How 2012 Changed China

By Benjamin Carlson
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3) The flight of Chen Guangcheng

One of the more inspiring and iconic images of the year was that of blind activist Chen Guangcheng, limping in a cast and wearing dark spectacles, after his dramatic escape from house arrest in Shandong province. A self-taught lawyer, Chen had been held in extrajudicial detention for advocating on behalf of women given forced abortions. In late April, he clambered over a wall, evaded his guards, and fled hundreds of miles to the US embassy in Beijing.

After two rounds of intense diplomatic negotiation, Chen was granted a visa to study abroad at New York University.

Apart from the stirring imagery, why does it matter? Throughout his saga, Chen's argument has always been that he merely wants the Chinese government to obey its own laws. Experts say China has made great progress in the rule of law, but enforcement on the ground is still sorely lagging. Chen's case has given a human face to this challenge: can the government succeed in making officials follow the rules?

4) The ascent of Xi Jinping

This year, China welcomed its first new leader in a decade: the princeling Xi Jinping. While his prior record gave few clues to his priorities, Xi's first month in power has already revealed some departures from his predecessors. For starters, Xi evinces a casual, down-to-earth speaking style, and has made a point of making cadres speak off-the-cuff. In addition, his first visit in office-to the southern boomtown of Shenzhen-seems calculated to suggest that he wants to pursue more economic reform. Finally, Xi's promised crackdown on corrupt officials has heartened ordinary Chinese tired of hearing about Party bosses' ill-gotten riches.

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Still, it's too soon to say much about Xi Jinping's actual goals. So far, the biggest slogan he has introduced is "national rejuvenation" - a term that suggests that a stronger, more assertive foreign policy from China may be on the way in 2013.

5) Economic slowdown

First, a caveat: what qualifies as "slow" in China (7.5 percent annual GDP growth) is still screamingly fast for the Western world. Nevertheless, 2012 saw a remarkable shift in sentiment about the future of China's economy. While many still believe the fundamentals for growth are strong, many more have become skeptical about how long China can rely on exports, construction, and infrastructure as drivers. Nowadays, even Chinese economists acknowledge that the days of double-digit growth were over.

This is not all bad news. Chinese officials know that the economy needs to rebalance, focusing more on innovation and domestic consumption than low-end manufacturing. And the government also knows that it is more important to address yawning income inequality than to keep delivering sky-high GDP figures.

How smoothly that can happen remains to be seen. The Communist Party has for decades justified single-party by pointing to China's economic success. Will people be satisfied with more modest prospects? Keep your eyes on that in the year to come.

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