december: turn for the worse

no beds available, Ruili, Yunnan, 24 December 2022

Beijing has abandoned zero-COVID: ‘ten new measures’ released on 7 December spelt its end, closing the trusted pandemic playbook with bewildering speed. Chaos has struck citizens everywhere, struggling amid soaring infections and deaths to access even analgesics, let alone vaccines. Yet the official tally announced zero COVID deaths on Christmas day.

As of 26 December, 16 central directives had followed, seeing off mandatory PCR testing, quarantine and lockdowns. Directives instruct on everything from healthcare guarantees and RAT (rapid antigen test) application to protecting the most vulnerable.

The 2022 CEWC (Central Economic Work Conference) was sombre, its talk of stabilising and optimising widely read as so much whistling in the dark. Stimulus will ramp up as COVID cases take their toll in Q1 2023. Boosting domestic demand was ever more flagged as a priority, but no new ideas are on offer. The mantra of turning productivity around and thus boosting incomes prevails as the main long-term path to stronger consumer spending. The strategy of putting money in the pockets of those most likely to consume—those with little or no income—is, unlike many other countries, not part of Beijing’s plan.

Now in its third and final year, a national campaign for safe production has hopefully seen the judiciary update criteria for accountability in workplace injury cases. Resuming production is not easy to balance with raising the safety awareness of firms, already stretched to their limit by the epidemic. ‘Dangerous operation’, a new crime under Criminal Law Amendment 11, may help frame unspecified safety violations as offences, reducing major accidents.

Despite COVID’s domestic devastation, foreign trade has been resilient: agricultural trade in Q1–3 rose some 16 percent under RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership). The PRC’s ag trade with the grouping approached US$80 bn.

Wang Yi 王毅 State Councillor and FM and Senator Penny Wong, Australian Foreign Minister, met on 20 December 2022. Bilateral trade was on the table (human rights under it), hinting at a thaw in recent frozen relations. Marking five decades of Sino-Australia relations, the meeting made much of their ‘mutual need’ to be ‘cooperative partners’, winding down some years of Beijing’s condemnation of Australia’s ‘insincerity’. On 30 December Qin Gang 秦刚, current Ambassador to the US, was appointed to replace Wang Yi as foreign minister. Qin, with recent immersion in the Washington scene and known to be forthright, will be one to watch.

The CRWC (Central Rural Work Conference) followed the CEWC as day follows night. The tone in 2022 stressed the role of a competitive ag sector in Xi’s ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, a signal of yet another campaign to step up annual grain output—this time by 50 million tonnes—drawing inspiration from a similar 2009-20 program that did in fact ease food security angst. Rural infrastructure and seed innovation remain critical production factors, while market-based, large-scale operations promise to maximise production.

Yet the ambitious rural revitalisation strategy now faces uncertainty, with the downturn threatening to cut the rural population off from urbanisation prospects. Designed to protect 30 percent of all land, coastal seas and inland waters by 2030, a Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework was adopted 19 December 2022 at COP15. It marked the PRC’s first hosting of a major multilateral environmental conference. Domestically, new guidelines emerged requiring that potential greenhouse gas emissions be considered in environmental impact assessments needed to approve projects in polluting industries. The point is for economic planning to institutionalise emissions reduction.

Meanwhile, the renewables build-out continues: the world’s second-largest hydro dam (16 GW, in Sichuan) and the PRC’s largest unsubsidised offshore wind farm (0.9 GW, in Guangdong) both came online in December. More projects are awaited, with calls for renewables megaprojects, even when incomplete, to link to the grid a.s.a.p.

An injunction on ‘opening up new areas and arenas’ in the 20th Party Congress report kept up the drumbeat on imperatives of education, science and innovation. The energy revolution as formulated by Beijing foresees large-scale development of renewables, with the lithium battery industry undergoing historic restructuring, and over 6 million vehicles p.a. supplied by the NEV (new energy vehicle) sector.

A campaign against ‘underground’ tutoring is soon to be stepped up under joint ministerial auspices, set out in Opinions issued 13 December 2022. The measures oblige grassroots authorities to police the ‘offence’ down to neighbourhood and residential committee levels (implying neighbours should inform on over-ambitious parents). ‘Chinese-style modernisation’ remains mandatory for education, typified in a central directive issued by CCP Central Committee and State Council on 21 December: financial support is pledged to rebuild voc ed, with stress placed on skills needed in hi-tech R&D.

We are confident things will look up on many fronts next year.

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