ALBERTA – As China enters the “Year of the Ox,” there is much to reflect on from the past 12 months and even more to speculate about regarding the coming year. 2008 began with devastating snowstorms that paralyzed most of central and southern China’s transport system, interrupting lives and causing severe material damage. Then came the riots in Tibet, which caught the government off guard, followed by embarrassing protests over China’s Olympic torch relay in several Western and Asian countries.
Then, as Chinese were wondering why 2008, a year of supposed good fortune marked by the lucky number eight, had started with so much misfortune, a deadly earthquake struck Sichuan province, killing 80,000 people and leaving millions homeless. Emerging more united from this tragedy, the country welcomed the world to the long-anticipated Olympics, which were remarkably successful, but were soon superseded by the tainted-dairy-product scandal in which many babies became ill, and some died.
In contrast to last year, when the rush home for the lunar New Year celebration was hampered by freak storms, this year millions of migrant workers have already returned to their rural homes. Many will be staying there, because the global economic downturn has hit China hard, costing them their jobs.
Littered with a host of extremely sensitive anniversaries, 2009 could prove even more dramatic and unpredictable than 2008. Fast approaching is not only the March anniversary of last year’s disturbances in Tibet, but also the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan unrest in 1959 that led to the exile of the Dalai Lama and his supporters.
Since the riots last spring, China’s government has taken many pro-active measures, even adopting a “Serf Liberation Day,” to defend its record in Tibet of the past 50 years, while continuing to talk with the Dalai Lama’s representatives. But it has also implemented heavy-handed police and military controls.
Then comes the 20th anniversary of the June 4 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square student demonstrations. Calls to re-evaluate the official response began when President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao came to power seven years ago. But recently the pressure has intensified, especially with the publication of “Charter 08,” a manifesto signed by hundreds of Chinese intellectuals, journalists, lawyers, and ordinary citizens, condemning the government’s human rights record and demanding more democratic reform, press freedom, governmental transparency, and societal openness.
Although neither Hu nor Wen were directly involved in the crackdown, they nonetheless must tread carefully. Doing everything possible to avoid a repeat of the 1989 scenario may well be the Communist Party leadership’s top priority in 2009. And, given the economic slowdown, widening income disparity, rising unemployment, and growing popular discontent over corruption, China’s leaders will have their hands full.
Of course, the inspiration for almost every political reform movement in China is the May 4th Movement of 1919, when Chinese students protested against a weak and corrupt government and called for China to strengthen itself by adopting two key Western ideals: democracy and science. As the 90th anniversary approaches, China has made great strides in science, but still has a long way to go in terms of democracy.
This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Great Leap Forward, when 20-40 million Chinese died of starvation, as well as the tenth anniversary of the government’s ban on Falun gong, an organization of self-claimed religious and meditation practitioners that has challenged the Communist Party’s legitimacy. Though largely discredited inside the country, this militant movement still has a following around the world, and further protests may come at any time and in unpredictable forms.
While some of the plethora of anniversaries that China’s leaders must confront are potentially very destabilizing, several have, and will, work in their favor. For example, the 30th anniversary of China’s reform movement and the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States has been a much-celebrated event this January.
More importantly, October will mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Peoples’ Republic of China, an occasion that the Party will commemorate in grand style. After all, the Middle Kingdom has re-emerged as the world’s third-largest economy (having recently replaced Germany), sent astronauts into space, dispatched advanced naval destroyers to the Horn of Africa, and become the largest holder of US foreign debt. China will want to flex its muscles and proclaim to the world that the Party has delivered the goods to its people, while making the country strong and prosperous.
As the worst recession since the1930’s continues, both the American and Chinese economies are bound to suffer further setbacks. There is no guarantee that protectionist and xenophobic sentiment in America will not hit China-US relations, or that the economic downturn will not fuel new unrest in China.
The world should not misjudge the effect of such troubles on China. Nor should it forget China’s fierce display of nationalism in response to Western protests of the Olympic touch relay, the extraordinary patriotism that swept the country in response to the Sichuan earthquake, and the national pride evinced by the Olympic Games.
But, in 2009, it would not hurt if China’s leadership also took note of the need to continue assuring the world of its commitment to a “peaceful rise,” and to do so by boldly addressing some of the unresolved issues that this year’s anniversaries will highlight.