What a year! We went from pandemic to a panoply of giant steps forward

Lu Feiran
History will decide where 2023 fits into the tide of mankind, but we have some clues about how its contributions changed trajectories in often exciting ways.
Lu Feiran

After what was a long freeze frame in the movie of life, the characters began moving again in 2023 – slowly at first and then faster and faster.

The end of coronavirus isolation marked the start of connecting with the world again. And what a liberation it has been! On a personal note, I went on my first overseas vacation in three years, and one of my best friends realized her dream of studying abroad.

That's not to say the aftermath of the pandemic has been all easy sailing. China's economy has yet to recover fully, and we still deal with bouts of various types of respiratory diseases, especially in winter. Abroad, the world faces regional conflicts and unprecedented displacement of populations.

China celebrated the 10th anniversary of its "Road and Belt Initiative," which expands trade and cultural ties with South and Central Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. This was also the year that China and the US took positive steps to restart dialogue.

In the realm of technology and science, we watched the successful launch of the Shenzhou-16 manned spacecraft and the safe return of the astronauts. And we have been amazed by the rapid emergence of artificial intelligence, though we still aren't sure where it will take us.

So how to sum up the year? And how will 2023 flow into the tide of modern history?

Shanghai Daily has selected a few significant moments from this year's calendar to take glimpse back what we did and forward to where we may be going.

What a year! We went from pandemic to a panoply of giant steps forward

The China-Laos Railway has become an economic lifeline of a landlocked country.

The 10th anniversary of the "Road and Road" Initiative

In 2013, China launched the landmark initiative to forge infrastructure, trade and cultural ties far beyond its borders.

As of June this year, China had signed more than 200 "Belt and Road" agreements with over 150 countries and 30-plus international organizations across five continents. More than 3,000 partnership projects have begun in the past decade, involving investment of close to US$1 trillion.

One such project is the China-Laos Railway, which began operations two years ago and is helping invigorate the economy of the landlocked country by linking Laos with Southeast Asian ports. Another example is the Kenya Standard Gauge Railway, which is the largest infrastructure program in Kenya since its independence in 1963.

The World Bank has estimated that by 2030, initiative-related investments could lift 7.6 million people out of extreme poverty and 32 million out of moderate poverty.

What a year! We went from pandemic to a panoply of giant steps forward

This image captured at Beijing Aerospace Control Center on October 26, 2023 shows the Shenzhou-16 and Shenzhou-17 crew posing for a group photo in Tiangong space station.

Chinese astronauts and space exploration

On May 30, China launched the Shenzhou-16 manned spaceship, sending three astronauts to its space station complex.

Jing Haipeng, Zhu Yangzhu and Gui Haichao stayed on the Tiangong space station for five months, where they conducted research and experiments. They also witnessed a series of subsequent events, including the dockings of the Tianzhou-5 cargo craft and Shenzhou-17 manned spaceship, and the departures of the Shenzhou-15 manned spaceship and Tianzhou-5 cargo spaceship.

On October 26, the Shenzhou-17 manned spaceship was launched, sending another three astronauts on a six-month mission. Five days later, the astronaut trio on Shenzhou-16 returned safely to earth.

The year marks the 20th anniversary of China sending its first astronaut, Yang Liwei, into space. Since then, some 20 astronauts have followed in their space steps to explore horizons beyond the earth.

What a year! We went from pandemic to a panoply of giant steps forward
Dong Jun / SHINE

The first C919 jet was delivered to China Eastern Airlines.

The high-flying C919

Six years after the maiden flights of the domestically produced C919 jet, commercial flights began this year, marking the official entry of the aircraft in the civil aviation market.

The C919, operated by China Eastern Airlines, now flies the route between Shanghai and the southwestern city of Chengdu. Passengers report that the trips are very comfortable.

Meanwhile, the success of the aircraft has resulted in a flood of commercial orders. In September, Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China Ltd, which developed the C919 and ARJ21 jetliners, said its order book had reached 1,091.

In September, China Eastern Airlines signed a purchase contract with the company for an additional 100 C919s – marking the largest single order for the plane.

Since the C919 project was launched in 2007, it has undergone a long journey of design, manufacture and flight tests, culminating in commercial flights. The first C919 rolled off the production line in Shanghai in November 2015 and conducted its successful maiden flight in 2017.

Traveling once again

In the early morning of January 8, a Boeing 787-9 from New Zealand landed at Pudong International Airport, becoming the first international flight to Shanghai after China lifted coronavirus controls on inbound travelers.

There were hugs and tears aplenty as family and friends reunited after long separations. From then on, travelers entering China no longer needed to undergo any form of quarantine. Beginning on August 30, a requirement for incoming travelers to provide COVID test results ended.

Inbound and outbound tourism has returned to normal. On February 6, the first outbound tour group in three years arrived in Thailand.

To encourage inbound tourism, China announced last month that it was implementing a visa-free trial program for ordinary passport holders from France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Malaysia. The project, which allows visa-free stays up to 15 days, will last through November 30 next year.

What a year! We went from pandemic to a panoply of giant steps forward

China (Shanghai) Pilot Free Trade Zone will continue playing a leading role in foreign investment and trade.

The 10th anniversary of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone

On its 10th anniversary in September, the China (Shanghai) Pilot Free Trade Zone had much to celebrate. It has evolved into a premier venue for thriving businesses and a gateway for overseas investors venturing into the Chinese market.

Through the end of 2022, the paid-in value of foreign direct investment in the zone totaled US$58.6 billion, accounting for some 30 percent of the city's total. The zone's import-export volume last year accounted for about 30 percent of the combined volume registered by the country's 21 pilot free trade zones.

In tandem with this surge in trade, the China International Import Expo, held annually in Shanghai, celebrated its 6th anniversary this year, chalking up a record US$78.41 billion in deal transactions.

President Xi Jinping sent a letter to the opening ceremony of this year's expo, reaffirming China's commitment to wider market access as part of inclusive economic globalization. Premier Li Qiang's keynote speech echoed the sentiment of laying the groundwork for further exploration of opportunities in the global market.

What a year! We went from pandemic to a panoply of giant steps forward

Breakthrough of AI

If we had to point to just one thing from 2023 with groundbreaking implications for mankind, it would probably the use of artificial intelligence models, like ChatGPT, which have reached into almost all walks of life.

The meteoric rise of this new technology promises to make life and work easier for people, while also raising concerns such as job losses, copyright infringement and information security.

Despite potential drawbacks, no country is willing to walk away from AI and lag behind in this new frontier. China is no exception.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said in July that China's total computing power now ranks second in the world, with annual growth of about 30 percent. The country has committed itself to becoming a leader in high-quality AI computing and algorithm development.

This year, several large Chinese AI language models made their debut, targeting vertical industry applications. Just to name a few:

In July, China Literature, the biggest online reading platform in China, released the Miaobi AI model, which helps authors with data operation, technology support and core services.

Also in July, WPS AI, developed by Shanghai-listed Kingsoft Office, made its official debut. It features one-click PowerPoint generation and trip itineraries within seconds.

A month later, Chinese online search giant Baidu rolled out its AI chatbot service ERNIE Bot to the general public.

How will AI change daily lives and work? Will it end up doing more good than harm? These are questions for future years.

What a year! We went from pandemic to a panoply of giant steps forward

The return of 23-year-old giant panda Ya Ya came after concerns about her health. Fortunately, the story had a happy ending.

Return of the giant pandas

The giant panda is the undisputed icon of China. This year, the return of giant pandas to China from overseas zoos evoked tearful good-byes overseas and joyful welcomes in China.

In February, Japan-born giant panda female Xiang Xiang was sent to Sichuan Province – the native habitat of pandas. Thousands of Japanese went to Ueno Zoo to bid her farewell.

That same month, panda Eimei, together with her twin cubs Ouhin and Touhin, also born in Japan, returned to China as stipulated by the goodwill contracts that enable sharing pandas overseas.

In April, the return of 23-year-old panda Ya Ya from the United States to her birthplace in Beijing Zoo capped public concerns about her health in China. She was found to have skin and fur issues but no diseases.

Dozens of giant pandas still live in foreign zoos, much to the delight of people around the world.

New housing policies

To stimulate a slowing housing market, major cities in China issued new preferential policies this year to make it easier for people to purchase homes.

Starting from December 15, Shanghai's definition of "ordinary housing" no longer includes a price cap. This means that all homes meeting other criteria of the category will be eligible for lower transaction tax rates.

Earlier in September, major Chinese cities like Shanghai and Beijing widened the definition of "first time homebuyer" to include anyone who doesn't already own property, regardless of previous credit history.

The major cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen in southern China had also announced similar changes.

The adjustments mean that more people will be classified as "first time homebuyers," giving them access to mortgages with lower interest rates and smaller down payments.

Industry experts said the effect of the relaxed policies will take time to assess.

What a year! We went from pandemic to a panoply of giant steps forward

Huawei Mate 60 Pro phones were consistently sold out at its flagship store in Shanghai.

Huawei Mate 60 fever

After Huawei released its Mate 60 Pro smartphone in September, the company replaced Apple as the best-selling brand in the Chinese smartphone market. Huawei's smartphone share of the Chinese market hit 19.4 percent between October 2 and 8, according to research firm BCI.

People have been swarming to Huawei stores across China, hoping to get their hands on the hot new flagship models. The latest Mate phone feature 5G capabilities and sophisticated chips. Prior to that, most Huawei handsets only had 4G capability. The US slapped technology sanctions on the Chinese company four years ago.

After the Mate 60 Pro was released, Bloomberg News tested its functions and concluded that it "is capable of cellular speeds on par with 5G devices like Apple Inc.'s latest iPhones."

Huawei's success showed that the gap between China's chip-making capabilities and those of the world's most advanced companies is narrowing dramatically.

What a year! We went from pandemic to a panoply of giant steps forward

No one expected that a village basketball league would attract millions of views online and legions of fans.

Village basketball scores big

"Village BA," or "CunBA," refers to basketball matches held in rural villages in southwestern China's Guizhou Province. However, the repercussions go beyond just games.

At first, Village BA was a slightly jocular buzzword – coined from CBA, China's leading professional basketball league – after basketball matches held in a Guizhou village in August 2022 went viral online.

On June 7 this year, a circular from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs upgraded the rural basketball league from a regional competition to a national one.

Online streaming of the Guizhou games drew no less than 300 million views.

Soon, soccer and table tennis teams formed their own village leagues, bringing more tourists and commercial opportunities to small rural towns.

Taijiang County in Guizhou, where Village BA first started, reported receiving more than 4.2 million tourists in the first nine months of the year, up more than 51 from a year earlier. Revenue surged 71 percent to more than 5.6 billion yuan, thanks most to Village BA.

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