Geremie R. Barmé: China's Year of Anniversaries





[Geremie R. Barmé is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow and Professor of Chinese History in The ANU College of Asia & the Pacific. He is also the editor of China Heritage Quarterly.]

The year 2009 was marked by a series of important anniversaries in the history of the People’s Republic of China. Some of these were commemorated with due pomp and circumstance in the official media and dissected at length during learned gatherings and discussions. Others, those events that I think of as ‘dark anniversaries’, passed by in an atmosphere of heightened alertness, surveillance and official anxiety. Dark anniversaries are the signposts of quelled protests, social unrest and state violence, events such as the 1959 rebellion in Lhasa, the shutting down of the Xidan Democracy Wall in Beijing in 1979, the tragedy of the 1989 protest movement and the religious repression of 1999. Such events offer alternative narratives to the official Party-state story of modern China; an understanding of them also contributes to our appreciation of the ways that the strong unitary state, and its anxieties, has evolved over the past decades. The ‘forgotten dates’ in the official Chinese calendar offer a penumbra of history; they stand in shaded contrast to vaunted moments the commemoration of which is carried out in the merciless glare of publicity and official largesse. Although formally ignored, or recalled only in verso, the dark anniversaries cast a gloomy shadow over the orchestrated son et lumière of state occasions.[1]

Only days after the 1 October 2009 celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing, the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, paid a state visit to North Korea. During his stay in Pyongyang, Wen visited the memorial to the fallen members of the Chinese ‘volunteer army’ that had fought alongside Soviet and Korean communist forces during what is known in China as the ‘War to Oppose American Aggression and Support Korea’. Among the war dead is Mao Anying, the favoured son of Mao Zedong, the founding leader of the People’s Republic. After laying a wreath at Anying’s tomb, Wen directly addressed a stone likeness of the dead soldier. He said: ‘Comrade Anying, I have come to see you on behalf of the people of the motherland. Our country is strong now and its people enjoy good fortune. You may rest in peace’...[2]

Although this statement passed by the media with little comment, among well-informed friends in Beijing Wen’s was seen as a remarkable utterance. Some argued that, in essence, it meant that a contemporary Chinese leader was declaring that the efforts to create a strong and prosperous nation—a Herculean enterprise that has inspired and haunted Chinese thinkers, politicians and people for over a century—have to all intents and purposes borne fruit. Taking things one step further it would seem that, in offering consolation to the long-dead son of modern China’s founder, Wen was also declaring that the mission of the ‘Chinese revolution’ had been achieved. If, friends remarked to me in private, the revolution is over and the aims of the Communist Party all but achieved, then what will the next grand mission of the Chinese nation be in the twenty-first century?...

As China continues on its path to become a major world influence, it is important that we remain heedful of the complex realities of China’s society and the varying demands of its citizens. As international criticisms of China’s failure to realize a social and political transformation concomitant with its economic achievement, the Chinese authorities have become increasingly anxious to present their monolith version of Chinese reality to the world as the only truly Chinese story worthy of our consideration. The Chinese Party-state, with the support of many citizens nurtured by a guided education and media industry, is now investing massively in presenting what it calls the ‘Chinese story’... to the rest of the world. However, in doing this, it constantly limits and censors the variety of stories and narratives that make up the rich skein of human possibility in China itself. To many it would appear self-evident that political force can or should claim to represent in its entirety or in perpetuity such human richness....

If China is to be a responsible member of the international community, and for its peoples to be a harmonious part of an equitable world order, the citizens of the People’s Republic not only need to be informed and to inform of their views, but be free to debate, disagree and reach social and political consensus in a way that is not determined behind closed doors, or predominantly by a secretive political system with complex corporate connections in which family connections, personal wealth and power form the only basis for true legitimacy.

In the 1940s a number of Chinese writers, reporters and thinkers were wary of the Communist Party’s promises to bring democracy and freedom to the country. In 1956, the noted publisher and writer Chu Anping; warned of the rise of what he dubbed a ‘Party Empire’. Like so many others who spoke out as part of a movement that the Party launched so it could ‘correct its mistakes’, Chu was soon purged for his outspokenness. Eventually, he disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1966. To this day the expression ‘Party Empire’ resonates powerfully among those who are fearful of the swagger and style of a regnant Communist Party that along with a newfound economic clout cleaves to its backward-looking autocratic habits. Some now discuss the baleful consequences that this kind of ‘Chinese story’ could have on a global scale.



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