Opinion

Two big China stories you missed this year

The brief yet radical shift of patriotic fervor into criticism of the government after the Sichuan earthquake and the official revival of Confucius were crucial moments in a pivotal year.

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To say the least, 2008 has been a pivotal year for China. It was marked by tragedy (the Sichuan earthquake) and by triumph (the lavish Olympic opening ceremonies). Riots in Tibet, the milk scandal, and, most recently, the crackdown on democratic dissent, are just three of the many China stories that captured headlines across the globe.

Yet there are two major stories that received little notice. Each reveals important things about China. Each helps place its tragedies and triumphs into a richer context. And each presages the bigger pivots ahead in China's course.

1. Chinese nationalism becomes an oppositional force

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Chinese patriotic fervor, especially as manifested on the Net, got plenty of attention, mostly portrayed as something welcomed or even stirred up by the regime. This portrayal makes sense, up to a point.

Yes, officials liked seeing posts denouncing the French after a torchbearer was roughed up in Paris, and later, after French President Nicolas Sarkozy met the Dalai Lama. But these same authorities never forgot that patriotism has often proved notoriously difficult to control in China. Chinese elites know that the mix of patriotic outrage and frustration with official corruption, malfeasance, or selfishness has often driven people into the streets.

This didn't happen in 2008. But at one crucial moment in May, right after the earthquake, a familiar shift from outward-focused to inward-focused patriotic fervor occurred. This made Chinese officials nervous – for good reason.

The tone of the Chinese blogosphere suddenly changed, with posts criticizing foreigners for being unwilling to let the Olympic torch relay be a celebratory event disappearing. In their place came posts chiding the government for continuing to run upbeat stories about the torch.

How, some bloggers asked, could official news agencies be so self-absorbed and callous as to focus on the torch when the citizens of Sichuan were suffering? Rulers who truly care about the people, they insisted, should have a clearer sense of priorities during national crises.

This whiplash could have led to large-scale street actions that made headlines, but it didn't. That's partly because China's leaders, who keep a close eye on the Web as a barometer of popular sentiment, called on the media to take a more somber tone in torch stories – and then even suspended the relay for a time.

This didn't completely defuse discontent at a precarious moment. There were still small gatherings in Sichuan villages and towns, often linked to anger at shoddily constructed school buildings that collapsed while nearby structures remained standing. And it didn't put an end to all expressions of outrage on the Web, as some bloggers picked up on the school collapses, claiming in posts that corrupt deals struck between developers and local officials were to blame for the large number of children left dead or injured in earthquake zones. Still, the about-face on the relay limited the extent of these sorts of dissent.

The government realizes that few Chinese now have any faith left in the formal ideologies espoused by Chinese leaders Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and their successors. It also knows that the Communist Party is perceived as being riddled with out-of-touch officials who care only about lining their pockets.

One response to this long-term legitimacy crisis has been a new emphasis on social welfare and social harmony in propaganda, mixed in with a drumbeat of references to the Communist Party's role in returning China to a position of global importance.

When the tenor of blog posts shifted in May, the regime concluded quickly that business as usual regarding the torch was making its talk of striving to create a "harmonious society" (President Hu Jintao's mantra) ring even more hollow than usual – and the result could be dangerous. This was probably the right conclusion to draw.

2. An old Chinese philosopher gets the star treatment

The philosopher at the center of this second overlooked story is Confucius, who has been making an extraordinary comeback in a land where, within living memory, he was officially excoriated as a retrograde thinker.

As recently as the early 1970s, the Communist Party still held to the Marxist dictate that progress tended to comes as the result of struggle and conflict (whereas Confucius celebrated harmony), and Chairman Mao insisted that old modes of thought that venerated the past and prized social hierarchies (as Confucianism did) had to be uprooted once and for all for China to advance toward utopia.

In addition, Mao's longtime archrival, the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, had praised Confucius as China's greatest thinker – another point against the sage in the eyes of the Communist Party of the Cultural Revolution era, when mass rallies denouncing him were held.

The revival of Confucius has been going on for years. It has been linked at the popular level to a general loss of faith in Marxism and Maoism, which has led to an interest in reappraising many once-discredited belief systems. And recently, thanks to how nicely Confucian bromides fit in with talk of a "harmonious society," the sage has gotten official support. Old temples honoring him have been rebuilt, new statues of him have gone up, and "Confucius Institutes," devoted to spreading Chinese culture, have been set up in foreign countries.

It is hard to tell whether this official embrace of Confucius expresses a genuine renewed admiration for the sage within the leadership, or is merely a cynical use of his image and legacy. It may be a bit of both. Another factor behind the popular official revival alike may simply be national pride. Whatever strengths or weaknesses may be in the man's ideas, there is no question that he ranks as among the most famous philosophers in world history.

This revival reached new heights during the torch run, when the flame's arrival in Qufu, the sage's hometown, was celebrated lavishly. It was then taken to an even higher crescendo during the Opening Ceremony, when Confucius was quoted as Hu and other leaders looked on with approval. Then 3,000 actors took the stage at the Bird's Nest, dressed up to represent a massive contingent of the sage's disciplines.

The prominent Confucian sayings and symbols played in the opening ceremonies were treated in a surprisingly matter-of-fact way, as though Confucius had never ceased being a revered figure and positive symbol of China's long history.

For the historically minded, the effect was shocking. It was similar to what a sports fan might have experienced if a man who had won a gold medal as a sprinter at the Rome Olympics in 1960, then disappeared from the track scene, suddenly took the lead in the finals for the 100-meter dash in the 2008 Games – and the commentator simply said: "Gee, we always knew he was fast!"

Each of these under-the-radar stories played a role in making 2008 a Chinese "year of great significance" – to borrow a phrase my colleagues and I use in the title of a forthcoming anthology.

And each gives us a sense of things to watch for in 2009 and beyond, as the Communist Party continues to try to ride out still longer the legitimacy crisis it has faced ever since the faith in Maoism as a creed dissipated decades ago. In struggling to come up with novel ways to remake their image and stay in power as a ruling group, China's leaders will very probably continue to play the nationalism card and rev up still further the uses of Confucius.

We should be ready for these developments. We should also watch for moments when, as happened briefly last May, patriotic fervor morphs into antigovernment backlashes, and officially sponsored Confucian-sounding calls for pursuit of a "harmonious society" are attacked by the public as nothing more than window dressing for a ruling group most of whose member care above all simply about keeping hold of the reins of power.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese History at University of California, Irvine, is the author of the just-published "Global Shanghai, 1850-2010: A History in Fragments," and a co-editor of "China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance," forthcoming in March.

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