Now that APEC is over, we’ll be seeing less of the scene above as the weather will be back to normal, meaning that it won’t be long before smoggy skies and gray days return (indeed today was dark gray and not due to rain, see below). That’s because measures implemented by the government such as banning factories from running, construction work, half the cars every day, and even the traditional burning of clothes in funerals ended last Thursday. Anyways that only proved to be half-successful (such as last Wednesday when I took the above photo) because the weather did start to worsen during the last few days of the APEC summit, so the government then decided to ban something else again – air quality readings from the US embassy. Though, the authorities did unban something – the BBC and even LINE, which had been blocked for a month and several months respectively.
While these seem silly, the bigger point is how insecure and even desperate China can be, which is why you should always take reports of China’s unstoppable rise and immeasurable power with a grain of salt. Even with recent news like Alibaba’s mega IPO and Singles’ Day online shopping sales of over $9 billion, which have been taken to indicate China’s economic strength, numbers should not obscure that the country is racked by serious internal problems, both economic and societal.
Even Beijingers weren’t all pleased with the improved weather that APEC brought on because of the many inconveniences that included suspension of passport and weddings and packed subways (and despite a week-long holiday for some company staff, though NOT ours). In fact, people even coined a sarcastic term to describe the temporary nature of the weather – “APEC Blue.” Not only does it refer to weather, it could be used to describe any thing that is short-term or not genuine, for instance – “He’s not really into you – it’s an APEC blue.”
A few major developments did happen at APEC that give the impression China is strengthening. I did find that Barack Obama had a lowkey appearance and I thought from the coverage that perhaps he was deferential and didn’t have much of an impact, though I think this is too quick to suggest the US influence is waning. China’s Xi Jinping was able to meet with Japan leader Shinzo Abe, but the body language afterwards suggests things went a bit rough. Meanwhile China helped push through a study of a proposed Asia-Pacific free trade agreement, a sort of rival to the US-supported Trans-Pacific Partnership. The US and China also agreed a major climate deal to curb carbon emissions. These are indeed signs that China is trying to become more influential, especially in getting the free trade agreement study launched, but the follow-through from these promises ad plans will be important and remain to be seen. There is a contradiction in that China is trying to take a leading role in the international stage while at home, its government struggles to maintain its rule, often using absolute or extortive measures on the public like the mentioned bans. Make no mistake, not a few Chinese were unamused by their government’s actions, which this article has a good overview of the sarcasm and negative feelings.
And not to forget, you know what else was banned – Russian PM Vladimir Putin’s chivalrous act of putting a coat on Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan was censored by the authorities, not so much for political sensitivities but merely for face. A local colleague did tell me that it was widespread on the Chinese Internet so perhaps it’s more precise to say the act was blocked from official online outlets. However, regardless of the extent to which footage of it was blocked on the mainland, just the fact it was blocked at all shows the level of censorship here, which goes from the fully serious (like blocking the BBC or Wall Street Journal) to minor stuff like this.