2017, a Fire Rooster Year according to the Chinese zodiac, has been a good year for Beijing, which successfully managed to further develop its Belt and Road Initiative and actively pursue its long-term vision of China as a global leader.
On the domestic front, this year has undoubtedly belonged to Xi Jinping. The Chinese President tightened his hold on power during the Communist Party Congress in October, incorporating his name and political ideology into party’s constitution. Xi’s dominance of Chinese political life is now more absolute than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.
From Washington to Beijing
Although Trump has been critical of China since the beginning of his presidential campaign, questioned the One-China policy in interviews and broke with established practice by speaking on the telephone with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, from February 2017 relations between the White House and Beijing appear to have gradually improved.
During his first phone conversation with Xi Jinping, Trump made a u-turn – reaffirming America’s long-standing One-China policy and confirmed the willingness to maintain only unofficial ties with Taiwan.
In April, the presidents met face-to-face for the first time in the Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida to discuss bilateral trade and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Trump reciprocated, paying an official visit to Beijing in November; this saw Trump further soften his previously tough approach to China.
In September China decided to finally impose sanctions on North Korea, which was previously a major issue between Beijing and Washington, with the latter accusing China of passive attitude towards solving the problem of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and very one-sided trade relations with the U.S.
The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China
was certainly a hallmark of 2017 political events in China. Almost 3,000 delegates gathered in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People to take part in the biggest and most-watched event in China’s political calendar, the twice-a-decade Communist Party Congress. It lasted for a week and commenced with a nearly three-and-a-half-hour opening speech by Xi Jinping.
President Xi can be considered the biggest winner of the Congress, which can be viewed as a referendum on Xi’s success in positioning himself as China’s political leader. Not only has he managed to consolidate his power, but also made a major step towards the next years of his presidency while including the “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” as one of the party’s guiding theories, thus becoming the second leader, along with Mao Zedong, to have his ideas enshrined in the constitution.
Among the most important issues discussed at the congress was the ambitious plan to wipe out poverty by 2021 by building a ‘moderately prosperous society’ and increase economic development by turning China into a ‘fully developed nation’ by 2049. Both of the dates are not random; they mark the 100th anniversary of the party’s founding (2021) and 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic (2049), and are commonly known as the ‘two centennial goals’.
Beefing up the military
The congress also set the goals for Chinese military, outlining a plan to mechanise it, as well as to continue developing its cyber weaponry. In April 2017 the first aircraft carrier designed and built in China was launched.
Further, in July 2017 China marked the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with a massive parade, demonstrating its military might. On that day it also opened it’s first African military base in Djibouti.
Belt and Road Initiative
2017 was also an important year for the further development of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This global-scale project emerged in 2013, when Xi Jinping publicly presented the idea of reviving the ancient Silk Road by creating the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road. It focuses on connectivity and cooperation between Eurasian countries, and recently has shown signs of extending into other continents.
This year saw the first Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, held in Beijing in May. It brought together 28 heads of state, 100 lower-level government officials, dozens of major international organisations to discuss the future of the project.
Shifting the Focus
While some events were over-emphasized to show China’s changing role towards becoming a global leader, other issues where omitted, at least in the Chinese media.
As Trump announced the decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement on global warming, Xi joined the European Union to declare China was all in. Chinese leaders are taking serious measures to reduce the environment degradation both internationally and domestically, currently putting special emphasis on improving the quality of air within the biggest Chinese cities. This led to the heating crisis around Beijing as the government banned the use of coal for heating this winter.
Although the initiative reduced air pollution in the city in December this year in comparison to the last few years, it left the citizens of the villages around Beijing without heating despite the temperature dropping to about -6C.
Another issue that has not been widely discussed within China mainland nor abroad was the death of China’s only winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo. The democracy activist passed away under police guard in a north-eastern Chinese hospital in July after spending almost a quarter of his life in custody. Chinese media did not comment on this issue and the Chinese attitude muted reaction worldwide – most notably from within the White House.
Looking towards 2018
Compared to many states in the world, China projects an image of stability and tranquility. It has a clear plan and the strategy to develop for the next couple of years, adhering to its Five-Year Plan.
That said, Beijing still faces many challenges, notably continuing to get to grips with environment pollution whilst also adapting to the economic slowdown, known as the New Normal. Cutting pollution whilst continuing to lift people out of poverty is no easy task, and the future of not only China, but the world, depends on the government’s ability to achieve this.