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International

China 2008 vs 2022: Richer, stronger, more confrontational

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BEIJING (AP) — China has undergone history-making change since the last time it was an Olympic host in 2008: It is richer, more heavily armed and openly confrontational.

As President Xi Jinping’s government prepares for February’s Winter Olympics, it has greater leverage to exert influence abroad and resist complaints from the United States and other governments over trade, technology theft and its treatment of Taiwan, Hong Kong and China’s Muslim minorities.

The economy is three times larger today. The ruling Communist Party is using that wealth to try to become a “technology power” and is spending more on its military than any country other than the United States.

“2008 was a turning point,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong Baptist University. “That was the beginning of China’s assertiveness.”

As fireworks exploded over Beijing in August 2008, China was about to overtake Japan as the No. 2 global economy. The ruling party celebrated with the most expensive Summer Games to date.

Foreign media dubbed it China’s “coming out party,” echoing the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 that symbolized Japan’s recovery from World War II. After three decades of keeping its head down to focus on development, Beijing was ready to emerge on the global stage as an economic and political force.

The ruling party declared its more assertive stance in 2012, the year Xi took power, in a document that called for “more strategic rights,” military status and a bigger global role.

Xi’s government sees its system of one-party dictatorship under threat and accuses Washington of trying to deny China its rightful role as a global leader. The ruling party is tightening control over society and business and using internet filters and other censorship to shut out what it deems unhealthy foreign influences. It is doing more to intimidate Taiwan, the island democracy Beijing says belongs to China.

“You can see that China is forced by the United States and its allies such as Australia, Japan and Britain to do so,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.

Xi is seeking to cement his control over the country. He is expected to use key political meetings late in 2022 to try to break with tradition and stay in power for a third five-year term as head of the ruling party. Earlier, he had the Chinese constitution changed to get rid of term limits on his role as president.

Once “more open to the outside world,” China now is “much more paranoid,” Cabestan said.

Beijing has sent warplanes in growing numbers to fly near Taiwan. It is pouring money into developing nuclear-capable missiles that can hit the United States and aircraft carriers and other weapons to extend its military reach beyond China’s shores.

Chinese leaders believe, Shi said, that they need to defend themselves on several fronts: a tariff war launched by then-President Donald Trump in 2018; curbs on access to U.S. technology; and military alliances involving Japan, Australia and other governments to counter Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea and other territory.

“If there is a bad relationship between China and another country, it is because the other country harms China,” Shi said.

In 2008, Summer Games preparations included a $43 billion makeover of the Chinese capital. The party built the eye-catching Bird’s Nest stadium and other Olympic venues, installed new subway lines and upgrading roads. Exercise equipment was installed in thousands of public parks across China.

The capital, one of the world’s smoggiest cities, launched a “blue sky” campaign that shut down or replaced power plants, steel mills and other facilities and imposed traffic controls at an estimated cost of $10 billion.

Today, Xi’s government is wrestling with debt, pollution and other excesses of earlier years. It’s also in the midst of a marathon campaign, launched before he took power, to steer the economy to sustainable growth based on consumer spending instead of exports and investment.

Under a vaguely defined initiative — dubbed “common prosperity” after a 1950s slogan — the ruling party is trying to narrow a politically volatile wealth gap between a billionaire elite and China’s working-class majority.

Successful private sector companies in e-commerce and other fields are under pressure to invest in the party’s efforts to reduce reliance on the United States, Europe and Japan as technology suppliers by developing computer chips and other products. They are paying for rural job creation and other political initiatives.

Xi and other leaders promise to open markets wider to foreign and private competitors while also saying government-owned banks, oil producers, telecom carriers and other companies are the “core of the economy.” Business groups complain that despite steps such as ending limits on foreign ownership in auto manufacturing, global companies are being squeezed out of promising technology and other fields.

“China will continue to expand its opening up to the outside world,” Xi said in a Jan. 17 speech by video link to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He promised to “ensure all enterprises have equal status before the law and equal opportunities.”

In a slap at Washington, Xi complained about “hegemonic bullying” and said governments need to “abandon a Cold War mentality.”

As athletes and reporters arrive ahead of the Feb. 4 opening of the Winter Games, Chinese leaders face the challenge of shoring up slumping economic growth while they try to contain coronavirus outbreaks and force real estate developers, an industry that supports millions of jobs, to cut debt that Beijing worries is dangerously high.

China rebounded quickly from the 2020 pandemic and became the only major economy to grow that year. But growth fell abruptly in late 2021 as Beijing’s debt crackdown bit, triggering a slump in real estate sales and construction.

The economy expanded by a robust 8.1% in 2021 but growth tumbled in the last quarter to 4% over a year earlier. Forecasters say the slump will deepen before interest rate cuts and other stimulus measures can take effect. The World Bank and private sector economists have trimmed this year’s growth forecasts to as low as 5%, though that still would be among the world’s strongest.

“Economic stability is the top focus in 2022,” said Tommy Wu of Oxford Economics in a report.

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AP researcher Yu Bing contributed.

Joe Mcdonald, The Associated Press

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Crime

Despite ample school security plan, Texas shooter found gaps

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By Collin Binkley And Kantele Franko

Robb Elementary School had measures in place to prevent this kind of violence. A fence lined the school property. Teachers were ordered to keep classroom doors closed and locked. Students faced regular lockdown and evacuation drills.

But when an 18-year-old man arrived Tuesday at the school in Uvalde, Texas, intent on killing children, none of it stopped him.

Security failures allowed the shooter to massacre 19 students and two teachers, school safety experts say. The shooting already has led to calls to fortify schools further, on top of millions spent on equipment and other measures following earlier shootings. But more security offers drawbacks, with no guarantee of an end to mass violence. In the worst case, as in Uvalde, it could backfire.

“You can do the best job you can to prevent a school crisis, but we cannot read the minds of all the criminals who are out there,” said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, a nonprofit that works with schools across the country. “We cannot prevent all crime.”

According to a district safety plan, Uvalde schools had a wide range of measures in place to prevent violence. The district had four police officers and four support counselors, according to the plan, which appears to be dated from the 2019-20 school year. The district had software to monitor social media for threats and software to screen school visitors.

Yet when the gunman arrived at the school, he hopped its fence and easily entered through a back door that had been propped open, officials said. Behind the locked door of a fourth-grade classroom, he gunned down children and teachers.

Amid the attack, nearly 20 officers stood in a hallway because the on-site commander believed the gunman was barricaded in the classroom and children were not at risk, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw said at a Friday news conference, saying “it was the wrong decision.”

The case underscores that even the strongest security plans can be undermined by a seemingly simple lapse, said Curtis Lavarello, executive director of the School Safety Advocacy Council, which provides training on school safety. The Texas school appeared to be doing many things right, he said, but none of that mattered once the gunman was able to walk unobstructed into the building and into a classroom.

“All those things on paper mean nothing if they’re not followed in practice. And there seemed to be a number of gaps,” he said.

In the aftermath of the shooting, some Republicans have been calling for further investments in school safety to prevent more attacks. Some have pushed for more armed police in schools, along with metal detectors and measures to make it harder to enter schools.

Among those promoting physical security measures is Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Appearing on Fox News on Wednesday, he brought up 2013 legislation that would have created grants to help schools install bulletproof doors and hire armed police officers among other measures.

If those grants had gone to Robb Elementary, Cruz said, “the armed police officers could have taken him out and we would have 19 children and two teachers still alive.”

Security experts say the Uvalde case illustrates how fortifying schools can backfire. A lock on the classroom door — one of the most basic and widely recommended school safety measures — kept victims in and police out.

U.S. Border Patrol agents eventually used a master key to open the locked door of the classroom where they confronted and killed the gunman, McCraw said at the Friday news conference.

Some argue that investments in school security have come at the expense of student welfare. Lockdown drills that have become routine for a generation of American students have traumatized students and added to strains on mental health, educators say.

Schools need more counselors and psychologists to help troubled students, not stronger buildings, said Dewey Cornell, a psychologist and director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia.

“We have systemically reduced the number of support staff in our schools, and focused too much on installing metal detectors and surveillance cameras and electronic door locks, which are very short term and reactive and very expensive,” he said.

In the wake of the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, schools across the country began spending huge sums of money on fortifications including bulletproof glass, metal detectors and armed security.

But such measures can create an atmosphere where students feel uncomfortable and less trusting, and it does not necessarily prevent attacks, said Matthew Mayer, a Rutgers associate professor who works on issues related to school violence.

“You’ll go down these sort of endless rabbit holes of how much security is enough. And when it comes to someone who’s coming in heavily armed, you’re not going to stop them,” Mayer said. “So the idea is you need to figure out why people do this in the first place and have ways — multi-level systems of prevention — to prevent it from happening.”

He advocates for a multi-faceted prevention approach that also includes steps such as improving mental health services, assessing threats more effectively and building trust so students and families are not afraid to speak up if they’re concerned someone has the means or intent to cause harm.

Still, schools can only do so much, he said, and he isn’t optimistic that public outrage over Uvalde will lead to significant change.

“The problem is that a lot of this public reaction, you know, sort of rises like a wave and then recedes over time, and the politicians have been accustomed to riding that out. You know, they make speeches and so forth, and sometimes there’s a commission that gets appointed, and they issue reports,” Mayer said. “But substantive change is lacking.”

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The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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International

Moose is Loose: Canada’s Mitch (Moose) Hooper reaches World’s Strongest Man final

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Not lacking for confidence, Canada’s Mitchell (Moose) Hooper made some bold predictions ahead of his first appearance at the World’s Strongest Man competition.

So far he’s been calling his shots.

In a recent YouTube video, the six-foot-three 315-pounder described his potential for the event and felt first- or second-place qualification results were realistic.

He backed up his talk this week at the Capitol Mall in Sacramento, Calif., by securing a berth in the weekend finals. Not bad for someone who entered the event as a relative unknown.

“I’m pretty in tune with what I’m capable of and what I’m not capable of,” Hooper said. “To put it simply, I knew that if I was one of the favourites I wouldn’t want me to be in that group.”

Strong showings in the loading race, deadlift ladder, car walk and log lift gave Hooper a healthy lead in his six-man group.

He only needed a single point in the wrecking ball hold Thursday to secure first place and one of two group berths in the two-day final starting Saturday.

“I was pretty spot on,” Hooper said of his predictions. “So yeah, I have a pretty good feel for what I can do.”

Hooper, 26, has a varied sporting background. He’s the director and founder of an exercise physiology business in Barrie, Ont., which helps people with injuries and chronic conditions.

Hooper played hockey as a youth, has run marathons and had varsity golf opportunities in the United States.

He played football at the University of Guelph and completed his undergraduate degree in human kinetics before becoming head strength and conditioning coach for the National Basketball League of Canada’s KW Titans.

“I have some family with chronic health conditions,” Hooper said. “I wanted to seek out something a little bit more meaningful. So I found exercise physiology.

“I looked up the No. 1 school in the world and that happened to be the University of Sydney. Off I went.”

Hooper completed his master’s degree in 2019 and “happened to stumble upon” strength sports while Down Under. He entered a few powerlifting competitions and got some attention by winning the Australia’s Strongest Man event.

A video of a Hooper deadlift in competition recently gained steam on social media and it wasn’t long before World’s Strongest Man organizers tracked him down and invited him into the 30-man field.

He hopes a top-three standing after Saturday’s competition would leave him in good shape for a Sunday showdown.

“I wouldn’t be surprised with first, I wouldn’t be surprised with seventh,” Hooper said. “I imagine I’ll land somewhere in between there.”

On a regular day, Hooper said he usually gets up at about six in the morning and eats five or six meals a day. He aims for about 2 1/2 hours of daily training.

“I try to hit 6,000 calories (daily) and about 330 grams of protein,” Hooper said.

“A couple of cartons of egg whites — one in the morning and one at night — that usually gets me covered,” he added.

Deadlift competition and the Flintstone barbell are among the events on tap Saturday ahead of the bus pull, Atlas stones and power stairs disciplines on Sunday.

This is the 45th edition of the World’s Strongest Man. Maxime Boudreault, a native of Kapuskasing, Ont., also advanced along with reigning champion Tom Stoltman of Britain and his brother, Luke Stoltman, the reigning European champion.

Hooper, meanwhile, is showing no signs of rookie jitters against such veteran competitors.

“It’s a psychological thing as much as it is a physical thing,” he said. “Consistency really trumps everything.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2022.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press

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