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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

View: Anniversaries and uncertainties by Wenran Jiang

January 28, 2009

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


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 paralysed 
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Olympics, which were remarkably successful, but were soon superseded 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 organisation 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 destabilising, several have, and will, 
work in their favour. 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 the 1930s 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. ?DT-PS


Wenran Jiang, a professor of political science, holds the China 
Institute?s Mactaggart Research Chair at the University of Alberta, 
Canada
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