China's anniversary tempest

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom
25 February 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.

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)

Also by Jeffrey N Wasserstrom in openDemocracy

"One, two or many Chinas?" (15 February 2008)

"The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq" (27 March 2008)

"China's political colours: from monochrome to palette" (14 May 2008)

"Tiananmen's shifting legacy" (26 June 2008)

"China's long march to modernisation" (7 October 2008) 

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. st1\:* { BEHAVIOR: url(#ieooui) }

Among openDemocracy's recent articles on China:

Robert Barnett, "Tibet: questions of revolt" (4 April 2008)

Wenran Jiang, "Tibetan unrest, Chinese lens" (7 April 2008)

Wang Lixiong, "China and Tibet: the true path" (15 April 2008)

James A Millward, "China's story: putting the PR into the PRC" (18 April 2008) 

Susan Brownell, "The Olympics' ‘civilising' legacy: St Louis to Beijing" (23 May 2008)

Li Datong, "The Weng'an model: China's fix-it governance" (30 July 2008)

Li Datong, "Death in Shanghai, law in China" (15 September 2008)

Kerry Brown, "China's nervous transition" (22 September 2008)

Perry Link, "Charter 08: a blueprint for China" (5 January 2009)

Wei Jingsheng, "China's political tunnel" (22 January 2009)

Kerry Brown, "China's giant struggle" (5 February 2009)

Li Datong, "China's stalled transition" (19 February 2009) 

The May 4th Movement was a struggle provoked by anger both at imperialist encroachment from abroad (namely, Treaty of Versailles plans to cede Chinese territory formerly under German control to the Japanese) and authoritarian rule at home (evidenced by the arrest of student protesters). The upheaval's highpoints included a massive boycott of Japanese goods (by people from all walks of life in many cities) and a boycott of classes (by educated youths in Beijing and Shanghai, the two main educational centres of the time).

Boycotts also figured in two later campus-based actions with major anniversaries in 2009 - each of which was regarded by its participants as continuing the sacred patriotic tradition represented by the May 4th Movement. The Tiananmen protests of April-June 1989 were characterised not just by street gatherings but by students' refusal to attend classes, in a display of anger at government efforts to limit their freedom to speak out against corruption and misrule.

A decade later, on 8 May 1999 (7 May in Europe) the Nato bombs that hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the war over Kosovo triggered passionate student anti-United States and anti-Britain protests (known in China at the time as the "May 8th Tragedy" demonstrations). The Chinese government initially sanctioned these protests (albeit nervously, since officialdom feared that once mobilised, demonstrators might veer away from a purely nationalist script); in any event, the students again drew upon a May 4th boycott tradition, this time with a dizhi focused on foreign products such as Big Macs and Coca-Cola.

The contours of memory

In the perspective both of China's 20th-century history and its last year, the spreading language of boycott offers two hints about what is likely to occur in 2009.

The first is that modern Chinese history is full of moments when groups with very different agendas employ parallel tactics. In the late 1940s, for example, the Kuomintang and the Communist Party backed demonstrations against (respectively) Russian imperialism and American imperialism that looked virtually identical (see Student Protests in Twentieth-Century China, Stanford University Press, 1991). In 2008, there was the sense of an overlapping retaliatory tinge to the east-west boycott "dialogue" - the call for Chinese to stop shopping at the French Carrefour chain mixing with the French president's consideration of a boycott of the Olympics (or at least its opening ceremony). 2009 is shaping up to be another year when different groups employ the same basic approach even as their aims clash.

The second point is that the battle of the boycotts between the Chinese state and the dissident intellectuals and writers who signed Charter 08 can be considered the initial salvo in the kind of fight that has often occurred in years ending with a "9": a struggle for the right to don the mantle of patriotic concern with the nation embodied by the May 4th Movement. In 1989, government officials and student protesters each claimed, on 4 May itself, that they had the best right to speak in the name of the heroes of 1919 - heroes celebrated in Communist Party lore (in part because some of the organisation's first leaders had been active in that movement) and invoked by Tiananmen activists (as models for the sort of patriotic street-actions they were taking). In 1999, just before the anti-Nato protests broke out, a Chinese dissident group had issued a manifesto calling for moves toward democracy to extend the tradition of 1919.

The skirmish over Charter 08 suggests the possible contours for the coming round of contested commemorations. Who will declare a dizhi on who, who has the right to call others to boycott - these statements and struggles (in cyberspace as well as through traditional forms of media) will be pivotal in establishing ownership of and challenge to the ideals of 1919. The potent fiftieth anniversary of the Tibetan uprising of March 1959 has to be got through first - but what happens in May will reveal a lot about China's 2009.

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