THE BACKGROUND: After beginning 2022 by hosting a Winter Olympics inside a COVID bubble, China faced a tough year. It was filled with economic challenges, maintaining and then loosening its zero-COVID policy, fending off claims of human rights abuses and — in the latter part of 2022 — dealing with unusual and widespread protests related to its approach to the pandemic.
The world's most populous nation also tried to balance its unease about the Ukraine war and other nations' overt interventionism with maintaining its ties to Russia, Europe and the United States. Perhaps most significantly in the long term, it held a Communist Party congress that ended with Xi Jinping securing another term as leader, even as a previous top leader died and his era of China faded into history.
Here, Associated Press China News Director Ken Moritsugu reviews some of the key points in China's year — and in coverage of it.
KEN MORITSUGU, Greater China news director since 2018:
There were two story threads in China, this year. One is the consolidation of power by Xi Jinping, the leader. He was already a very strong leader, but this year was the Communist Party Congress, which happens every five years. And it really cemented his hold on power. It reappointed him to a third term, which is a break with recent tradition. It also appointed his allies to the standing committee of the Politburo, the top group of leaders in China. So that really sent the message that Xi is in charge in China and probably is going to be for some time. There was some speculation leading up to the party congress that maybe some people with other points of views might get some positions, and that might signal some sort of change. The fact that that didn’t happen clearly signifies where China is going politically.
The second story thread is that China faced a series of challenges this year that ultimately are challenges to the Communist Party and to Xi. The one that’s been the most prominent is the zero-COVID policy, which just recently in December, has begun to show signs of easing, after some very unusual protests in China. Public discontent reached such a level that there were actually protests in China against the policy, and this may have led the government to move on it. The zero-COVID policy has really torpedoed the economy this year. It’s become increasingly untenable, from an economic perspective, and the government was really under a lot of pressure, both domestically and internationally to, to ease up. One of the most striking things this year was a lockdown of Shanghai for two months in April and May. Shanghai is a major economic and financial capital. And it just disrupted logistics and production in China, and the economy in so many ways.
And then layered on top of that, you had the war in Ukraine. China has not endorsed the invasion of Ukraine. It has always advocated for peace talks and the end of hostilities, but at the same time, it has not joined the U.S. and other major countries in condemning the invasion and then putting sanctions on Russia. The fact that China has not come out strongly against the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made a lot of countries and leaders in Europe unhappy. That’s been an important dynamic. China, ideally, would like to have good relations with everybody. But given the geopolitics of today, I think that they’re faced with some choices.
Obviously, it’s a little dangerous to be very outspoken in China. But there is real undercurrent, this sort of sentiment in a fairly broad swath of the population and particularly among urban young people that maybe China’s not going in the right direction. And that is what manifested itself in these recent protests. Some of them even had slogans challenging the party and Xi Jinping, which is relatively unheard of in today’s China. They’re not necessarily seasoned activists and protesters, but they’re willing to come out and make some demands and see what happens. The government has not officially tied its recent loosening of its COVID policies to these protests. But it appears that the government blinked — they sort of said, “Oh, we really need to reassess, to change direction here before we have a bigger problem with the public on our hands than we have already.”
It’s been increasingly challenging for a few years to tell the story of China. The environment for foreign media in China is not welcoming at the moment. It manifests itself first of all in the police or security forces interfering in reporting and trying to prevent journalists from doing certain kinds of stories and certain kinds of reporting. But it also manifests itself among the public in general, which has been fed a line that the foreign media is not to be trusted, the foreign media is biased, foreign media is bent on producing a negative portrayal of China. This message has been repeated over and over and over again. Some people believe it, and they don’t want to talk to the foreign media. But the other thing that’s happened is that even people who want to talk to the media, or the foreign media, some of them are afraid to talk to foreign media, because you get in trouble for talking.
So it’s just harder and harder to do the kind of reporting that we want to do, which is to talk to “real people” and get their views about what is going on in China. It's hard to find out: What do they think? How do they feel about everything from the zero-COVID policy to the war in Ukraine to the economy to to their own lives and their economic hopes and aspirations and how they see that evolving? It’s always been hard to report in that sort of broad and open way in China, but it’s just getting harder.