BEIJING (AP) — China has seen historic changes since it last hosted the Olympics in 2008: It is wealthier, more heavily armed and openly confrontational.
As President Xi Jinping’s government prepares for the Winter Olympics in February, it has more leverage to exert influence overseas and resist complaints from the United States and other governments over trade, the theft of technology and its treatment of Muslim minorities in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China.
The economy is three times bigger today. The ruling Communist Party uses this wealth to try to become a “tech powerhouse” and spends more on its military than any country other than the United States.
“2008 was a turning point,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, an expert on China politics at Hong Kong Baptist University. “That was the beginning of China’s assertiveness.”
When fireworks exploded over Beijing in August 2008, China was on the verge of overtaking Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. The ruling party celebrated the most expensive Summer Games to date.
Foreign media dubbed it China’s “coming out party”, echoing the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 which symbolized Japan’s recovery from World War II. After three decades of keeping its head down to focus on development, Beijing was ready to emerge on the world stage as an economic and political force.
The ruling party declared its stronger position in 2012, the year Xi took power, in a document that called for “more strategic rights”, military status and a greater global role.
Xi’s government sees its one-party dictatorship under threat and accuses Washington of trying to deprive China of its rightful role as world leader. The ruling party is tightening its control over society and businesses and using internet filters and other censorship measures to exclude what it deems to be unhealthy foreign influences. It does more to bully Taiwan, the island democracy that Beijing says belongs to China.
“You can see that China is being forced by the United States and its allies such as Australia, Japan and Britain to do this,” 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 at the end of 2022 to try to break with tradition and stay in power for a third five-year term as head of the ruling party. Earlier, he had the Chinese constitution amended to get rid of 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 investing money in developing nuclear-capable missiles that can hit the United States, aircraft carriers and other weapons to expand its military reach beyond China’s shores.
China’s 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’s a bad relationship between China and another country, it’s because the other country is hurting China,” Shi said.
In 2008, preparations for the Summer Games included a $43 billion transformation of the Chinese capital. The group built the attractive Bird’s Nest Stadium and other Olympic venues, installed new subway lines and upgraded roads. Exercise equipment has been installed in thousands of public parks across China.
The capital, one of the world’s most polluted cities, launched a ‘blue sky’ campaign that closed or replaced power stations, steel mills and other facilities and imposed traffic controls at an estimated cost of $10 billion.
Today, Xi’s government is grappling with the debt, pollution and other excesses of previous years. He is also in the midst of a marathon campaign, launched before he took office, to steer the economy towards sustainable growth based on consumer spending rather than exports and investment.
In a loosely defined initiative – dubbed “common prosperity” after a 1950s slogan – the ruling party is trying to narrow a politically unstable wealth gap between a billionaire elite and China’s working-class majority.
Successful private sector companies in e-commerce and other areas are under pressure to invest in party efforts to reduce dependence on the United States, Europe and Japan as suppliers of technology by developing computer chips and other products. They pay for rural job creation and other policy initiatives.
Xi and other leaders vow to open markets wider to foreign and private competitors while saying state-owned banks, oil producers, telecom operators and other firms are the ‘heart of the economy’ . Business groups complain that despite measures such as removing foreign ownership limits in auto manufacturing, global companies are being squeezed out of promising technologies and other areas.
“China will continue to expand its openness to the outside world,” Xi said in a Jan. 17 speech via video link at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He promised to “ensure all businesses equal status before the law and equal opportunity”.
In a slap in the face to Washington, Xi complained of “hegemonic bullying” and said governments must “let go of a Cold War mentality”.
As athletes and journalists arrive ahead of the opening of the Winter Games on Feb. 4, Chinese leaders face the challenge of supporting slumping economic growth while trying to contain coronavirus outbreaks and pressure property developers , an industry that supports millions of jobs, to reduce debt that Beijing says is dangerously high.
China rebounded quickly 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, triggering a slump in property sales and construction.
The economy grew robustly by 8.1% in 2021, but growth fell in the last quarter to 4% from a year earlier. Forecasters say the crisis will deepen before interest rate cuts and other stimulus measures can take effect. The World Bank and private sector economists have cut this year’s growth forecast to just 5%, although it remains one of the highest in the world.
“Economic stability is the top priority in 2022,” Tommy Wu of Oxford Economics said in a report.
AP researcher Yu Bing contributed.
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