December 30, 2016, by Tony Hong

‘May You Live in Interesting Times’

School of Contemporary China Studies Assistant Professor David O’Brien looks ahead to what the Year of the Rooster might hold for China.

There is a well-known supposed Chinese blessing that is in fact a curse – ‘may you live in interesting times’. Whether it will turn out to be a blessing or a curse it is certainly the case that 2016 was an interesting year.

While China has escaped much of the turmoil of 2016 it is certainly not immune to the strange winds that are blowing across the globe and 2017 promises to be a particularly significant year.

In October top party officials will gather in the Great Hall of the People for the once-in-five-years National Congress of the Communist Party of China. Party Secretary and President Xi Jinping will have been in power at that stage for five years – traditionally the half-way point for a Chinese leader. The congress is certain to see significant change at the top of the party as many of the current leadership have now reached the mandatory retirement age of 68 and will be replaced by a younger generation. Of the current seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee – China’s top decision-making body – only President Xi and Premier Li Keqiang are likely to remain.

These changes will be very closely watched for likely clues to the direction of Xi’s administration over the coming years and indeed his successor. At previous Congresses it began to emerge who the anointed successor was when the youngest member of the Standing Committee was announced – this was the case with Xi in 2007.

Of course it is far from certain that Xi will step down in 2022, there is no law saying he must, only the precedent of previous leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. In the past when leaders have officially stepped down they remain very influential. Xi Jinping is arguably the most powerful leader in China since Deng Xiaoping and possibly Mao so this Congress will be watched even more closely than usual for signs of his future intentions.

January 20 will see the inauguration US President Donald Trump and China, like the world, waits to see what the extraordinary election result will actually mean. So far there are worrying signs for US-China relations. Trump’s unprecedented acceptance of a congratulatory telephone call from Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen enraged the Chinese. He subsequently further enflamed the situation by appearing to call into question America’s support for the One China Policy. Adherence to this policy has been absolutely sacrosanct to the Chinese in their relations with other counties and for the incoming president to even tacitly question it will be deeply alarming for Beijing.

All through the campaign Trump talked tough on China over trade and the South Pacific. If he maintains this position we are likely to see real turbulence in the relationship. Or it may be that the pragmatic deal-maker that Trump likes to see himself as will win out. One indication that this might be the case is the nomination of Iowa Governor Terry Branstad as new American ambassador to China. Governor Branstad has a long-standing friendship with President Xi Jinping, a relationship which will be key in the coming months.

At this time of the year, especially in northern China the issue of pollution is never far from people’s lips or lungs. Progress is being made on tackling pollution in China but it is slow and the recent ‘air-pocalypse’ in Beijing when the air turned particularly noxious has reminded people of just how bad it can be here. President Xi has worked closely with President Obama to tackle climate change and seems to genuinely want to solve it. The fact that President-elect Trump has in the past said that global warming is a conspiracy invented by the Chinese to undermine America does not bode well.

Just how China may cope with the rising tide of populist nationalism in America and Europe, its roller-coaster economy, its soaring inequality and environmental degradation, and the myriad of other problems this country of 1.3 billion faces will focus all minds in the coming year of the rooster. In the Chinese zodiac this will be a Fire Rooster year which is associated with strength and vigour but also restlessness.

There is no evidence that ‘may you live in interesting times’ is actually a Chinese proverb. It is most likely an apocryphal invention of an English speaking wordsmith. There is however a Chinese proverb that states 宁为太平犬, 莫做乱离人 – ‘Better to be a dog in a peaceful time, than to be a human in a warring period’. A sentiment we perhaps can all agree with.

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