By Andrew Singer
The 2022 final curtain is approaching. It has been a momentous year in China, with out-of-this-world accomplishments, elaborate pomp and circumstance, and great turbulence and dislocation. This Issue looks back at some of the most significant events of China’s past twelve months stretching from politics and disease to food, space, and art.
The Reign of Xi Jinping. Xi Jinping’s power has been growing by leaps and bounds since he first became China’s leader in 2012. This year witnessed the culmination of his ascent. Xi was greenlit to effectively serve for life (elected in five-year increments) at the 20th Party Congress in October. Xi then took his diplomatic show on the road, being a headliner at the G-20 Summit in Bali and this month the China-Arab States Summit and China-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Saudi Arabia.
Domestically, the catchphrase, Two Establishes, expressly enshrines Xi as the “unquestionable core leader” of the Chinese Communist Party and decrees that “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” is China’s bedrock political, Party, and military ideology. For good and bad and all in between, Xi is China, and China is Xi. History will ultimately record whether this turns out to be a net positive or negative for China and the Chinese people.
Covid Shocks. Until this month, the year in China had been littered with almost daily mass Covid testing, constant lockdowns, incalculable small business closings, strained factory closed-loop management, and massive societal ferment. Entire cities were locked down, including for two months in Shanghai. Green health codes were required to go anywhere. A sudden yellow or red spread dread. The economic and psychological impacts continue to be staggering and, at least mentally, long term.
Then there were the protests. In October, droves of employees at Foxconn’s Apple “I-phone city” plant in Zhengzhou revolted, walking off the job. Videos of physical clashes (riots?) spread around the world. A few weeks ago, citizens in several major cities spontaneously engaged in the largest civil protest China has seen in more than three decades. People had reached their breaking point.
While the government had been slowly and inconsistently trying to “optimize” its Covid protocols the past few months, the Party turned on a dime within days of the weekend mass citizen uprisings and effectively abolished the Zero Covid Policy. The testing, lockdowns, and residential blockades were mostly eliminated. The government-controlled press is newly running stories downplaying the lethality of Omicron (true), promoting better vaccination among the elderly (needed), and generally trying to get the populace comfortable with the idea of living with Covid (a high bar given the indoctrination of deadliness the past three years).
Infections are skyrocketing around the country. Restaurants, food delivery services, and stores are losing staff in droves and customers are not returning. Though the vast majority of cases will likely continue to be asymptomatic or with mild symptoms, more serious illness and death are certain to spike over the coming months. Medicines are already scarce. Hospitals will be stressed. The question remains how well the new de facto “Live-with-Covid” policy will be managed and enforced (let alone if maintained). While certain macroeconomic activity will likely surge, social turmoil and financial pain will continue to weigh on significant swaths of China in the new year.
Ensuring Food Security. Shortly after winning control of China in 1949, the Communist Party established food co-ops to improve delivery of basic goods to the Chinese people. From the 1950’s through the end of the 1970’s, these co-ops served as the principal distribution channels for food and daily necessities. The co-ops’ primacy in daily life retreated after the Reform and Opening Movement took hold and a private sector was created. Now, this appears to be changing (at least to a degree).
Food co-ops have been making a return since Xi Jinping took over China and are once again an important part of Chinese society in 2022. Supervised by the All-China Federation of Supply and Marketing Cooperatives, individual co-ops around the country buy food directly from farmers and sell it and other daily necessities to the people in government-run co-op supermarkets. Data indicates that “revenue jumped 19% in 2021 to 6.26 trillion yuan ($891 billion) -- around 80% of [the private] Alibaba's, and outpacing the 12% increase in overall retail sales in China”. The question of why has been asked. According to a university professor in Beijing, "the government could be trying to prevent disruptions to food distribution in the event of a future crisis." Such a crisis could be domestically or internationally triggered.
China Exploring Space. Since Chinese astronauts are not allowed on the International Space Station (ISS) due to US prohibitions, China built its own space station. After launching the core Tianhe, Heavenly Harmony, living module in April 2021, China’s Tiangong Kongjianzhan, Heavenly Palace Space Station (天宫空间站), was recently completed after the successful installation of two laboratory cabin modules--the Wentian, Quest for the Heavens, module (launched July 2022) and the Mengtian, Dreaming of the Heavens, module (launched October 2022).
A three-person crew blasted off at the end of November and completed the first in-orbit transfer with the crew that has been aboard since June. China plans to service the space station with regular manned and cargo missions and to entertain international astronauts to conduct onboard research during its initial, ten-year anticipated lifespan. Once the ISS is taken offline and brought back to earth in the next six-eight years, China will have the only orbiting space station.
Opening the Hong Kong Palace Museum. After a soft opening in late June, the new Hong Kong Palace Museum (HKPM) on Victoria Harbour in the West Kowloon Cultural District opened to the public at the beginning of July. The opening was timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong returning to Chinese control. The Museum’s mission is “to promote the study and appreciation of Chinese art and culture as well as to foster dialogue between world civilisations.”
The Museum has 7,800 sq. meters (84,000 sq. ft.) of gallery space with three atriums on three levels that are connected vertically. The HKPM is affiliated with the Palace Museum (the Forbidden City) in Beijing, and the interior architectural design of the new museum takes inspiration from its Beijing cousin. The Beijing Palace Museum dipped into its 1.8-million strong collection to loan more than 900 rare objects (never before displayed outside of China) to the HKPM for its inaugural exhibitions. These objects include rare paintings, calligraphic works, ceramics, jades, and more.
Notable Deaths. The most significant passing this year was former leader Jiang Zemin (96). The announcement of his death and funeral coincided with the recent citizen protests and Covid-control loosening. Other notable Chinese citizens also died this year, including professional football striker Wang Tao (52), retired PLA Major General Yang Yongsong (103), lexicographer Li Xiyin (96), scientist Yu Guocong (99), biomedician Wang Weiqi (83), environmentalist Tang Xiyang (92), novelist Li Guowen (92), Tianjin Mayor Liao Guoxun (59), writer and activist Bao Tong (90), actor Lu Shuming (66), and actress, director, and screenwriter Jin Di (aka Jin Huiqin 89).
Walking a Mile in China’s Shoes. This month is also the one-year anniversary of the beginning of my four-part series on “Walking a Mile in China’s Shoes” -- Vol. 1, Issues 27-30 – China’s Perspective on America, China’s Perspective on China, China’s Role and Power, and China and America Moving Forward.