How 2020 left China ‘diplomatically diminished’

China alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) to the first cases of COVID-19 a year ago.

As the respiratory illness spread rapidly across the globe, Beijing’s handling of the disease – first detected in the central city of Wuhan – drew intense international scrutiny and opened a new front in the deteriorating ties between China and the United States.

Although Beijing managed to stamp out its own outbreak and became the only large economy to grow this year, analysts say President Xi Jinping’s China faces the new year more “diplomatically diminished” than ever. That is owing not only to the pandemic, but also its crackdown in semi-autonomous Hong Kong and its adoption of more coercive diplomatic tactics – including in Taiwan, India and Australia.

Here’s a review of five key stories about China from 2020.

Hong Kong’s freedoms ‘wiped out’

Hong Kong’s protest movement kicked off 2020 with a huge rally on New Year’s day, which ended in violent clashes and the arrest of about 400 people marching against Beijing’s tightening grip on the city.

The bleak start to the New Year only got worse.

In March, Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam banned gatherings of more than four people to stem the spread of the virus. In June, China’s parliament passed national security legislation for the former British colony, punishing anything Beijing deemed secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.

Many decried the sweeping legislation as the “end of Hong Kong’s autonomy”, but Beijing defended it as necessary to restore stability after a year of mass protests. Soon afterwards, the protest anthem: Glory to Hong Kong was banned in slogans, dozens of pro-democracy candidates were disqualified from contesting legislative elections and media tycoon Jimmy Lai was arrested and his office raided for suspected collusion with foreign forces.

Activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam were jailed on protest-related charges, while dozens including activist Nathan Law and legislator Ted Hui fled into exile.

Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, also postponed a legislative election scheduled for September by a year and expelled four opposition members from the legislature on national security grounds. The moves resulted in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp resigning en masse from the legislature.

“We are seeing a place that had almost complete freedom become subject to a dictatorship, with all forms of political opposition being wiped out in front of our eyes,” said Brad Adams, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

Following the passage of the national security law, the US, UK, Australia and several other Western nations suspended extradition treaties with Hong Kong, while Washington ended the city’s preferential trading status. US President Donald Trump’s administration also slapped sanctions on Lam and key officials for the crackdown in Hong Kong.

‘Grey-zone’ warfare in Taiwan

Whilst quashing resistance to its rule in Hong Kong, China also became more assertive towards Taiwan, a self-ruled and democratically governed island that Beijing claims as its own. Since President Tsai Ing-wen’s landslide re-election in January, China has engaged in a form of “grey-zone” warfare in relation to the island, deploying more than 100 aircraft towards Taiwan’s airspace and forcing its military to scramble its jets on numerous occasions.

Earlier this month, China also sent an aircraft carrier group through the Taiwan Strait on their way to drills in the disputed South China Sea.

Tsai, who has rejected Chinese rule in Taiwan, said on December 8 that the island was now facing military threats on a “daily basis” from “authoritarian forces”.

Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, says Beijing is trying to “increase psychological pressure on the Taiwanese military and the public”.

She also noted rising tensions between Beijing and Taiwan’s China-friendly opposition Kuomintang (KMT), which pulled out of a key cross-strait forum after Chinese state-television made disparaging remarks about a top politician.

Amid the rising tensions, the US stepped up support for Taiwan, approving more than $5bn in arms, including drones, missiles and artillery, while also lobbying for Taipei’s inclusion in the World Health Organization’s decision-making body, the World Health Assembly.

Washington also sent its secretary of health to Taipei, marking the highest-level visit by a US official in 40 years.

Beijing has warned the US against boosting support for Taiwan, with Foreign Minister Wang Wenbin saying Taiwan was the “most important and sensitive issue in Sino-US relations”.

‘Free-fall’ in US-China relations

The deterioration in US-China ties this year has caused alarm, with former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd warning in August that the world was confronting the “prospect of not just a new Cold War, but a hot one as well”.

The year began on a positive note with the US and China ending a two-year trade war by signing a Phase One trade deal.

But relations quickly plummeted amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with Trump repeatedly referring to the virus as the “Chinese virus” and blaming China’s initial cover-up in Wuhan for the spread of the disease globally. The US leader also cut funding to the WHO, faulting the global health body for what he called bias towards China.

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