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An optimist’s guide to 2021 in Asia

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At the very beginning of 2020, Nikkei Asia reported an outbreak of a “viral pneumonia of unknown origin” emerging from the Chinese city of Wuhan. The new coronavirus, formally known as Sars-Cov-2, has gone on to infect more than 80m people globally — with probably millions more cases unrecorded — and it is no exaggeration to say it has turned the world on its head.

Covid-19 has killed around 1.7m people, sunk many countries into recession, roiled markets, grounded planes, closed schools, locked down cities and placed incredible burdens on hospitals and medical workers. It has also had incalculable impacts, such as its toll on mental health. The virus has brought phrases such as social distancing, cluster, asymptomatic, contact tracing, false positives and reproductive rate into the common lexicon and has made mask-wearing almost universal — certainly in Asian nations.

Many have called 2020 the worst year in recent memory. Yet, while the impact of the virus will be felt for decades to come, there are many reasons to be optimistic as we head into 2021. Key workers in places such as Europe and the US have started to receive vaccines, and Asian countries are beginning the approval process — meaning shots are likely to be just months away. Should enough inoculations be produced, procured and delivered to patients, life should start to return to some sort of normal.

Covid-19 has also provided people, governments and companies cause to pause and think about prevailing practices, forcing them to reconsider ways of living, governing and doing business. In many ways, the coronavirus has been a catalyst for change, rapidly accelerating developments that had been slowly taking place.

A man wears a mask while walking in January in the Chinese city of Wuhan — the epicentre of the pandemic
A man wears a mask while walking in January in the Chinese city of Wuhan — the centre of the pandemic © Getty Images

While the headlines have naturally focused on coronavirus treatments and vaccines, the pandemic-led tail winds have expedited public and private sector investment in medicine and healthcare generally. The hype has subsided a little and Nisa Leung, a managing partner in leading China venture fund Qiming and a veteran healthcare investor, said she expects strong interest in the sector to remain in 2021, albeit more rationally than this year.

Takeshi Kasai, the World Health Organization’s director for the Western Pacific region, told a forum in September that the pandemic has upended how societies operate and how we perceive and value health. “The situation demands that we break down barriers, collaborate and co-operate in solidarity, provide a space for new ideas and new partners and embrace uncertainty and creativity and take calculated risks — the very essence of innovation,” Dr Kasai said.

Telehealth services are flourishing, and the pandemic has also accelerated consumer awareness of health and sustainability issues — younger consumers are buying more ethical, sustainable and healthy products. For instance, makers of plant-derived meat substitutes, which reduce the environmental footprint, are seeing sales soar.

This article is from Nikkei Asia, a global publication with a uniquely Asian perspective on politics, the economy, business and international affairs. Our own correspondents and outside commentators from around the world share their views on Asia, while our Asia300 section provides in-depth coverage of 300 of the biggest and fastest-growing listed companies from 11 economies outside Japan.

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Unrelated to the virus, 2021 is likely to herald advances in genome editing — an important tool in developing Covid-19 diagnostic kits and antivirus drugs, as well as new treatments for cancer and rare diseases. The year ahead could also bring progress in quantum computing, and improved disaster management through the use of AI, or artificial intelligence, and big data.

Also, the 5G era in telecommunications might finally arrive. Industry watchers say the newly launched iPhone 12 will drive the acceleration of overall 5G adoption in the US and other regions where Apple holds a dominant market position. China, with massive government backing, is set to rapidly roll out the technology nationwide, creating a breeding ground for innovation.

The demand for cloud services — a key arena for the next stage of competition between technology giants — is expected to continue to surge as more companies move their operations online to mitigate interruptions caused by extraordinary events. Analysts see great growth potential in Asia, especially China, as adoption among enterprises is much lower compared with US and European peers.

The push across Asia to achieve carbon neutrality — Japan and South Korea are aiming for 2050, with China a decade later — is also a catalyst for innovation. Toyota, the world’s largest automaker, will unveil a prototype next year of a solid-state battery allowing a trip of 500km on one 10-minute charge.

The green energy push is leading to a procession of announcements. Japan’s environment minister has proposed increasing renewable power sources to more than 40 per cent of the nation’s energy mix by fiscal 2030, about twice the government’s current goal; South Korea is putting Won160tn ($145bn) in its K-New Deal of green and digital investment; and China, the world’s biggest emitter, has pledged to cut emissions per unit of GDP by 65 per cent from 2005 levels and increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 25 per cent by 2030. India, meanwhile, is expected to be the largest contributor to the renewables upswing in 2021, according to the International Energy Agency.

With President-elect Joe Biden set to take office in January, the US is expected to roll out a series of incentives to expedite the adoption of electric vehicles. Tokyo has set a goal for all new cars sold in the city to be hybrids or electric vehicles by 2030.

This year has seen many economies fall into recession — the Asian Development Bank sees regional gross domestic product across developing Asia shrinking 0.4 per cent in 2020. But the signs for 2021 are more rosy — the ADB forecasts 6.8 per cent regional growth. And economists surveyed by the Japan Center for Economic Research and Nikkei expect a turnround next year though pre-pandemic growth levels will only return in 2022. China and India are expected to lead the way, with the ADB projecting expansions of 7.7 per cent and 8 per cent, respectively, next year.

In diplomacy, Asian leaders will be able to catch their breath after four years of dealing with a US led by the unpredictable Donald Trump as Mr Biden moves into the White House. The former vice-president is not expected to unleash any jarring Asia policies, even on China. “A Biden administration will give both sides a small window for a partial reset, as he will take a more structured approach with China, albeit competitive,” said Feng Chucheng, a partner at Plenum China, a Hong Kong-based political consultancy. The incoming leader is expected to revive trade talks and engage with Beijing on issues such as climate change. 

There is also an outside chance that a code of conduct that spells out how countries must behave in the South China Sea could be completed next year, although many obstacles need to be overcome to bridge fundamentally divergent interests. And Beijing would probably use its heft to cut a favourable deal.

One of the most obvious changes of 2020 for white-collar workers was the increased flexibility — or obligation due to lockdowns — over working at home. Many companies, including those in east Asia where a presenteeism culture exists, are now making the temporary telecommuting option permanent.

A woman works from her home in Tokyo during the pandemic
A woman works from her home in Tokyo during the pandemic © Kosaku Mimura

The question, however, is will people be able to travel for work, vacation or to visit loved ones overseas? Asian countries are set to open travel bubbles to bring some degree of normality back to the battered airline industry. Australia and New Zealand have agreed to establish a bubble in the first quarter of 2021, and Hong Kong and Singapore are looking to start a delayed move to allow travel between the cities. China, meanwhile, has seen an increase in guests at luxury hotels in the latter half of 2020. “The 2021 Chinese new year is also likely to give a boost to the tourism sector with recovering traveller sentiment,” said Rinaldo Pereira, senior business fundamentals analyst at data and analytics company GlobalData.

India may be a bright spot for tech in Asia over the next few years. Reliance’s Jio Platforms has already invested $20bn in digital business and has an eye on splashing more cash. Tata Group, the country’s biggest conglomerate, is rolling out a super app but faces competition from Paytm and Walmart’s Flipkart.

Lovers of culture — both high and low — are hoping the new year will bring about the widespread return of concerts, moviegoing, live theatre and other events involving large audiences indoors and outdoors.

The new year’s largest sports event, the Tokyo Olympics, is rescheduled to start in late July and organisers are determined to hold the Games despite much scepticism. The Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament, which draws thousands of fans from overseas, has been pushed back from spring to November.

Movie-goers tired of watching Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ — and waiting impatiently for blockbusters that saw releases postponed this year including “Dune,” “Black Widow” and the latest James Bond film — can look forward to the prospect of cinemas opening without restrictions. “You need to be an optimist to be in this business, so I am somewhat hopeful that the [Hong Kong International Film Festival] will once again turn out to be an in-person, physical film festival,” Albert Lee, the festival’s executive director, told Nikkei Asia.

Steven Pinker, the renowned professor of psychology at Harvard University who made an optimistic case for humankind in his 2018 book “Enlightenment Now,” gave a reminder of the big picture to Nikkei.

“With Covid and Donald Trump dominating the news, many people have forgotten two of the greatest concerns of just a few years ago: terrorism and war. Both of them have declined in the past year,” Prof Pinker said. “In the case of war, this continues a bumpy decline in the rate of deaths from war that began after World War II. The world has not yet put an end to war, as the folk singers of the 1960s dreamed, but we’re heading in that direction.”

Additional reporting by Cliff Venzon, Nikki Sun, Dean Napolitano, Nana Shibata, Kiyoshi Ando and Eri Sugiura

A version of this article was first published by Nikkei Asia on December 29 2020. ©2020 Nikkei Inc. All rights reserved.

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Hong Kong’s Olympic successes expose deep political fissures

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Hong Kong politics updates

The Hong Kong Olympics team’s future as a separate entity from that of mainland China is secure, the territory’s Games chief Timothy Fok said, despite political tensions exposed by his squad’s historic achievements over the past week.

Siobhan Haughey, a Hong Kong swimmer, won a second silver medal in Tokyo on Friday, cementing the Games as the city’s most successful ever. Fencer Cheung Ka-long won the city’s first gold medal since its 1997 handover from the UK in the foil event.

But the euphoria over their victories quickly became politicised when crowds in the territory celebrating Cheung’s gold booed and shouted “We are Hong Kong” over the Chinese national anthem, which played as he accepted his medal on the podium in Tokyo this week.

Police have launched an investigation and said on Friday they had arrested a 40-year-old person, who also waved Hong Kong’s colonial-era flag at the scene, for insulting the national anthem.

The display of resistance was a stark reminder of a strong lingering undercurrent of discontent in the Asian financial centre, despite a crackdown on dissent by Beijing after anti-government protests in 2019.

China last year imposed a tough new security law last year on Hong Kong, with the first person to be convicted under the legislation, a former waiter who rode a motorbike into a police line last year, given a nine-year jail term on Friday.

But Fok, president of the national Olympic committee of Hong Kong, said he had urged athletes to ignore the controversies. There was an understanding in China that Hong Kong had “a separate identity” to the mainland and there were no plans to integrate the city’s team with that of its bigger neighbour, he said.

“They have [1bn] people, we only have 7m. I am very proud with this new encouragement and success. Sport will be a very important part of the development of Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong authorities are keen to demonstrate the crackdown has not had an impact on the city’s vibrancy. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said last week that arts and culture in the city were “booming” and there had been no weakening of people’s freedoms.

The city was promised a high degree of autonomy and freedom of expression after 1997. This autonomy was symbolised by Hong Kong’s right to have its own Olympics team, although it was also agreed that China’s national anthem would be played at medal ceremonies for the territory’s athletes.

Shushu Chen, a lecturer in sport policy at the University of Birmingham, said the mainland had shown significant support for elite sport development in Hong Kong

“I don’t think the Chinese government will advocate in future Olympics that Hong Kong athletes should be integrated under the main PRC flag,” she said. “That will lose the sense of identity of Hong Kong . . . I don’t think that is what the Chinese government is trying to do.”

Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s sole delegate to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the permanent body of China’s parliament, said that any change was unlikely under “one country, two systems”, the Chinese government policy governing Hong Kong’s autonomy from the mainland since the handover.

Hong Kong’s only other gold medallist, windsurfer Lee Lai-shan, accepted her medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games under the British Hong Kong colonial flag as “God Save The Queen” played.

Cheung, whose parents were both Chinese national league basketball players, is a cat lover who often posts pictures of his family’s American shorthair Zimba. “It means a lot to show to the world we can do it,” he said. “We are not only a city. We can fight for victory.”

While Cheung made no political comments after his win, pro-democracy groups were quick to seize on the victory. During the 2019 protests, anti-government demonstrators sang their own anthem “Glory to Hong Kong” in shopping malls. After Cheung’s ceremony, netizens substituted the Chinese anthem for the song in viral videos showing Cheung on the Tokyo podium.

Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing camp also generated controversy when a lawmaker Nicholas Muk criticised one of the territory’s top badminton players for wearing a black T-shirt — a colour favoured by the 2019 protesters — without displaying the Hong Kong flag.

After Muk accused him of supporting the pro-democracy movement, the player, Angus Ng Ka-Long, wore a different shirt to try to calm things down as he also came under attack from Chinese netizens.

Even though he was the eighth seed in the men’s singles competition, Ng was beaten by Guatemalan shuttler Kevin Cordon, who was ranked 59th, leaving many supporters blaming Muk for distracting Ng.

“It is probably not true that there was no impact. I have been trying hard to calm down and I want to focus on the competition,” Ng said after losing. “But how can I forget it completely.”



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Ben Okri: rediscovering a 4,000-year-old poem

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When the world began to close down 17 months ago, I was filled with a sense of foreboding about what would befall the life of the spirit, and wrote a heartfelt appeal in this paper urging the world not to forget the arts. I maintained that art at its best reveals to us the fullness of what it means to be human.

At the time I feared the lights would go out all over the world and all forms of culture would sink under the assault of the pandemic. But it soon turned out that we could not live without art and culture after all. It was just that art had to find new ways to reach us, new ways to exist, and artists had to find new ways of making art. For many artists, their homes became their studios. Zoom replaced travel, and virtuality replaced intimacy.

But there is something matchless about live theatre. Nothing quite comes close to the mysterious vitality of living actors and an audience throbbing with anticipation and immersed in the entanglements of a story. And so this weekend something remarkable will happen. After a year and a half of not practising their art in person, a group of actors will be staging at the Young Vic my new play, Changing Destiny. It is set in ancient Egypt and is based on a nearly 4,000-year-old poem called “The Tale of Sinuhe”.

Ashley Zhangazha in rehearsal for Ben Okri’s ‘Changing Destiny’ © Marc Brenner

The play began its life before lockdown, but the writing of it and the intricacies of production took place during it. Most of the process happened on Zoom. Staff had to work from home and the theatre struggled for funding. A curious early obstacle was the shortage of black male actors, who were unprecedentedly in such high demand. Fortunately, we found the excellent Ashley Zhangazha, who had played Ike Turner in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. He plays alongside the wonderful Joan Iyiola, a veteran of the Young Vic.

The play began as a classic three-act play in the Greek tradition, then was compressed into a two-hander. We wanted this play, based on one of the most popular poems in the ancient world, to be as close as possible to the oldest form of storytelling on the stage, where the play is made up as much from the imagination of the audience as from the suggestive performance of the actors. We wanted an ancient form of theatre, the campfire theatre, alongside the most modern of technological innovations.

But producing a play during lockdown proved quite a challenge. And it took nerves of steel from the intrepid artistic director of the Young Vic, Kwame Kwei-Armah, to manage all the contingencies and devise the most Covid-free environment for the actors to rehearse and the theatre to function. Going into rehearsal required a rigorous daily health check. The rehearsal area was completely sealed off.

The pressure on the actors was enormous. There are only two of them, one male, the other female, playing 100 roles. They rotate the playing of the central role of Sinuhe. This makes it a gender-transcendent performance. To experience the play fully, you have to see it twice, to see what happens when Sinuhe is a man and then a woman.


Joan Iyiola in rehearsals for ‘Changing Destiny’ © Marc Brenner

I first became interested in “The Tale of Sinuhe” as part of my abiding curiosity about the ancient Egyptian civilisation and its relationship to Africa. It seems people have managed to mentally separate Egypt from the rest of the continent. Now, perhaps, is the time for Egypt to be dealt with as part of the broken history of the continent.

But my interest in ancient Egypt is also mythical and spiritual. The poem of Sinuhe is a literary text but also belongs to the mural tradition of Egyptian art. The scribe who copied it had it painted in his tomb. It is a visual poem, a performance to death and immortality.

A casual encounter with Kwei-Armah, who is himself a fastidious playwright, at an event celebrating Nelson Mandela through his prison letters, gave the second impetus for the writing of the play. We were surprised at our mutual fascination for this now little-known Egyptian poem.

After the final draft was accepted, Kwame decided early that he wanted Changing Destiny to be the first play the Young Vic performs as it comes out of lockdown, a play that matches the strangeness of emerging from the long period of isolation with the magic and strangeness of an ancient world. But it has proved as difficult coming out of lockdown as going into it. The production suffered cancellations and postponements and has been a lesson in bringing back theatre in historic times.

From the beginning, though, we were not interested in theatricalising the poem, but in finding an authentic political and ritual drama from it. No play about ancient times can be written that is not a play about today. We can only understand the past through the present. It is the only portal we have. Conversely, we can only understand the present through the past.

The Sinuhe poem reveals profound political tensions in ancient Egypt. It is an indirect account of the assassination of Pharaoh Amenemhat I; and of Sinuhe, implicated in the plot, who had to flee to foreign lands. Contained in the poem are archetypes that have haunted the human imagination.

Prefigured within it are preoccupations with home and exile, with identity, the unknowability of human motives, and those eternal issues of freedom. Right at the heart of the poem is the problem of power, of what to do when an autocratic regime is destroying the fabric of society. Hard as this is to believe, those pyramid-makers had their fingers on the pulse of things that would consume us 4,000 years later.

Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic and director of ‘Changing Destiny’ © Marc Brenner

Ancient Egypt has been marginalised in the story of literature. That ought to change. The tendency in the west has been to begin with the Greeks as if nothing much had been written before. But the writing of Herodotus and Plutarch bears witness to the Egyptian roots of Greek culture, to the notion that the Greeks got some of their gods from Egypt. There is even a fruitful tradition that contends that the ancient Egyptian mystery plays were the real progenitors of Greek theatre.

There are hints in the Greek myths of importations from other cultures. Dionysus has an Asiatic tinge. Many cultures inform the pantheon of Greek gods. In order to overcome enduring Eurocentric tendencies, we need to go back to the ancients to see how myths and mysteries spread from one centre to another. It should cure us of the notion that the roots of western civilisation come from only one place.

The migration of gods and cults and peoples is hard-wired into the story of civilisation itself. “The Tale of Sinuhe”, for this reason, ought to induce in us cultural humility and a sense of wonder. It ought to be widely taught in schools and be as well known as Homer’s Odyssey or The Arabian Nights.

Writing Changing Destiny, I wanted to bathe the audience in this eternal stream. I wanted to divert some of its waters into these divisive times. Whether it be the cruel treatment of migrants at American borders, or the European seas alive with the ghosts of migrants who tried to make it across, or the new immigration bill recently published by the British government, this ancient Egyptian poem, now made into a play, hints that the issue of immigration demands a new way to look at the human story and the human spirit. Not one that demonises out of fear, but one whose understanding comes from the long perspective about the mystery of the human estate.

To August 21, youngvic.org

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China reaffirms plans to beef up oversight of foreign listings

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Chinese politics & policy updates

Beijing reiterated its intention to strengthen oversight of overseas listings on Friday, capping a volatile week during which contradictory policy signals rocked the share prices of Chinese companies.

At its mid-year meeting, the Chinese Communist party’s politburo stated its determination to “improve” the regulatory framework for companies listing shares overseas. It was the first time the politburo, comprised of the party’s top 25 officials, had specifically addressed the issue.

Chinese regulators have been angered by Didi Chuxing’s decision to press ahead with a $4.4bn initial public offering in New York last month, despite their concerns about the ride-hailing group’s data security practices.

Senior party and government officials have subsequently vowed stricter oversight of overseas listings, which will now require clearance from the country’s internet regulator. Didi’s shares have plunged as other Chinese companies cancelled or delayed plans to list outside of the country.

Investor confidence in Chinese tech companies was further dented on Monday when Beijing revealed draconian new rules for the country’s booming private education sector. The share prices of New York-listed tutoring companies collapsed, after which a senior securities regulator sought to reassure financial executives that Beijing was not seeking to ‘“decouple” Chinese companies from US and other overseas markets.

The comments by Fang Xinghai, vice-chair of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, on Wednesday helped stop a broader sell-off of Chinese shares. But they were not enough to prevent a more than 20 per cent monthly decline in US-listed Chinese tech companies.

Chinese officials have shown no sign of reining in their crackdown of the country’s largest tech groups for alleged violations of monopoly and data security laws.

Separately, China’s transportation ministry on Friday signalled an intensification of the measures against Didi and other ride-hailing groups. It said in a statement that companies in the sector must improve compliance over network and data security management to better protect customers’ personal data. Stronger supervision of antitrust practices, as well as improved rights of workers in the sector, was also needed, it said.

The statement did not name specific companies but noted that the government’s transport sector oversight is being directed by President Xi Jinping.

The Chinese government is conscious that the campaigns against tech and education companies could dent already fragile private sector confidence as the government tries to boost slowing economic growth.

Liu He, a Chinese vice-premier and the country’s top economic and financial official, sought to reassure representatives of small and medium-sized enterprises on July 27, acknowledging that they were the “main source” of employment. “The Chinese economy will do well only if SMEs do well,” he added.

While China has rebounded strongly from the Covid-19 pandemic, officials have been concerned by slowing infrastructure investment — an essential driver of the world’s second-largest economy. The politburo suggested it would encourage more fiscal spending and local government debt issuance to accelerate economic growth.

The Chinese government has also struggled to contain a new outbreak of Covid-19’s Delta variant, which has spread across the country from an airport in eastern China.

Additional reporting by Edward White in Seoul



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