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2014 Got Off To A Tense Start For China


And then there's China. The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, asserted China's power this year. China sparred with neighboring countries over possession of coastal waters. It also poured billions of dollars into economic diplomacy. At the same time, the Chinese president waged an intensive anticorruption drive that brought down several top-ranked officials. Here's NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: 2014 got off to a tense start for China. Chinese and Japanese warplanes got dangerously close over disputed waters in the East China Sea. In May, China put an oil rig in contested waters near Vietnam, triggering deadly riots in that country. At a speech in Paris in March, Xi Jinping admitted China's growing clout, but he couched it in soft and fuzzy terms.


PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Through translator) Napoleon once said that China is a sleeping lion, and when it awakes the world will tremble. The Chinese lion has awoken, but it is a peaceful, affable and civilized lion.

KUHN: The second half of the year appeared to go better. This fall, Beijing announced the formation of Chinese-led banks and trade pacts that could rival Western-led institutions. It unveiled grand infrastructure projects to ensure that all roads lead to Beijing. Last month, the U.S. and China reached a bundle of agreements on climate change, trade and military relations, and Xi had a four-and-a-half-hour meeting with President Obama in Beijing. Jin Zhengkun (ph), a professor of international relations at People's University in Beijing, is optimistic that the two leaders developed a personal rapport that could lead to more cooperation with Beijing as the U.S. continues to shift its attention to Asia.

JIN ZHENGKUN: (Through translator) Obama said after the meeting that he now has a better understanding of China's history. While the U.S. pivot to Asia will continue, it might change its methods.

KUHN: On the home front, Xi Jinping targeted endemic corruption, which the Communist Party sees as a mortal threat to its rule. This year, the anti-graft campaign reached an unprecedented intensity. It netted thousands of officials, including some so high they were previously thought to be untouchable. They include the country's ex-security czar, its top military official and a former presidential aide. Political commentator Wu Zhao Sheng (ph) says Ling Jihua, essentially the chief of staff to Xi's predecessor, was the most powerful of these. But he says Ling's main problem was not corruption.

WU ZHAO SHENG: (Through translator) Ling was the main person who wanted to stage a coup d'etat. His aim was to prevent Xi Jinping from becoming party general secretary. After Xi took office, Ling still did not accept this.

KUHN: The official People's Daily Newspaper accused Ling this month of running his own political faction. Many analysts think Xi really consolidated his grip on power in 2014, the second year of his ten-year term. That would make him China's most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. But Wu Zhao Sheng disagrees, and says that much of the bureaucracy is not under Xi's control.

SHENG: (Through translator) This proposition about Xi establishing his authority is a false one. He just wants to work normally and have his orders implemented smoothly.

KUHN: This year also saw China launch legal reforms and begin to clean up some miscarriages of justice in its courts, but it also continued to jail critics and activists on what human rights groups say are bogus charges. China's muscular foreign policy and the anti-graft drive have gone down well with the Chinese public this year. Xi built on this by cultivating his image as a man of the people.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Xi Jinping, singing in Chinese).

KUHN: This music video features cartoon versions of Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan . It went viral on the Internet last month. It doesn't lampoon Xi; it just makes him look affable. But it's something that none of Xi's predecessors would have tolerated. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.