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The Year Ahead 2021

China’s Fateful Year

Once again, Chinese political decisions have reset the country’s relations with the West. But whereas Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening in 1979 heralded the start of a cooperative and fruitful relationship, President Xi Jinping's policies in 2020 are far more likely to lead to decades of hostile confrontation.

CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – When historians look back at 2020, many may regard it as a pivotal year, like 1949 and 1979, which transformed China’s relations with the West. After Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, the country became part of the Soviet bloc and an avowed enemy of the US-led West. But 30 years later, when Deng Xiaoping launched his reforms and made an official visit to the United States to normalize Sino-American relations, a China impoverished by Mao’s calamitous rule received a warm welcome back to the international community.

In 2020, the pendulum swung back again toward mutual distrust and hostility. Two developments in China played a decisive role in this fundamental shift: the COVID-19 pandemic and the national-security law that the Chinese government imposed on Hong Kong.

Viral Tensions

The COVID-19 pandemic most likely began in Wuhan, China in November 2019, before quickly spreading around the world and crippling the global economy in 2020. At the crucial initial stage, the Chinese authorities responded poorly because of bureaucratic fear, a culture of censorship, and unfamiliarity with the new virus. President Xi Jinping was informed of the outbreak in early January but failed to take immediate aggressive action, causing valuable time to be lost.

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