Sat. Jul 20th, 2024

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: The beginning of the auspicious year of the dragon and its link with China’s declining birthrate, Argentinian soccer star Lionel Messi’s controversial absence in Hong Kong, and Chinese Premier Li Qiang’s call to action for the economy.

China returned to work this week after the weeklong Spring Festival holiday, when the country celebrates the Lunar New Year. 2024 is the year of the dragon, often considered a lucky year to have children. Those born in dragon years are believed to be unusually successful and charismatic, leading to a small boost in births across East Asia every 12 years. However, due to China’s declining birthrate, 2024 is likely to see fewer births than in previous dragon years.

In 2011, the year before the previous dragon year, China’s birthrate was 13.27 children per 1,000 people. Last year, the figure was just 6.39 children per 1,000 people, indicating a sharp decline. Despite government efforts to encourage women to have more children, the soaring costs of child-rearing are leading to fewer births and widespread anxiety about the future in China.

Argentinian soccer player Lionel Messi faced backlash in China after missing a match in Hong Kong, sparking nationalist anger. Chinese state media and Hong Kong newspapers spread rumors that Messi’s absence was a political gesture. Messi denied the allegations, but fears of being accused of lacking patriotism led officials to respond with anger. Messi’s attempts to explain the situation have not quelled the uproar.

China made an unusual offer of security aid to Hungary this week, supporting the country after Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban backtracked on attempts to block European Union aid to Ukraine. China’s outreach to Hungary aligns with its tendency to support autocratic leaders and bolster allies. Premier Li Qiang called for “pragmatic and forceful” economic action, emphasizing the need for actions to boost confidence and expectations. However, these calls for action may not have a significant impact in China, where specific instructions from top leaders hold more weight.

The Spring Festival travel in China increased by 19 percent compared to 2019, and spending rose by 7.7 percent. However, the spending did not match the increase in travel, indicating that people were spending less per trip. While Chinese state media touted this as a sign of “economic momentum,” the response from financial markets was lukewarm.

In honor of the year of the dragon, below is a Lunar New Year poem from dragon emperor Taizong, who ruled from 626 to 649 AD. Taizong was an unusually forceful ruler who ascended to the throne by orchestrating the killing of two of his brothers.

New Year’s Night
Translated by Brendan O’Kane

Sunset light slants over fragrant halls;
Years beautify the silken palaces.
The cold departs, and with it winter snow;
And warmth brings spring breezes with it.

Sweet fragrance unfurls from plum blossoms by the terrace;
Red candles burn, like arrangements of floral offerings
All rejoice in the new year and the old
One night to welcome one and see off the other.

The translator notes: “This is not a very good poem—but nobody would have told him that at the time, and it’s not really meant to be a work of art. Rather it’s a reminder from Taizong of the scope of his power: opening with the Tang palaces and then implicitly claiming the seasons, rituals, and New Year’s revelers themselves.”

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