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Hong Kong CNN  — 

In a pivotal three-hour speech, China’s President Xi Jinping on Wednesday painted a rosy picture of the country’s accomplishments over the past five years.

But how does China really stack up with the rest of the world when it comes to the economy, the environment and its military?

When Xi assumed leadership of the ruling Chinese Communist Party in late 2012, the country was in pretty good shape.

While the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession had taken its toll on China’s economy, it still grew by 7.8% in 2012, and the year before had overtaken Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy.

The biggest challenges facing Xi were largely internal – corruption, party factional disputes, and environmental. The first two he dealt with quickly, by launching a (some say self-serving) anti-corruption campaign and centralizing power to make himself the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.

And while the environment remains a major issue, with water pollution and smog particular concerns throughout China, Xi’s government does appear to be taking action, and he has positioned himself, rhetorically at least, as something of a global climate leader, in contrast to US President Donald Trump.

How else has China changed during Xi’s first five years in power, and how does it stack up against other major economies?


China has transformed from a socialist system where workers could be secure in “iron rice bowl” jobs – their employment and welfare supposedly guaranteed for life – to a freewheeling and often brutal capitalist system with record levels of labor unrest.

Up to 40 million jobs were cut in the state sector from 1995 to 2002, and while many were able to find employment in private businesses, others saw the ground give way beneath them and stable futures slip away.

Unemployment is therefore an even more sensitive topic in China than most countries, and one Xi has grappled with since he assumed power. Analysts say that worker unrest is one of the chief concerns of Beijing, and the party has worked to avoid similar mass layoffs.

While unemployment has seen a marginal improvement under Xi, from 4.13% in 2011 to 3.95 this year, that may not last.

The government said last year it wants to cut at least 1.8 million coal and steel jobs in an effort to reduce excess capacity in those sectors.

Beijing has also taken aim at “zombie firms,” state-owned companies which have stopped operating but keep staff on the rolls to avoid social unrest. Some reports have suggested as many as five million further jobs could end up being cut.

While unemployment remains a major concern, overall economic growth has been solid, and average incomes have increased from $5,060 in 2011 to $8,260 in 2016.

The government also appears to be getting income inequality under control. While still one of the most unequal countries in the world, the gap between richest and poorest has shrunk slightly over Xi’s first term.

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In recent years, China’s capital Beijing has become synonymous with smog. While this is perhaps unfair – Delhi suffers pollution just as bad if not worse, as do several other cities – the environment has become a major issue for China’s leaders, who once attempted to censor and ignore air quality indexes and other pollution problems.

From 2010 to 2015, per capita CO2 emissions from factories, coal power plants and vehicles in China grew from 6.7 tons to 7.54 tons, and the country remains the largest emitter of all greenhouse gasses.

The government has said it wants to change this however, with China’s ambassador to the UN Liu Jieyi saying it was committed to “reducing carbon intensity by 40-45% in 2020 compared with 2005 and reaching the peak of carbon emissions by 2030 or even earlier.”

“There has been an embracing of environmental issues generally in China over the last few years,” Matthew Evans, dean of science at the University of Hong Kong, told CNN earlier this year.

This has been seen in major investments in renewables, with China becoming a world leader in solar energy in particular. The amount of energy the country generated from wind and solar has risen from 64 gigawatts in 2011 to 287 last year, well ahead of the US at 123 gigawatts.

However, some experts have said China’s rhetoric does not match its practice, pointing to the country off-shoring much of its emissions, moving investments in coal and other dirty energy to other countries.

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One of the most dramatic policy changes during Xi’s first term was China’s scrapping of the one-child policy, an often-brutally enforced form of population control that had been in place for over three decades.

The policy was originally adopted because China’s leaders were worried their population would grow faster than it could be provided for, it was abandoned when they realized they were facing the opposite problem.

Forcing couples to only have one child, combined with traditional preferences for sons, created a huge gender imbalance and millions of surplus young men (though recent research has cast doubt on official figures). It also created a major age imbalance, with one child left to support their aging parents and two sets of grandparents in a country with only limited welfare provisions.

The percentage of China’s population aged over 65 has grown from 8.59% in 2011 to over 10% in 2016, and while that pales in comparison to a staggering 26% in Japan or 15% in the US, it is almost double the 5.8% of neighboring India.

Demographers don’t expect the reversal of the one-child policy to lead to a baby boom, meaning China will have to come to terms with the strains of an aging society: higher health and welfare costs, a shrinking workforce, and even lower fertility rates.


Another major shift under Xi has been a greater focus on nationalism and militarism, with the President bringing the People’s Liberation Army firmly under his control and holding a series of major military parades and drills.

This has corresponded with a more muscular foreign policy: Xi’s government has engaged in territorial disputes in both the East and South China Sea – where China has been building up and fortifying reefs and islets despite an international court ruling against them – and in the Himalayas, which saw a tense, months-long standoff between the PLA and Indian troops earlier this year.

Since Xi took power, military spending has increased from 1.82% of GDP to 1.92%, still a long way off the 3.29% the US spends, while the size of the PLA has remained fairly steady at around 2.2 million active service members, despite calls from Xi and others to modernize the country’s armed forces and reduce the number of troops.

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