The Year in Review

Our Top Stories of 2020

From human rights abuses in Xinjiang to the coronavirus crisis in the United States, here are the stories that most captivated our readers this year.

By Audrey Wilson, an associate editor at Foreign Policy.
A man cross an empty highway on Feb. 3 in Wuhan, China.
A man cross an empty highway on Feb. 3 in Wuhan, China. Getty Images

One big story has dominated 2020: the coronavirus pandemic. But it didn’t put everything on hold. As the end of the year approaches, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is preparing to take office and try to rebuild America’s international relationships. Meanwhile, major protest movements look set to continue in the United States, India, Belarus, and beyond.

Still, what has captured Foreign Policy readers’ attention this year is the response to the pandemic—and more broadly, China’s role on the global stage. The Trump administration flubbed its response to the coronavirus—and paid the price in November, as Micah Zenko warned as early as March. Early in the year, it was clear that the virus was spreading a lot faster and more stealthily than Chinese or U.S. officials acknowledged, and the aftershocks are still reverberating. Meanwhile, China and India came to blows over a disputed border—and not even a big purchase of French-made fighter jets will restore the military balance.

Here are 10 of our most read stories this year, as measured by website traffic.


10. The World’s Most Technologically Sophisticated Genocide Is Happening in Xinjiang

by Rayhan Asat and Yonah Diamond, July 15

U.S.-China relations reached a new low in 2020 under the pressure of the pandemic, lingering trade war, cyberattacks, and the repressive national security law in Hong Kong. The extent of China’s abuses against Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang also grew much clearer this year. Chinese authorities have reportedly driven Uighurs into slave labor and forcibly sterilized women, all while trying to hide the abuses from the world. The United States has imposed sanctions against Chinese government entities and officials, but Rayhan Asat and Yonah Diamond argue that Washington should go a step further and make an official determination of genocide.


9. Leaked Chinese Virus Database Covers 230 Cities, 640,000 Updates

by Isaac Stone Fish and Maria Krol Sinclair, May 12

Beijing’s tight control of information has also led to skepticism in the rest of the world toward its official coronavirus figures, even more than a year after the first recorded cases in Wuhan. To date, mainland China has reported fewer than 90,000 total cases and just over 4,600 deaths—a tiny fraction of the cases and deaths in countries with much smaller populations. In May, in a Foreign Policy exclusive, Isaac Stone Fish and Maria Krol Sinclair reported on a leaked dataset about coronavirus cases in 230 Chinese cities.

“Why does Beijing restrict access to its coronavirus data? Possibly because of malice or mistrust toward the United States, at a time when tensions are running high. Possibly because of bureaucratic errors. And possibly because Beijing fears that outside researchers will learn of its extensive cover-up, destroying the narrative that an authoritarian nation like China is better equipped to protect its people against a pandemic,” they wrote.


8. Rafale Jets Won’t Save India’s Air Force

by Harsh V. Pant and Angad Singh, Aug. 10

Over the past two decades, the Indian Air Force has seen its advantage narrow over regional rivals Pakistan and China. This year, it faced significant challenges from both—with Beijing activating aircraft from its Tibetan airfields and Islamabad running exercises along the border—and the rising prospect of possible collusion. China’s Western Theater Command comprises some 200 fighter aircraft, and the Pakistan Air Force has around 350 fighters it could mobilize against India—and both air forces operate more early warning surveillance aircraft than India’s.

Unfortunately for New Delhi, the arrival of Rafale fighter jets from France “won’t do much to change the hard reality that, as an air power, India is falling far behind,” Harsh V. Pant and Angad Singh write.


A Chinese soldier gestures as he stands near an Indian soldier on the Chinese side of the ancient Nathu La border crossing between India and China on July 10, 2008.

A Chinese soldier gestures as he stands near an Indian soldier on the Chinese side of the ancient Nathu La border crossing between India and China on July 10, 2008.DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP via Getty Images

7. Why We Should Worry About China and India’s Border Skirmishes

by Sumit Ganguly and Manjeet S. Pardesi, May 23

India and China saw a major escalation of tensions on the ground in 2020 along their disputed border in the mountainous Ladakh region. In June, at least 20 Indian soldiers and 43 Chinese soldiers were killed or wounded in hand-to-hand combat—the first deadly clash between the two countries in decades. In May, Sumit Ganguly and Manjeet S. Pardesi argued that the military buildup along the border and increasing Chinese transgressions suggested that escalations were likely after a long period of relative quiet. The tensions have since simmered, but “[p]eace can no longer be taken for granted,” as they write.


6. China Is Already Breaking Its Vatican Deal

by Benedict Rogers, Sept. 17

In October, the Vatican renewed a historic and secretive deal with Beijing over the appointment of bishops in China. The agreement calls for China to formally recognize the pope’s authority within the church and in return grants legitimacy to bishops previously appointed by the Chinese government. Benedict Rogers argues that only China stands to gain from the deal—and that Beijing is already breaking it by placing dissenting priests under house arrest. “The deal has succeeded in furthering the regime’s control of the church in China, repressing dissent, and buying the pope’s silence,” he writes.


Hospital employees work at a temporary emergency structure at the Brescia hospital, in Lombardy, Italy, on March 13.

Hospital employees work at a temporary emergency structure at the Brescia hospital, in Lombardy, Italy, on March 13. MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images

5. The EU Is Abandoning Italy in Its Hour of Need

by Elisabeth Braw, March 14

Italy became the first country in Europe to enter a strict coronavirus lockdown in early March—a harbinger of a pandemic spring. But Italy’s plight revealed a lack of solidarity from the European Union. Early on, Brussels failed to send medical assistance and supplies to the member state that needed them the most. In its place, a “partial and flawed savior”—China—stepped in to fill the gap, FP’s Elisabeth Braw wrote. The “cold response to Italy’s plea points to a larger issue: How would European allies respond in case of crisis even more devastating than the coronavirus?” 


4. Petraeus Says Trump May Have Helped ‘Reestablish Deterrence’ by Killing Suleimani

by Lara Seligman, Jan. 3

 In the early hours of Jan. 3, the United States carried out a drone strike in Baghdad that killed the powerful Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani. The provocation sharply escalated tensions, leading Iran to retaliate against a U.S. base in Iraq and to mistakenly shoot down a passenger jet in Tehran. Hours after Suleimani’s assassination, FP’s Lara Seligman interviewed retired U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, who said the killing was “more significant than the killing of Osama bin Laden or even the death of [Islamic State leader Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi.” Taking out Iran’s most capable mischief-maker, he said, was a huge blow to Iran’s regional ambitions. “It is impossible to overstate the importance of this particular action,” he said.


3. The Coronavirus Is the Worst Intelligence Failure in U.S. History

by Micah Zenko, March 25 

As the coronavirus swept the globe in March, it became clear that the Trump administration was unprepared. The U.S. government did not have an adequate plan for a nationwide response to the threat of COVID-19—despite having inherited from the Obama administration an entire playbook for pandemic response—and administration officials repeatedly downplayed warnings from the intelligence community about the threat. “The White House detachment and nonchalance during the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak will be among the most costly decisions of any modern presidency,” FP’s Micah Zenko wrote at the time.


 

A medical staff member takes the temperature of a man at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in China on Jan. 25.

A medical staff member takes the temperature of a man at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in China on Jan. 25. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

2. How China’s Coronavirus Is Spreading—and How to Stop It

by Annie Sparrow, Jan. 26

In the first weeks of the coronavirus crisis, the limited clinical information coming out of China, where the outbreak began, meant that the rest of the world only had knowledge of its mid-to-worst-case outcomes. Back in January, Annie Sparrow analyzed some of this early information in Foreign Policy—an eerie warning of what was to come. “Fever clinics and screening are an exercise in clinical insanity, attempting to discern corona patients from every other common winter illness,” she wrote. “Moreover, if nonsymptomatic people can spread the coronavirus, the focus on symptoms may be causing dangerous oversights.”


1. Sorry, America, the Full Lockdown Is Coming

by Laurie Garrett, March 18

On March 18, FP’s Laurie Garrett said what many in the United States had long been dreading: that the American iteration of the coronavirus lockdown was imminent and its duration yet unknown. (In February, Foreign Policy deputy editor James Palmer had also published a list of essential lockdown preparations.) As offices across the United States closed their doors, Garrett didn’t mince her words. “Plan now for your state of siege. Don’t delay. Choose where you want to survive the pandemic, with whom, and how. Your window of opportunity to act is shrinking, very fast,” she wrote.

Audrey Wilson is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @audreybwilson