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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Sounds of Summer: China's big year

December 28, 2008

Reporter: Stephen McDonell
ABC Online - Australia
Saturday, 27 December, 2008 
 
 
ELIZABETH JACKSON: Hello, I'm Elizabeth Jackson. As part of the ABC's summer season, we now present a current affairs special.
 
It's been a big year for China. The 2008 Beijing Olympics has been and gone; China was criticised for its heavy handed response to an uprising in Tibet; there was the food poisoning scandal which resulted in the deaths of several babies; and of course, the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province.
 
Our China correspondent, Stephen McDonell, ponders whether 2008 was China's annus horribilis.
 
STEPHEN MCDONELL: When autumn leaves poured into the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium from its curved roof it was a beautiful and moving finish to the Paralympics - the final act in China's Olympic coming out party.
 
China's leaders want their country to be thought of as a modern, progressive nation with plenty yet to achieve but to be applauded for how far it's come.
 
And the Olympic Games might've encouraged that view for many more people if it were not for the major uprising in Tibet in March 2008 and the heavy handed and ultra secretive response from the Chinese authorities.
 
The months that followed delivered a massive surge in anti-Western, Chinese nationalism - the likes of which has not been seen for years. It was fuelled in Internet chat rooms and urged on by some in the Chinese Government.
 
In a way it was like the Cultural Revolution; students in their 20s shouting down anyone with a bad word to say about China.
 
Actually it was quite amazing to see; young people screaming about air time on foreign networks they don't watch or the cropping of photos in newspapers they don't read, as if this mighty military power was the victim of an international conspiracy.
 
At the same time the Chinese authorities had locked down an area of roughly one-third of China's land mass and made it impossible for journalists or international observers to monitor the extent of the killing and violence on all sides.
 
But 2008 had not finished dishing up upheaval and pain for China and it would also produce remarkable moments of human kindness and celebration.
 
The Olympic torch relay was met by conflict as it traveled around the world. A massive earthquake killed an estimated 80,000 people in Sichuan. The Olympic Games were nothing short of spectacular. There were food poisoning scandals. And to top off the year, the once unstoppable Chinese economy is now heading into trouble.
 
The University of Technology's Professor David Kelly lives and works in Beijing.
 
DAVID KELLY: I call it China's annus horribilis. The horrible year. At the beginning of the year everybody inside and outside of China was basically in agreement that the economy was going to roar ahead. It was going to be a difference of a few decimal points. The Government was trying to rein it in and everyone doubted that they could do so.
 
It now looks as if it's reining itself in and the Government wishes it would stop doing so. So economically China is having a very tough time.
 
The Yangtze Delta is in crisis. The province of Zhejiang has got large numbers of businesses collapsing and this extends down into Guangdong province. This is the export economy in crisis.
 
STEPHEN MCDONELL: What about the way that China is viewed internationally? And especially for the leadership, how do you think that China's image has come through 2008?
 
DAVID KELLY: National image is always multifaceted and there are parts of the world where China is still looked to not so much as a model but as a powerful, a great and powerful friend, which is what we Australians refer to the Americans as. In Africa, China is the great and powerful friend to a lot of regimes. And this is still a plus for China.
 
But as you say, particularly the torch relay was a foreign relations debacle, major debacle. And the Government went into a reactive mode and started to behave without regard to the external perceptions. And this has carried on.
 
The behaviour now in regard to Tibet and Taiwan, I don't think they step up as the charm offensive or soft power which was very much the flavour of most discussions at the beginning of 2008. Who now is talking about China's soft power and China's charm offensive?
 
JOSEPH CHANG: The rioters have possibly aroused a very important faction which might not have been perceived.
 
Professor Joseph Cheng teaches politics at Hong Kong's City University.
 
JOSEPH CHENG: Namely that in the eyes of the Chinese leaders, in the eyes of the ordinary Chinese people, they have not expected such grievances on the part of the national minorities, including those in Tibet, including those in Xinjiang.
 
Because there was the general understanding that while the central government has been spending substantial money on various infrastructural projects in the western parts of China, and in fact the western parts of China have been enjoying above average national growth rates in the past nine, 10 years or so.
 
And in the case of Tibet, the central government provided very huge subsidies on per capita terms to the Tibetans. The Tibetans in the urban areas, for example, enjoyed free medical care which was not available to ordinary people in other parts of China.
 
And so there was a certain surprise on the part of both the leaders and the people and of course this made them much aware that despite the Government's statistics on paper, nonetheless these ethnic groups still feel unhappy.
 
They do not believe on one hand that they have been able to fully benefit from the fruits of economic growth and at the same time they still feel that the traditional culture and religion are being threatened by the development process, especially by the arrival of large numbers of tourists.
 
STEPHEN MCDONELL: I asked Professor Cheng if he thought that anything might happen in the near future to ease the tension in Tibet.
 
JOSEPH CHENG: I believe the Chinese authorities will make certain responses but because the party still wants to remain in full control, the party still doesn't want to allow a genuinely higher degree of autonomy for the ethnic groups. So, I do not believe that the problem will be resolved fully.
 
DAVID KELLY: It's fair to say that it's not too different from the way the English handled the Scottish uprisings of the 18th century. And we can't see it in this case, the veil is drawn over much of what goes on but there's very little the Chinese Government would offer as a pretty picture of Tibet today.
 
STEPHEN MCDONELL: Do you think that the handling of it has really tarnished the image of China?
 
DAVID KELLY: Only if you had an extremely Pollyanna view of China to start with. China is an emerging country in an emerging economy and measured against that scale, it's probably not too bad. There are a lot more disastrous parts of the world, particularly in the Horn of Africa, sub-Sahara Africa. China stacks up okay.
 
This is an orderly country. This is a country which delivers a good deal of public goods to its citizens. But if you are one of the minority people, one of the five per cent who are not Han, it doesn't look so good. The same thing can be said of course about America, about Australia. These are countries which contain third world segments. But overall there's an enormous amount of social discontent in China which is widely distributed.
 
And I think the deeper issue is the fragility of this system, the uncertainties generated by China's attempts to create order. In China order is bought at a very high price and that's what makes it different from the US or from Australia.
 
STEPHEN MCDONELL: We travelled to Tibet in June to prepare a series of reports at the time the Olympic torch travelled there; and we saw a heavy military presence on the streets.
 
The ABC was invited to go to Lhasa with a small group of journalists on an organised trip and there was still plenty of evidence of the violent clashes three months earlier - burned out shop fronts, trucks full of riot police driving around and locals who seemed pretty nervous if you spoke to them.
 
We visited the Sera Monastery where the uprising started in March and a monk was wheeled out to tell us about the benefits of the re-education they were receiving at the time.
 
MONK (translated): The contents of the legal knowledge education is to help the monks to have a better understanding of the state law and the Constitution so that after we learned those legal knowledge so in the future we will not violate laws.
 
STEPHEN MCDONELL: To "not violate laws" is a very general concept. The monk seemed to want to go on to explain himself, but -
 
STEPHEN MCDONELL (to monk): Could we just have one more question?
 
OFFICIAL: No, no, no, no.
 
STEPHEN MCDONELL: The Chinese Government had slammed international protesters for politicising the Olympic Torch relay. But when the torch arrived in Lhasa what we saw was nothing short of a full scale political rally.
 
The torch was held high as a local leader announced, "We're going to use this torch to smash the Dalai Lama clique."
 
It then wound its way through mostly empty streets. Everyone except a handpicked crowd was told to stay indoors.
 
When the torch arrived in from the Potala Palace, the head of the Tibetan Communist Party, Zhang Qingli, held it up and said, "Tibet's sky will never change and the red flag with five stars will forever flutter high above it".
 
I asked Professor David Kelly why the party leaders in Beijing didn't reign in Zhang Qingli a bit, at least give the appearance that the torch relay was above politics.
 
DAVID KELLY: Well, this is a perfect case of what I said before about the fragility of the Government, or we could call it the regime. When things are sailing along pleasantly, when all is going well, the smiling face can be easily brought into play. And there are people who are of good will. There are people who take a kind of post-Cold War view of the world.
 
But, when there's a challenge, when things don't pan out as expected, the heavy boys come back in and they don't know the rules of the post-Cold War- ra. They go back to the old rules. So we've seen a lot of the old rules back in place and that was a perfect example.
 
In the Cultural Revolution this kind of language was heard every day. There was nothing good to be said about opponent. They are demonised and so we're still seeing right now demonising of political opponents who could, as far as the rest of us can see, could have been brought into the tent, could be spoken to in post-Cold War terms.
 
But the situation has obviously gone backwards and they've gone back to the tried and trusted propaganda state methods.
 
STEPHEN MCDONELL: Just when it looked like the Olympics could be spoiled altogether because of international ill will towards China, a major disaster struck the country. Eighty-thousand people were killed in Sichuan by a powerful earthquake.
 
Terrible though it sounds, China's standing in the world would change because of this, according to Professor Cheng.
 
JOSEPH CHENG: The tragedy, the natural tragedy had some bright sides, both externally and internally. Externally, of course, it much revealed the impact of the international boycott, the international resentment against the holding of the Olympics. There was of course much more sympathy towards China because of the natural tragedy.
 
Then secondly this was an occasion for the Chinese people, very ordinary people, to come together and to show their sense of solidarity, their sense of sympathy towards the quake victims. Certainly from the good side you can see that ordinary Chinese people probably have become more individualistic, more selfish, more concentrated on their individual economic well-being. But that was certainly an occasion when the higher values of human nature were fully mobilised.
 
STEPHEN MCDONELL: I asked Professor Cheng what Chinese people would have thought of the performance of their Government in its handling of the earthquake crisis.
 
JOSEPH CHENG: The Government performed relatively well in the sense that the central leadership, especially Premier Wen Jiabao reacted rather promptly to the natural disaster. But of course the event also showed that there were a lot of buildings which had not been properly built. So, it again exposed the issue of corruption.
 
(Sound of cheering crowds at Olympic Opening Ceremony)
 
STEPHEN MCDONELL: Then 8pm on the 8th of the 8th 2008 came along and finally the world saw one of the most memorable Olympics in the history of the event.
 
Beyond sport, there were significant benefits from holding the Games in China, especially in Beijing.
 
Transport infrastructure was completely overhauled in the Chinese capital. Four new subway lines were built. If you ride the subway through the north-eastern suburbs of Beijing you'll reach what's said to be the biggest building in the world - the new capital airport designed by renowned British architect Norman Foster.
 
Every taxi was replaced in Beijing and a new fleet of buses rolled out. Beijing's city officials found ways to make the air cleaner by reducing traffic and factory pollution. It was only for a limited time; but there are now new pressures to try and keep it that way for longer.
 
The Games themselves gave people a great sense of pride here. China not only topped the medal tally but delivered a spectacular series of opening and closing ceremonies at the Olympics and Paralympics.
 
It seemed, during these beautiful moments, that you could forget the terrible conflicts and natural disasters that had characterised the early part of the year.
 
But to some observers there is a lingering challenge which 2008 has left China and its relationship with the world. Which is yet to be fully resolved.
 
DAVID KELLY: The popular sentiment stirred up by the Tibetan crisis, which was at the core of the crisis of the torch relay, that set in motion a massive nationalist upsurge among the youth, the so-called angry youth, the Fenqing.
 
This is a mass phenomenon. This was out of the state's control. It had to be hosed down. Fortunately the Olympics and the, above all, the earthquake brought that under control. That's another very fortunate dividend of those events.
 
STEPHEN MCDONELL: That increase in nationalism, especially on the Internet with this sort of hate directed to certain people, even certain CNN journalists and what have you, you don't think that was kind of encouraged by the Government?
 
DAVID KELLY: It was encouraged by some of the Government. I don't have a monolithic view of the Chinese Government.
 
STEPHEN MCDONELL: Do you think that this nationalism, especially amongst young people, is still lingering now?
 
DAVID KELLY: This kind of nationalism has taken a serious knock from the Obama election. For those angry youth, they have to ask themselves: If the Americans can elect a minority person to their top leadership, what are we doing? Where is the Tibetan person in the politburo? This is big time politics and we have yet to see this thing work itself through.
 
The people who were down on the Tibetans, the angry youth, they were saying: well don't you lecture us America, look what you do; let's have a look at what you do to your minorities. Why shouldn't we?
 
This was a background that wasn't fully expressed in those words but you could tease that out. Where is that today? That has no audience.
 
STEPHEN MCDONELL: Long time China watcher, Professor David Kelly.
 
In 2008 China also had a winter snow storm disaster, a major passenger train collision and an infant milk formula scandal after the harmful chemical Melamine was added to dairy products to artificially boost protein levels and ensure higher profits.
 
But if that wasn't enough, the year has ended in a period of serious economic uncertainty as China joins the rest of the world to be caught up in an international financial crisis.
 
Professor Joseph Cheng:
 
JOSEPH CHENG: Both the leaders and the people are in a reflective mood. They have been enjoying remarkable economic wealth for three decades. Now, it is the time to have a pause and some people may wonder if this dramatic economic growth can continue.
 
Then of course people also would like to reflect on the value or the spinoffs of the development process and the value of the quality of life, and so on. On the part of the authorities they certainly have to reflect on what kind of social security system they have to introduce, so as to reduce the gap between the rich and poor.
 
To maintain social stability they also have to learn how to intervene in the market to maintain social stability and yet without destroying the momentum of marketisation.
 
So I think this a period of serious reflection on the part of all over China.
 
STEPHEN MCDONELL: It's hard to imagine that 2009 could be as momentous a year for China as the one which preceded it. But at the risk of sounding clichéd, you do never know what's going to happen here.
 
2009 will be the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic; it'll be the 50th anniversary of the failed uprising in Tibet which saw the Dalai Lama flee; and the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and subsequent crackdown.
 
The economy is sailing into unknown territory and rural unrest will no doubt continue despite recent land reforms.
 
But, most Chinese people you speak to seem remarkably optimistic about their country. They may have a joke about its shortcomings but they genuinely believe that tomorrow will be better than yesterday. It's an optimism that does rub off on you.
 
This is Stephen McDonell in Beijing.
 
ELIZABETH JACKSON: That report from our China correspondent and you've been listening to a current affairs special.
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