2018 was a busy year for China reporters as President Xi Jinping consolidated power, tightened control of civil society, and increased influence abroad. The new year promises a likely continuation of Beijing’s journey toward greater authoritarianism. Here are seven stories worth following in 2019.
1. Uighur detention: The biggest news from China in the past year has been the detention of 1 million Uighurs in re-education camps in the western region of Xinjiang. The government has turned the once-restive Xinjiang into a dystopian surveillance state and sent 10 percent of the Uighur population into re-education camps, where they are forced to memorize Chinese propaganda, live in squalid conditions, and endure torture. At first, officials denied the existence of these camps, then they called them anti-terrorist “vocational training centers.” Chinese officials are also cracking down on the Hui, another Muslim ethnic minority, by closing mosques and Arabic-language schools.
2. Crackdown on Christians: Since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) implemented new religious regulations in February, authorities have banned and destroyed churches all over China, especially in Henan province. In the last few months, China has closed three large unregistered churches: Beijing’s Zion Church, Chengdu’s Early Rain Covenant Church, and Guangzhou’s Rongguili Church. A total of 21 of Early Rain’s leaders and members remain in criminal detention: Among them are Pastor Wang Yi and his wife, Jiang Rong, both charged with incitement to subvert state power.
3. Belt and Road Initiative: Since 2013 China has worked on its Belt and Road Initiative that aims to invest more than $1 trillion in 68 countries in Asia, Europe, and Africa: The goal is a transportation, energy, and telecommunication network. Yet the initiative is facing a backlash as locals feel China is filling the pockets of Chinese state-owned companies and stripping countries of their natural resources. Some poor countries that have been unable to pay back Chinese loans are finding China taking over their land and ports. The anger against China has spread in countries like Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Pakistan.
4. Taiwan: Since Taiwanese citizens elected President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, cross-strait relations with China have deteriorated. Beijing has limited tourism to Taiwan, convinced countries to stop recognizing Taiwan, and threatened multinational companies to stop treating Taiwan as a country on their websites. In a speech Wednesday marking 40 years since a thaw in cross-strait relations, Xi called Taiwan’s unification with mainland China “an inevitable requirement for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.” He said he hoped for a peaceful unification but would use force if necessary.
5. Trade war: U.S. President Donald Trump placed tariffs on $250 billion of Chinese imports, while China has countered with $110 billion on U.S. goods. The United States, poised to increase the tariffs when Trump and Xi met at the G-20 summit Dec. 1, agreed to a 90-day truce to negotiate and perhaps de-escalate the trade war. Yet later that day Canadian officers arrested Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou on behalf of the United States, angering Beijing and making a trade war truce seem unlikely.
6. Chinese influence overseas: China has largely given up the façade that it will play by international rules, and Western countries are beginning to recognize the threat China brings to democracies. Australia banned Chinese political donations, the FBI began investigating Confucius Institutes, and several countries have banned Chinese companies like Huawei from participating in the development of their nationwide 5G cellular technology. A report by 32 leading China scholars revealed ways the CCP is trying to steal technology and influence U.S. politics, think tanks, and Chinese-language media.
7. Forced disappearances: In 2018, the Chinese government proved that no one was safe from arbitrary detention, regardless of rank or title. Actress Fan Bingbing disappeared in July following accusations of tax evasion, and reappeared four months later to apologize on the social media site Weibo. Marxist student activist Yue Xin disappeared in August after helping organize worker protests in Guangdong province. Interpol head Meng Hongwei, likely a target in Xi’s anti-corruption drive, disappeared in September.