The Year China Jumped the Gun

The Year China Jumped the Gun

China is a country that takes anniversaries seriously. But reaction to significant historical events to be commemorated this year has already taken place.


What’s in store for China in 2009?

If you’d asked me this question a year ago, my answer would have pivoted around the fact that several important round-number anniversaries will occur in a place where such dates often have great political currency. I’d have mentioned that the May 4th Movement, the first in what would become a long line of large-scale, student-led patriotic outbursts, took place in 1919. The People’s Republic was founded on October 1, 1949. The biggest Tibetan Uprising began on March 10, 1959. Finally, the Tiananmen protests started in mid-April of 1989 and ended with that year’s June 4 Massacre.

I’d have suggested that, in light of this, there was a good chance that one or more of the following six things would occur in 2009:

• Tibetans would take to the streets.

• There’d be a surge of youth activism focusing on protecting the nation.

• More demonstrations than usual would occur in cities, especially if the economy was as troubled as it had been in 1989, a time of inflation and rising unemployment.

• Dissidents would issue dramatic statements about the need for political reform, in an effort to reopen debates that had largely been tabled since 1989.

• Subtler moves in this direction would be made, such as calling for a reassessment of Zhao Ziyang, the top official purged in 1989 for taking too soft a line on protests.

• The government would detain gadfly figures, such as Tiananmen vet Liu Xiaobo, during the lead up to celebrations of the People’s Republic turning sixty.

But something strange happened during 2008. Each of the potential 2009 developments cited above happened ahead of time.

• In March, Tibet was rocked by unrest.

• Throughout the spring, there were expressions of nationalist fervor.

• In September, the envelope-pushing magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu (Annals of the Yellow Emperor) published a piece that used daringly respectful language when referring to Zhao Ziyang.

• In November, due partly to the global economic downturn, a rowdy series of strikes, mostly involving taxi drivers, swept through Chinese cities.

• In December, a group of Chinese intellectuals, including Liu Xiaobo, issued Charter 08, a bold call for political reform. That same month, Liu was detained.

Two main points are worth making about all this.

First, it doesn’t undermine the notion that tracking anniversaries is important. After all, many of the 2008 events mentioned above had some kind of tie to an anniversary–just not a 2009 one.

The timing of the Lhasa riots, for example, coincided with the March 10 date–just the forty-ninth rather than fiftieth one. Charter 08 was issued to mark an anniversary–the sixtieth anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights rather than the twentieth anniversay of the June 4 Massacre. And the crackdown involving Liu’s detention was launched when the Communist Party was gearing up to celebrate a birthday–just the thirtieth of the start of the Reform era rather than the sixtieth of the Communist period.

Second, the 2008 arrival of things that seemed to be on the horizon for 2009 somehow fits with the mood of how things have been going in China. Ever since giant countdown clocks began appearing in Chinese cities in the mid-1990s, ticking off the seconds until Hong Kong “returned to the embrace of the ancestral homeland,” China has seemed a country that, for better and for worse, has been stuck in fast-forward mode. Chinese leaders have promoted this image of the country, and outsiders have embraced or feared but not dismissed this notion.

Evidence of this phenomenon takes many forms.

There are, for example, the Beijing and Shanghai museums that present the rapidly changing urban landscapes of these cities not as they are but as they will be in 2010 or 2020. And there are the new countdown clocks that have gone up since the 1997 Hong Kong handover ones reached zero. Like those that until recently encouraged people in Beijing to focus on the upcoming start of the Olympics on 08/08/08, and those that now remind people in Shanghai that in less than 500 days the city will play host to China’s First World’s Fair, the 2010 World Expo.

The same impatient mindset has also shown through in the marketing and international consumption of “farewell cruises” down the Yangzi River. These played to what might be called anticipatory nostalgia. Foreign and domestic tourists alike gazed keenly at villages that would have been far less interesting to them, had they not been so intensely aware that the Three Gorges Dam project would soon lead to the complete submersion of all the fields and houses they were seeing.

Even during the Olympics, there was sometimes a sense of things happening before they were supposed to. This was not just because some of the sights and sounds of the 08/08/08 Opening Ceremony turned out to have been pre-recorded, but also because, after years of advance speculation about whether protests would erupt during the Olympics, the most notable acts of disruption turned out to be those that took place during the pre-games torch relay.

In other words, perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised to see China’s 2009 start while the calendar still read 2008. Many of the cascading traumas, tragedies and triumphs of China’s Year of the Olympics were certainly unexpected, but we should probably begin to take it in stride when things happen ahead of schedule in the PRC–and be ready for more developments that, for better or worse, jump the gun during China’s Year of Anniversaries.

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