor, Xi Jinping, and six colleagues to China’s apex of power, the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, remains hidden from view as do the beliefs and likely policies of these new leaders.
Beijing is spending big to establish its state media in the USA and elsewhere while at home it restricts all media, censors the Internet and imprisons writers such as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, whose poet wife, Liu Xia, is also under house arrest.
Many Chinese, frustrated at rampant corruption by party cadres, hope Xi will dare to reform the political system.
“China’s too big and populous, and the cultural level too low, to have more than one party at present,” said Dou Shengli, 60, a retired mining technician visiting the Road of Rejuvenation exhibition Tuesday inside the national museum on Tiananmen Square.
Dou, who gave up party membership a decade ago in protest of China’s weak rule of law, said he believes he will see a democratic China within 20 years.
“We can feel proud of our social and economic progress, looking at the past, but there’s still a large gap between us and the USA and Europe,” said Dou, who as a fervent young Red Guard glimpsed Chairman Mao at a mass rally on the square in 1966.
China’s strength can’t be measured only in GDP, he said.
“We need general elections and for the country to be ruled by the constitution and other laws,” Dou said.
This week, he dodged tight security to file a petition at China’s Supreme Court seeking justice for his son, run over and killed 22 years ago by a driver whom Dou said was kept out of jail by corrupt police in their Shandong province hometown.
Although petitioning is legal, many Chinese petitioners are intercepted in or en route to Beijing.
“These detentions and forced repatriations are an abuse of human rights,” Dou said. “China must respect human rights, or we can’t be considered a great country.”
Most Americans see the Chinese as competitors, according to a recent Pew poll.
The Soviet Union was never such an everyday threat as the nation that supplies most of the household goods in U.S. homes. Both presidential candidates pledged to stop China gaming the system, and hurting U.S. jobs, through unfair trade practices, including market access restrictions, rampant piracy and an undervalued currency.
Despite those problems, many U.S. companies prosper in the world’s most populous consumer market. Car sales at Ford China jumped 48% year-on-year in October, partly helped by Chinese buyers boycotting Japanese brands.
Chinese growth helps American growth, as China is among the largest growing markets for U.S. exports, said Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Program at the University of California-San Diego.
“The two economies are very much interdependent. I don’t see any negative for the U.S. economy if we’re confident of our ingenuity, energy and the superiority of our system,” she said. The USA can benefit from more inbound Chinese investment, Shirk said.
That has sometimes been difficult, as projects failed over U.S. concerns about Chinese company ties to their government and military. Such worries won’t fade soon. Party-dominated, state-owned enterprises dominate many key industries in China, despite adding zero to economic growth, said James McGregor, author of a new book, No Ancient Wisdom, No Followers: The Challenges of Chinese Authoritarian Capitalism.
“The big multinationals working in China in cutting-edge industry and technology are forced to partner with these state-owned enterprises as the price of being in the market,” he said. “At the same time, they are told (by Beijing) to be ‘national champions’ and go overseas and compete with those people they are supposed to partnering with.
“China has a big advantage over us, in that their companies are connected to their government and the advancement of their nation and economy,” he said. “U.S. companies are beholden to their shareholders and connected less and less to their economy. That has to change.”
A key test of the reformist credentials of China’s incoming leaders will be whether they respond to growing calls at home to rein in the monopolies and privileges enjoyed by state-owned companies at the expense of the private sector.
Many Chinese say they want to learn from the USA. China’s rote-learning education system prepares students solely to pass exams, not develop creative thinking and overall ability, Lu Dong, an art school director, said in a complaint common among parents.
Next month, Lu, his entrepreneur wife and several other wealthy families from the east city of Wenzhou, will bring their children to experience a few weeks of American elementary school. Next year, Lu, 46, intends to enroll his son Lu Ji, 10, full time in California.
In what’s proving good business for U.S. colleges, China is the leading source of overseas students in the USA.
“Now the trend is to send kids younger than before,” said Lu, who will remain in China but is confident Lu Ji will return after graduation. “U.S. society is more stable than China, but there are more economic opportunities in China.”
China is a “peace-loving nation,” but on previous U.S. trips, Lu and his wife worried “Americans would be afraid of us, fearing ‘China will overtake our economy and has a growing army,'” Lu said. “But I didn’t feel that. Everywhere I went Americans smiled, were polite and welcoming.”
Chinese netizens are using English to mock China’s political climate
As China’s once-in-a-decade Communist Party congress wraps up this week, journalists and activists alike have noted how party leaders have gingerly avoided any discussion of corruption there.
Even after a recent New York Times article revealed that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s family controls assets worth $2.7 billion, officials did not take questions from reporters on the matter of wealth among leaders’ families, the Washington Post’s William Wan reported. Wan continued:
Reporters inevitably tried to ask about recent corruption scandals and the lack of enforcement and strong anti-corruption regulations in China, which allows leaders and their relatives to profit off their political connections. In most cases, the questions were not answered.
Now, netizens in China have apparently begun mocking the lack of openness there by mashing up English words into a list of new “terms,” which has been circulating on Facebook and on Sina Weibo, a massive Chinese micro-blogging site.
“The intentional mis-spellings of the English terms are used as satires to describe the political culture in China,” writes Oiwan Lam, a media researcher in Hong Kong.
Lam has a full rundown of the terms and what they mean at Global Voices, but following are a few of the (cleaner) highlights.
Freedamn – Freedom with Chinese Characteristics.
Smilence – Smile without saying anything [A facial expression of self-censorship]
Togayther – Homosexual rights to get together [marry].
Democrazy – Crazy desire [for democracy].
Innernet – Chinese internet [which is for internal connection].
Wall-e – The Great Fire Wall [Internet censorship. When a person is walled, it means his/her access to a certain Web site has been denied by the Great Fire Wall.]
Propoorty – a property market that leads to poverty.
Earlier, we wrote about Chinese Internet users venting their frustrations about Chinese President Hu Jintao’s speech during the opening session of the congress.
One quote in particular, “Neither will we follow the old path of closed door and ossified politics, nor will we take to the evil way of changing our flags and banners,” set off a rash of complaints from Weibo users.
It’s an impressive level of online outspokenness in a country where the government is known to both heavily censor certain sites or to shut them down entirely during big moments like the Party Congress.