Continuing our countdown of the year’s winners and losers, here are those people or organisations for whom 2012 will always be a year to remember.
4. Chen Guangcheng
2012 was a blockbuster year for China stories, and while his dramatic escape from house arrest may have been overshadowed towards the end of the year by the ongoing Bo Xilai saga and the 18th Party Congress, Chen’s incredible, nigh-impossible achievement must not be overlooked.
Before he did it, would anyone have even deemed it possible that a political prisoner, a blind political prisoner, could escape from house arrest, travel in secret across the country to Beijing, and make it to the US Embassy? Not only did Chen manage one of the most impressive prison breaks in recent history, but he also managed to pressure two superpowers, who would really rather be talking about other things, into dropping everything and concentrating on the injustice dealt to him by local Party cadres.
While Chen’s family members and allies who remained in China have been subject to considerable pressure from the government in the wake of Chen’s escape, that Chen was able to not only escape Dongshigu village, but also China itself, is amazing, and will provide inspiration to dissidents for years to come.
3. Jiang Zemin
Considering his death has been mistakenly reported on two separate occasions by major international newspapers, Jiang Zemin has proven himself something of a literal, as well as political, lazarus.
2012 proved itself to be the ‘Year of Jiang’, as the party grandee, long thought to have been sidelined within the hierarchy, forced himself back to the fore of Chinese politics. Jiang, far from being powerless, proved to have more political sway within the Party than Hu Jintao. The new Politburo Standing Committee, announced at the 18th Party Congress, is packed with Jiang’s allies and proteges. The Shanghai Gang, though to have waned since Jiang’s resignation from his final official position in 2003, is firmly back in the hotseat of Chinese government.
2. Xi Jinping
Apart from his brief disappearance from public view in September, which may or may not have been because he was injured in a fight with party elders, it’s difficult to point to a single time Xi Jinping has put a step wrong.
The new Communist Party General Secretary and President-elect, Xi had been Hu Jintao’s anointed successor for years before he finally took the job. Not for him the dramatic, media courting populism of Bo Xilai, Xi, while considerably more dynamic than Hu Jintao (which is damning with faint praise, but still) is still a largely opaque figure, allowing both conservatives and liberals to claim him as one of their own.
Since his accession to the country’s top job (or, as TIME rather hysterically put it, ‘Leader of the Unfree World’) Xi has gain plaudits from all sides for his deft (compared to his predecessor) public relations handling. He made a number of impressive sounding speeches about cracking down on corruption and graft, and cut back on extravagant displays by officials.
Echoing Deng Xiaoping, and warming the hearts of financial reformers all over China, Xi visited Shenzhen and Guangdong in his own version of Deng’s ‘Southern Tour’. His tour even received the types of obsequious and fawning coverage in the international press usually reserved for sitting US Presidents. He also smiled and waved like a real human being, a marked departure from his robotic, emotionless predecessor.
1. The Chinese Communist Party
The world’s largest political party has been in more-or-less unchallenged control of China for over six decades. It’s seen sixteen US Presidents come and go, and survived not only the collapse of the USSR and international communism, but also the financial crisis and the (partial) collapse of capitalism.
In 2012 the Party pulled off its fifth leadership transition and looks more in control than ever, defying naysayers who have been predicting its collapse since, well, pretty much forever. Widespread and insidious corruption may be the greatest problem the Party faces, but it doesn’t seem likely to topple the CPC anytime soon. That the fallout from the Bo Xilai scandal, which had tentacles which reached right to the top of Chinese politics, has been ably handled and minimised despite, unusually for China, happening in full view of the Chinese press and public, shows how adept the Party has become at surviving whatever comes its way.
There will always be commentators who predict the Party’s impending collapse, Gordon Chang has made an entire career out of doing just that, but this is looking less and less likely anytime soon. Reform will come, but not in a manner that can easily be predicted, and nor is it likely to resemble anything like how Western countries reformed their own political systems. The Party has proven itself more than anything else to be a survivor, making the seemingly impossible transition from communism to capitalism with remarkable ease, and those who predict its fall are either naive or worse, wilfully ignoring history.