Two thousand and eight was to have been an auspicious year for China. But the year has been anything but.
In January, a wave of polite demonstrations over planned urban development washed over Shanghai. Then freak snowstorms left 200,000 citizens stranded and angry over the government’s failure to deal with the emergency. Next, demonstrations and riots broke out in Lhasa, Tibet’s main city, and beyond. The flame of the Olympic torch relay was nearly doused by international protests and threats of a boycott. And now the catastrophic Sichuan earthquake has claimed as many as 80,000 lives, rendering millions homeless and raising fears of significant damage to the country’s infrastructure.
And it’s only May. No matter what happens next, 2008 is shaping up to be one of the most eventful and tragic years in recent Chinese history. And the way the Chinese people and the Communist Party leadership have risen to meet these unforeseen events challenges us in the West to rethink our often distorted view of China. Here are five lessons that are emerging:
1. China’s economics, politics and social structures are undergoing profound and rapid change.
This is obvious, but many outside critics of China continue to insist that when it comes to politics, the continuation of Communist Party is still the country’s defining characteristic.
Unquestionably, there are continuities going back to the era defined by Chairman Mao: the Party retains its monopoly on power, periodically uses draconian measures against those it deems threatening and seeks to control the media. But Mao’s cult of personality no longer prevails; the regime now presents itself as worthy of support primarily because of what it can accomplish, as opposed to the purity of its ideology; and China’s leaders are showing far more flexibility toward certain kinds of dissent.
The government’s restrained response to the “strolls” by middle-class residents of Shanghai concerned about the impact the expansion of a high-speed train would have been much more surprising thirty years ago than it was three months ago. The same goes for Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s decision to publicly acknowledge that the government should have done more to protect travelers stranded by late January and February’s harsh winter storms.
And even the most skeptical observer needs to acknowledge the night-and-day contrasts between the current earthquake response and the cover-up that followed the Tangshan earthquake of July 1976, which hit just a few months before Mao’s death. When that earlier disaster struck, Beijing rebuffed offers of foreign aid, claimed that Mao’s ideology was all the country needed to deal with the catastrophe, and tightly controlled access to the affected area.