Newsmakers 2020: Changes in power relations

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 28, 2020 - January 10, 2021.
Newsmakers 2020: Changes in power relations
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THE past year has been nothing short of exciting on the political scene, with countries such as the US, Japan and Malaysia observing leadership changes amid the Covid-19 crisis that has upended businesses across the world. But the pandemic has not been bad for everyone. For many American billionaires, their fortunes have ballooned. As we close out a tumultuous 2020, we take a look at some of the leaders who made the headlines.

 

Donald Trump

45th US President

Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the world’s largest economy in 2016 after he beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton with his “Make America Great Again” campaign.

However, the 74-year-old Republican failed to stay in office for a second term after he lost to Democrat Joe Biden in this year’s presidential election, which was closely watched the world over.

A major reason for his defeat was his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Trump, who had referred to Covid-19 as the Chinese virus, is said to have ignored the early signs of how dangerous it was. He had been reluctant to wear a face mask for months despite the pandemic and wore one for the first time on July 12. When he was tested positive for Covid-19 in October, he managed to discharge himself from hospital within three days and returned to the campaign trail soon after.

In the days leading to the Nov 3 presidential race, Covid-19 cases in the US surged, with 100,000 new cases recorded daily. At the time of writing, there were more than 322,000 deaths.

Trump continues to push his election fraud claims and has initiated legal proceedings. This is despite the Electoral College acknowledging Biden as the next president.

Ahead of Trump vacating the White House, he is reported to be looking at possible pardons for some 20 aides, allies and family members, and even for himself.

During the year, the US had ordered China’s consulate in Houston, Texas, to close, accusing China of espionage and stealing intellectual property. Trump had also attempted to ban the popular TikTok app in the US.

In November, the US formally withdrew from the Paris climate agreement — to keep the rise in global temperatures this century well below 2°C — a decision Trump made in 2017. Prior to his entry into politics, he was a businessman and a television personality. — By Vasantha Ganesan

Joe Biden

US president-elect

Joe Biden is set to be sworn into office as the 46th US president on Jan 20, 2021. At 78, he will also be the oldest to take office.

The Democrat had previously served as US vice-president for two terms from 2008 to 2016, when Barack Obama was president. In the 2020 presidential election, he was lauded for nominating US Senator Kamala Harris of California to be his running mate. Kamala will become the first African American and South Asian American, as well as the first woman, to be the vice-president.

Biden will also go down in history for telling his Republican rival Donald Trump, “Will you shut up, man!”, after Trump had incessantly interrupted him during a presidential debate.

All eyes are now on Biden fulfilling one of his election promises on the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. The goal of the incoming president is to vaccinate 100 million people in his first 100 days in office.

Other election promises made by Biden include pumping billions into American businesses, supporting a national minimum wage of US$15 an hour, creating 18 million jobs, and reversing the tax cuts put in place by Trump for the wealthy.

Biden has also said that he will stop the construction of the US-Mexico border wall after taking office. In 2016, Trump said he would build a “big, beautiful wall” to stop the flow of illegal immigrants into the country. To date, the Trump administration has completed 110 miles of the planned 500 miles of new fencing. The entire US-Mexico border measures 1,954 miles. — By Vasantha Ganesan

Carrie Lam

Chief Executive of Hong Kong

Carrie Lam broke the glass ceiling by being the first woman to become the chief executive of Hong Kong. Unfortunately, that is not how she will be remembered by most of its people.

In recent years, she has become one of the most controversial leaders of the semi-autonomous region. Following the pro-democracy protests that broke out over an extradition bill in 2019, and earned her the title of most unpopular leader in Hong Kong, she still remains in office, with no signs that she will step down. Some speculate that Beijing did not allow her to do so with no suitable successor available.

Earlier in the year, Lam’s slow response in closing border crossings due to the Covid-19 virus further riled Hong Kong’s populace. She initially rejected demands to temporary bar arrivals from mainland China, calling it “discriminatory”.

It was only after the first death from Covid-19 in Hong Kong and healthcare workers went on strike that Lam finally ordered a 14-day quarantine for all travellers entering through the mainland.

But what truly grabbed the headlines this year was the national security law that came into force and sparked outrage in Hong Kong and around the world. Seen as a crackdown on political freedom and free speech, Lam defended the legislation, and said it has been “remarkably effective in restoring stability” in Hong Kong.

In response, the US imposed economic sanctions on her and 10 other current and former officials.

This means that Americans and businesses are prohibited from dealing with those under sanction. Lam was left without a bank account and unable to undertake any banking transactions.

In an interview with TV channel HKIBC, she told the broadcaster that she was “using cash every day for all the things” after being sanctioned, and had “piles of cash at home”, with her salary being paid in cash.

“To be so unjustifiably sanctioned by the US government, it’s an honour,” she added. — By Esther Lee

Xi Jinping

President of China

This year, Xi Jinping has shown himself to be a leader who wields great power and a force to be reckoned with.

This can be seen in his response to the attempt by US President Donald Trump to slow down China’s technology industry by imposing sanctions on Huawei and on the country’s largest chipmaker, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC).

Xi is not backing out of the fight.

In May, he pledged to invest US$1.4 trillion over six years until 2025 to build high-tech industries. China’s 14th five-year plan, unveiled at the end of October, puts a strong emphasis on innovation, with many believing there will be a greater policy push for higher spending in sectors such as semiconductors.

More recently, SMIC and Innosilicon — a China contract designer of application-specific integrated circuits, or ASIC, made a major breakthrough when they taped out the world’s first chip using SMIC’s N+1 process technology, a 7nm-class node for inexpensive chips.

The trade war between the US and China has only spurred China into developing its own chips more quickly, according to many.

As the pandemic spread throughout the globe, Xi and his administration have been accused of suppressing information after Covid-19 was first detected in Wuhan. The Chinese government has vehemently denied the allegations of a cover-up or lack of transparency, describing them as groundless.

On the flip side, it was no small feat to bring the Covid-19 outbreak under control after it ravaged the country earlier this year. Now, China, with a population of 1.4 billion, has all but declared victory while many countries, including developed nations, are in a desperate struggle against the pandemic.

This, according to many, is thanks to China’ swift response by imposing rigid measures.

Xi has also shown a less liberal stance on the “one country, two systems” model in Hong Kong by swiftly imposing a National Security Law which, critics say, will stifle freedom in the semi-autonomous territory.

But Beijing and the Hong Kong government insist the law will only target a minority who endanger national security, and restore business confidence after a tumultuous year of pro-democracy protests. — By Esther Lee

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