Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in China newsletter, an update three times a week that explores what you need to know about the country’s progress and how it is affecting the world. Sign up here.
2022 is finally here. And for China, there is no shortage of great moments on the horizon – from the Winter Olympics in Beijing to the 20th Communist Party Congress in the autumn.
The stakes are undoubtedly high, but success is by no means guaranteed. And there are many questions.
When the coronavirus pandemic draws into its third year, will China then remain isolated from the rest of the world?
Will President Xi Jinping secure a third term in power as widely expected – and will it result in a further tightening of controls? And how far is a newly encouraged Xi willing to go?
What about China’s place on the world stage? Will we see a further deterioration of Beijing’s relations with the West?
Here are five important things to see in China this year.
By February, the global spotlight will once again shine on Beijing – the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics.
But the contrast between the two games is sharp.
While the 2008 Summer Olympics were widely regarded as China’s coming out party “on the world stage (filled with the official theme song,”Beijing welcomes you”), The 2022 Winter Games will be held within a tightly sealed Covid-safe“ bubble ”that isolates participants and participants from the wider Chinese population.
As the Tokyo Summer Olympics have illustrated, conducting a major international sporting event during a pandemic is no easy task. And for China, it’s all the more difficult given its determination to eradicate the virus within its borders.
But it is not just coronavirus that Chinese officials want to keep an eye on. Athletes and other participants will be closely monitored in an attempt to prevent any potentially embarrassing act of protest against Beijing.
Activists have long called for a boycott of the Games in protest of China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet, as well as its political repression of Hong Kong. Beijing’s recent silence on Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai’s allegations of sexual assault on a former top executive has further reinforced such calls.
Already, the United States and a number of allies have declared a diplomatic boycott of the Games. And while athletes from these countries will still be allowed to participate, there is a possibility, albeit small, that some may feel the urge to speak out.
After enduring successive coronavirus outbreaks and costly shutdowns, questions about the sustainability of China’s ambitious zero-Covid strategy remain.
So far, there is no sign that Beijing is willing to change tracks. If anything, efforts to eradicate the virus have only intensified in the run-up to the Winter Olympics in Beijing.
In Xi’an, an ancient city in northwest China, 13 million people have entered their tenth day in home detention as officials fight to curb the country’s biggest outbreak of society since Wuhan, the original epicenter of the pandemic.
The shutdown is China’s most severe and largest since Wuhan, which shut down 11 million people in early 2020.
However, local officials seemed ill-prepared for the harsh policies they imposed. Over the past week, Chinese social media was flooded with shouts for help from Xi’an residents facing food shortages and other important supplies as shops were closed and private vehicles were banned from the roads. Access to medical services was also affected, and a college student recounted his experience of being rejected by six hospitals for treating his fever.
For many, the recent shutdown has brought back painful memories of the dark days of the pandemic – a period of chaos and frustration.
On Thursday, thousands of people said goodbye to 2021 by leaving messages on the inactive Weibo account on Li Wenliang, The Wuhan doctor who was punished by the police for sounding the alarm about coronavirus before eventually succumbing to the disease.
“Hi Doctor Li, it’s been two years, but the overseas still can not return home, and those at home can still face food shortages,” said one commenter.
December 30, 2019 was the day Li learned about the virus and shared the information with other doctors. Since his death, people have regularly written on the whistleblower’s account.
“Two years ago, I did not take this little news seriously and even thought of it as an overreaction. I had absolutely no idea that it would be the way it is today. Hope you rest well in heaven and that we eventually get through all this. ”
Throughout 2021, some had hoped China would ease its zero-tolerance approach after the Winter Olympics, but others were more pessimistic, pointing to a key Communist Party meeting in the fall as a potential obstacle for the government to risk spreading the virus.
All indications are that Xi will secure a historic third term in power during the ruling Communist Party’s 20th National Congress in Beijing this fall.
Xi, the most powerful Chinese leader for decades, had already abolished the president’s term limits and enshrined his eponymous political ideology in the constitution. In 2021, he took a step further with the adoption of a landmark resolution that placed him on the same pedestal as modern-day Chinese founder Mao Zedong and reformist leader Deng Xiaoping – securing Xi’s undisputed rule within the authoritarian one-party state.
Since Mao and Deng, there are few Chinese leaders who have been so great during the lives of 1.4 billion Chinese.
Under Xi, the party has tightened control over all aspects of society, from art and culture to schools and businesses. It has silenced more and more critical voices in the public eye, obliterating a growing list of China’s biggest stars and expanding its reach further into citizens’ privacy.
Meanwhile, Xi has waged an ideological war against what he calls the “infiltration” of Western values - such as democracy, freedom of the press and judicial independence – and captured a string of narrow-minded nationalism that casts suspicion and outright hostility towards the West.
But while Xi’s vision is at odds with those grew up believing that their country would become more open and connected to the world – as it had been in the decades following Deng’s “reform and opening up policy” – in the eyes of Xi and his supporters, China has never been so close to its dream of “national rejuvenation”, having accumulated unprecedented military strength and economic power.
But while the Chinese economy was the first in the world to recover from the pandemic, its path forward looks less secure.
The new year will present some major challenges for the world’s second largest economy.
China is struggling with a handful of headaches that could seriously weigh on growth in 2022, from repeated Covid-19 outbreaks to supply chain disruptions and an ongoing real estate crisis.
The country is still expected to pick up significant growth in 2021: Many economists expect growth of around 7.8%. But 2022 is another story where big banks are lowering their growth forecasts to between 4.9% and 5.5%. It would be the second slowest growth rate since 1990.
At the forefront of Xi’s mind is almost certainly a desire to keep the country running steadily ahead of his widely anticipated historic third period. He has already signaled a desire to focus more on domestic issues than any major international ambitions: Xi has not left the country since the start of the pandemic, and his government has pushed ahead with its dramatic “Covid-zero” approach abandoned of many of the world.
But analysts have said Xi needs to consider the outside world to an extent, given how much China still depends on international financial hubs for investment, technology and trade.
In the early days of the pandemic, Beijing had hoped to make the global health crisis an opportunity to refresh its image. It sent face masks and other medical resources to countries in need and promised to make Chinese vaccines a global public good.
But things did not go quite as Beijing wanted.
While China’s success in quickly containing the virus has garnered overwhelming support at home, its international reputation has plummeted due to its initial mishandling of the Wuhan outbreak, the disinformation its diplomats and propagandists have spread abroad, its continued repression of Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong and increasingly confident attitude towards its neighbors.
Among the world’s most developed countries, unfavorable prospects for China have reached record highs, according to Pew Research Service.
The vast majority of the 17 countries surveyed by Pew last year generally have negative views of China – 88% in Japan, 80% in Sweden, 78% in Australia, 77% in South Korea and 76% in the United States.
Analysts say Xi’s absence from the global scene has likely contributed to China’s isolation from the rest of the world.
Nor has it helped his own image. Confidence in Xi also remains at near-historic lows in most places surveyed. In all but one of the 17 countries surveyed (except Singapore), the majority say they have little or no trust in him – including half or more in Australia, France, Sweden and Canada, who say they have no trust in him at all. .
During 2021, China’s relations with the United States further deteriorated as tensions with Taiwan escalated. Under President Joe Biden, the United States has sought closer ties with like-minded partners in Europe and the Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s progress. And those efforts are likely to only accelerate into the new year.
Party propagandists have repeatedly praised Xi for bringing China “closer to the center of the world stage than it has ever been.”
But whether China will be there all alone is a question that awaits the party – and Xi – in 2022 and the years to come.