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On December 15, 2019, we gathered at Asia Society in New York for what had become something of a year-end tradition: a group of experts from a range of fields prognosticating about the year ahead and what it might portend, for Asia in particular. As in years past, the event was a mix of serious and lighter fare: How might North Korea provoke the Trump administration? Which Asian nations would rule at the Tokyo Summer Olympics? We talked about the South China Sea and the Afghan War, about climate change and the global economy, about protests for Muslim rights in India and protests for greater democracy in Hong Kong — and we did so with a terrific trio of speakers: Ravi Agrawal, managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, New York Times international climate correspondent Somini Sengupta, and Nick Consonery, a director at the Eurasia Group. It was, we all thought, a stimulating and thought-provoking conversation.
It was also, as events would prove, a classic example of the perils of prognostication.
That night our Asia Society panel imagined growth rates dipping in South Asia. “I worry about 4.5% growth in India,” Agrawal said, noting that 4.5 would translate to roughly half the 2019 rate. China’s GDP might slow as well — a percentage point or two. We guessed collectively that the big stories of the year would come from North Korea and Hong Kong, from elections in Taiwan and the U.S., and from dangerous new spikes in carbon dioxide emissions. We traded ideas as to how the U.S. and China might repair their deteriorating relationship. And beyond the would-be medal winners, we wondered whether the Tokyo 2020 Games might bring sports-led diplomacy to the many conflicts in play, from the Mediterranean to the Pacific.
Little did we know, as we gathered on that December night, that a crown-headed virus was already tearing through the city of Wuhan, in central China, and that virtually every major development in 2020 — in Asia and beyond — would be traced to this tiny invader of cells. One year later, it is no exaggeration to say that the virus has eviscerated economic growth, broken global supply chains, taken more than one million lives, and brought millions more to food pantries and unemployment lines. COVID-19 hasn’t just changed paradigms, it’s turned them upside down. Conversations about online education and universal basic income have gone from think-tank musings to urgent reality; city dwellers have fled, in search of cheaper and more spacious housing given the now-prevalent experience of working from home; and all manner of industry — airlines, hotels, restaurants, Fortune 500 companies, and millions of small businesses — are limping to the finish line of this roughest of years, grasping for ways to survive.
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And how was a 2019 forecaster to imagine any of that?
Actually, in some ways our prognosticators did surprisingly well, missing only the magnitude of the troubles they foresaw. Nick Consonery identified a deteriorating U.S.-China relationship as his top worry for 2020 — “a trend line of negativity,” he warned, that would produce “the next phase of tensions.” He was right, though of course he couldn’t have imagined an atmosphere so poisoned that Chinese officials would accuse American soldiers of brining a deadly virus to China, or that President Trump would make “China virus” and “kung flu” regular, racially-tinged tropes in defense of his own COVID-19 response.
Meanwhile, all three panelists correctly predicted that Hong Kong’s status would be a source for tumult in 2020. “Stalemate might be the best we can hope for,” said Agrawal. Taiwan? An easy prediction, maybe, but kudos anyhow to our group for saying that Tsai Ing-wen would roll to victory in the elections there, buoyed in no small way by the turbulence in Hong Kong. As for climate change, again, in the how-could-one-have-known category, Sengupta missed what now looks like a rare silver lining in the COVID nightmare: a plunge in CO2 emissions (8.8% in the first half of the year) that has come with the virus-inspired economic meltdowns. As for the group’s thoughts on GDP figures, well, suffice to say that had any of them suggested an anemic 1.9% growth rate for China — or a six percent drop for India — they would have been laughed off the stage. And yet as we write, those are the estimates for where each nation’s economy will land.
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Where are we, exactly, as 2020 draws to a close?
We have lived through an almost unprecedented collapse in the global economy. Manufacturers closed down for months. Passenger planes grounded. Theaters shuttered. Stadiums, too. Not only was there no Olympic-fueled diplomacy, there were no Olympics at all. Governments and global lenders have injected enormous infusions of economic stimulus, with mixed results and no clarity yet as to what shapes the regional recoveries may take — V-shaped, J-shaped, and W-shaped, among other geometric terms, have entered the lexicons of laypersons and economists alike.
And speaking of lexicons, no phrase was more important in 2020 than “flattening the curve”; by and large the nations of Asia have bested the rest on that front: South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam, and China, despite its early missteps. Finally, as noted above, millions of people may never travel or work or go to school in exactly the same ways. It is possible that our children will explain to theirs, Well, we do things this way because of what happened in 2020.
One last note about the year, and about our trio of forecasters. It was the Times’ Sengupta who, when asked what gave her hope for the year ahead in Asia, answered by describing what she called “a surge of civil society activism.” It was something to watch in 2020, thanks to a fresh sense of political engagement among the younger generation in so many parts of the world. Sengupta may have been referring to demonstrations in Hong Kong and India, but her remarks were prescient, given another trauma of 2020: the tension and fury that followed the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. On our stage last December, Foreign Policy’s Agrawal agreed that millions of young people had grown more emboldened to challenge the status quo. “Something’s in the air,” he said. In retrospect, he might have been referring to the anger of a generation, or to an invisible virus. Little could he or we have known.