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.