In 2021, as most countries around the world struggled to contain the virus, China kept its borders sealed, eradicated epidemics with ruthless efficiency, and, in its zero Covid bubble, embarked on internal turbocharging reforms.
It was the year when Chinese leader Xi Jinping declared that “the East is rising and the West is declining.” But his confidence was cautious, warning officials not to write off their main rival, the United States.
And as this rivalry between the superpowers intensified, taking on what other countries feared was a distinctly Cold War tinge, Taiwan took center stage.
US President Joe Biden appeared to break with Washington’s longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity” (which aims to keep everyone in the dark about whether the United States will defend Taiwan) by declaring that the states -United would indeed come to the defense of the island. His collaborators then peddled his comments.
When an unprecedented number of Chinese warplanes flew over Taiwan amid threats from Beijing to take the island, many assumed the invasion was near.
And as China continued to seek parity in esteem for its authoritarian form of governance, especially in international institutions based on democratic standards, Taiwan has become the touchstone of a global conflict of values.
Democracy versus authoritarianism
The clashes came dense and rapid. In the spring, European politicians, who had criticized human rights violations in Xinjiang, were sanctioned by Beijing. The suspension of the investment deal with China as a result was a clear sign that Sino-EU relations had taken a nosedive. In the fall, Beijing lost a good friend with the departure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Then, the decision of an EU country, Lithuania, to allow Taiwan to open a representative office under its own name, sparked anger in Beijing, resulting in the sudden flight of Lithuanian diplomats out of China.
In another dramatic diplomatic incident, Huawei chief executive Meng Wanzhou struck a deal with U.S. prosecutors in her extradition case, allowing her to return to China.
Within hours, the two Canadian citizens, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, detained for espionage in China were suddenly released – Beijing appearing to make no secret of its hostage diplomacy. Irish businessman Richard O’Halloran, meanwhile, remained detained without charge in Shanghai.
The fallout from the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai’s accusation of sexual assault at the hands of one of China’s most powerful men, former Prime Minister Zhang Gaoli, has divided the world of international sport, a few weeks before the Beijing Olympic Winter Games in 2022.
But through all the turmoil, there was little room for open dialogue. The silence of dissent within China, coupled with sealed borders, has reduced opportunities for people-to-people exchanges in businesses or universities.
By 2021, it looked like the chasm between China and much of the rest of the world had widened
At the same time, the number of foreign journalists in China has further declined. Journalists who have attempted to hold the one-party state government to account on issues such as re-education camps in Xinjiang, the continued erosion of democracy in Hong Kong, or the origins of the virus have often been referred to as “Fake news” and “hostile foreign forces” by a regime now totally intolerant of control.
When I fled Beijing with my family in March after years of intimidation and harassment by authorities, there were no longer any Irish journalists working for Irish media in China.
In our exile in Taipei, we have joined a growing number of Chinese correspondents forced to cover the superpower from a distance.
In 2021, it seemed like the gulf between China and much of the rest of the world – or to use President Xi’s “east and west” framing – had widened.
The front of the house
But despite the frigid geopolitical atmosphere, at home this year, management was in a festive mood. The pomp and pageantry marked the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party in July, and party leader Xi Jinping took the opportunity to deliver a colorful message to his own people and more specifically to the outside world.
“We will never allow anyone to intimidate, oppress or subjugate China,” he said, shouting and cheering in Tiananmen Square.
“Anyone who dares to try to do this will have their head banged against the Great Wall of steel forged by more than 1.4 billion Chinese people,” he said.
Nationally, there is no doubt that the pandemic has given leaders a huge boost. The Chinese public, looking at infection and death rates in advanced democracies, felt a sense of national pride that China has remained largely Covid-free, and the downsides of policies, such as the impact on mental health, have received little attention.
However, the Chinese who tried to document the chaos of the virus’ first response have been forgotten. Citizen journalist Zhang Zhan is currently dying in prison for attempting to report the reality of the Wuhan lockdown, thwarting official propaganda. Others have simply disappeared.
The government has continued to push its own accounts of the virus’s origins, suggesting, alternatively, that it came from frozen food imports from Europe or that it had been made in a US laboratory – both largely accepted by Chinese citizens and heavily promoted by authorities on international social media platforms.
The heavily choreographed WHO mission to Wuhan, which resulted in the verdict that a Wuhan lab leak was “extremely unlikely,” was another victory for the Communist Party. (Although WHO chief Tedros Adhanom quickly put the laboratory leak theory back on the table as soon as the team left China.)
But behind external confidence, Chinese leaders spoke of major internal challenges: a demographic crisis, pressing energy and food security issues as well as an unsustainable wealth gap that makes China one of the world’s most successful societies. inequalities in the world.
They know that the Party’s social contract with its citizens (to stay out of politics while leaders generate growth and jobs) could suffer in an economic downturn, damaging their legitimacy.
2021 was in many ways a dress rehearsal for 2022
So, under the banner of “common prosperity,” the government has put in place a series of crackdowns on tech companies, brought wealthy entrepreneurs into line, banned expensive online education platforms and held back the overheated real estate industry. .
The government has also attacked the online gaming industry, which has said the media is calling it “spiritual opium,” limiting play time for teenagers and prompting US game makers Fortnite to end the game. their business in China.
With all of that set to continue, 2021 was in many ways a dress rehearsal for 2022 – the year in which Xi, often compared to Mao, is set to enter an unprecedented third term as the head of a shameless authoritarian regime. , deeply nationalist and increasingly powerful. .