The following outline chronology covers some of the key events discussed in this book.


5–6 January: Hong Kong police arrest more than 50 prodemocracy politicians in Hong Kong — the first of hundreds of arrests during 2021 of civil society leaders, activists, journalists and others under the National Security Law. By the end of the year, student unions, trade unions and many civil society groups will disband and independent media shut.

11 January: After being blocked from entering the People’s Republic of China (PRC) six days earlier, a team from the World Health Organization arrives in Wuhan to investigate the origins of COVID-19, but Chinese officials limit their access to crucial people, data and places.

31 January: China’s first Civil Code comes into force.

11 March: The National People’s Congress endorses the Fourteenth Five-Year Plan for 2021–25, which calls for environmentally sustainable and innovation-led development, energy and food security, a strengthened domestic market and the development of ‘smart governance’ as steps towards the ‘basic realisation’ of socialist modernisation by 2035. It is the first Five-Year Plan not to prescribe a target for economic growth.

22 March: The United States joins the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Canada in imposing further sanctions on China over human rights violations in Xinjiang, including travel bans and asset freezes against several Chinese officials. The United States had already banned all cotton and tomato imports from Xinjiang in January. In June, the PRC enacts the Anti–Foreign Sanctions Law; many citizens join the boycotts of foreign companies boycotting goods from Xinjiang.

26 April: Beijing-born Chinese-American director Chloe Zhao 赵婷 wins an Academy Award for Nomadland, but the news is censored in China because several years earlier she had told a journalist the PRC was a place where ‘there are lies everywhere’.

31 May: The World Health Organization declares the Delta variant of COVID-19 a ‘variant of concern’.

31 May: China’s family planning measures are further relaxed to allow couples to have three children.

2 June: Following a backlash against ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy, human rights abuses in Xinjiang and the crackdown on civil society in Hong Kong, Xi Jinping 习近平 tells senior Communist Party of China (CPC) officials they need to cultivate an image of a ‘credible, loveable and respectable’ China and ‘expand its circle of friends’.

24 June: After a police raid of its offices and the arrest of its founder and other journalists, Hong Kong’s Apple Daily publishes its last issue. Hongkongers queue for copies, which sell out in a single day.

28 June: Moscow and Beijing agree to extend the 2001 China–Russia Treaty of Good-Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation. Relations between President Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the PRC and Russia generally, including cooperation in technology and defence, grow increasingly close in 2021.

1 July: The Communist Party of China celebrates the centenary of its founding in 1921 with nationwide celebrations, patriotic film and television shows and an education campaign. The date of the founding was closer to 23 July 1921 but, when they first thought to celebrate it, neither Mao Zedong 毛泽东 nor his comrades could remember the date, so they settled on 1 July.

17–31 July: Extreme wet weather leads to catastrophic flooding in Henan province; authorities report more than 300 deaths.

16 August: Chinese-Canadian singer-actor Kris Wu 吴亦凡 is arrested after allegations he raped 31 women, including minors. One of the most prominent of numerous #MeToo cases in 2021, it is also one of the few in which the accused does not escape punishment, although by year’s end, his case had not yet come to trial.

17 August: In a speech to the CPC’s Central Committee for Financial and Economic Affairs, General Secretary Xi describes ‘common prosperity’ as essential to socialism and necessary to balance growth and financial stability. Soon after, the committee calls for a ‘reasonable adjustment’ to ‘excessive incomes’ and demands China’s wealthiest citizens ‘give back more to society’.

1 September: China’s Data Security Law comes into effect. It focuses on protecting national security regarding cross-border data transfers but is not entirely clear on the subject of which data-processing activities might require review on national security grounds.

15 September: The United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia announce a trilateral security pact, AUKUS. Beijing condemns the pact as a threat to regional security and the risk of nuclear proliferation.

16 September: A herd of elephants returns home to Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve after an epic journey of 18 months that took them to the outskirts of the provincial capital of Kunming. Their plight draws attention to the effects of land development on shrinking wildlife habitats more generally.

24 September: Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou 孟晚舟 is freed from detention in Canada after the United States drops its extradition request against her. Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, imprisoned on charges of espionage but widely regarded as political ‘hostages’, are released to fly home the same day Meng returns to China.

6 October: Taiwanese Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng 邱國正, responding to escalating military provocations and activities around the island by PRC forces in 2021, describes cross-Strait tensions as the worst they have been in 40 years.

25 October: Amnesty International announces it will close its offices in Hong Kong, including its regional headquarters, by the end of the year. It says the National Security Law has made it ‘effectively impossible for human rights organisations in Hong Kong to work freely and without fear of serious reprisals from the government’.

1 November: The Personal Information Protection Law comes into effect. It covers the processing of personal data within Chinese borders. It increases privacy protections regarding data use by corporations but not necessarily when it comes to government agencies and criminal investigations or issues of national security.

2 November: Tennis champion Peng Shuai 彭帅, a former world number one doubles player as ranked by the international Women’s Tennis Association, posts an agonised account of her relationship with retired Politburo elder Zhang Gaoli, accusing him of forcing her to have sex against her will. The post is quickly removed but sparks global outrage. Peng disappears from view, reappearing in what seem to be highly stage-managed photos and videos promulgated by the Global Times and other propaganda organs.

11 November: The CPC Central Committee adopts its third History Resolution since 1945. This one devotes approximately two-thirds of its text to confirming Xi Jinping’s leadership as vital to China’s rise. It enshrines the ‘two establishments’ — of Xi as ‘core’ leader and Xi Jinping Thought as official doctrine.

15 November: US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi meet virtually to discuss bilateral issues, challenges and cooperation, including on climate crisis mitigation.

15 November: The Beijing Stock Exchange, China’s third, is launched. It will focus on innovation-oriented small and medium-sized enterprises.

26 November: The World Health Organization declares the Omicron variant of COVID-19 a variant of concern.

27 November: Hong Kong filmmaker Kiwi Chow Kwun-wai’s 周冠威 documentary about the 2019 protest movement, Revolution of Our Times, wins best documentary at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards. Also screened at the Cannes Film Festival, the film cannot be shown in Hong Kong, where new laws allow films to be banned on ‘national security’ grounds.

3 December: Representatives from Laos and the PRC launch the $5.9 billion railway link between the two countries — the first segment of a railway line that, when complete, will connect south-western China with Singapore.

9 December: Nicaragua breaks off relations with Taipei to establish them instead with Beijing. Taipei now has full diplomatic relations with only 13 of 193 United Nations member states, plus the Vatican.

16 December: Hu Xijin 胡锡进, the controversial editor of the Global Times, announces his retirement.

22 December: The city of Xi’an is locked down after COVID-19 cases are discovered there, although 85.6 percent of China’s population of 1.4 billion people have already had two shots of a COVID-19 vaccine.

23 December: US President Biden signs the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act into law; the US State Department’s announcement refers to ‘the ongoing genocide in Xinjiang’.

24 December: The PRC adopts its first Wetlands Protection Law.