Asia: The twelve faces of 2022

Protests are back in China and among the women of Tehran. The Ukraine war has implications for Asia. India gets its first Dalit cardinal while Japan mourns its assassinated former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Meanwhile, migrant workers who died in Qatar should not be forgotten. Our editorial staff picked twelve witnesses for twelve months.

For Asia, today marks the end of an eventful year, full of unexpected street protests, violent deaths, unresolved conflicts, and old and new leaders. What follows is a selection of twelve faces of as many witnesses from across the great continent. This offers a look at twelve months but also at the many challenges that are left as a legacy for 2023.


His protest was a prelude to the "Blank Paper Revolution, the mass demonstrations that in late November prompted the Chinese government to dump Xi Jinping's draconian zero-Covid policy. On 13 October, on the eve of the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, Peng Lifa carried out the most blatant challenge to the Chinese regime since the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989. The 48-year-old Heilongjiang native displayed banners critical of Xi on a Beijing bridge, a few days before the latter got a third, controversial mandate to rule. The police immediately arrested the activist, who later became a web star with nicknames such as "bridge man", "lone warrior" and "brave man".


Many wonder if the people of Taiwan are ready to defend their democracy from a Chinese invasion as the Ukrainians are doing against Russia’s aggression. Tseng Sheng-kuang surely was. The 25-year-old from Hualien County was the first Taiwanese foreign fighter to die in the Ukrainian conflict. He enlisted with the International Legion in Support of Ukraine, and was killed on 2 November during a military operation against Russian forces in the disputed Luhansk region. The young man had volunteered to fight in the Russian-Ukrainian war in June. According to the Ukrainian Army, he was part of the Carpathian Battalion, an infantry unit. His wife had not heard from him since 23 October.


In Central Asia, in many ways 2022 was the year of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the 69-year-old president of Kazakhstan. It all began with a harsh crackdown on street riots, the arrival of Russian troops that were immediately sent back home, and a succession of discussions and initiatives for change, which led to constitutional reform. Tokayev, who succeeded Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2019 after the latter’s 30-year reign, won re-election without real opposition on 20 November.

In order to distance himself from the past, during the great international showcase offered by the visit of Pope Francis, he had the capital revert to its old name of Astana, dumping the cumbersome name of Nur-Sultan, adopted just three years earlier to honour Nazarbayev. But for Kazakhstan, the real issue remains its international position. Tokayev has tried not to dovetail Putin's positions, keeping a neutral position on the war in Ukraine. However, from an economic point of view, Kazakhstan cannot afford to cut the umbilical cord that connects it to Russia, even if it fears Moscow’s imperial aspirations. What Astana can do is boost relations with Beijing, and it is no accident that in September Xi Jinping's first international visit since the start of the pandemic was to Kazakhstan.


With Shinzo Abe’s assassination on 8 July, Japan lost a figure who dominated national politics for more than 15 years. In Beijing they probably celebrated the disappearance of a geopolitical "enemy", but the former prime minister still managed to get the government to reinterpret the country’s pacifist constitution, a legacy of the Second World War. In fact, on 16 December, his successor, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his government decided to double military spending over the next five years, with the option of counterattacking enemy bases (in China and North Korea). At home, Abe’s death shed light on the relationship between members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the Unification Church founded by the Rev Sun Myung Moon. Abe’s killer blamed the former prime minister for supporting the religious sect, which in his eyes reduced his mother to poverty.


The Itaewon Halloween tragedy will forever mark the city of Seoul, under Mayor Oh Se-hoon, who was re-elected for the third time in April 2021. Hundreds of young people died in one of the city’s typical alleys because of crowd crush. This sparked a wave of protest among ordinary South Koreans and civil society groups against President Yoon Suk-yeol. Still Seoul has faced more than one challenge this year. During the summer at least eight people died in heavy rains that flooded the basements of buildings that housed the poor and marginalised. In recent months lorry drivers went on strike and staged protests demanding the retention of minimum transport rates. In 2022, Seoul residents were active, often at the forefront against abuses and inequalities.


For the Philippines, 2022 marked the return of a Marcos to Malacañang Palace, the official residence of the Philippine president. In the elections of 9 May, Ferdinand Bongbong Marcos Jr, the son of the former dictator who led the country until 1986, won a landslide victory with 30 percentage points ahead of his main rival, Leni Robredo. To mark continuity with his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, the latter’s daughter Sara Duterte, former mayor of Davao, won the vice presidency. However, in his first months in power, the new president has also shown a more prudent approach in foreign relations, especially vis-à-vis the United States and China, as well as in relation to his predecessor’s controversial "war on drugs”, which has left a long trail of blood and deaths, more than 6,000 people killed in operations against drug trafficking.


Out of 21 new cardinals picked by Pope Francis for this year's consistory (27 August) in the Vatican, six from Asia are from Asia, including Mgr Anthony Poola, Archbishop of Hyderabad in India. His nomination is of particular significance since he is the first Indian cardinal to come from a Dalit family. Once known as “untouchables” and “outcasts", they continue to experience discrimination in daily life despite the equality provisions of the Indian constitution. Christian communities are also not entirely immune from such evil, as evinced by the tensions sparked by episcopal appointment in Tamil Nadu. Speaking to AsiaNews about Pope Francis’s choice, the new cardinal called his appointment "good news for Dalit Catholics and for the entire Church in India. I believe it will bring Pope Francis’s encouragement to many."

IMRAN KHAN (Pakistan)

He started as an outsider, became a populist leader, and finally landed the prime minister’s job, but in April, Imran Khan lost a confidence vote after leading the country to economic collapse. According to international observers, he was deposed after losing the support of the military, but that did not stop the former cricket star from stirring up Pakistani politics, pointing the finger at international plots and organising long rallies to demand early elections (they are set for October 2023). After the protest marches failed (at the last one he was wounded in the leg by an attacker), the leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf changed tactics, calling on representatives of his party to withdraw from provincial legislatures.


For Myanmar 2022 was the year in which the civil war spread across the country. Many young people joined the resistance, composed of the People's Defence Forces (PDF) and ethnic militias. After opposition started peacefully, following the non-violence approach Aung San Suu Kyi pursued since the late 1980s, now for the first time in the country’s history, both majority ethnic Bamar, who are mostly Buddhist, and ethnic minorities have joined together to fight and oust once and for all the military. Yet, the end of the conflict, which in 2023 will enter its second year, seems far away.


Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, has become the face of Iran’s protest movement. Largely led by women (some very young), demonstrations have inflamed the country for four months, sparking a bloody crackdown by the Islamic Republic. It all started in mid-September, when the morality police arrested the young woman as she exited a metro station in Tehran, where she was on holiday with her family, because her head was not properly covered.

Her death in detention sparked a wave of anger that has spread like wildfire across the country, from the capital and Kurdish-majority regions to Sunni provinces. The iron fist used by the clerical regime has left so far almost 500 people dead with more than 18,000 arrested. Iranian courts have already issued several death sentences, some of which have already been carried out against protesters charged with “enmity against God” (Moharebeh, in Farsi), using religion for instrumental motives.

SHIREEN ABU AKLEH (Israel and Palestine)

Shireen Abu Akleh, a Christian Palestinian journalist and a naturalised US citizen, worked for years as an Arabic-language reporter for al-Jazeera. On 11 May, she was shot dead by an Israeli soldier during an army raid on the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. Two days later, on 13 May, during the funeral procession from St Joseph hospital to the burial place, police in riot gear attacked the crowd, breaking into the hospital and kicking those present and hitting them with batons, including the pallbearers, which almost caused them to drop Abu Akleh’s coffin.

Activists and human rights NGOs have called for an investigation, while the family, which was received by Pope Francis, appealed to the International Criminal Court. Conversely, Israel has secreted the investigation and absolved its men of any responsibility. Her death has become a symbol of a year of violence and deaths glossed over by an indifferent international community.


Mohammad Shahid Miah was a 29-year-old migrant from Bangladesh. In 2022, he became one of 6,500 workers (source: The Guardian), mostly from Asia, who lost their lives in Qatar over the past decade to build the stadiums and other venues used in the FIFA World Cup 2022 Qatar. The young man died when water flooded his crummy room and electrocuted him after coming into contact with an exposed electrical cable. He is the human symbol of a system of exploitation and misery that goes well beyond working conditions, and reflects the modern slavery of everyday life.

Since 2010, at least 12 migrants from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, or Sri Lanka have died every single week to ensure the sporting event takes place; only belatedly did the Qatari government introduce some changes, such as the abolition of the "Kafala" system. One of the few voices that opposed this kind of exploitation was the German Church through a campaign spearheaded by a Philippine nun who did not hesitate to show the Gulf country a symbolic red "card" for not respecting people's rights.