News & Current Events

China Becomes an Economic Power, but Continues to Suppress Personal Liberties

Deng Xiaoping's death in Feb. 1997 left a younger generation in charge of managing the enormous country. In 1998, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji introduced a sweeping program to privatize state-run businesses and further liberalize the nation's economy, a move lauded by Western economists.

On July 1, 1997, when Britain's lease on the New Territories expired, Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty, and in 1999, the Portuguese colony of Macao also was returned to Chinese rule.

In Aug. 1999, China rounded up thousands of members of the Falun Gong sect, a highly popular religious movement. The government considers the apolitical spiritual group threatening because its numbers exceeded the membership of the Chinese Communist Party. China severely restricts its citizens' civil, religious, and political rights. The use of torture has been widely documented, and for many years it has executed more people than any other country in the world, carrying out more than three-quarters of the world's executions.

China was admitted to the World Trade Organization in Nov. 2001. Its entry ended a 15-year debate over whether China is entitled to the full trading rights of capitalist countries.

In Nov. 2002, Vice President Hu Jintao became general secretary of the Communist Party at the 16th Party Congress, succeeding President Jiang. Hu Jintao also assumed the presidency in March 2003.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a worldwide health threat, hit China in March 2003. After coming under fire by the World Health Organization for underreporting the number of its SARS cases, China finally revealed the alarming extent of its epidemic.

Beijing officials angered democracy advocates in Hong Kong in April 2004, when they banned popular elections for Hong Kong's chief executive, scheduled for 2007.

Tension between China and Taiwan intensified in March 2005, when China passed an antisecession law that said the country could use force if Taiwan moved toward achieving independence. “The state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the legislation said. Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian called the bill a “law of aggression.”

In June 2005, the China National Oil Corporation (Cnoc) bid $18.5 billion to take over the U.S. oil company Unocal. The Chinese firm withdrew the bid in August amid strong resistance from U.S. officials.

After months of pressure from the Bush administration, China announced in July 2005 that it will no longer peg the yuan to the dollar. Instead, the yuan is linked to a fluctuating group of foreign currencies.

The police shot and killed about 20 people who were protesting the construction of a power plant in the southern city of Dongzhou in December. Chinese officials blocked the spread of information about the event.

Government officials announced in December that China's economy had grown by 9% in 2005. China is poised to have the world's fourth-largest economy, after the United States, Japan, and Germany.

In May 2006, China completed construction on the Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric dam in the world. More than a million people will be displaced when the area is flooded. In July 2006, China opened a $4.2-billion, 710-mile-long railway from Qinghai Province to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. The highest railway in the world, it ascends as high as 16,500 ft, requiring all compartments to have regulated oxygen levels. The railway will increase ethnic Chinese migration into Tibet, which many see as a deliberate attempt to dilute Tibetan culture.

China tested its first antisatellite weapon in January 2007, successfully destroying one of its own weather satellites. Analysts deemed the move a provocative challenge to the United States' supremacy in space-based technology. Others speculated that China is seeking to push the U.S. toward signing a treaty to ban space-based weapons.

In the spring and summer of 2007, dog food and toothpaste products that originated in China were recalled due to the presence of poisonous ingredients, leading many to question the safety of Chinese products and the reliability of its regulatory system. In July, China's former head of the State Food and Drug Administration was executed for accepting bribes from pharmaceutical companies in exchange for favors.

Natural Disasters Ravage China

In January 2008, severe snowstorms in eastern and southern China killed at least 24 people. Half of the country's 31 provinces lost power, about 827,000 people were evacuated from their homes, at least 600,000 train passengers were stranded, and some 20 major airports were closed. The economic cost of the storm is projected to be $3.2 billion.

In March, some 400 Buddhist monks participated in a protest march in Lhasa to commemorate the failed uprising of 1959, that resulted in the Dalai Lama fleeing to India. The protests, the largest in two decades, turned violent, with ethnic Tibetans reportedly attacking Chinese citizens and vandalizing public and private property. Chinese police used force to suppress the demonstrations. Tibetan leaders said that more than 100 Tibetans were killed, but Chinese officials claimed only 16 fatalities occurred and denied that police had used lethal force. China barred many international news organizations from the country and limited the flow of information out of the country. The demonstrations and violence spilled into Gansu, Qinghai, and Sichuan Provinces in western China. Chinese officials accused the Dalai Lama of masterminding the protests, a charge the spiritual leader denied. Zhang Qingli, Tibet's Communist Party leader, reportedly called the Dalai Lama “a jackal in Buddhist monk’s robes, an evil spirit with a human face and the heart of a beast."

President Hu visited Japan in May and cited an "everlasting warm spring" in relations between the countries. It was the first visit by a Chinese head of state in a decade. While Hu and Japan's prime minister Yasuo Fukuda failed to make progress on resolving a dispute involving a gasfield in the East China Sea, they did agree to regular meetings, signaling a thaw in their cool relationship.

At least 68,000 people were killed and thousands injured when a 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan Provinces in western China on May 12. Nearly 900 students were killed when Juyuan Middle School in the Sichuan Province collapsed. Several other schools also collapsed, killing about 10,000 students. In addition, a well-known panda reserve in Wenchuan was destroyed. The disaster was further complicated by landslides in Sichuan Province that blocked rivers and formed quake lakes that officials feared may cause devastating floods. It was China's worst natural disaster in three decades. In September, the Chinese government acknowledged that poor construction of hastily built schools possibly contributed to their collapse in the earthquake.

China Hosts a Successful Olympics

The 2008 Summer Olympic Games kicked off on Aug. 8, 2008, with a spectacular opening ceremony that many observers called unparalleled. In the lead-up to the games, however, China was dogged by its abysmal human-rights record, crackdown on the Buddhist monks, nearly intolerable air quality, attempts to censor some journalists reporting on the Games, and continued ties to the Sudanese government. In addition, four days before the opening of the Games, two members of the Turkestan Independence Movement, which is also called the Turkestan Islamic Party, a Muslim group based in western China, drove a truck into a group of police officers and then threw explosives and stabbed them. Sixteen police officers died and another 16 were wounded in the attack. Days later, another 12 people were killed in a wave of bombings attributed to the group. As host of the Olympics, China exceeded expectations, despite its moves to stifle protests and dissent, proving that the country is an economic powerhouse. China also won a record 51 gold medals, and a total of 100 medals.

The good will and enthusiasm that followed the Olympic Games was tarnished in September amid reports that three children died and more than 53,000 became sick after drinking milk-based formula that was tainted with melamine, an industrial chemical that's made from coal and used to produce plastic and fertilizer. Officials reportedly knew of the scandal months before it was publicly disclosed.

Space Exploration, Government Reforms, and Military Crackdowns

On Sept. 27, 2008, astronaut Zhai Zhigang stepped out of the Shenzhou VII spacecraft and made the first spacewalk by a Chinese astronaut. The achievement was an important step in China's quest to build a space station by 2020 and someday land on the Moon.

The government announced a land reform policy in Oct. 2008 that will allow farmers to "subcontract, lease, exchange, or swap" rights to the plots of land assigned to them by the government. The government said it hopes the policy change, which coincided with the 30th anniversary of land reforms under Deng Xiaoping, will lead to increased output and greater efficiency.

Although China was generally praised for its handling of 2008's earthquake in Sichuan, by the quake's one-year anniversary in 2009, some of the international goodwill had evaporated. China restricted access to the area by journalists and artists; parents of children who where killed in the quake had their complaints ignored and suppressed; and the government's official investigation into the schools and hospitals that collapsed in the quake claimed that none had been improperly constructed. The government did implement new regulations for the construction of schools and hospitals, but that was little comfort to bereaved parents and international organizations demanding accountability.

On the 20th anniversary of the violent military crackdown in Tiananmen Square that left hundreds of democratic activists dead, China tried to deter remembrance of the event. Police officers stood guard around the square, barring foreign journalists from entering. In response, tens of thousands of people held a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong to mark the anniversary of the brutal killings.

Rioting in Urumqi, China between two ethnic groups—Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese—led to the deaths of at least 156 people at the hands of the police on July 6, 2009. Riot police locked down the Uighur portion of the city to try and stop the protests. It was the worst ethnic violence in decades.

Taiwan and China signed a landmark free-trade agreement in June 2010 that lifts or reduces hundreds of tariffs for both sides. Officials from both Taiwan and China described the deal as the most important achievement since the 1949 civil war. Taiwan seems poised to benefit more economically from the deal than China, and China sees a political benefit as the agreement brings the two closer together.

The exiled Dalai Lama, who has lived in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala since 1959, sent a shockwave through Tibet in March 2011 when he stepped down as leader, requested a demotion to elected politician, and proposed amendments to the constitution. While he has made a clear break with politics, the Daliai Lama remains the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism.

In April 2011, the government-in-exile of Tibet swore in a new prime minister, the first to be elected since the Dalai Lama renounced his position. Lobsang Sangay, a 42-year-old fellow at Harvard Law School, campaigned for an autonomous future for Tibet under Chinese sovereignty. The new prime minister polled 27,051 votes, 55% of the total electorate, to beat two other secular candidates. China has not acknowledged him.

Tension Reignites with Asian Neighbors Over Islands

Regional tension over claims to islands and resources in the South China Sea flared throughout 2012. For centuries, China has declared sovereignty over the sea and many of its islands, including the Paracel and Spratly islands, which are rich in oil and gas reserves and fish. However, Vietnam has also laid claim to the Paracel and Spratly island chains, and the Philippines say the Spratly Islands are within their territorial claims.

While the issue has been festering for decades, China took a tougher stance in 2012, warning other nations to refrain from oil and gas exploration and placing naval vessels in the South China Sea. At the same time, Vietnam and the Philippines have been more aggressively dispatching ships—both military and civilian—to the sea. There was little hope that the nations could solve the problem diplomatically, with China saying it would only negotiate bilaterally and both Vietnam and the Philippines both insisting that the U.S. and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) mediate the dispute.

Transfer of Power, Bo Xilai Sentenced to Life in Prison

On Nov. 8, 2012, the Chinese Communist Party's 18th Congress convened in Beijing, beginning its leadership transition, with Vice President Xi Jinping set to take over as president. In preparation, Xi was named chairman of the Central Military Commission and general secretary of the Communist Party. He assumed the presidency of China in March 2013. Li Yuanchao was named vice president. It was only the second time since the party was established in 1949 that power was transferred from one leader to another without violence or protest. Xi was expected to propose several changes to China's social and economic policies, and in Nov. 2013, the party announced it was relaxing its one-child policy to allow urban parents who were both only children to have two children and was abolishing its system of "re-education through labor."

On Sept. 22, 2013, prominent Chinese politician Bo Xilai was sentenced to life in prison. He had been found guilty of embezzlement, accepting bribes, and abuses of power, including a failed attempt to stifle the murder allegations against his wife. His request for an appeal was later rejected.

The son of Bo Yibo, a Communist revolutionary leader, Bo Xilai served as mayor of Dalian, governor of Liaoning, minister of commerce and secretary of the Communist Party's Chongqing branch. Heading into 2012, Bo was considered a strong candidate for the elite Politburo Standing Committee in the 18th National Congress. However, in early 2012, Bo's former police chief, Wang Lijun, went to the U.S. Consulate with information that implicated Bo's wife in the murder of Neil Heywood, a British businessman. Heywood was poisoned in a Chongqing hotel in Nov. 2011. By Aug. 2012, Gu Kailai, Bo's wife, was convicted and given a suspended death sentence, the equivalent of life in prison.

New Air Defense Zone Declared and Increased Tension with Vietnam

In Nov. 2013, China announced a new air defense zone in an area over disputed islands in the East China Sea that have been the source of a dispute between Japan and China for years. The new air defense zone overlapped with an air zone declared by Japan decades ago. China's announcement included a warning that it would take "relevant measures according to different air threats" against any aircraft flying through the zone without first notifying the country.

The United States challenged the new military action threat by sending two unarmed B-52 bombers into the new air defense zone. Soon after, Japan and South Korea announced that they had also flown military planes over the zone and that the flights had been uninterrupted by China. China responded by sending fighter jets into the airspace.

High-ranking officials from China and Taiwan met in Nanking, China, in Feb. 2014. It was the first time since the 1949 split that minister-level officials held talks. While the meeting was largely symbolic, it signalled that both sides want to maintain stability and warmer ties.

Also in 2014, tensions increased between China and Vietnam when Vietnamese officials reported that their vessels had been hit by Chinese ships. "On May 4, Chinese ships intentionally rammed two Vietnamese Sea Guard vessels," said Foreign Ministry official Tran Duy Hai, during a news conference in Hanoi, Vietnam. "Chinese ships, with air support, sought to intimidate Vietnamese vessels."

The situation intensified three days later when Vietnamese ships confronted Chinese ships. The Chinese vessels were placing an oil rig off the coast of Vietnam when the confrontation occurred. The placement of the rig also led to protests throughout Vietnam and some of those protests turned violent. On May 14, anti-China protesters set fire to at least 15 foreign-owned factories throughout Vietnam, according to state media. Protesters also destroyed and looted offices of manufacturing companies owned or managed by Chinese workers. At least one person died in the protests.

The Vietnamese government asked China to remove the rig and dispatched a naval flotilla to the area. The rig was placed in waters claimed by both Vietnam and China.

The incident also caused tension between the U.S. and China. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called China's recent moves "provocative." China's foreign ministry was quick to respond. Spokeswoman Hua Chunying asked in a news briefing, "We hope that the U.S. side can carefully reflect - if they really hope for the Pacific Ocean to be peaceful, what kind of role do they actually want to play?"

Chinese Hackers Indicted by the United States

For four months in late 2012 and early 2013, hackers in China attacked The New York Times. Hackers gained access to the paper's computer systems and employee's passwords. The attacks came at the same time that the New York Times reported on an investigation that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's relatives had acquired a several billion dollar fortune through business dealings. Security experts suggested that the attack was part of a wider computer espionage mission against U.S. news media outlets that report on Chinese leaders and business dealings. In fact, a day after The New York Times reported the incident, The Wall Street Journal revealed in a statement that hackers had infiltrated it, too, "for the apparent purpose of monitoring the newspaper's China coverage."

On Feb. 19, 2013, a 60-page study released by Mandiant, a U.S. computer security firm, showed evidence linking Unit 61398, a Chinese military unit, to the groups responsible for a large portion of the recent hacking in the United States. The study, which included digital forensic evidence, didn't prove that the hackers were inside the military unit's headquarters, but did show evidence that they were either inside or very close to Unit 61398.

In May 2014, The U.S. Justice Department unsealed an indictment of five members of Shanghai-based Unit 61398, the cyber division of Chinese People's Liberation Army, charging them with hacking into the computer networks of Westinghouse Electric, U.S. Steel Corp., and other companies. The move was considered largely symbolic since there was little chance the men would surrender.

American officials announced in July 2014 that Chinese hackers had breached the computer network of the Office of Personnel Management in March. They said they believe the hackers were targeting employees applying for top security clearances. It remained unclear how far the hackers got into the agency's network before authorities detected their presence and blocked them.

A year later, on June 4, 2015, U.S. officials announced that at least four million federal employees were involved in a data breach by hackers who had been traced to China. The breach was one of the largest ever of federal employee data and involved past and present employees. The Obama administration announced that the breach was first discovered in April 2015, but may have started in late 2014.

China Signs Gas Accord with Russia, Faces Hong Kong Protests, Participates in South Sudan Mission

After a decade of discussion, Russia's Gazprom signed a deal to sell natural gas to China's National Petroleum Corporation in May 2014. The deal was a $400 billion, 30-year supply contract for 38 billion cubic meters of gas per year. The supply would start in 2018. The fuel would come from a new pipeline in eastern Siberia. By 2014, China consumed about 4% of the world's gas, but about half of the world's iron ore, coal, and copper. However, China was on its way to being the world's biggest gas user by 2035. The deal was finalized during Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Shanghai.

China said in December 2007 that Hong Kong citizens will directly elect the chief executive in 2017 elections and the legislature by 2020. Under the current system, an election committee loyal to the Chinese government elects the chief executive, and a body made up of pro-China business groups elects half of the legislators.

In June and July 2014, the pro-democracy group called Occupy Central held an unofficial referendum on how the island's chief executive will be elected in 2017. About 90% of the 800,000 who voted endorsed giving citizens direct say in the election. Weeks of pro-democracy protests followed the referendum. In late August, China's National People's Congress Standing Committee ruled that the 1,200-member election committee would vote on candidates for chief executive, and those garnering votes from more than half of the committee could run. The decision sparked much larger protests, which intensified throughout September, with tens of thousands of demonstrators shutting down the heart of the business district. On September 28, police in riot gear cracked down on protesters, using tear gas and batons. Despite the violence, protesters returned to the streets. The protests threatened the stability of the financial hub.

Also in Sept., China announced it would send 700 troops to take part in a peacekeeping mission in South Sudan for the United Nations. The fighting in South Sudan between rebels and the government continued to be an ongoing threat to China's oil investments there. In a statement, Chinese officials said that the job of the troops will be to protect citizens and aid workers. According to United Nations officials, it was the first time that China sent an entire battalion to assist in one of their peacekeeping missions.

China and U.S. Reach Landmark Agreement on Climate Change

After weeks of discussion, China and the U.S. reached a landmark agreement on climate change in Nov. 2014. The plan was announced in Beijing by both President Xi Jinping and President Obama. The agreement included a commitment for the first time by China to stop its emissions from increasing by 2030. One way China planned to achieve that goal was to use clean energy sources, such as windmills and solar power, as 20% of the country's total energy by 2030. Also in the plan, the U.S. set new goals for carbon emissions reductions, reducing emissions 26-28% by 2025.

Being the number one and two carbon polluters in the world, China and the U.S. hoped to set the stage for other countries to follow their example, with the end result being a new global accord. To avoid future conflicts, the two leaders also agreed on a military plan for navigating U.S. and Chinese planes and ships off China's coast and cutting tariffs on technology items.

China, South Korea, and Japan Hold First Foreign Minister Talks in Three Years

In March 2015, foreign ministers from China, South Korea, and Japan met for the first formal talks since April 2012. South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Byung-Se hosted Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in Seoul. The three met in an attempt to calm tensions and improve relations. The tension between the countries has revolved around an ongoing dispute between China and Japan over island territories in the East China Sea. However, relations between all three countries have been strained for years, going back to Japan's occupation of sections of China before and during World War II as well as its colonization of Korea.

The March 2015 meeting included a discussion of a possible future summit between the three countries' leaders. Another topic of discussion was how to contain North Korea's nuclear ambitions, a matter that all three foreign ministers agreed was a priority.

A cruise ship, the Oriental Star, carrying 458 passengers capsized in the Yangtze River, in central China on June 1, 2015. Strong winds and heavy rain were believed to have contributed to the accident. Few were expected to survive.

On Aug. 12 2015, multiple explosions killed at least 114 people at a warehouse in the port city of Tianjin. Another 70 people were missing after the blast, including 64 firefighters. Dozens of homes were damaged in the explosion. An investigation began soon after to determine the cause of the blast, including possible abuse of power and dereliction of duty. The warehouse stored hazardous materials, including 700 tons of sodium cyanide. Because of the explosion and the large amount of materials being stored, which was a violation of safety rules, a massive cleanup was planned for Tianjin.

China Ends One-Child Policy, Meets with Taiwan for First Time in Sixty-Six years

On Oct. 29 2015, China announced it would allow all married couples to have two children as a way to offset the country's aging workforce. The announcement put an end to China's unpopular one-child policy, which had been in effect for 35 years.

At the advice of scholars, China had already relaxed the one-child policy in recent years, allowing more families to have two kids when parents met certain criteria. The Oct. 2015 announcement stated that the country would "fully implement a policy of allowing each couple to have two children as an active response to an aging population." However, no details of how or when the new policy would be implemented were shared.

In early Nov. 2015, a meeting was announced between the presidents of Taiwan and China. They met for first time since 1949, when the Chinese revolution ended. The meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou was seen as a test on the thawing relations between the two countries. The two leaders met during the weekend of Nov. 7-8 in Singapore, a neutral territory on good terms with both countries. It was seen by many observers as the last chance for China to push for closer ties economically and politically before Taiwan headed into presidential and legislative elections in January 2016.

Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Nov. 2015

Source: AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying

According to a U.S. official at the Pentagon, China deployed missiles to a disputed island in the South China Sea in Feb. 2016. News of the deployment immediately increased tension in the region because Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries have also claimed the island. Leaders of those countries also expressed concern over China's recent efforts to create artificial islands in the same area. The Chinese Ministry of Defense would not comment on the missile deployment.

See also Encyclopedia: China .

U.S. State Dept. Country Notes: China

National Bureau of Statistics of China: www.stats.gov.cn/english/index.htm