Hong Kong: After the nadir of 2020, alas there was little improvement in the COVID-19 pandemic this past year. Although China continued to deny culpability for its spread from Wuhan, the virus left its indelible imprint on world affairs. For communist China's part, it maintained a great wall of quarantine.

Presently, Xian's 13 million inhabitants are under lockdown as the Chinese city struggles to cope with a Delta outbreak. The nation adopted a strict COVID-19 elimination policy, even though it has failed everywhere else. To date, China has confirmed more than 113,000 COVID-19 cases and 4,849 deaths. However, the toll is likely higher than this, because many believe Beijing has played down the figures.

It is understandable why China is attempting a zero-cases policy, since domestic vaccines are not effective against emerging variants like Omicron, especially compared to Western vaccines that use mRNA. This is particularly ominous for China, because COVID could spread like wildfire amongst a population where there is little natural immunity.

China may have to administer a new vaccine to 1.4 billion citizens. Moving on from COVID-19, there was hardening international denunciation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2021, continuing a trend that intensified last year.

Various reasons for opprobrium include China's aggressive "wolf warrior" diplomacy, trade wars and diplomatic bullying of countries like Lithuania, brutal treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, and its subjugation of Hong Kong.

China is conducting a ferocious propaganda campaign against those who censure its suppression of Xinjiang, where more than a million Uighurs are forcibly incarcerated in concentration camps. Muslims, in what many claim is genocide, are imprisoned without trial for indeterminate periods, families are rent asunder, and Islamic and ethnic practices are systematically being eradicated.

An expose of official documents indicates that Chairman Xi Jinping bears full responsibility for this pogrom, with Chen Quanguo as its chief architect. Interestingly, after five years as CCP secretary in Xinjiang, in late December it was announced

Chen would be replaced. It is unknown what his next post will be, but it will presumably be a reward for his draconian efforts.

Because of China's behaviour in Xinjiang, international pressure has ramped up. The USA passed the Uighur Forced Labour Prevention Act in December, effectively banning importation of materials like cotton, tomatoes and polysilicon from the region. The USA has already imposed a diplomatic boycott on the 2022 Winter Olympics hosted by China. Other nations are doing the same, though not all are brave enough to call it a "boycott". Xi is wary of such public criticism from the global community.

When Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008, the CCP used it to showcase the country. The same now, Xi wants to bask in the reflected glory of next February's Olympics, and so he requires the event to pass off uneventfully.

China is now vulnerable and sensitive to criticism, so expect China to react with all guns blazing and vicious rhetoric against any detractors. Boycotts represent an extreme loss of face for China, so it will do all it can to lessen the impact of any reproof leading up to the Winter Olympics.

Amidst Xi's paranoia, freedoms continue to diminish in China. Next March, for instance, a law entitled Measures for Administration of Internet Religious Information Services will come into effect. It bans any unlicensed online group from spreading religious beliefs or ceremonies, such as Christmas, for example.

Xi said on 4 December that religions can only be developed in the Chinese context, and that his government must "provide active guidance for the adaptation of religions to socialist society".

In other words, Xi claims the right to shape religious belief to suit his vision for China.

Xi also said the law was necessary to safeguard "national security". This phrase is all encompassing, but it is probably better thought of as safeguarding CCP rather than national security. The party is going to extraordinary lengths to ensure it is the only system worthy of loyalty and worship; no opposition is brooked.

This attitude is seen in the ongoing subjugation of Hong Kong, where a National Security Law passed on 30 June 2020 is wielded as a shotgun blast against any who dare oppose the CCP and its puppet government led by Carrie Lam. December elections were a parody of CCP control, with China deciding which "patriots" could contest seats. A mere 30.2% of the population turned out to vote.

Most pro-democracy figures are either in prison on spurious charges, or have fled Hong Kong. The populace has been muzzled and, around Christmas time, Tiananmen Square monuments in various universities were removed late at night to avoid publicity and to expunge traces of the CCP's 1989 massacre. Attending the once-annual candlelight vigil for Tiananmen Square victims is now enough to earn a prison sentence. Soon there will be little difference between Hong Kong and China, as civil liberties are restricted and freedoms of expression stifled.

The Hong Kong Police use this overarching National Security Law to crack down on any dissent. Hong Kong's most vocal anti-government newspaper, the Apple Daily, was forced to shut down in June 2021, and its owner Jimmy Lai is serving a months- long prison sentence. All media and all Hong Kongers have been muzzled. Similarly, the Committee to Protect Journalists gave a gloomy summary of 2021, with more reporters imprisoned than ever before. Of 293 journalists imprisoned around the world, China is the worst protagonist with 50 journalists currently in jail.

Something peculiar happened when President Joe Biden convened the Summit for Democracy on 9-10 December. China, of course, was not invited, but how odd that it mounted a public relations campaign highlighting its "democratic" credentials.

Beijing saw Biden's meeting as a Summit against China and, just a few days earlier, the CCP released a white paper entitled China: Democracy that Works. It alleged, in gobbledygook, "Whole-process people's democracy integrates process-oriented democracy with results-oriented democracy, procedural democracy with substantive democracy, direct democracy with indirect democracy, and people's democracy with the will of the state. It is a model of socialist democracy that covers all aspects of the democratic process and all sectors of society. It is a true democracy that works."

Ironically, the CCP does not believe democracy and dictatorship are opposed. The white paper again: "Democracy and dictatorship appear to be a contradiction in terms, but together they ensure the people's status as masters of the country. A tiny minority is sanctioned in the interests of the great majority, and 'dictatorship' serves democracy."

Nobody in their right mind could accuse China of being a democracy, so it is hard to understand why China painted itself as one, especially when it likes to spout forth the wonders of socialism with Chinese characteristics. This is typical of Chinese obfuscation, where light and dark, black and white, are interchangeable.

The State Council stated that a key criterion of whether a country's political order is democratic is "whether a country's leadership echelon can orderly replace itself according to law". These words could prove fateful. Xi already rewrote the constitution and abolished term limits on his presidency, plus he magnifies the greatness of his own personality. There is little chance that supreme leader Xi is planning for any democratic transfer of power! This personality cult glorifying Xi could boomerang against him as economic and social realities begin to bite. China made great advances when it abandoned the

Soviet-style of total control and opened up the economy beginning with Deng Xiaoping. However, Xi has dramatically reversed course and returned China to absolutist central control.

As economic woes grow - as growth slows and more countries impose sanctions - Xi will likely face growing hostility at home. The state of China's powerful real-estate developers - the effectively bankrupt Evergrand, for example - is emblematic of the troubled state of the economy. The Belt and Road Initiative continues to receive considerable investment, but China cannot splash money around as freely as before. Xi's political enemies may be able to leverage China's horrendous human rights record; its plummeting relations with the likes of Australia, Europe and the USA; his personality cult; his tight control over every aspect of Chinese life; and his reversal of decades-old policies. There is plenty of ammunition for them to use.

As Hong Kong academic Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam wrote for The Jamestown Foundation, "In sum, the Xi leadership's frantic defence of the national record on human rights and other issues - plus the 'core's' paranoia about losing his all- embracing authority - has betrayed signs of malaise that permeates the CCP's top echelons."

The demise of Donald Trump's presidency did not bring about improvements in relations with the USA. President-for-life Xi perhaps hoped that Joe Biden's inauguration would give the two countries a fresh start. In fact, Biden seems just as determined as Trump to counter Chinese belligerence. More than that, Biden's inclusion of allies and more predictable trajectory could be even more harmful for Xi.

Political headwinds at home also help explain Xi's resort to nationalism to rally the nation. This year, more than ever before, Beijing has threatened and browbeaten Taiwan.

Its rhetoric against the island nation, and repeated military flights and naval activities, are designed primarily for the benefit of Chinese domestic consumption. Machinations of war are a way of rallying support, and fostering an "us versus them" attitude, helps take people's minds off other unpleasant realities caused by Xi's policies.

However, freely playing the nationalism card is a very dangerous ploy, for it creates an expectation in the people and swings China in a martial direction. Unsurprisingly, then, Western analysts are increasingly warning that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) will take aggressive action against Taiwan sometime this decade.

It would be the ultimate feather in Xi's cap to bring Taiwan into the CCP's fold.

However, China's bellicosity has had an opposite reaction beyond its borders, with opinion against China hardening in Taiwan, and the USA and allies like Australia and Japan contemplating how to deter Chinese military action.

While an outright military invasion of Taiwan is the least likely course of action for Xi, other alternatives are open to him. Perhaps occupying an outlying Taiwanese island would send the right message, or instigate a confrontation with its maritime militia. Taiwan and its friends must therefore be on total guard against Chinese subterfuge.

The PLA ploughs on with its modernization. Examples include two types of prototypical stealth fighters that broke cover this year - one a twin-seat version of the J-20 for the PLA Air Force, the other a new carrier-borne fighter for the PLA Navy. There was no sign of the stealthy H-20 strategic bomber in 2021, though.

Actually, the most startling military revelations concerned the PLA Rocket Force. Throughout the year, several vast fields of siloes for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) were discovered. Still under construction, these will likely accommodate nuclear-armed DF-41 ICBMs able to strike the USA.

The Pentagon's 2021 China Military Power Report predicted that China will quadruple its nuclear stockpile to 1,000 weapons by 2030. Last year's Pentagon report warned of "only" a doubling of China's nuclear arsenal, so such a radical reassessment indicates a major shift in Chinese nuclear policy.

No longer accepting US nuclear primacy, Beijing has moved away from the minimum deterrence to "limited deterrence" with an operational nuclear triad of land, sea and air platforms. Additionally, China will "increase the peacetime readiness" of the PLARF and move to a "launch-on-warning posture with an expanded silo-based force," the Pentagon warned.

The mysterious test in July/August of a fractional orbital bombardment system, where a rocket launched a warhead into orbit around the Earth and then struck a target, also caused jaws to drop. China is pursuing exotic and sophisticated means of countering US military dominance, so expect more such surprises in the year ahead in areas like missiles, space and hypersonics.

One positive point is that this past year there was no bloody confrontation along the Sino-Indian border as there had been in 2020. Neither side has backed down - for both have reinforced postures and built supporting infrastructure such as helipads and barracks - but neither has China pushed as aggressively. Nonetheless, expect China to probe to see how determined India is to defend its frontier.

China's assertion of jurisdiction over the South China Sea will continue to cause trouble. In 2021, the UK sent a carrier strike group through the sea, and even Germany sent a frigate to Asia-Pacific, illustrating stiffening resolve from Europe against China's illegal claims over international waters. The US Navy's regular freedom of navigation operations near the Paracel and Spratly Islands, plus Taiwan Strait transits, left China enraged. Expect China to be robust in asserting claims in the South China Sea in 2022.

In a dangerously volatile mixture of national hubris, China has increasingly demonstrated a propensity to bully, plus the PLA is spoiling for a fight. Deng Xiaoping's axiom of "hide your strength, bide your time" has been abandoned by Xi. Unfortunately, as he faces greater pressures within and without, Xi may well show even greater tolerance for military aggression.