The Most Notable China
Stories of 2013

The year in review, from the editor of The Atlantic's China Channel
Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

There's an old Chinese curse that goes like this: "May you live in interesting times." And 2013—the year of the snake on the Chinese zodiac calendar—certainly qualified. Here's a look at the year's top China stories:

Xi Jinping Takes Control

In March, Xi Jinping officially became the president of the People's Republic of China, completing a process that began the previous fall when he assumed chairmanship of the Communist Party and control of China's Central Military Commission. The son of a Xi Zhongxun, a high-ranking official during the Mao era, Xi (along with his glamorous wife) represented a break from the dour, workmanlike administration of his predecessor, Hu Jintao. 

Upon taking power Xi adopted "China Dream" as the country's slogan, reaffirming the sense that national greatness, more than anything else, is China's central ideology. Politically, Xi's went to work tackling corruption, perhaps the issue that poses the greatest existential threat to the Communist's grip on power. Over the three decades of economic growth, China's leadership—both on the local and national level—enriched themselves through nebulous patronage networks, and adopted some of the trappings of privilege: flashy cars and foreign education. Xi issued a directive prohibiting officials from indulgences like banquet lunches and private cars, encouraging Party members to stick to "four dishes and a soup" and consider carpools. However, Xi has yet to show any ability to tackle the root causes of corruption: the entwining of business and politics.

Xi proved more successful in consolidating his power, though. At the Third Plenary sessions in November, the Party announced the formation of two new governing task forces (on national security and economics) that will help streamline decision-making at the highest level of Chinese politics. These moves signaled that Xi is already more powerful than his predecessor had ever become—and is likely to grow more powerful still.

Economic and Social Reforms Deepen

The Third Plenum wasn't just about politics—the meeting introduced important policy changes, too. Beijing announced reforms to the hukou, a household registration system that functions as an internal passport and prevents migrant workers from obtaining benefits like education and health care in Chinese cities. Now, workers with a rural hukou will be relaxed in second and third-tier cities, a reform that will better empower China's millions of newly urbanized citizens.

The plenary session also brought forth reforms to the economy, requiring state-owned companies—which still dominate China's economy—to contribute a higher percentage of their profits to fund social welfare programs. State-owned firms must also now allow private investors to gain up to a 15 percent equity stake.

But most notably, the Third Plenum announced the loosening of China's one-child policy, which, since its imposition in 1979, had transformed the country's demographics and society—mostly for the worse. Now, families in which one or both parents are only children can apply for permission to have a second child. While the reform comes too late to reverse China's shrinking labor force—Chinese people are having fewer children nowadays, anyway—it does relax a system whose social consequences, including forced sterilization and abortion, represent one of China's worst human rights violations.

The Economy Slows—but Does it Matter?

China's GDP grew by just under eight percent in the first three quarters of 2013, and, triggering the usual handwringing about the economy: Is the Chinese miracle coming to an end? 

Without question, China's economy has serious problems—the "shadow banking" sector, municipal debt, and a housing bubble all, if left unresolved, have the potential to cause a sharp downturn. In addition, Beijing has been slow to move the economy away from a growth model that, because of a reliance on exports and investment, is fundamentally unsustainable.

But GDP—a notoriously unreliable statistic in China—is the least of the government's worries. Worsening income inequality has blossomed into a major social problem, and real class divisions—once unthinkable in Communist China—have re-emerged. 

The Worsening Environmental Crisis

In a recent appearance on the China-focused Sinica Podcast, The Atlantic's James Fallows remarked that the iconic image of contemporary China, rather than a factory, was now the polluted skies plaguing Beijing and other major cities. But while air pollution remains a persistent problem—a crisis in Beijing in January was particularly bad—it is hardly China's only environmental crisis. In March, thousands of pigs turned up dead in Shanghai's Huangpu River, raising questions about the safety of the country's water supply. Food security, too, is an issue: stories of rat meat masquerading as lamb appeared in the Chinese media this year, and a scandal involving recycled cooking oil caused widespread fear—and revulsion—when revealed in October.

The Chinese government made progress in tightening environmental regulations during the year, and the country has invested greatly in alternative sources of energy. Nevertheless, as the year winds to a close (with horrific skies now enveloping Shanghai), no other issue has the potential to unite China's divided population more than the environmental crisis. 

Spying, Summits, and the Sino-American Relationship

Sino-American relations got off to a rocky start in February 2013 with the revelation that China's People Liberation Army Unit 61398 systematically hacked into American government and corporate interests from a non-descript apartment complex outside Shanghai. Though this discovery, uncovered by the security firm Mandiant, didn't really surprise anyone, it nonetheless revealed the depth and sophistication of China's cyber capabilities.

Matt Schiavenza is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is a former global-affairs writer for the International Business Times and Atlantic senior associate editor.

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