For more What in the World watch Sundays at 10 a.m. & 1 p.m. ET on CNN
By Global Public Square staff
If Dick Cheney were arrested…and his assets seized…all in an anti-corruption effort by President Obama…you might say "What in the World," right? Well, as the New Yorker's Evan Osnos points out, that scenario is a rough analogy for what is going on in China today.
Some of you will remember that in the first week of 2014, we began the show suggesting that this would be "the year of China," meaning that the country was likely to go through enormous changes that would make or break its rise.
But even we have been surprised at how much has happened on almost all fronts. China is now being ruled by a new generation, spearheaded by President Xi Jinping who has consolidated power and appears to be the strongest and most ambitious Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping. Consider what he has been doing in just one year in office.
First and most significantly is the anti-corruption drive. And at the forefront of that is the expansive investigation into Zhou Yongkang, China's former domestic security tsar, once head of China's National Petroleum Corporation and a former member of China's "untouchable" Politburo Standing Committee. Zhou is the man who has been called China's Dick Cheney by Osnos.
Authorities have detained several of Zhou's family members and associates and have seized assets worth $15 billion dollars. And President Xi has taken his anti-corruption drive to the military as well, exerting much more influence than did his predecessor. One result: officials reportedly charged former General Gu Junshan of using his power to amass illegal wealth, pointing to his posh homes and other extravagances that could not have been bought on a military salary.
The second area where one sees great change is the environment.
Everyone talks in China about the unbearable smog. A study released last July shows that air pollution in northern parts of the country can actually cut life expectancy by an average of 5.5 years.
Well, Beijing has now decided to begin a clean-up, promising to spend $280 billion to fight air pollution. This year, China has started to directly monitor and publish the pollution impacts of its biggest 15,000 culprits. China's urban middle class now routinely protests against not only polluted air, but polluted water as well. And in February, China announced a plan to spend $330 billion to clean up its water. This mass-scale, public effort may be a reaction to increased discontent, but it’s also about the economy. The impact of environmental degradation cost China 9 percent of its GNP, according to the World Bank.
Perhaps the most important set of proposals, not just for China but for world, are Xi's plans for economic reform. Last November, the party announced it would maintain its authority over the Chinese economy, but would allow the market to play a "decisive" role. The government vowed to take a less active role in the allocation of resources and said it would allow the private sector to invest in state-owned enterprises.
And in perhaps the most striking development, Premier Li Keqiang told a parliamentary meeting in March that China aimed to expand its economy by 7.5 percent this year but (and here's the key part) that growth would not get in the way of reform. Until now, the party has not faced up to reforms, always pushing them off and goosing the economy to keep jobs growing.
Now let’s be clear. So far, economic reform is all talk and little action. And one thing you don't see in this flurry of new policies and proposals is anything about political reform, moves toward greater pluralism or democracy. That's because the goal of all these ambitious measures is to strengthen the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, not to weaken it.