At year-end 2020, we started pulling together our annual assessment of who had it bad and who had it good in Asia. As in past years, China would feature prominently given the nation's economic size and trading relationships.
What happens in China no longer stays in China. And indeed, there could be no ignoring the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV2, first identified in China, and the deadly impact of the ensuing pandemic as the virus spread around the world.
Reported COVID-19 cases have now topped 106 million with deaths surpassing 2.3 million worldwide. The United States alone has accounted for more than 27 million cases and 465,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19. In the Indo-Pacific region, India, Indonesia and the Philippines have been among the hardest hit.
Yet, with the Year of the Ox now upon us and a new lunar year ahead, hope grows for recovery amidst unprecedented progress on vaccines and treatments.
So, who was up and who was down in Asia in the departing Year of the Rat? Here’s our yearly review:
Worst year: Asia's poorest
Around the world, the poorest and most vulnerable have been hit hardest by COVID-19, according to the World Bank. This has been true too in Asia where the region's most vulnerable have borne the brunt of a “triple shock” — the pandemic itself, the economic fallout from the containment measures, and the ensuing global recession. In many Asian nations, hunger rose, and access to jobs, technology and education has shrunk amidst collapsing tourism and weakened exports.
Across the Indo-Pacific, migrant workers in particular have suffered most from economic lockdowns. The diversity of victims of the coronavirus's economic impact has ranged from seafood workers from Myanmar in Thailand's seafood industry, to medical glove factory workers from Nepal employed in Malaysia.
The Asian Development Bank now projects that the coronavirus could push 160 million more into poverty across Asia, with the region’s poverty rate increasing for the first time in 20 years, according to the World Bank.
And so sadly, it is Asia’s rapidly growing class of the “new Covid poor,” who receive the depressing distinction of the worst year in Asia as one lunar year ends and another begins.
Bad year: World Health Organization (WHO) and Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
With China, the United States and the world facing a once-in-a-century health crisis, this last year should have been a year for the WHO to shine. Instead, the specialized U.N. health agency and its beleaguered director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia, found themselves in a no-win situation facing accusations of not holding China accountable for its less than transparent handling of the coronavirus.
Hidebound by the rules of bureaucracy and diplomacy, the WHO could say little amidst growing concerns over whether China was providing timely release of information. So too has the WHO been placed in a difficult situation when China allowed tens of millions of its citizens to travel during last year's extended Lunar New Year holiday period, and as crackdowns continue on citizen journalists and whistleblowers. More recently, some of China's "wolf warrior" diplomats and state media have sought to sow seeds of doubt about vaccines developed in the U.S., Europe and India undercutting WHO's own efforts to support uptake of safe and effective vaccines.
Newly inaugurated U.S. President Joe Biden has since reversed his predecessor Donald Trump's decision to pull the U.S.—the WHO’s largest donor—out of the organization, amidst allegations that Ghebreyesus and the WHO are beholden to China. This turnaround is good news for the WHO, but all-in-all, the Year of the Rat was a decidedly bad year for WHO and Ghebreyesus.
Mixed-year: Xi Jinping
In a year dominated by news about the pandemic, concerns also grew over what was happening in Hong Kong as well as over Chinese President Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road initiative.
This was underscored late last year as Australia approved new laws that would give Prime Minister Scott Morrison powers to veto or scrap agreements that state governments reach with foreign countries, including a BRI project in the state of Victoria.
Attitudes toward Xi and China have now reached new lows, according to a 2020 Pew Research survey field in 14 countries including Australia, the United States, and several Asian and European nations. Strikingly, 78 percent of respondents stated that they had little or no confidence Xi would do the right thing in global affairs, up from 61 percent in 2019.
The Year of the Rat was a decidedly mixed year for Xi despite, or perhaps because of, the reality of China’s engagement abroad—from conflict on the Himalayan border with India to trade tensions and disputes over the Mekong River and the South China Sea.
Good year: Asia’s e-commerce giants
The United States might have Amazon and eBay, and Chinese consumers are world leaders in their use of e-commerce platforms, but a diversity of Asia’s e-commerce giants also found 2020 to be an emphatically good year.
Chinese e-commerce giants Alibaba and JD.com racked up a record $115 billion in sales on Singles Day, the Black Friday consumer equivalent in China. And a report from Google, Temasek Holdings and Bain & Company projects e-commerce in Southeast Asia to exceed US$100 billion by 2025, up from US$38 billion in 2019.
Jack Ma and Alibaba might now be on a less-than-transparent mainland Chinese government "watch list" following Ma's several weeks’ disappearance and the pulling of Ant Financial's IPO, but e-commerce in China and elsewhere in Asia was already on the rise well before COVID-19. GoJek of Indonesia and Grab of Singapore have long had well established digital payment platforms. And with the pandemic, the pace of adoption has quickened as lockdowns drove more consumers online.
All this is good news across Asia for e-commerce platforms such as Tokopedia, Taobao, Shopify, Bukalapak, Lazada, Shopee and Sendo. Importantly, the Year of the Ox might also herald many a good year ahead as consumers build on new digital habits, from fintech to telemedicine.
Best year: Tsai-Ing Wen and Jacinda Ardern
Both women won landslide reelection this year, but that’s not all that Tsai-Ing Wen of Taiwan and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand have in common. These two leaders stamped out the spread ofCOVID-19, instituting strict lockdown measures that prevented community transmission while also avoiding the most draconian practices adopted by mainland China.
In late-January 2021, Taiwan, population ~24 million, had reported just 889 cases and seven deaths to date. New Zealand with a population of about 5 million had recorded about 2,290 cases and 25 deaths. Arden famously maintained composure during a live telecast in the midst of an earthquake, and continues to lead her nation forward amidst enduring climate change and terrorism worries.
And when it comes to economic numbers, Tsai and the people and businesses of Taiwan defy expectations. By the end of last year, Taiwan’s 2020 economic growth looked to outpace much of Asia’s including that of mainland China—the world’s second largest economy— for the first time in decades.
So, in this most difficult of years, Best Year in Asia goes to a dynamic duo of decisive female leaders who are showing the way to a better year ahead.