China 2008 vs 2022: richer, stronger, more conflictive

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China has undergone a historic change since it last hosted the Olympics in 2008: it is richer, more armed and openly confrontational.

As President Xi Jinping’s government prepares for the Winter Olympics in February, it has greater leverage to wield influence abroad and resist complaints from the United States and other governments about trade, technology theft and its treatment of foreigners. Muslim minorities in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China.

The economy is three times bigger today. The ruling Communist Party is using that wealth to try to become a “tech powerhouse” and is spending more on its military than any country other than the United States.

“2008 was a turning point,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong Baptist University. “That was the beginning of China’s assertiveness.”

When fireworks exploded over Beijing in August 2008, China was poised to overtake Japan as the world’s second largest economy. The ruling party celebrated with the most expensive Summer Games to date.

Foreign media called it China’s “wardrobe coming out party,” echoing the 1964 Tokyo Olympics that symbolized Japan’s recovery from World War II. After three decades of keeping its head down to focus on development, Beijing was poised to emerge on the world stage as an economic and political force.

The ruling party declared its most assertive stance in 2012, the year Xi came to power, in a document calling for “more strategic rights,” military status and a larger global role.

Xi’s government sees its system of one-party dictatorship threatened and accuses Washington of trying to deny China its rightful role as world leader. The ruling party is tightening control over society and business, using Internet filters and other censorship measures to exclude what it sees as harmful foreign influences. It is doing more to intimidate Taiwan, the democratic island that Beijing says belongs to China.

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“You can see that the United States and its allies like Australia, Japan and Britain are forcing China to do it,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.

Xi seeks to consolidate his control over the country. He is expected to use key political meetings in late 2022 to try to break with tradition and stay in power for a third five-year term as leader of the ruling party. Previously, he had the Chinese constitution changed to remove term limits on his role as president.

Once “more open to the outside world,” China is now “much more paranoid,” Cabestan said.

Beijing has sent fighter jets in increasing numbers to fly near Taiwan. It is pouring money into developing nuclear-capable missiles that can hit US aircraft carriers and other weapons to extend its military reach beyond China’s shores.

Chinese leaders believe, Shi said, that they need to defend themselves on several fronts: a tariff war launched by then-President Donald Trump in 2018; restrictions on access to US technology; and military alliances involving Japan, Australia and other governments to counter Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea and other territories.

“If there is a bad relationship between China and another country, it is because the other country harms China,” Shi said.

In 2008, preparations for the Summer Games included a $43 billion redevelopment of the Chinese capital. The party built the flashy Bird’s Nest stadium and other Olympic venues, installed new subway lines and improved roads. Exercise equipment was installed in thousands of public parks across China.

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The capital, one of the world’s smoggiest cities, launched a “blue sky” campaign that closed or replaced power plants, steel mills and other facilities and imposed traffic controls at an estimated cost of $10 billion.

Today, the Xi government is struggling with the debt, pollution and other excesses of years past. He, too, is in the midst of a marathon campaign, launched before he took office, to steer the economy toward sustainable growth based on consumer spending rather than exports and investment.

Under a loosely defined initiative, dubbed “common prosperity” after a slogan from the 1950s, the ruling party is trying to reduce a politically volatile wealth gap between a billionaire elite and the majority of China’s working class.

Successful private-sector companies in e-commerce and other fields are under pressure to invest in the party’s efforts to reduce reliance on the United States, Europe and Japan as technology providers by developing computer chips and other products. They are paying for rural job creation and other political initiatives.

Xi and other leaders promise to open up wider markets to foreign and private competitors, while saying that state-owned banks, oil producers, telecom operators and other companies are the “core of the economy.” Business groups complain that despite measures such as removing limits on foreign ownership in car manufacturing, global companies are being squeezed out of promising technologies and other fields.

“China will continue to expand its openness to the outside world,” Xi said in a January 17 speech via video link to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He promised to “ensure that all companies have equal status under the law and equal opportunity.”

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In a slap in the face of Washington, Xi complained of “hegemonic bullying” and said governments must “abandon the Cold War mentality.”

As athletes and reporters arrive ahead of the Winter Games opening on February 4, Chinese leaders face the challenge of propping up ailing economic growth while trying to contain coronavirus outbreaks and force real estate developers, a industry that generates millions of jobs, to reduce the debt that worries Beijing is dangerously high.

China quickly recovered from the 2020 pandemic and became the only major economy to grow that year. But growth fell sharply in late 2021 as Beijing’s debt crackdown bit, leading to a drop in real estate sales and construction.

The economy expanded by a solid 8.1% in 2021, but growth slumped in the latest quarter to 4% from a year earlier. Forecasters say the slide will deepen before interest rate cuts and other stimulus measures kick in. The World Bank and private sector economists have cut growth forecasts for this year to as low as 5%, though it would still be among the strongest in the world.

“Economic stability is the main focus in 2022,” Tommy Wu of Oxford Economics said in a report.

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AP researcher Yu Bing contributed.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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