Issue: 2009: Vol. 8, No. 1

International Relations 2009: A Year of Audacious Hope or a Year of Utter Hopelessness?

Article Author(s)

Yawei Liu

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Yawei Liu is Director of The Carter Center’s China Program. Yawei Liu has been a member of numerous Carter Center missions to monitor Chinese village, township and county people’s congress deputy elections from 1997 to 2011. He has also observed elections in Nicaragua, Peru and Taiwan. He has written extensively on China’s political developments, grassroots democracy and US-China relations. Yawei edited three Chinese book series: Rural Election and Governance in Contemporary China ... 
2009: Vol. 8, No. 1
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International Relations 2009: A Year of Audacious Hope or a Year of Utter Hopelessness?As 2008 ended and 2009 dawned, China seemed poised to move into political and social normalcy. The previous year had been filled with unprecedented challenges, but 2009 was supposed to be fun and festive, a period for enhancing legitimacy and consolidating national pride. Many believed that China would lift restrictions that had been tightened in 2008. International conferences would be held. Foreign and domestic NGOs would be allowed to operate with less harassment. Sensitive anniversaries would pass without major campaigns of repression. Yet, even before entering the New Year, there were signs that such a rosy scenario would not come to pass. From top Chinese leaders to main state media outlets, there were dire warnings that 2009 would pose an even more serious threat to China’s stability. Chinese themselves were confused. China watchers were clueless. Where exactly does the threat come from?

It’s the economy, stupid!

For starters, there is the massive economic downturn that has laid off no fewer than 20 million Chinese migrant workers. There is also the concern that millions of past and current college graduates will not be able to find steady jobs. Urban Chinese residents who live below the poverty line or have no unemployment benefits are being pushed deeper into misery. Restless migrants teaming up with well educated students have been the source of dynastic changes throughout China’s history. Furthermore, the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been built on the claim that under its strong leadership, living conditions of the Chinese people have been on a 30-year rise. Economic devastation always generates anger and protest, but under China’s circumstances, it also can pose serious political challenges for the Party.

Don’t you see Westerners are pulling the strings ?

Sensitive to China’s political fragility and mindful of precedents set by Eastern European counterparts like Václav Havel, two Chinese dissidents drafted Charter 08, calling for the CCP to launch political reform in a meaningful way, including conducting elections, expanding freedom of speech and association, institutionalizing judicial independence and introducing a system of checks and balances. To the surprise of the government, Charter 08 was signed by many ordinary Chinese citizens despite the government’s Herculean effort to cleanse the Internet of all traces of the document.

While chasing and talking to those who have signed Charter 08, the Chinese government is also busy identifying the instigators. Targets are easy. Evil Westerners who are jealous of China’s enormous economic achievements and frustrated by Beijing’s capacity to absorb social and political shocks are the culprit. Not only were they funding the Charter 08 endeavor, they were also behind the taxi drivers’ strike and were trying to penetrate China’s trade union groups. At the recent annual sessions of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, there were calls from the deputies to increase jamming of Western broadcasting into China.

His Holiness is not holy at all

In this volatile climate, there are many anniversaries falling in 2009 which are adding fuel to the gathering conflagration and making the CCP more nervous. The first date on the calendar is the 50th anniversary of His Holiness Dalai Lama’s failed uprising against the central government. While Tibetans in exile commemorate the date on March 10, the Chinese government has changed it to March 28 and labels it as Serf Emancipation Day. All measures seem to have been taken to prevent the protests and riots that happened last year. Frustrated by what he sees as indifference and complicity, and forced to pacify the more radical members of Tibetan Youth Congress, His Holiness accused the Chinese government of “transforming Tibet into hell on earth” and extinguishing Tibetan culture and heritage. This will only harden the CCP leadership, blocking all possible channels of communication and efforts to restart negotiations aimed at creating a more autonomous Tibet within the realm of mainland China.

April is no fool’s month

Ten years ago, tens of thousands of believers of a faith developed by an ex-policeman, Li Hongzhi, surrounded Zhongnanhai, where the central leadership lives and works, and demanded official recognition of their belief. Surprised and humiliated by the effective and secret organization of the demonstration, the CCP eventually labeled the group as a cult and launched a nationwide crackdown. Falungong believers can no longer practice openly in China but they are doing very well outside the country, using low-tech (cultural performances and newspapers), high-tech (satellite jamming and web sites) and polemic (self-immolation, organizing withdrawals from the CCP and accusing the Chinese government of selling organs of imprisoned Falungongers) means to interrupt the business of the Chinese government. Although the group has not created any problems for the government in recent years, the possibility of it pulling another “stunt” inside China is always a concern for the Chinese government.

May is indeed all “red”

Nationalistic Chinese see “red” in May, not the “red” of the unity of proletariat of the world (International Labor Day falls on May 1) but the blood of Chinese being killed during the accidental bombing by a U.S. B-1 of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade on May 8th ten years ago. Although the Clintons are very popular in China (Chinese like Hillary Clinton even more after her refusal during her recent audiences with Chinese top leaders to openly criticize China for its questionable ways of treating its own citizens), and President Barack Obama has inspired the Chinese about what democracy can achieve, if domestic instability looms large in China, the government may play the card of nationalism and demonize the United States. If this is the case, May 8th might be a sensitive date. The recent confrontation between the USS Impeccable and five Chinese “fishing” ships in the South China Sea certainly is contributing to the possibility of serious U.S.-China friction that may test the new Obama Administration and top Chinese leaders. The question is whether China and the U.S. can be good stakeholders, if not exactly partners, in dealing with global recession and other thorny matters.

But May has another important anniversary, namely, the 90th anniversary of the May 4th Movement. May 4th has a special place in Chinese people’s collective memory, a double-edged sword that can be used by different groups of people to serve divergent purposes. To those Chinese who are demanding political liberalization, May 4th is a symbol of rejecting China’s corrupt government, defying authorities and forcing China to adopt an alternative development model. In the eyes of those Chinese who declare that no Western-style democracy suits China, as was emphasized on March 10th by Wu Bangguo, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, May 4th represents the epitome of China’s frustration over the hypocrisy of Western liberal democracy. After all, the entire movement was triggered by President Woodrow Wilson, who allowed Japan to take over China’s Jiaodong Peninsula. The perceived sellout by President Wilson, who championed national self-determination, caused severe disillusionment among a small group of Chinese intellectuals. They rejected Western liberal democracy and accepted the Soviet model as the solution to China’s crisis. They formed the CCP in 1921, which rose to power 28 years later. Both sides can play the anniversary in accordance with their political needs. It is extremely important for the government to seize the initiative.

June 4th is a day of “infamy”

Exactly a month after May 4th, there is the sensitive 20th anniversary of the June 4th crackdown in and around Tiananmen Square, a day of infamy for the Chinese democracy movement. The incident actually began on April 15, 1989, when Chinese students began to mourn the passing of Hu Yaobang, who had been dismissed from the position of general secretary of the CCP due to his liberal ideas, and ended on June 4th when tanks rolled into Beijing. A popular movement that called for democratization and an end to corruption was abruptly crushed. It was and is still being labeled as a riot aimed at overthrowing the CCP and the government. Every June 4th since 1989 Tiananmen Square has been put under special watch and nothing has really happened. Entering into the 20th year, there are renewed calls for the Chinese government to form a truth commission to confront the brutal acts of the government. Parents who lost their children during the incident have even begun to hold meetings in order to seek compensation and apologies. It is hard to imagine anything can happen on this particular day given the heightened alert of the government. Nevertheless, it is a day that the people’s government would like to wish away, a memory it would like to see evaporate.

October 1 is the golden birthday of the republic

The next big anniversary is October 1. Sixty years ago, Mao Zedong stood on top of Tiananmen and declared that the Chinese people had finally stood up. It is a day that was born out of blood and tears, a day that came after millions were killed during the civil war from 1945 through 1949, a day on which all Chinese are constantly reminded to be grateful for the CCP and to feel proud. This year, the proud Chinese people may feel even prouder when President Hu Jintao reviews a military parade at Tiananmen Square. Mao did it, followed by Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin respectively. However, for the first time, there are questions regarding the necessity of such a civil-education event. Is it wise to do so when the economy is floundering? Is it worth spending so much for such a spectacle when funds can be better spent on improving the social security network and healthcare coverage for the farmers? Will People’s Liberation Army veterans, yet another group of people who feel angry about unfair treatment after serving the nation, be included in the parade? What about migrant farmers? Could they be included in the parade in addition to showing off the PLA’s war-making/nation-defending equipment?

General Fang Fenghui, Grand Marshall of the parade, told deputies of the NPC recently that all efforts will be made to save funds in preparing and organizing the parade. After all, will ordinary citizens of the republic be allowed to walk around the Square and observe the parade on the National Day? If they are, they will certainly be awe-struck and proud. But will they continue to believe that because they were liberated by the CCP, they must always and forever believe that the Party will always serve the people and secure a government of them, by them and for them? Since no one can guarantee such an answer, this day is, alas, also deemed sensitive.

2009 is not 2008

For all Chinese, 2008 was initially meaningful for only one thing: China hosting the Summer Olympic Games, an event seen as a coming-out party for China. In the months leading up to the big event, there was a snow storm in January that saw hundreds of thousands of migrant workers stranded in train stations in Southern China and power lines out of operation for weeks. There were violent protests against the presence of ethnic Han Chinese in Tibet and other areas inhabited by Tibetans. There were interruptions of the Olympic torch relay in foreign capitals, including London, Paris and San Francisco. And there was the May earthquake that claimed 90,000 lives. The Chinese government managed to overcome all these interruptions and successfully host the Summer Olympic Games. Many Chinese scholars claim that the unprecedented efforts of disaster relief through national mobilization in the wake of the earthquake in Sichuan, and the best ever Summer Olympic Games, have shown the world not only that China has entered the club of powerful nations but that its development model can also be applied to all other developing countries. Arguably, hosting the Olympic Games has rallied the Chinese nation. The absence of such a rallying cause and the worsening of the economy may make it harder for the Chinese government to sail through the year without major interruptions.

The country is big and the Party has to be strong

It is more than a little ironic that a government whose leaders are ideologically focused on whole-hearted service to the people would have no trust in the people and actually fear things could careen out of control in a year that should be dedicated to celebration and post-Olympic Game relaxation. It is sad to think there are other things that may make 2010 and 2011 sensitive so that activities of the media, NGOs and conferences would need to be restricted. Shanghai will host the World Expo in 2010, and 2011 is the centennial of the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty and the beginning of the republican era in China.

China has changed in the past 30 years since the beginning of opening up and reform, but one thing has yet to change: the government seems to be always possessed by fear: fear of possible social chaos, of losing the mandate of heaven, and of the possibility that the legitimacy of the CCP will be questioned by ungrateful citizens. Wu Bangguo, the number-two man of the nine-person CCP Politburo, declared on March 10th that without the CCP controlling everything, “a nation as large as China will be torn by strife and incapable of accomplishing anything.” The Party has to be strong, and any effort that is designed to weaken the Party is criminal and has to be relentlessly crushed.

The herd of ox is unpredictable

While government fear is constant, the people are no longer the same: they are no longer a herd of ox, quiet, obedient, blindly loyal and aimlessly hardworking. The majority of them is upset but silent. A small like-minded group of them likes to complain and is becoming keener on questioning the legitimacy of the Party. With social and economic conditions deteriorating, this small group may be able to mobilize the silent majority. Anniversaries and other small events could become the trigger for massive protests.

We will see how 2009, the year of the ox, is to be lived by the Chinese people and their leaders. Is it going to be a year of national pride or a year of lost hope for more change? We are waiting for the final verdict.