Heading into 2022, some things were foreseeable: President Xi Jinping’s appointment to a third term at the October Communist Party Congress was all but assured, U.S.-China relations were bound to remain rocky, and a real estate crisis would continue to grip the nation.
But the main story of the year — China’s draconian zero-covid policy — was just beginning to take hold; few predicted how it would upend life for millions of Chinese people. And even fewer foresaw that China would — as a result — be hit with its most widespread protests in years.
Now, on the precipice of 2023, one thing is clear — how China handles the messy unwinding of zero-covid looks to be the most profound question facing the country as new year begins. Almost everything else, from the fate of the economy to the future of climate action, hinges to some degree on how smoothly — or not — the government and the nation move from harsh restrictions to a true reopening.
Our list leaves out key topics — from U.S.-China relations to potential breakthroughs on technologies like electric vehicle batteries and semiconductors — but it covers core questions involving the pandemic, internal politics and China’s economic growth (or lack thereof). The answers to these questions will have major reverberations in China, and they may well have impact all over the world.
1. How will China manage its way out of zero-covid?
As the rest of the world has seen with omicron, you give an inch and the virus takes a mile; in the final days of 2022, covid cases have soared across Beijing and many other large cities. The spike that the government insisted for three years had to be prevented at all costs has finally come. And as Grid has reported, experts fear that the healthcare system may not be able to withstand the sudden surge.
To some extent, then, this question is both critical and relatively easy to answer: The transition out of zero-covid is likely to be chaotic at best.
For one thing, experts say the current surge is just the beginning. “The peak time hasn’t arrived; many of the hospitals have reached their capacity, but the worst is yet to come,” Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Grid.
China’s population is more susceptible to the virus because so few people have been infected, and China’s weaker vaccines don’t offer the same level of protection as the mRNA shots used in the U.S. And while the Chinese government has directed hospitals to boost ICU capacity by the end of December, many experts told Grid that hospital beds and staffing will likely fail to meet the needs.
A period of particular concern will come early in 2023: Chinese New Year, the country’s most important holiday, which starts on Jan. 21. During the holiday, hundreds of millions of people typically travel home to spend time with family. It’s been a scaled-down celebration for the last three years; the loosening of restrictions means all that pent-up travel could prove to be a nationwide superspreader event, accelerating the transmission of the virus and bringing it to vulnerable rural areas where China’s healthcare system is even weaker.