Tea Leaf Nation
Maps, Money, and the Military: FP’s Most-Read China Stories of 2015
The ten stories our China-watchers loved to click this year.
What news did the year bring from the world’s most populous country? From China’s young rich to its stock market meltdown to its expansionary tendencies in the South China Sea, here are the ten China stories Foreign Policy readers found hardest to resist in 2015.
Foreign Policy/Warner Brown and Ed Johnson
Call it hilarious; call it offensive; call it FP‘s most popular China story of the year. When Tea Leaf Nation contributor Warner Brown typed the names of European nations into Baidu, China’s most popular search engine, they called forth autocomplete results that said much about how China’s 600 million-plus web users view the Old World. The results depict Italy as “so weak,” ask why Spain hasn’t annexed Portugal, and laud Bulgaria for its “milk-induced longevity.” Of course, that August article was a snapshot in time, and results have changed; for example, Baidu now associates France with the tragic November terror attacks on Paris more than with “so many black people,” the article’s original finding.
Hear that? It’s the sound of over 304,000 Chinese students cracking open their textbooks to study for exams at American colleges and universities. As part of FP’s ongoing China series, contributor Yi-Ling Liu compared the worn stereotype of Chinese arrivals to the U.S. as diligent, penniless — and rare — against the current reality. Some Chinese students in the U.S. are now richer than their American classmates, and they are sufficiently numerous that luxury department stores like Bloomingdale’s and Bergdorf Goodman have staged events dedicated to enticing them. But while they may drop some coin, many of China’s nouveau riche see their U.S. education as a stepping stone to eventual wealth and prominence back home.
More than 20 years ago, the Philippines booted the United States from the last of its military bases in the Southeast Asian country. But now, as China pours more resources into its navy and presses its claims in the South China Sea with increasing assertiveness, Manila is turning to its former colonizer for military support. Overlapping claims in the region have staked the expansive Chinese navy against a small and outdated Filipino force as well as local fishermen. Some Filipino officials even want to invite the Americans back to its bases. “We’re fighting for air. We’re running out of space,” said Brig. Gen. Guillermo A. Molina, deputy commander of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command. “And our assets are deteriorating.”
Foreign Policy/C.K. Hickey
Japan is rewriting its pacifist constitution. Indonesia has deployed warships. Even Vietnam is cozying up to the United States. Though China claims that its rapid island-building in the contested South China Sea will help maintain regional stability, it’s clear that many of its Southeast Asian neighbors are alarmed. Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing has aggressively pressed maritime claims under its vague “nine-dash line,” which marks about 90 percent of the South China Sea — one of the world’s busiest waterways — as Chinese sovereign waters. Yet several other nations in the region have competing claims, and China’s attempts to create new facts on the ground through land reclamation are winning it few friends there.
CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe
China’s moves in disputed territory in the South China was big news in 2015. This October exclusive revealed that “the United States is poised to send naval ships and aircraft to the South China Sea in a challenge to Beijing’s territorial claims to its rapidly-built artificial islands.” And this move signifies a “somewhat more muscular stance” for the United States in the region, according to the article’s authors, FP reporters Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary.
“Should we really be worried about war between the United States and China? Yes.” The idea that a battle between the world’s two superpowers looms helped this piece, published in Nov. 2014, assume its spot on FP’s top ten list for the year that followed. Are things really that bad? According to the author, the former Pentagon hawk Michael Pillsbury, they are: “Over the last four decades of studying China, I have spoken with hundreds of members of China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, and read countless Chinese military journals and strategy articles. Chinese military and political leaders believe that their country is at the center of American war planning.” Yikes.
AP Photo/Pomnyun/Korean Buddhist Sharing Movement
Defecting North Korea and making it to the United States is rare; writing honestly and movingly about the moral sacrifices one has to make to survive in North Korea is even rarer. In this adapted essay from his recently published memoir Under the Same Sky, Joseph Kim writes about his time in a detention center. He picks a fight with the guard who has been beating him, and wins. “The guard I had beaten became a regular inmate, and would go out to the fields to weed. The gangster brothers handed me the stick, with the understanding that I would use it indiscriminately, and with great harshness.” And he did.
To Kim, the scariest thing about Korea was the anarchy: “Everyone in the West talks about the oppressive, invasive government of North Korea, but what I experienced was a complete absence of authority. And that was far more frightening.” Sobering, but highly recommended reading.
Foreign Policy/C.K. Hickey
In early summer, China’s stock market was on a tear, and by June 12 the benchmark Shanghai Composite Index (SCI) had gained whopping 149 percent compared to just one year before. Then it all started to unravel, with a brutal end to the month. And on Aug. 11 alone, the country’s already beleaguered SCI lost an additional — and breathtaking — 8.49 percent, sending investors around the world into a tizzy of anxiety and doubt and earning the day the moniker “black Monday.” The fallout included a drop of 4.73 percent in Russia and 3.58 percent in the United States on major indexes, and worries about the “contagion” effect of China’s massive and globally linked economy crested. Since then, China’s government has taken aggressive moves to prop up the market, using everything from a freeze on sell orders to intimidation against those who shorted the market — or even those who didn’t write nice things about the market. While the index has recovered a bit from its summertime lows, it’s a far cry from the “long, slow bull” market Chinese state media had been a bit too eager to predict.
Foreign Policy/C.K. Hickey
On Aug. 11, Chinese monetary authorities abruptly announced their intention to allow the country’s currency, the renminbi, float a bit more freely, which effectively “allowed the RMB to descend further and faster than at any time since 1994.” The results? “The flagship equity indices of 18 of the world’s major economies have almost all taken a hit.” The RMB’s drop ultimately did not lead to the domino effect on worldwide markets some feared at the time. But now that the RMB has joined the International Monetary Fund’s prestigious special drawing rights basket, Chinese authorities have begun to lift currency controls again, and the currency has begun to fall further. Investors should stay tuned.
A half-finished Soviet hulk, a patriotic Chinese business tycoon, and a long, expensive voyage from the Black Sea to the south of China. That’s how the People’s Republic got its first and, for the time being at least, only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. It made its public debut in 2012, boosting nationalistic pride, and swiftly made its mark on Chinese pop culture when ordinary Chinese began imitating the aircraft’s flight-deck crew and turning it into viral videos. In 2015, the Liaoning was still making waves online — among FP’s readership.
Top image: Wang Zhao/Getty
David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University. @dwertime
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy, where she covers international affairs, China, and DC's foreign policy machine. @BethanyAllenEbr