BEIJING — What other country would have been able to position itself to evolve from a third world country to a superpower in less than a generation? For the most part, China made a great leap forward to that goal over the past year — and 2007 is shaping up to be more interesting still.
That year that was: 2006
The nuclear neighbor
This was the year that China's unpredictable neighbor, North Korea, joined the small club of nuclear nations by conducting an underground atom-bomb test, defying the West and unnerving much of Asia. For China, its closest ally and the force which the world counted on to reign in leader Kim Jung Il, it represented a diplomatic failure.
But China, which imposed some sanctions, knows that if North Korea is pressured to the point that the government broke, it will be flooded by millions of refugees — and in a country whose population increases 12 million yearly despite a one-child policy, a refugee crisis doesn't fit into the plan. Which is why China spent the last part of the year in a delicate dance to condemn North Korea's test, urge the country back to negotiations and sustain its desperate economy.
Look out China, the world is coming to visit
Every Olympic host city counts on positive publicity from the games. But China, perhaps more than any other country in recent times, is banking on the attention as a coming-out party to illustrate that it is a global player.
To that end, while construction crews toiled away this past year on the venues for the 2008 summer games, an etiquette campaign was launched encouraging Chinese to make a good impression and mind their manners when visitors arrive. At the top of the public advisories: try not to spit so much.
The Great Wal-Mart of China
American firms pushed harder to do more business in China during 2006, an initiative which included two high-level U.S. trade visits to Beijing (complete with public deal signings and press conferences). Rumors also swirled that the U.S. retail giant Wal-Mart was poised to acquire an existing retail chain in China.
The biggest complaint among U.S. firms is that China should be moving faster to open its doors to foreign business as well as crackdown on intellectual property theft.
In one public event staged by Fox Home Entertainment to announce it will begin selling its hit movies and TV shows here, a video store down the street — along with many others — had already beaten them to the punch selling pirated fox movies and TV shows for $1.50 a disc.
Why do American firms want to come here to compete against their own lower priced pirated products (not to mention endure the constraints of doing legitimate business in China)? That's easy: there are nearly 1.3 billion consumers here.
What happens in Vegas no longer stays in Vegas
With China's explosive economy, more lenient travel rules and a growing middle class looking to spend money, the gambling island of Macau surpassed Las Vegas in revenue in 2006.
The former Portuguese colony — once a backwater of dingy, smoke filled casinos — is getting an extreme makeover led by American gambling tycoons looking to cash in with upscale new casino hotels. This year Steve Wynn opened the $1.2 billion dollar Wynn Macau and its stock reached an all-time high based on optimism for Asia business. That followed the opening of the Sands Macau by Wynn's arch riva,l Sheldon Adelson, who welcomed so much business that the casino hotel paid for itself in less than a year.
What to watch in 2007?
China wants to be a world player and with that comes with a catch: it has to play nice with other countries. Look for more pressure from the West on China to welcome more imports, crack down more on piracy and speed up financial reform. We are likely to see some movement from China along with the centuries-old admonition to outsiders: “You guys don’t really understand us.”
Wait, they’re not until 2008. No matter. While other host Olympic host cities have wet paint as athletes arrive, look for China to have many of the game venues constructed more than a year before the torch arrives.
In fact, in this country where people joke the national bird should be the construction crane, building a sports venue is just plain easy. The giant Great Peoples Hall (170,000 square meters) on Tiananmen Square was constructed in 10 months.
On the subject of North Korea and its unpredictable new nuclear neighbor, China will have a chance to save or lose face, the latter a prospect this country strongly dislikes.
Being unable to convince North Korea’s leader to back down before conducting an underground nuclear test, all eyes and pressure will be on China to tame Kim should the planned six-party talks unravel.
There will be a great experiment this year in China. For the first time, the communist government will allow journalists to roam the country and gather news — without permission from government officials. It may not sound like much, but it will give reporters for the first time the freedom to cover stories both good and bad and report them without being detained or expelled.
The relaxation of the usual restrictions happened under pressure from the International Olympic Committee, but reporters are welcoming it nevertheless. And there’s a feeling that the rules — which are set to expire shortly after the games end — might end up remaining in place as officials see that Chinese media consumers are just as skeptical about reporters and their work as anywhere else.
Good for panda, but bad for dog
As the Chinese year of the dog ends, so do the good times for dogs in Beijing — where officials now are enforcing dog rules: nobody can own more than one dog nor can they own one that’s bigger than a cocker spaniel.
Barking up the wrong tree? With only three percent of dogs vaccinated in a country which sees more than 2,000 die yearly from rabies, officials wanted to crack down before the Olympic Games. Trouble is, pet owners love their dogs and they know there have been no documented rabies cases in Beijing for more than a decade. They won’t be confiscated quietly.
Different story for the beloved Panda, which, thanks to the most successful breeding program in the world, should see a continued baby boom. Whatever anyone thinks of other animals, in China, there can never be too much prolific panda procreation.
As for 2007 — it will be the year of the pig.
Mark Mullen is an NBC News correspondent based in Beijing, China.