If Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief Xi started the year believing in his own mythology of invincibility, he is surely ending 2022 with a combination of hubris and embarrassment. In the run-up to the 20th National Congress of the CCP in October and after, street protests broke out in major Chinese cities against suffocating Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns, which have now been largely quelled.
Writing in The Economist in April 2020, former Singapore diplomat Kishore Mahbubani noted that East Asian countries have believe “that for societies to succeed they need the invisible hand of free markets and the visible hand of good governance.” He argued that “China now arguably has the most meritocratic government in the world. The post-covid-19 world will see China accelerate both for the public’s benefit – and the balance of strong markets and good governance will be an appealing model for other countries.”
That was over two years ago of course, when the world was in awe of Chinese technocratic governance in handling the pandemic. Evidence of that skill went missing as the authorities imposed ever more draconian measures on citizens as Covid-19 rage in major cities. After the demonstrations across the country (seemingly coordinated, given the protesters use of similar language and methods), the leadership appears to have given in to the idea of “living with Covid”, which has already led to a spike in infections and presumably deaths in Beijing and elsewhere.
China’s most visible public policy failure has been in vaccinating its population with effective boosters which could have presented a firewall against the spread of the virus. All this so late in the game when much of the world has moved on and left their masks, contact-tracing apps and social-distancing measures behind. Xi himself experienced the exhilaration of unmasking when he ventured out of China for the first time since the pandemic broke on diplomatic jaunts this fall to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Thailand and Saudi Arabia. The fact that China dropped the ball at a crucial time will be noted by its neighbors and others as a teachable moment of how not to manage a pandemic.
No assessment of 2022 would be complete without featuring rogue billionaires. Exhibits A and B are Donald Trump and Elon Musk, who entertained their core audiences during the year and continued to shake public trust in American democracy and free speech. Although Trump nominally suffered a major political setback during the year when many of his preferred candidates failed to make the cut in November’s mid-term congressional and state elections, the real estate tycoon-turned-politician continues to pose the single-biggest threat to America’s claims of being a pluralist, diverse democracy.