In 2021, while most of the world struggled to contain the virus, China kept its borders sealed, stamped out outbreaks with ruthless efficiency and in its zero-Covid bubble, set about turbo charging internal reforms.

It was the year, the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, declared "the east is rising and the west is in decline". But his confidence was cautious, warning officials not to write off their main rival, the United States.

And as this superpower rivalry deepened, taking on what other countries feared was a distinctly Cold War hue, Taiwan took centre stage.

The US President Joe Biden appeared to break with Washington's long-held policy of "strategic ambiguity" (which is meant to keep everyone in the dark as to whether the US would defend Taiwan) by stating the US would indeed come to the island’s defence. His aides later back-pedalled on his comments.

When an unprecedented number of Chinese warplanes flew past Taiwan amid Beijing’s threats to take the island, many speculated the invasion was nigh.

And while China continued to look for parity of esteem for its authoritarian form of governance, especially in international institutions built on democratic norms, Taiwan became the touchstone in a global clash of values.

US president Joe Biden met virtually with Xi Jinping in November to discuss trade, Taiwan and China's economic practices

Democracy versus authoritarianism

The clashes came thick and fast. In the Spring, politicians in Europe, who had criticised human rights abuses in Xinjiang, were hit with sanctions by Beijing. The shelving of the China Investment Agreement as a result, was a clear sign that Sino-European relations had taken a nosedive. In the autumn, Beijing lost a good friend with the exit of Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Then the decision by an EU country, Lithuania, to allow Taiwan to open a representative office under its own name, drew fury from Beijing, culminating in the sudden flight of Lithuanian diplomats out of China.

In another dramatic diplomatic incident, Huawei’s senior executive, Meng Wanzhou, reached a deal with US prosecutors in her extradition case, allowing her to return to China.

Within hours, the two Canadian citizens, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, detained on spying charges in China were suddenly released - Beijing appearing to make no secret of its hostage diplomacy. Irish businessman Richard O’Halloran, meanwhile, remained detained without charge in Shanghai.

Irish businessman Richard O'Halloran is being detained without charge in Shanghai

The fallout from Chinese tennis star, Peng Shuai’s accusation of sexual assault at the hands of one of China’s most powerful men, former Premier, Zhang Gaoli, split the international sporting world, just weeks out from the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022.

But through all the turmoil there was little room for open dialogue. The silencing of dissent inside China, coupled with sealed borders diminished opportunities for people-to-people exchange in business or academia.

In 2021, it seemed the chasm between China and much of the rest of the world yawned wider

At the same time, the number of foreign journalists inside China, dwindled further. Reporters who tried to hold the one-party state government to account on issues like the re-education camps in Xinjiang, the ongoing erosion of democracy in Hong Kong or the virus origins were frequently called "fake news" and "hostile foreign forces" by a regime now entirely intolerant of scrutiny.

When I fled Beijing with my family in March after years of intimidation and harassment by the authorities, there were no Irish journalists, reporting for Irish outlets, left in China.

In our Taipei exile, we joined a burgeoning number of China correspondents forced to cover the superpower from a distance.

In 2021, it seemed the chasm between China and much of the rest of the world - or to use Chairman Xi’s framing "east and west" - yawned wider.

The home front

But despite the chilly geopolitical atmosphere, on home turf this year the leadership was in a celebratory mood. Pomp and pageantry marked 100 years of the Communist Party in July and the party leader, Xi Jinping, used the moment to deliver a colourful message to his own people and more pointedly to the outside world.

"We will never allow anyone to bully, oppress or subjugate China," he said, to whoops and cheers in Tiananmen Square.

"Anyone who dares try to do that will have their heads bashed bloody against the Great Wall of Steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people," he said.

Domestically, there is no doubt that the pandemic delivered a massive boost for the leadership. The Chinese public, looking at the infection and death rates in advanced democracies, felt a sense of national pride that China had to a large extent remained Covid-free, and the downsides of the policies, such as impact on mental health, received little attention.

An art installation in Beijing marking 100 years of China's Communist Party

However, those Chinese people who tried to document the chaos of the early response to the virus were forgotten. One citizen journalist, Zhang Zhan, is now dying in prison for attempting to report the reality of the Wuhan lockdown, countering the official propaganda. Others simply disappeared.

The government continued to push their own narratives on the origins of the virus, suggesting, alternately, that it came in on frozen food imports from Europe or it was manufactured in a US laboratory - both widely accepted by Chinese citizens and promoted by officials on international social media platforms.

The WHO's heavily choreographed mission to Wuhan resulting in the verdict that a leak from a Wuhan lab was "extremely unlikely" was another victory for the Communist Party. (Although the WHO chief, Tedros Adhanom, swiftly put the lab leak theory back on the table as soon as the team left China.)

Common prosperity

But behind the outward confidence, China’s leaders spoke of major internal challenges: a demographic crisis, pressing energy and food security issues as well as an unsustainable wealth gap which makes China one of the most unequal societies in the world.

They know that the Party’s social contract with its citizens (to stay out of politics while leaders deliver growth and jobs) could suffer in a slowing economy, damaging their legitimacy.

2021 was in many ways a dress rehearsal for 2022

And so, under the banner of "common prosperity," the government enacted a series of crackdowns on technology companies, brought wealthy entrepreneurs to heel, banned expensive online education platforms and reined in the overheated real estate sector.

The government also went after the online gaming industry, which state media labelled "spiritual opium," limiting playing time for teenagers and prompting the American makers of the game Fortnite to pull the plug on their China venture.

With all this set to continue, 2021 was in many ways a dress rehearsal for 2022 - the year in which Xi, often compared to Mao, is expected to enter an unprecedented third term as leader of an unapologetically authoritarian, deeply nationalistic and increasingly powerful regime.