Beijing’s Big, Bad Year

Five Reads: The best Foreign Policy stories of 2018 on China.

Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
(Etienne Oliveau/Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration)
(Etienne Oliveau/Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration)
(Etienne Oliveau/Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration)

As the United States and China clashed over the trade war, the future of the People’s Republic looked grimmer—and more important—than ever.

Sticking to the official line became critical for political survival, as President Xi Jinping’s grip on power tightened and the space for free speech narrowed. In the western region of Xinjiang, over a million Uighurs were dispatched to a new gulag archipelago, victims of a security paranoia and growing Islamophobia spreading across the country. Meanwhile, the Chinese technological-security state took on an increasingly dystopic, and sometimes incompetent, tinge, even if it wasn’t always all that Western media accounts claimed. In Washington, talk of a “new Cold War” with Beijing became more common, and even Canada found itself drawn into the conflict after it detained a top executive at Huawei and China retaliated with the arrest of three Canadian citizens.

Here are five Foreign Policy pieces from 2018 that captured something of a vast and increasingly opaque country.

As the United States and China clashed over the trade war, the future of the People’s Republic looked grimmer—and more important—than ever.

Sticking to the official line became critical for political survival, as President Xi Jinping’s grip on power tightened and the space for free speech narrowed. In the western region of Xinjiang, over a million Uighurs were dispatched to a new gulag archipelago, victims of a security paranoia and growing Islamophobia spreading across the country. Meanwhile, the Chinese technological-security state took on an increasingly dystopic, and sometimes incompetent, tinge, even if it wasn’t always all that Western media accounts claimed. In Washington, talk of a “new Cold War” with Beijing became more common, and even Canada found itself drawn into the conflict after it detained a top executive at Huawei and China retaliated with the arrest of three Canadian citizens.

Here are five Foreign Policy pieces from 2018 that captured something of a vast and increasingly opaque country.


1. A Summer Vacation in China’s Muslim Gulag

by Special Correspondent, Feb. 28

The darkest story of the year was China’s growing—and completely unaccountable—concentration camps for Uighurs and other ethnic minorities. FP ran the first mainstream media account from inside the camp system, contributed by a Uighur student forced to remain anonymous to avoid further retribution against his family.


2. China’s Great Leap Backward

by Jonathan Tepperman, Oct. 15

China once seemed like it might be carving out a new future of smart authoritarianism. But it now looks increasingly like a common dictatorship. Read FP editor in chief Jonathan Tepperman on the country’s slip back into old problems.


Chinese President Xi Jinping, Papua New Guinea’s Governor-General Bob Dadae, and Papua New Guinea’s Chief of Defense Gilbert Toropo attend a welcome ceremony for Xi’s state visit in Port Moresby on Nov. 16. (David Gray/AFP/Getty Images)

3. One Belt, One Road, One Big Mistake

by Tanner Greer, Dec. 6

China’s much-hyped Belt and Road Initiative has struggled on the ground, where funding often hasn’t been delivered and aggressive boasting has caused consternation from Greece to Malaysia. In this piece, strategist Tanner Greer calls out the political dysfunction driving the project.


4. Life Inside China’s Social Credit Laboratory

by Simina Mistreanu, April 3

Warnings of the Black Mirror prospects of China’s social credit system have been common for the last two years, but most of the coverage has been fueled by mistaken reporting and confused language. Simina Mistreanu looked at how the project is being implemented on the ground. Match this with Jamie Horsley’s careful explainer of just what social credit means.


5. Nobody Knows Anything About China

by James Palmer, March 21

I had to pick one of my own pieces. It’s always been hard to read a country of 1.3 billion people. As borders close and analysts are detained, it’s getting even harder. This is an essay about how difficult getting good information about China is, and just what we don’t know about the country.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.

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