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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Glittering world debut marred by controversy

December 30, 2009

The Irish Times
Mon, Dec 29, 2008
 
CHINA: China is changing, but we should not expect too much too quickly, writes Clifford Coonanin Beijing
 
 
EIGHT IS a lucky number in China, and 2008 was supposed to be a most auspicious year for the world's most populous nation. Ultimately, it was a year of mixed fortunes, 12 months after which the world will never view China in the same way again.
 
This was a year in which China made a dazzling international debut with the Beijing Olympics, shared the unbearable sorrow of the Sichuan earthquake, sparked controversy for its crackdown after riots in Tibet and earned the West's uneasy gratitude for its efforts to brake economic meltdown.
 
The year saw a marked openness in the way China dealt with the world, although the doors remained sealed on issues the authorities felt could unleash social disorder and threaten single-party rule by the communists.
 
It was another year in which the message was that China is changing, but we should not expect too much too quickly.
 
It began with a snowstorm, with premier Wen Jiabao exhorting crowds stranded in Guangzhou train station like an old-style communist leader, a paternalistic role he would reprise in May when an earthquake ripped Sichuan province apart.
 
In March, Buddhist monks took to the streets of Lhasa to demonstrate against Chinese rule and were soon followed by disgruntled Tibetans all over the region who expressed their dissatisfaction with Beijing rule by attacking Han Chinese settlers and burning their shops. Beijing's response was swift and tough.
 
In Gansu province I watched shaven-headed, angry young monks in sandals chanting the name of their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, take on heavily armed People's Armed Police near the Labrang monastery. The outcome was obvious before the first tear-gas canister was fired. International anger at the treatment of the Tibetans focused on the Olympic torch relay around the world, with protesters stopping the flame in London, Paris and other cities.
 
China felt hard done by as international coverage seemed to back the Tibetans, and there was wide public support in China for an anti-foreign media campaign centred on CNN after a commentator criticised the communists.
 
There was more evidence of the repressive side of China's nature when the country's most renowned human rights defender, Hu Jia, who has spoken out on Aids, Tibetan autonomy and free speech, was jailed for "inciting to subvert state power".
 
Criticism of foreign media, and leaders viewed unsympathetic to China such as France's mercurial president Nicolas Sarkozy, continued until 2.28pm on May 12th, when an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale tore through Sichuan, and killed 80,000 people, a quarter of them schoolchildren. Suddenly there were other issues to deal with, and the event prompted a new openness to the foreign media as global sympathy for China wore down traditional opposition in the country to international coverage of domestic issues.
 
Witnessing a disaster of such scale is a shock to the system, and memory suppresses many images for self-preservation reasons.
 
The sight of dozens of grey, mud-encased bodies of teenagers being pulled from the remains of Juyuan High School, the discovery of each xiaopengyou (little friend) prompting a chorus of keening and firecrackers to stave off the demons, will stay with me forever, particularly when I saw how surrounding buildings remained intact.
 
So will the troubling picture of an exasperated man sitting on his motorbike with his wife's body tied to his back, talking soothingly into his mobile phone, saying, no, she wouldn't be coming home. And scrambling down a hillside into Beichuan to see a city that nature had picked up and casually dropped into the river was a humbling experience.
 
Afterwards, many of the parents I interviewed from Juyuan felt that corruption was responsible for the poor construction of their school and wanted justice for their dead, only-children. The police were more than robust in they way they kept me away, but they were much tougher in their treatment of these people who had lost their children, jailing some fathers as they tried to present petitions to the local authorities.
 
The disaster of the Sichuan tremor made for a muted lead in to the Olympic Games. At some point, authorities in China called a halt to the outpouring of grief over the quake. News of previous disasters, like the Tangshan earthquake in 1976, had been muzzled and the frank dealings with the Sichuan earthquake was a potent sign that 30 years of opening up and reform was translating into a more open society.
 
Over the summer, the Olympic signs were painted on the immaculate dual carriageways leading from the airport. The vast infrastructural development programme came to a head with the construction of a new Beijing atop the old city. Stadiums like the Bird's Nest Olympic stadium opened one by one, and the world ooh-ed and aah-ed at the emergent China.
 
It was a great party, the Olympics. The opening ceremony was spectacular, the sporting events were great, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and US swimmer Michael Phelps were sensational, and the sporting event lived up to expectations. The Paralympics were given equal billing and did much to break down prejudices against the disabled in China.
 
Outside the stadiums were the human rights protests, which brought attention to the issues without ultimately having that much impact on the overall Olympics. The Beijing authorities set aside protest areas, then somewhat cynically arrested those who applied to use them, including threatening two pensioners with a labour camp.
 
Tibetan activists staged successful displays calling for more independence. But a crackdown on anti-government elements, including those complaining about their houses being knocked down to make way for Olympic construction, kept a lid on dissent.
 
The Olympic Games were a classic illustration of the complexity of the China story, how a growing openness on the one hand is accompanied by steely repression on the other.
 
The stories kept coming. Soon after the Olympics, reports emerged that thousands of children had been poisoned by melamine-tainted infant formula, again bringing the focus back to product safety in China. News of poor quality Irish pork in some way prompted official relief in Beijing that poor food standards are not a purely Chinese phenomenon.
 
By the end of the year, the focus had switched to the global economic slowdown, which rendered most political debate meaningless. China has trillions of dollars in foreign currency reserves and its people have been great savers, so the West looked to China to help bail it out. China responded with the biggest fiscal stimulus programme the world has ever seen - four trillion yuan (€419 billion) worth of infrastructure investment that could ultimately stop the rest of the world sliding even deeper into the mire.
 
In 2009, China will celebrate 60 years since the revolution that brought the Communist Party to power, as well as 20 years since the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy activists on Tiananmen Square. Its increased economic might should render some of these anniversaries more important than others.
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