A time of Davids. Although it is not clear that Goliath will be defeated in the Ukraine, in China and in Iran, 2022 was the year in which powerful giants encountered unexpected resistance that made them back down. The Slavic David is Ukraine, a country that the Russian giant thought he would bring to its knees as soon as his infinite armored divisions entered. But Vladimir Putin found a will to fight that derailed his plans, forcing him to reset the entire operation to save at least part of the goal set by the Kremlin generals.
The Russian president believed intelligence reports that the Ukrainian military would support the invaders because they hate Volodymyr Zelensky and the cabal of young “drug addicts” who surround him. Everything seems to indicate that the old KGB agent fell into a trap set by the Ukrainian intelligence services, advised by the CIA and the British MI-6, and lost time, troops and armored vehicles in the attempt to occupy kyiv at the beginning of the invasion.
Plan B was to occupy and annex everything from the Dnieper River to the East, but the successful Ukrainian offensive at Kharkiv and the successes of kyiv forces at Mykolaiv and Kherson pushed the Russians back to Genichesk.
Putin had hoped to toast New Year’s Eve next to a map with borders similar to those of the Russian Empire, conquered in a brief and overwhelming operation. But he arrived at 2023 overwhelmed by the setbacks caused by the Ukrainians and resorting to massive bombardments of cities so that the destruction, the weather and the cold subdue the Slavic David.
Another Goliath surprised by the least expected David is Xi Jinping. He had been flexing military muscle in Hong Kong and Taiwan for months. But immediately after the CCP Congress that gave him powers only comparable to those Mao Tse-tung had, he was surprised by a popular rebellion against his recurring quarantines and confinements.
At the moment when the Chinese leader put an end to the era of rulers with limited powers promoted by Deng Xiaoping, he found a wave of protests challenging his anti-pandemic policy with totalitarian overtones. Since the coronavirus broke out in Wuhan, Xi Jinping implemented mass quarantines and lockdowns, repeated with each wave of Covid. The “zero Covid” policy tried to show the world that the power of a regime that is supposedly managed with the scientific principles of Marxism can successfully face the toughest challenges. The truth is that the Chinese vaccines were ineffective and Xi refused to incorporate more powerful foreign vaccines, so he had to maintain the isolation policies.
But there was something else: Xi Jinping used the mass quarantines and confinements as tests of total control over society. That was one of the ingredients of the social outbursts in many cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, against the “zero Covid” policy.
With a background such as the Tiananmen massacre, in addition to the recent crackdowns that crushed the protests in Hong Kong, it was hard to imagine that crowds would dare to challenge the tough Xi Jinping. However, the protests were so massive that the powerful president had to significantly relax his quarantines and confinements.
It was the first time the tough Chinese leader had been seen to back down. Possibly, in the new year and those that follow, he will have to go further back, since his policy of state interference in the economy, putting pressure on private companies, has begun to reduce economic growth.
China is no longer growing “at Chinese rates” and the explanation is not just demographic. With limited power presidencies led by Li Xiannian, Yang Shangkun, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, the Chinese economy grew at incredible rates and the world envisioned it would rise to the top among superpowers in the first half of this century. But every day there are more economists who doubt that this will happen. Even Paul Krugman began to doubt that the Chinese economy would ever surpass that of the United States, something that a couple of years ago was taken for granted. It will be necessary to see if, after a David came across him in the streets, Xi Jinping reviews the weight of his excessive power in the slowdown of Chinese growth.
Another unexpected David was Iranian women. The death of a 22-year-old girl at the hands of the “moral police” for wearing the Islamic veil poorly, showed the criminality of religious lunaticism. Police and Basij shock troops failed to put down the rebellions in time. Thousands of women dared to remove their hijab and trample on portraits of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Hanging for standing up to repressive forces also failed to prevent the world from seeing what it had never seen before: crowds calling for the end of the Shiite theocracy. In a country where protesting is “herem” (sin) and clashing with repressive forces is “muharebeh” (attacking God), crowds dared to rise up against the “sacred anger” of the religious state. The level of rebellion reached so far that in the city of Khomein, Markazi province, the house where Ruholla Khomeini, the leader of the revolution that overthrew the Pahlavi Shah in 1979 and built the religious state, was born and raised.
It is not the first time that crowds have clashed with the Persian regime. There were ethnic rebellions in the Kurdish region and in Iranian Balochistan. There were also large youth protests against the closure of the reformist daily Salam and the permanent blockade of the government of the moderate Mohammad Khatami. The protests against the fraud that stole the electoral victory of the reformist Mir Hosein Mousavi, so that the fanatic Mahmud Ahmadinejad could continue in the presidency, were massive and very long. But although those uprisings resisted for months in the streets, they did not reach the cultural insurrection that involves the burning of hijabs in the streets, the insults to Ayatollah Khamenei and the insults to the founder and greatest hero of the regime: Ayatollah Khomeini.
Even if the repression is imposed again, something broke in 2022 because women disrespected fear and the “sacred fury” of a fanatical state.
Perhaps Goliath will end up imposing his power in the Ukraine, in China and in Iran, but that power was left with a dented prestige, because the year that ended has been a time of Davides.