Here’s a look at some key developments this year:
Taking control in Hong Kong
Hong Kong utterly transformed in 2020. In recent years, the city had become synonymous with its pro-democracy protests. During the summer, China moved to tighten control of Hong Kong, ending the city’s long-standing autonomy and imposing a feared security law that has made almost any dissent punishable by prison.
Repressing Uighur Muslims
Amid growing alarm about the abuses, Western attention is focusing on forced labor in supply chains emanating from China. Beijing has in turn faced increasing resistance in Europe, whose leaders were long regarded by some China watchers as too passive about the Communist Party’s geopolitical intentions. At the same time, Muslim nations — top recipients of Chinese loans and coronavirus vaccine deals — have remained largely silent about the Uighurs’ treatment.
Retooling the economy
As both the first country hit by the coronavirus and one of the earliest to bring it under control, China’s economy began to recover sooner than other major countries. Nationalistic state media trumpeted the economic revival and the successful virus fight as evidence of the superiority of China’s authoritarian system vs. the democratic West.
In 2021, China will also have to contend with the new Biden administration and its own pledge to retool China-U.S. economic relations.
Rising China-India tensions
A deadly clash in June between Chinese and Indian forces in the Himalayas escalated tensions between China and India. The deepening friction between the two regional powers led India to draw closer to the United States, as well as to its regional allies Japan and Australia through an emerging bloc known as the Quad. India additionally blocked dozens of Chinese-owned apps, including TikTok, inflicting hefty losses on China’s tech sector. The dicey India-China relationship remains poised for further problems in 2021.
Growing threats against Taiwan
In 2020 Xi and other Communist Party leaders stepped up threats against Taiwan with a sharp rise in military incursions into Taiwanese airspace and increasingly menacing language about seizing control of the democratic island. China also reinforced its territorial claims over the disputed South China Sea, which the United States has said it rejects outright.
Widening Washington-Beijing tensions
Growing tensions with Washington spilled into academia, science and media, with Beijing expelling American journalists and the U.S. restricting visas for Chinese students and Communist Party members. Trump, meanwhile, moved to ban WeChat and TikTok in the United States.
Suppressing domestic dissent
Domestically, Xi showed zero tolerance for dissent in 2020.
The year ends with a growing list of detainees. Ren Zhiqiang, a tycoon who wrote an essay criticizing the Chinese leader’s coronavirus response, was jailed for 18 years. Xu Zhangrun, a Tsinghua University professor, was detained for similar criticisms of pandemic secrecy. Cai Xia, a former professor at China’s elite Central Party School who now lives in the United States, was expelled from the Communist Party after it emerged in leaked audio that she described Xi as a “mafia boss” who had killed his country.
In a case that made headlines worldwide, Li Wenliang, a Chinese doctor silenced by police after he tried to raise alarm about the novel coronavirus long before Chinese authorities acknowledged its full threat, died of covid-19 in February.
Seizing the narrative
In the backdrop of 2020, China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy” further contributed to increasingly unfavorable views of Beijing in many countries. Officials and state media have repeatedly mocked the United States as a chaotic morass of incompetence, violence and racial tension — a combative take bolstered by the Trump administration’s incoherent response to the pandemic and penchant for extreme rhetoric. Concurrently, China this year moved more aggressively to punish countries that have resisted its pressure, notably Australia, which it hit with import bans.