You might think 2020 had been a pretty good year for China, at least when compared with the West. Though COVID-19 began its global march there, China’s recovery has been remarkable. The government’s unprecedented capacity for surveillance, large-scale testing, contact tracing and quarantine helped contain the outbreak inside China within two months. That success allowed for the restart of supply chains and enabled a state investment-led rebound. China could be the world’s only large economy to grow this year. And as second waves of COVID-19 appear in Europe and the U.S., China hasn’t had any serious outbreaks over the past month. Life there is nearly back to normal.
A closer look, however, reveals China’s leadership has had a rough year. Many Chinese and others around the world likely haven’t forgotten that the pandemic story began with a clumsy cover-up in Wuhan and a failed bid to silence Chinese doctors who tried to expose the true scale of danger. An illness that might have been contained inside China was allowed to cross borders. We will never know how many lives might have been saved in China and around the world if China’s political leaders, who put the blame on bungling local officials, had behaved responsibly.
President Xi Jinping has tried to divert domestic attention from the ruling party’s failures with a much more aggressive foreign policy. A new security law in Hong Kong unveiled this summer is designed to crush pro-democracy activism and compromise what’s left of the city’s autonomy. A tougher approach on Taiwan, aggressive pushback against international criticism of mass incarceration of Muslim Uighurs in the Xinjiang region and a harder line on maritime territorial claims on the South China Sea are intended, in part, to rally Chinese citizens to their flag.
This more assertive Beijing has helped push relations with the U.S. from bad to worse. The Senate responded to China’s crackdown in Hong Kong with a rare unanimous vote in favor of sanctions. Washington continues to draw closer to Taiwan on both security and economic questions. On the South China Sea, the Trump Administration announced that it had officially aligned with a 2016 ruling from the Hague that explicitly denies Chinese claims there. And the Administration has continued its campaign against Chinese tech firms like Huawei and TikTok.
Speaking of Huawei, Britain dealt China a serious setback this summer as well. Brexit has only made strong economic ties with China that much more important. That’s part of why Boris Johnson’s government announced in January that the U.K. had chosen the Chinese tech giant for construction of its 5G networks over U.S. objections. Then in July, Johnson reversed course. Anger at China’s COVID-19 cover-up, fury over Hong Kong, and new U.S. tech regulations targeting Huawei’s supply chains made that decision much easier.
In Europe, Xi has badly damaged Chinese credibility, even among governments that want stronger economic ties. In addition to China’s behavior over Hong Kong and Xinjiang and its bullying responses to international criticism, the European Commission accused China in June of running disinformation campaigns during the height of the pandemic in Europe. All of this has set back efforts to forge a China-E.U. investment treaty that would boost growth on both sides.
China hopes to undo some of the recent damage to its international image with the development of a COVID-19 vaccine that might be especially welcome in developing countries, particularly those that fear they’ll be among the last to receive a vaccine made in the U.S. or Europe. That might work for China, so long as the product isn’t as shoddily made as some of the COVID-19 supplies that China shipped to Europe earlier this year.
For now, Xi faces no organized opposition to his third leadership term in 2022. A recent 18-year prison sentence for an influential property developer who dared criticize Xi makes clear that he’s on guard. And a continuing economic recovery should help him.
But this has been a surprisingly tough year for a Chinese leader who has faced few genuine stumbling blocks during his time in power. Now his attention turns to a U.S. election that might just elevate a new President more willing and better able to bring together all those who are angry at China into a more united front.
This appears in the October 19, 2020 issue of TIME.