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.

In order to repair the rocky relationship, Presidents Xi and Obama convened at the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, California, in April for a "shirtsleeves summit": an opportunity for the men to converse without the stifling formality of a state visit. The conversation seemed to go well—Obama for his part called it "terrific"—but any comity between the two countries evaporated in June when Edward Snowden surfaced in Hong Kong with a trove of U.S. government secrets, including information on American spying on China.

Snowden didn't linger in Hong Kong, ultimately—to Beijing's relief—moving to an uncertain future in Russia. But his brief sojourn in a Chinese territory undid any of the warm feelings lingering from the California summit, and undermined Washington's moral ground in the question of governing spying.

Exit Bo Xilai

The trial of Bo Xilai, the former Chongqing Party Secretary whose 2012 downfall became China's most serious political scandal in decades, finally took place in August and, as expected, resulted in a guilty verdict.

But even still, the trial of the high-profile leader was still extraordinary by Chinese standards. State-media coverage of the event was more transparent than with any other trial in decades, and Bo, in contrast to the usual contrition of Chinese defendants, was defiant to the end.

Was Bo's trial an advancement for the rule of law in China? Or just the same old abrogation of justice? Either way, it brought to an end one of the most remarkable careers in Chinese politics.

Tension in the East China Sea

In 2013, China's forceful pursuit of territorial claims in the East China Sea encountered stiffer resistance from its neighbors. In January, The Philippines made a formal appeal to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to declare China's claims in what Manila calls the "West Philippine Sea" illegal.

But the more serious dispute occurred with China's most important rival: Japan. In late November, tension between the two countries over the energy-rich Senkaku/Diaoyu islands escalated when China announced an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) requiring aircraft flying near the islands to notify China first. The announcement drew immediate opposition from Tokyo, Seoul, and Washington, and raised the possibility that an accident might provoke a dangerous overreaction. In Asia this week, Vice President Biden announced that American planes will not obey China's ADIZ, mirroring the Japanese position, and barring an unexpected compromise on the part of Beijing, the issue will remain unresolved going into 2014.

Xinjiang and Tibet Unrest

China's positions in East Asia are a vital issue to Communist Party leadership, but still pale in importance to the country's top priority: avoiding domestic instability. Though the government avoided widespread labor unrest—aside from environmental protests in Kunming over a local issue—unrest in the Tibet and Xinjiang regions continued.  Several more Tibetans set themselves on fire in 2013, bringing the overall total of  politically-motivated self-immolations to over 100 since 2009.

In addition, the country's issues with the Uighur minority, natives of China's far-western Xinjiang Autonomous Region, erupted in late June with an attack on a government building in the town of Lukqun. Blamed on Uighur separatists, the violence claimed 35 lives.

Then in October, Beijing's Xinjiang problem struck closer to home, when a jeep crashed in the capital's Tiananmen Square, killing five. The incident unnerved China's leadership—whose compound lies just a few hundred yards away—and served as a chilling reminder that Beijing's ethnic policies in its westernmost region are not working.

A Chilling Crackdown on Foreign Journalism

Foreign journalists in China came under more pressure than ever in 2013, the first year under Xi Jinping's administration. After the New York Times and Bloomberg published investigations into the wealth of top Communist leaders last year, the Communist Party blocked both agency's websites and refused to issue newly hired journalists visas to report in China.

This year, following the completion of a subsequent report into the political connections of Wang Jianlin, China's wealthiest man, Bloomberg News editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler reportedly spiked the story in order to preserve the company's access to China (or, perhaps, the availability of Bloomberg's lucrative financial terminals). Though Winkler denied the report, the incident illustrated a disturbing trend in Beijing's relationship with the media: As China grows more powerful, its tolerance for criticism diminishes. Vice President Joseph Biden spoke sharply against the Chinese media controls this week, remarking that "innovation thrives when people speak freely." Beijing, though, feels it doesn't need to be lectured anymore. And while China's state-run media expands its empire in the United States, reporters for the New York Times and Bloomberg now face possible expulsion from the country for simply doing their jobs.

Yet in spite of this clampdown on official media, hundreds of millions of people continue to tweet news, gossip, and images on platforms like Sina Weibo and WeChat, providing China-watchers with far more information about what Chinese people think and feel than would have been possible even five years ago. And, while Xi Jinping's  public campaign against the platform's "Big V"—or most popular—users managed to quiet dissent, the decentralized, instant nature of online communication in China cannot be suppressed. That, looking ahead to 2014, is a trend worth keeping watch of.