China’s Leaders See a Calendar Full of Trouble
BEIJING — Officially, Tuesday is an ordinary day here. Ordinary or not, however, the police will be on high alert, and some villages across Tibetan areas of western China will be under virtual military lockdown. For it was 50 years ago on Tuesday that 300,000 Tibetans surrounded the Dalai Lama’s palace in Lhasa, the start of a failed uprising against Chinese rule that resonates to this day.
The Chinese place enormous emphasis on anniversaries and dates, one more reason that 2009 is shaping up as a very stressful year for the nation’s rulers. Besides navigating an economic crisis that has rendered millions jobless, the government must steer the country through a sheaf of symbolic dates, some auspicious, some portentous, all — the leaders seem to think, anyway — potential triggers for public unrest.
The Dalai Lama on Tuesday seized on the anniversary, accusing China, in transcripts of a speech, of a “brutal crackdown” and warning that Tibetan culture and identity are “nearing extinction.”
While many political analysts here may call the leadership’s concerns about unrest overblown, history suggests that, perhaps, the leaders could have a point.
This year commemorates not only the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan revolt. June brings the 20th anniversary of the crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, protests that remain the most visible challenge to Communist rule. April is the 10th anniversary of major protests by the Falun Gong religious sect, which led to thousands of arrests and, in July of that year, a government ban on the group.
May heralds the 90th anniversary of the May 4 movement, a 1919 student-led protest against imperial rule that is both a touchstone of Chinese nationalism and historic proof that people can challenge their rulers.
Finally, Oct. 1 is the 60th anniversary of the creation of the People’s Republic of China. The government plans a major celebration and will be on the lookout for anyone who seeks to spoil it.
The government is often alert for spoilers, of course, as it was for months during the security clampdown surrounding the Beijing Olympics last summer. But this year’s concerns seem especially stark. In January, an authoritative state magazine, Outlook, issued an unusually blunt warning of the likelihood of unrest, saying that “we are entering a peak period for mass incidents.”
On Monday, state media confirmed that security forces had increased patrols in central Tibet. It was the first official acknowledgment that police and paramilitary forces had flooded areas where ethnic Tibetans live, creating an unofficial state of martial law. Foreigners have been barred from many areas. The ruling Communist Party has established a top-level committee to ensure social stability. One high-level official in the state media says the committee now has branches at every level of government and is rumored to be led by Xi Jinping, China’s vice president and the heir-apparent to President Hu Jintao.
News reports say the committee’s nickname is 6521 — a reference to the threats to public order supposedly posed by this year’s 60th, 50th, 20th and 10th anniversaries of major events.
To outsiders, this fixation on dates may seem odd, but it has both cultural and political explanations. Numerology and the calendar have ancient and honored roles in China, Elizabeth Perry, a China scholar and professor of government at Harvard, said in an e-mail interview. Even today, while Americans identify most major events by their locations (the Boston tea party, the Alamo, Gettysburg, Oklahoma City), the Chinese tend to rely on dates.
The May 4 movement, which mixed anti-imperialism with a call for democracy and human rights, is best known to most Chinese as 5/4. The 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown are universally rendered as the shorthand 6/4.
Ideology also weighs heavily on the penchant for anniversaries, for the Chinese brand of government propaganda is copied from the Soviet Union’s handbook, which whipped even insignificant holidays into excuses to glorify state power.
While the government more or less ignores the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising, its rubber-stamp Tibetan Parliament this year declared March 28 to be Serfs Emancipation Day, a celebration of Tibet’s liberation from the Dalai Lama’s control.
In that and other respects, Professor Perry wrote, the government’s elevation of anniversaries into politically freighted events runs the risk of backfiring. The bigger the celebration, or the more galling to dissidents, the greater the likelihood of a reaction.
She said: “I would not discount the degree to which such anniversaries (like portents of a change in the mandate of heavens, such as earthquakes, floods and large-scale riots or rebellion) are also regarded quite seriously by the citizenry at large. There is ample precedent in the republican as well as communist periods for Chinese protesters to turn the commemoration of political anniversaries into demands for political change.”
The most recent precedent is Tibet itself, where tensions last year over the 49th anniversary of the 1959 uprising boiled over into violence. But there are many others; the May 4 movement, which was led by student boycotts in Shanghai and Beijing, has been the inspiration for a number of other student protests in modern China, including the pro-democracy protests of 1989.
This year’s security precautions are so extensive that some analysts discount the chance of any widespread unrest. And the lot of some Chinese has improved so markedly in the last 20 years, especially in cities, that the forces that feed protest may be more subdued now, Yuan Weishi, a professor of philosophy at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, said in a telephone interview.
After 30 years of Chinese modernization, with its “traumatic, drastic change every day,” he said, average Chinese “don’t want to destroy the social stability they are enjoying now.”
But like some other analysts, he would never say “never.” “People like to take the opportunity of anniversaries to have their voices heard by the government, to promote reforms in the direction that people want,” he said. “It’s possible a small number of people might want to take radical actions this year. I think that’s why the government is paying attention to this.”