Monday, March 09, 2009

China's Year of Anniversaries

It's the year of the ox, and you'd figure China would be fat and happy coming off 2008, when it enjoyed significant economic growth propelled in part by a largely successful Olympic Games that released its splendor for the masses to see.

Even with all the tumult in the run-up to the Games, things stayed relatively stable.

But this year could be different as the country comes down from its euphoric Olympic high, for a variety of reasons. Recently released numbers show that gross domestic product growth slipped below double digits for the first time in five years, and as the worldwide financial crisis persists, China's learning hard lessons about being largely dependent on foreign buyers and investors.

Exports are flagging, and factories are shedding jobs. Itinerant workers are having to leave the cities and head back to their home villages. The economic engine is stalling, and China's predicting just (man, would we kill for this kind of "just") 8 percent growth for 2009.

Along with all these factors, this is a year of anniversaries, more than any other year at least in the past decade. Some will likely provoke celebration. Some will spur outbreaks of unrest. In all, let it not be said that China watchers will be bored this year.

The cycle begins today, as Beijing tries to downplay and supporters try to play up the 50th anniversary of a failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule that resulted in the Dalai Lama's exile. The capital is on high alert, even though this officially is just a normal Tuesday (as this IHT article so eloquently describes it).

Dates are extremely symbolic in China. As the article above points out, a strong historical focus on numerology means that the Chinese refer to events by their date rather than their location, much like we think of 9/11.

The Tiananmen Square massacre is known as 6/4. A famous 1919 student movement that sparked nationalist sentiment is known as the May Fourth Movement. Even last year, authorities held the Beijing Olympic opening ceremonies on 08/08/08, beginning at 8:08 p.m., just because the number eight sounds like a word for prosperity.

We know that Chinese officials will be milking the anniversaries they support to gain whatever public favor they can. It'll be interesting to see how the Communist Party this year will walk the tightrope that perennially characterizes its modern struggle: weighing its iron clamp on power against the stated goal and unspoken hope from its citizens more freedom and rights.

That said, the Chinese people seem to be enjoying the stability and relative prosperity that the Party has provided, so it'll also be interesting to see how many people push the limits as the economy sags.

Here's what to be watching for, as China is "dressed to the nines" with anniversaries:

-90th - May 4 will the the 90th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement.
-60th - The People's Republic of China was founded on Oct. 1, 1949, when Mao Zedong took the stage victoriously in Tiananmen Square to declare that the civil war between his forces and the Guomin Dang armies was all but over.
-50th - Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule. The Dalai Lama has been exiled since this failed attempt to regain authority in the southwestern province. The Chinese government still views him with wariness and regularly takes him on in the media.
-30th - Reform and opening - In 1979, China opened its economy and normalized diplomatic relations with the U.S. The one-child policy was instituted this same year.
-20th - On June 4, 1989, Deng Xiaoping ordered China's army to attack pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Hundreds were killed, and the day lives on as one of the most infamous in modern Chinese history.

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