China was one of the biggest stories of 2021 — from its plans to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in the face of criticism about its human rights records in the Xinjiang region, Tibet and Hong Kong to questions about how it would wield its economic power in a delicately balanced world. Not to mention the always relevant issue of how it deals with the United States — this year, under a new president, Joe Biden.
In 2021, the country’s ruling Communist Party officially revised history for the third time in its existence, elevating leader Xi Jinping to a level alongside only Mao Zedong, the founder of the people’s republic, and “reform and opening-up” architect Deng Xiaoping. That could allow him to stay in power even longer — does it venerate him as politically beyond reproach?
Here, the Associated Press journalist who oversaw AP’s China coverage in 2021 weighs in on what he has seen during the past year and what might lie ahead.
KEN MORITSUGU, AP news director for greater China:
This year has been certainly a challenging year for China in multiple ways. Internationally, they had the arrival of the new president in America who succeeded Trump, who had caused a lot of headaches for China. And there was some hope that Biden might bring a friendlier approach to China. That hasn’t really materialized. Biden has stuck to a lot of the tough positions that Trump took on China. And obviously, the relationship has seesawed a bit, but it hasn’t gotten any better. It’s probably gotten worse in some ways. And I think that if they weren’t convinced before, everybody is convinced now that at least the short- to medium-term for U.S.-China relations, the outlook is pessimistic. Both sides, while they’re sniping at each other, are basically trying to keep the relationship from getting worse and that’s become the goal — the goal is not to make relations better, but to keep it from getting worse.
Recently, Xi and Biden had a relatively friendly conversation, it seems. They avoided some of the sharper rhetoric. And that was viewed as somewhat of a victory. But I think the fundamentals haven’t changed. And we can see now with the recent controversies over the Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who was disappeared and basically stopped from talking after she made a sexual assault allegation against a former senior official in China, and the reaction in the U.S. in the West in general to that. And then also now with the Olympics approaching, the continued pressure on China over the human rights in Tibet, in its Xinjiang region. These things keep coming up and they take the wind out of any efforts to improve relations.
At the same time, domestically. China has a lot of issues going forward. The Communist Party under Xi Jinping is trying to increase its control over the economy and is legitimately concerned about some of the excesses in the real estate market, some of the speculation that’s happened, and it’s tried to rein in the excessive lending in that market. At the same time, it’s also tried to bring some of the tech industry more under its control. Together they had a negative impact on the economy. I think consumers are worried. People are not spending as freely even if they have the money to spend. And so there’s this balancing act that the party faces as it tries to control the economy more but also risks undermining economic growth, which is is crucial to any country but to China in particular.
The idea is to ensure the party remains in power. Part of that has been to build up Xi as a strong and powerful leader, someone who will stay in office longer than his two predecessors, who stayed for 10 years or so. Xi is likely to be elected to a third, five-year term as the party leader, which would then lead to him becoming again the president of China for five more years. There’s certainly people who think that he could be envisioning staying of power for his entire life. But this year was the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party’s founding, and the party and Xi had used that to build up both the party and Xi’s image as the irreplaceable leader of the party at this moment in time.
For any country, a second Olympics is never as big as the first Olympics. I mean, I think the first Olympics have been, whether it’s China or South Korea or Japan after World War II, it sort of signals an arrival on the world stage that you’ve developed to the level of a country that’s able to successfully host an Olympics. And that gives you an opportunity to show what you’ve done to the rest of the world. I think Beijing certainly used the 2008 Olympics to do that. The other factor since 2008, and then starting soon after, is when China took this turn toward reversing some of the opening up that had taken place in the previous couple of decades. Basically, the party decided that people needed to keep control of society and the country and the people and the economy in a stricter way, in order to maintain its hold on power.
For a full overview of the events that shaped 2021, “A Year That Changed Us: 12 Months in 150 Photos,” a collection of AP photos and journalists’ recollections, is available now: https://www.ap.org/books/a-year-that-changed-us