2020 will go down as a year of infamy, headlined by the COVID-19 pandemic. As much as it tries, China cannot evade culpability for initially mishandling the spread of the virus from its Wuhan epicenter. This ongoing health crisis is inextricably linked to China’s fortunes in the past year, plus it will dominate the coming twelve months too.
Quite apart from COVID-19, in 2020 international criticism of China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rightfully intensified for a number of reasons. Among them were its aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy and atrocious treatment of Uighurs in numerous Xinjiang concentration camps.
Analysts believe around a million Uighurs have been forcibly incarcerated in what China calls “reeducation centers” but which are actually brainwashing concentration camps. Inmates, sent there without trial or legal recourse, are imprisoned for indeterminate periods. Families are rent asunder, and Islamic and ethnic practices are systematically being rooted out.
The USA is leading criticism of the CCP for these human rights abuses, but too few vocalize their anger. Camp inmates perform forced labor, and it is now thought that some Western brands are using materials such as cotton grown in Xinjiang produced in this way.
In many ways, 2020 was a missed opportunity for China internationally. Amidst the pandemic, with the world distracted and the USA beset by internal strife, China could have achieved much more with soft power. Instead, clumsy “facemask diplomacy” and self-praise for how it dealt with COVID-19 riled numerous countries.
Yet at home, the CCP indulged in pats on the back for the way it has weathered the pandemic. A dichotomy has emerged of how Chinese see themselves, compared to how other nations actually do rate China. A Global times Poll center survey revealed that 78% of Chinese respondents think that Chinas international image has improved in recent years.
Adam Ni of the China Neican newsletter explained, “One important implication of this mismatch in perceptions may be that the Chinese public’s support for Xi’s foreign policy is partly based on misconceptions of what the world thinks of China. If they believe that Xi’s approach to foreign policy is improving China’s image around the world, then they are more likely to support, or even advocate for, the kind of assertive diplomacy that has been ill-received by many countries.”
In fact, China’s diplomacy is having an adverse effect on its global standing.
Reflecting CCP paranoia over COVID-19, this week prosecutors accused Zhang Zhan, an online citizen journalist, of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” -a frequent charge for any government critic – for initially reporting the Wuhan outbreak. The legal system is recommending she spend between four and five years in prison.
Of any country in the world, China currently has imprisoned the highest number of journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists listed 48 journalists in jail in 2019, and one of the most recent was a local employee of Bloomberg.
Politics and economy
Chairman Xi Jinping’s reputation took a hit internationally over COVID-19. However, at home the propaganda machine and strict internet controls proved superior in quelling any dissent. Xi remains firmly at the helm of China, yet to maintain power he must produce results.
These can be found if one looks hard enough. In late November, for example, Xi announced that nine Guizhou counties had been lifted out of “absolute poverty,” meaning no county remains on the national list of impoverished counties. Of course, this was probably more symbolic than real, simply because Xi had promised China would be a “moderately prosperous society” by the end of 2020.
China proceeds with greater centralization of the economy, including over tech companies like Jack Ma’s Ali Baba and the sudden cancellation of his Ant Group’s public share offer.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will continue to receive considerable investment, but fiscal pressures mean China cannot splash money around as freely as before. In Pakistan, for instance, China will be carefully examining the viability of some projects.
Xi will heave a sigh of relief that nemesis President Donald Trump will be vacating the White House in the coming year. China has struggled – along with the rest of the world, it has to be admitted – to handle and read Trump. The American mogul initiated an acerbic trade war with China that hit the latter’s slowing economy hard. A recent survey showed that 77% of Chinese have an unfavorable view of the USA.
However, Xi always had the luxury of time. He could wait out Trump, as this president-for-life will not be voted out by the people as Trump was. China will preferJoe Biden as president, as he will be more predictable and his arrival offers the two countries a fresh start. After having successfully dulled any fight from the Democratic Party under Barack Obama, Beijing will have high hopes of resetting relations with Washington DC.
In a congratulatory message, Xi sent a polite but blunt message to Biden. He said it was in the common interest to “promote healthy and stable development” of bilateral relations. “We hope both countries uphold the spirit of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.”
However, the mood in the USA has changed dramatically since Obama’s administration. Too much water has passed under the bridge, China has been revealed as a strategic competitor, and opposition to China has become bipartisan in the USA. Alarming to the CCP, Biden may also enjoy more success in building an alliance of partners willing to stand up to China.
On the domestic fringe, Hong Kong’s plight went from bad to worse. On 30 June, China imposed the “National People’s Congress Law Concerning Establishing and Strengthening the Safeguarding of National Security for Hong Kong” on the former British colony. It has effectively stifled all dissent and public criticism of the government. With the populace muzzled, expect Chief Executive Carrie Lam to use that law, and other obscure legislation, to dissuade any protest and to imprison ringleaders of the democratic and protest movement.Indeed, Hong Kong will soon differ little from the rest of China in terms of freedoms of speech under this draconian law. Expect the legal and court system to fall into line at China’s insistence as well.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to plow on with its build-up and modernization. The PLA Navy (PLAN) added two Type 094 Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines to its fleet in April, giving the navy a fleet of six such boats.
There is no sign yet of the PLA Air Force’s new stealthy H-20 strategic bomber. Additionally, Chinese aircraft continue to conduct frequent longer-range operations into the Western Pacific, and sometimes circumnavigating Taiwan.
The PLAN maintains its counter-piracy task force in the Gulf of Aden. However, there is no evidence yet of a new Chinese military base other than its one in Djibouti, which incidentally is receiving a larger pier to berth larger ships. China’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean has not risen significantly over the past year, but the world should expect more forays there in the future.
American arms sales to Taiwan continue to irk China, with the USA approving USD5.1 billion in sales in 2020 alone. Taiwan is the most central issue for China, and it has been ramping up diplomatic and military pressure on the democratic nation. The ultimate feather in Xi’s cap would be to reunify Taiwan with Mainland China – something not even Mao Zedong could achieve. Pressure will intensify.
Despite the chaos and economic recession caused by COVID-19, the CCP rubber-stamped defense spending by an extra 6.6% for FY2020. The military received CNY1.268 trillion (USD179 billion), which was CNY78billion more than the previous year.
China’s Ministry of National Defense warned in November, “We will not allow anyone, any force, to infringe upon and separate China’s sacred territories.” Despite historically untrue claims that the Chinese have “peace in their DNA”, China currently has sea disputes with Brunei, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. Furthermore, it has border or offshore island disputes with neighbors such as Bhutan, India, Japan and Taiwan.
One of the biggest stories of 2020 was the bloody clash between Chinese and Indian troops in Eastern Ladakh. On 15 June it exploded into a vicious fracas that left 20 Indian soldiers dead and an unknown number of Chinese. The PLA had instigated tensions by advancing into new territory along the border, nor has it shown any inclination to resolve the issue, despite numerous talks between military commanders. However, it remains to be seen whether the PLA has realigned positions during the harsh winter months.
Do not expect China to pull back in 2021, and incitements along the Indian border at other points should be anticipated. The PLA has been rapidly building up new infrastructures such as helipads and new barracks near the border to gain an advantage against India.
China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea continue to cause tension, and some kind of Chinese provocation looks likely. Under Trump, the US Navy performed more frequent freedom of navigation operations near the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Beijing successfully manipulated Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte into submission. Despite occasional flashes of indignation, Duterte did not stand up to China at all. Scarborough Shoal, upon which China would dearly love to build a new military base, is a flashpoint to watch.
On 26 August, China fired a DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile and DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile into the South China Sea from mainland China. Chinese sources claimed that they hit a moving ship target near the Paracels, this representing an important capability and sending a message to the USA.
In 2018 the world began to wake up to Xi’s militant reign and his ambitions, though not all are willing to stand up and incur China’s wrath. One nation willing to do so has been Australia, with bilateral relations spinning out of control after Canberra called for an investigation into COVID-19’s origins. China has since imposed sanctions and banned various imports like wine, beef and coal. This is indicative of China’s bullying response to any country that vocally criticizes China; Xi is happy to make an example out of Australia.
China continues to tighten control over its own citizens too. A social credit system is widening, leveraging mass surveillance. This Orwellian dystopia is epitomized in China’s vile treatment of Uighurs. Xi is clamping down on ethnic minorities, so we must brace for emerging news of a pogrom of labor camps and enforced incarceration in Tibet, similar to those that exist in Xinjiang.
Xi, by centralizing power within his own sun, must take responsibility when things go wrong. At home, the propaganda apparatus can control the narrative, but China remains remarkably clumsy on the international stage. Expect more diplomatic errors of judgement to occur in the year ahead, with China harshly responding to any criticism.
China’s fury at Canada’s December 2018 arrest of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer, resulted in the immediate tit-for-tat arrest of two Canadians, who continue to languish in prison. This ongoing behavior shows how Beijing merges politics, business and national objectives into a single cause.
China may initially hold out a promise of improved relations with the USA. However, if Biden does not immediately play ball, or if the USA does not lower its level of anti-China rhetoric, expect China or its military to test Biden out early on to gauge his reaction. Biden’s key officeholders and policy advisors will have an effect. Several espionage cases against China were publicized in 2020, and there will be no diminishment in such Chinese intelligence-gathering activities.
China’s leadership has shown a propensity to bully, plus the PLA is spoiling for a fight in a dangerously toxic mixture of national hubris. Deng Xiaoping’s axiom of “hide your strength, bide your time” has been truly abandoned by Xi.