Jeffrey Wasserstrom: China's anniversary tempest

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jeffrey N Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California - Irvine, the editor of the Journal of Asian Studies, and a regular contributor to The China Beat: Blogging How the East Is Read. His books include Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 (Routledge, 2008), and (co-edited with Kate Merkel-Hess & Kenneth L Pomeranz) China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009).]

What happens in the People's Republic of China (PRC) often seems on the surface to confirm just what students of the country have been expecting - yet with a twist thrown in that catches them off-guard. It looks as if 2009 will require getting used to this sense of predictability tinged with surprise.

A case in point is the proliferation of major anniversaries this year - among them the Tibetan uprising (1959) in March, the May 4th Movement (1919), the climax of the Tiananmen protests (1989) in June, and the founding of the republic (1949) in October. What is notable here is the way that the anticipated timing of one or two of these commemorative moments has already been subverted (see "The Year China Jumped the Gun", Nation, 12 January 2009). An aspect of this is the early and unusual appearance of the words "China" and "boycott" (the standard Chinese term is dizhi) in many news stories.

Here's just one example relating to an upcoming anniversary (chosen because it has become entangled with boycott talk). It always seemed likely that a bold new document of dissent would emerge in 2009 as the twentieth anniversary of the Beijing massacre of 4 June 1989 neared - but "Charter 08" (just the sort of text most people were anticipating) came out, as its name indicates, in December 2008 (see Perry Link, "Charter 08: a blueprint for China", 5 January 2009).

Charter 08 has become more than a document; it is also an online petition with the aim of pressuring the government to reopen debates on comprehensive political reform (as opposed to the incremental kind discussed since 1989). The disputes it has engendered are evident across a wide range of media and forms of action - and, significantly, are often expressed in the language of boycott (see, for example, Shirong Chen, "China TV faces propaganda charge" [BBC News, 12 January 2009], and "Peking University Law School Requires Student to Boycott ‘Charter 08'" [China Digital Times, 25 January 2009]).

Why significant? It is in part, again, timing (spring has often been a more popular season for China-related boycotts than winter); but in part too because of the way that both long-term patterns and short-term factors combine to make the language of boycott itself a shaping force in current arguments over China's political direction.

The trigger of history

The short-term factors are clear. There was a lot of dizhi argument around China in 2008 - on all sides. The demand for boycotting something was made at various times to foreign leaders (to refuse to attend the Beijing Olympics, in displeasure over Darfur, Tibet, or other issues) and to their citizens (to refuse to buy goods made in China, on account of safety concerns). It was also made of PRC citizens in regard to the purchase of French goods (in protest against the rough treatment of a disabled Chinese athlete in Paris when she was carrying the Olympic torch, and against Nicolas Sarkozy's feting of the Dalai Lama) and to watching CNN, for disparaging comments one broadcaster made about Beijing's leaders, among other reasons). The Olympics may have passed, but the discourse of boycott was widespread enough to make some form of continuation in 2009 inevitable.

The long-term historical patterns are intriguing, in that boycotts played a key role in a number of the many Chinese anniversaries to be marked in 2009. This is especially true of the hallowed May 4th Movement in 1919: the commemoration of an event that looms at least as large in the Chinese patriotic imagination as the Boston Tea Party does in the American one - and shares with its Massachusetts counterpart the centrality of a boycott.

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