A highly idiosyncratic mix of can-do entrepreneurs, inward-looking Buddhists, textbook Marxists, overnight millionaires, out-of-pocket, leather-faced farmers, unflagging migrant workers and round-the-clock McJobbers, China today is as multifaceted as its challenges are diverse. From the outside, China’s autocratic decision-making may suggest national uniformity, but things are actually more in a state of controlled, and not so controlled, chaos.
The Economy: speed-bump or cul-de-sac?
China's eye-watering growth appears to be nearing the end of its blinding three-decade run, although experts remain divided over long-term implications for its US$11 trillion economy. Confrontingly high levels of debt, chronic overcapacity in manufacturing, a constellation of real-estate bubbles dotted around the land and a stock market prone to sudden dives, mean the days of easy, double-digit growth have given way to more sober forecasts. The economy may not be coming off the rails, but China's ambitious proposals in its current five-year plan could take a bruising, including its commitment to hugely expand social security and feed the country's large and demanding military budget. The latter expenditure is perhaps most crucial, to satisfy a growing domestic appetite for a strong nation when rivalries within the region and with the US are at their keenest. While a bust is perhaps unlikely, China may need to prepare for a period of middle-income blues with fewer jobs, reduced expectations and the days of double-digit growth a thing of the past.
China goes Travelling
China's crashing stock market seems to have done little to stop the Chinese from joining the top league of travelling nations for the first time in their tumultuous and predominantly inward-looking recent history. So while the world goes to China, China is increasingly going to the world. In 2015 a record 120 million (a bit less than the population of Mexico) outbound visitors left China. In the same year, Chinese arrivals to the UK were up by 40% in the first nine months of 2015. Chinese travellers spent a staggering US$215 billion abroad in 2015 (more than the GDP of Portugal), up 53% on the previous 12 months, while Chinese tourism is predicted to account for 14% of worldwide tourism revenue by 2020. Relaxed visa rulings from several nations, including the US and UK, have helped get Chinese feet into their outbound travelling shoes. It doesn't quite mean you'll find China deserted when you get there – the Chinese are more actively travelling around their home nation too: Běījing is hoping that domestic travellers will outlay ¥5.5 trillion on travel around China by 2020.
Troubled Waters and Restive Borderlands
China’s dazzling economic trajectory over the last three decades has been watched with awe by the West and increasing consternation by the Middle Kingdom’s neighbours. By virtue of its sheer size and population, a dominant China will ruffle some East Asian feathers. The long-festering dispute between China and Vietnam, the Philippines and other nations over the control of waters, islands, reefs, atolls and rocky outcrops of the Paracel (Xīshā) and Spratly (Nánshā) Islands in the South China Sea worsened in recent years when China unilaterally began reclaiming land around, and building on, contested reefs. China has attempted to enforce a 12-nautical-mile exclusion zone around these reefs, which has been tested by the US Navy conducting 'freedom of navigation' exercises. The possibility of miscalculation, which could lead to conflict, has never been greater. Meanwhile, the seemingly intractable spat over the contested and uninhabited Diàoyú Islands (Senkaku Islands to the Japanese) continues to sour relations between China and Japan. While keeping an eye on maritime issues, at home President Xi Jinping has had to deal with unrest in Xīnjiāng province, where Uyghur disquiet has prompted an increasingly harsh security clampdown from Běijīng, which may threaten to inflame sentiments further.