Who had the worst, and the best, 2020 in Asia?
Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Jose B. Collazo, is a Southeast Asia analyst and project consultant at RiverPeak Group. Follow them on Twitter at @curtisschin and @josebcollazo.
As 2021 and the Year of the Ox approach, let us thankfully bid this last year farewell, and take one last look at 2020 and the Year of the Rat that was.
For South Korea, the year began auspiciously on the Hollywood stage with the South Korean film “Parasite” (2019) winning four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Bong Joon-ho at the 92nd Academy Awards in February. A year of disruption and turmoil, however, was soon to follow as Covid-19 dominated the news and changed daily life for everyone from neighbors to teachers, health care workers, top corporate executives and even the members of BTS.
With 58,725 Covid-19 cases and 859 deaths by Dec. 29, South Korea has not escaped an economic and health catastrophe now marked by more than 1.6 million dead globally — including more than 315,000 in the United States and more than 145,000 in India.
Yet, less than 12 months since the novel coronavirus, SARS-Cov 2, first identified in China, would spread with deadly effect to Korea and to the world, there lies hope for a better year ahead amidst unprecedented progress on vaccines and treatments. So, who was up and who was down in Asia in 2020? Here’s our annual assessment:
As in too many places, it is the poorest and most vulnerable in Asia — the forgotten men, women and children, of the region — who have been hit hardest by Covid-19. The World Bank reports that Asia’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.
Amidst collapsing tourism and weakened exports, hunger grows, and access to jobs, technology and education shrinks. The Asian Development Bank now projects that the coronavirus could push 160 million more into poverty across Asia. The region’s poverty rate will increase for the first time in 20 years, says the World Bank. And while North Korea’s Kim Jong-un might claim his nation has zero Covid-19 cases, there is no escape for North Koreans from an increasingly tattered economy. According to the Wall Street Journal, trade with China, the secretive nation’s main benefactor, has plummeted 75 percent in 2020.
And so sadly, it is Asia’s rapidly growing class of the “new Covid poor,” who receive the depressing distinction of worst year in Asia.
Bad year: World Health
Organization (WHO) and Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
It should have been a year for the WHO to shine. Instead, the specialized United Nations (UN) 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 as China delayed release of information, allowed millions to travel from Wuhan during the Chinese New Year period, and cracked down on citizen journalists and whistleblowers. In February, Chinese doctor Li Wenliang himself died from Covid-19 after seeking to warn others of a mysterious SARS-like virus early on.
President Trump said the United States— the WHO’s largest donor —would leave the organization, alleging that Ghebreyesus and the WHO were beholden to China. A turnaround could be at hand with a new U.S. administration, but it’s been a decidedly bad year for the WHO and Ghebreyesus.
Mixed-year: Xi Jinping and the Belt and Road Initiative
China President Xi Jinping’s successes at home so far in crushing Covid-19 and dissent in Hong Kong were tempered by growing pushback abroad in 2020 against his much touted “Belt and Road Initiative.”
This grand “One Belt One Road” infrastructure scheme launched in 2013 to connect some 70 countries with a “new Silk Road” of Chinese-financed ports, railways and highways, and other projects ran into growing pushback amidst Covid-19 slowdowns and worries about debt owed to China. This was underscored at year’s end 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.
A 2020 Pew Research survey fielded in 14 countries including South Korea as well as Australia, America and other Asian and European nations revealed that attitudes toward Xi and China have now reached new lows. Overall, 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. In South Korea, 83 percent of respondents said they had little or no confidence Xi would do the right thing in global affairs, up from 74 percent in 2019.
2020 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: E-commerce giants
The United States might have Amazon, while South Korea has Gmarket, but the diversity of e-commerce giants across Asia also found 2020 to be an emphatically good year.
E-commerce 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 from India to Australia online.
Chinese e-commerce giants Alibaba and JD.com racked up a record $115 billion in sales on a single day. And a report from Google, Temasek Holdings and Bain & Company projects e-commerce in Southeast Asia to exceed $100 billion by 2025, up from $38 billion in 2019. All this is good news across Asia for e-commerce platforms such as Tokopedia, Taobao, Shopee, Shopify, Lazada, Bukalapak and Sendo. Importantly, it 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 re-elections this year, but that’s not all that Taiwan President Tsai and New Zealand Prime Minister Ardern have in common. These two leaders led charges against Covid-19, instituting strict lockdown measures that prevented community transmission in their countries while also avoiding the draconian practices adopted by China.
In mid-December, Taiwan, with a population of about 24 million, had reported just 759 cases and seven deaths. New Zealand with a population of about five million had recorded 2,110 cases and 25 deaths. Arden has also remained unruffled 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 may well be a role model for all. A campaign proclaiming “Taiwan can help” has sought to turn the island’s success in battling Covid-19 into geopolitical gains. By mid-December, 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.