Thus far, 2009 has been a year of problematic anniversaries in China, a political culture where notable events are known by their date. May 4th marked the 90th anniversary of student demonstrations that ushered in the Chinese enlightenment, an anniversary that evokes now-repressed Chinese liberalism. June 4th marked the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre.
But with Oct. 1, 2009, China marks a momentous anniversary — 60 years since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, 60 years since Mao Zedong stood on the Tiananmen Gate and proclaimed: “The people of China have stood up.”
Recent events give the Chinese people much to celebrate, including a successful Olympics and leading a global bounce out of a devastating recession. The improvement of relations with Taiwan deserves special recognition. As a participant in a National Committee on U.S.-China Relations delegation this summer I was able to travel by public ferry from Xiamen, on China’s south coast, about 1 mile to Jinmen island, previously known as Quemoy. Mao Zedong repeatedly bombed Quemoy during the 1950s and the United States threatened nuclear warfare in retaliation. Today Jinmen, still part of Taiwan, has a military garrison but its defense tunnels are open for sightseeing to Taiwanese and PRC citizens alike. Senior officials in both China and Taiwan refrained from politicized rhetoric. Rocky shoals may still lie ahead, but for the first time in 60 years, the Taiwan crisis has abated.
Looking back 20 years, China has come a long way. Snubbed by most Western countries after Tiananmen, few outsiders thought the Chinese Communist Party could survive. Instead China embarked on an aggressive round of diplomacy that secured natural resources and political influence in Latin America and Africa. It has also improved its overall image in Asia and played an important role in negotiations with North Korea. Domestically, the Communist Party embraced internal reforms that led to term limits on political leaders, a regulated succession process and an increasing appeal to China’s younger generation.
Growing at about 10 percent a year, the economy has boomed, transforming some of China’s cities into the most modern in the world while also lifting 300 million people from poverty. For the first time, agricultural taxes have been abolished. Anyone who thinks China is still intellectually “closed” should talk to Chinese students who have mastered the art of Internet access — despite official efforts to close it down.
Nonetheless, clouds are banked on the horizon, beginning with the corruption that plagues the Communist Party, especially at the local level. Deng Xiaoping’s admonition in 1992 “to get rich is glorious” now sounds like a curse. One has to ask: Is this what capitalism has wrought? When will traditional Chinese culture, which elevated knowledge and public service over money, assert its influence?
One of the grayest clouds is the continuing tension between China’s majority ethnic group, the Han, and minorities in Tibet, Xinjiang and elsewhere. It will take more than feel-good language and pictures to resolve the festering long-term problems of the relationship between Tibet and Sinkiang to China proper: recent riots and brutal repression bespeak a deep and long-term racial and ethnic divide.
Other concerns include China’s increasing restrictions on civil activists and its NGO community while also failing to implement existing legal and environmental laws and regulations.
This points to the last cloud, a big gray question mark. It is not the 20th-century question: When will China become a democracy? It is a 21st-century question: Can an authoritarian system with a market economy and considerable personal freedom become an enduring political model?
Mary Brown Bullock, president emeritus of Agnes Scott College, is a visiting professor of China studies at Emory University.