The unusual, the sorrowful, and the disconcerting have been coming fast and furious in the Middle Kingdom this summer. From politics and economics to environment, demographics, and international affairs, the Chinese government probably cannot wait for the arrival of autumn.
2023: A Summer of Distress in China
Qin Gang (photo by Thomas Peter/Reuters)
China’s summer has not been tranquil.
Leadership. China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, disappeared on June 25, 2023. He suddenly began missing diplomatic trips abroad and canceling meetings at home, all for “health reasons.” He was officially sacked in late July, and the (at least partial) scrubbing of his public identity commenced. No word still on why or his whereabouts. China’s political penchant for secrecy is sweeping. As such, rumors fill the vacuum. Was he removed for corruption (real or imagined)? Failing at his job to promote Xi Jinping’s interests abroad? As a sign of internal opposition to Xi himself? Because of an illicit relationship with a woman who may or may not have been a spy? Is he alive or dead? We do not know.
PLA Rocket Force Emblem
In further surprising (and probably coincidental) leadership news, the top two generals in charge of China’s land-based missile defense were canned within days of Qin Gang’s ouster. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force “…controls China’s massive arsenal of land-based tactical and strategic missiles. The purge reflects another crackdown by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to assert control over its leadership. Opaque as the details are, the move offers a glimmer of insight into the recurring problem of military corruption.” Even after more than a decade of anti-corruption efforts by Xi Jinping, it remains endemic throughout much of Chinese society.
Country Garden HQ (photo by bgy.com.cn)
Economics. China’s economy is struggling. Chinese people are indeed going to restaurants, conducting business, and traveling domestically, but all is not well. Consumer confidence remains shaken from the long Covid-shutdown. Now, after wiping out more than one trillion of value from its domestic Big Tech companies during a years-long crackdown, the Chinese government is trying to once again woo the same tech companies to help rescue the economy.
Manufacturing is down. Property investment is down. Troubled real estate developer, China Evergrande Group, made a filing in bankruptcy court in New York last week. Days before, Country Garden, another prominent real estate company, missed interest payments and suspended onshore bond trading as it too apparently teeters on collapse under the weight of its debt.
China factory (photo by Reuters)
While outbound investment increased in the first half of 2023, foreign direct investment (FDI) into China continues to drop (a lot) and is now at the lowest level ever recorded. Coupled with increasing raids on foreign companies, restricted access to and information from officials and corporations with potential foreign investors and business partners are fostering weakened trust, confidence, and understanding in and of China as a place to do business. Geopolitical tensions and decoupling efforts (by both China and America), risk beginning to feed on themselves (if they are not already).
Zhuozhou Flood (Andy Wong/AP Photo)
Environment. North China has baked this summer. Temperatures in Beijing passed 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) for several days. The hottest temperature ever recorded in China (52.1 degrees Celsius -- 126 degrees Fahrenheit) was recorded in a desert village of Northwest China.
Unexpected flooding devastated wide swaths of Zhuozhou in Hebei Province southwest of Beijing. “Initial estimates showed the [Heibei] province’s direct economic losses amounted to 95.8 billion yuan ($13.2 billion), state media China News Service said.” Flashfloods and landslides also erupted near Xi’an. And the heaviest rainfall in Beijing in almost 1.5 centuries fell in July.
“Beijing and the surrounding province of Hebei were hit by severe flooding because of the record rainfall, with waters rising to dangerous levels. The rain destroyed roads and knocked out power and even pipes carrying drinking water. It flooded rivers surrounding the capital, leaving cars waterlogged, while lifting others onto bridges meant for pedestrians.”
Jiangsu Province Agricultural Field (photo by Hector Retamal/AFP)
Fears for the crops necessary to feed such a large country (as well as what it might mean for long-term food security) have risen along with the flood waters.
China Job Fair (photo by CFOTO.job alliance)
Demographics. China’s population is decreasing. China’s population is graying. China’s youth do not have it easy.
“The number of people older than 65 has more than doubled since the start of the century, while a record-high of nearly 12 million graduates will enter the workforce amid historically high youth unemployment.” (South China Morning Post, Lunar: Newsletter)
Into this mix, China last week stopped publishing data on youth unemployment. Similar to when the government stopped releasing Covid-death data earlier this year, China’s repeated efforts at manipulating and suppressing data further feeds outside skepticism. It is also not lost on many in China: “Put in a clearer way, the current data looks very bad, so don’t look at it for now,” one user wrote on Weibo, a [Chinese] microblogging site, where the relevant hashtag drew more than 180 million views.”
Chinese Coast Guard, South China Sea (photo by Philippines Coast Guard)
International Affairs. Though China has scored recent successes abroad (e.g. in Latin America and Africa) and is not without friends, numerous countries are souring on China. In other places, particularly in the South China Sea, tensions are rising. The Chinese Coast Guard has blocked ships and recently fired a water cannon at a Philippine boat trying to resupply a military outpost. This spat was followed quickly with news that the Philippines and Vietnam are planning to sign a maritime cooperation agreement on South China Sea affairs. On the Belt and Road Initiative front, Italy’s new government wants to withdraw from (not renew) its involvement in the program.
Mutianyu Great Wall in Late Autumn (www.chinadiscovery.com)
As China sweats, suffers, and struggles this summer, the cooler days and hopefully calmer pace of autumn must be eagerly anticipated.