The security forces will be on full alert
He has amassed extraordinary power, but Xi Jinping is worried about 2019, says James Miles
THIRTY YEARS ago, as 1989 approached, political storm-clouds were gathering over China. Bitter divisions had emerged within the leadership over how far and how fast to pursue economic reform. Inspired by the Soviet Union’s liberalising leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, some people in China were daring to suggest that their own country should loosen up, too. The calendar for the coming year included big anniversaries of political events in China’s modern history. Many intellectuals were awaiting those dates with excitement, hoping the occasions would provide them with a pretext to air their grievances about the party’s record in power.
The run-up to 2019 is far less febrile. But once again, anniversaries loom. The Communist Party is nervous.
This may seem odd. Since 1989 China has grown enormously in wealth and influence. The party is firmly in charge. Yet the security forces will be on full alert. Censors will work round the clock to scrub any unapproved references to the anniversaries. That will not be easy: the list of anniversaries that fall in years ending with 9, and that have sensitive connotations for the party, has grown. At its top is the date of the bloody suppression of the pro-democracy protests in 1989 that were the culmination of that heady mood three decades ago.
As in 1989, it will not be easy for the censors to ensure political conformity. That is because some of the anniversaries are ones that the party itself likes to commemorate, so it cannot simply ban all mentions of them. Take May Fourth. That day in 2019 will mark 100 years since the student movement that led to the party’s founding in 1921—much, then, for the party to celebrate. But in 1989 the 70th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement was a huge inspiration to the protesters in Tiananmen Square. They described themselves, not the party, as the true inheritors of the patriotic and pro-reform spirit of the students in 1919. There is little sign of campus unrest today. But China’s leaders know that moods can be fickle. In 1988 Chinese dissidents lamented that students seemed more interested in playing mah-jong than in politics. How wrong they were.
The 70th anniversary on October 1st of the founding of the People’s Republic will be another occasion that the party and the public could interpret in different ways. Early in 1989 Fang Lizhi, a prominent Chinese dissident (who died in exile in 2012), wrote that the anniversaries that year on May 4th and October 1st would be “eloquent symbols of China’s hope and despair” that would show how the “naive sincerity” of Chinese people at the start of Communist rule in 1949 had been “betrayed”. Few Chinese would put it so starkly now. Many express pride in their country’s growing international clout. But in regions populated by ethnic minorities, October 1st will be less of an occasion for cheer.
Security will be intense across Tibet and Xinjiang to prevent those who chafe at Chinese rule from expressing their discontent. In March it will be 30 years since the imposition of martial law in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, after riots triggered by the anniversary of the uprising in 1959 that prompted the Dalai Lama to flee to India. Expect the 60th anniversary in 2019 of the Tibetan leader’s exile to be tense.
As usual, censors will erase almost any mention of the Tiananmen Square protests, the 30th anniversary of the crushing of which falls on June 4th. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has shown no interest in reviving any memories of that regime-threatening episode. For all his swagger on the world stage, Mr Xi acts at home as if the party is still in danger. He has presided over a sweeping clampdown on civil society with the arrests of many lawyers, NGO workers and rights activists. “Colour revolutions” that have toppled other authoritarian regimes appear to haunt him. He has shown no inclination to ease the brutal campaign, launched in July 1999, to eradicate Falun Gong, a quasi-Buddhist sect that once had millions of followers. Attempts to mark this date by the faith’s diehard adherents in China (and supporters abroad) will add to Mr Xi’s anniversary woes.
Especially in a year so resounding with historical echoes, Mr Xi will do nothing in 2019 to relax his vice-like controls. Instead, as a trade war rages with America, he will redouble his efforts to prevent unrest at home. He well knows that dissidents in China have long used patriotism as a cloak for attacking the establishment, as protesters did in both 1919 and 1989. So the party will be on guard lest public anger with America turn against Mr Xi and the party itself.
James Miles: China editor, The Economist