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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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
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