Asia-Pacific, Global Governance, Globalisation, Headlines, Human Rights

POLITICS: China Swaggers On, Yet Future Looks Uncertain

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Oct 2 2009 (IPS) - Showing off China’s new wealth and national might on the anniversary of the birth of the People’s Republic, the country’s leaders attributed its rise as a rejuvenated world power to the 60 years of communist rule.

But behind the shock-and-awe military parade displaying their vaunted confidence hovered uncertainty and anxiety about the future.

Dressed in a traditional Mao-style suit, party chief and state leader Hu Jintao declared that communism had salvaged China. "The 60 years of new China have proved that only socialism can save China," he said Thursday before a crowd of 30,000 carefully selected guests and the watching nation.

"Today, a socialist China geared towards modernisation, the world and the future towers majestically in the East," Hu said. He went to exhort the nation towards "greater unity" to build a "rich, strong and democratic socialist country."

But lack of unity has particularly haunted Chinese leaders in recent months, having seen unrest flare up in the ethnic minority provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang, and the crowds of petitioners swell up in front of the petitioning offices in the capital.

Despite claims to being the only political power able to lead the country towards greatness, Chinese communist leaders had pulled out all stops to ensure that nothing challenged their show of supremacy. Overwhelming security controls had paralysed life in the capital in the weeks before the anniversary.

Seeing the black-clad SWAT forces (officially the Beijing Special Weapons and Tactics Unit) patrolling the maze of old alleys in the heart of the capital, ordinary people had dreaded and questioned the need for such presence.

"It feels as if we are to be attacked by someone," muttered a newspaper vendor near the Dashalan old bazaar street, as he looked furtively at the SWAT teams and the police walking in groups of three and four.

Dashalan is the place in the capital where a few days before the communist anniversary, three disgruntled men drew out knives and went on a rampage stabbing 12 people and killing two others. The gossip vine on the street claimed they were Muslim Uyghurs from remote Xinjiang, exacting revenge for the deaths of scores of Uyghurs during the recent riots in the oil-rich but restive Muslim province.

Yet salesgirls in one of the souvenir shops on Dashalan claimed the men were in fact angry unemployed workers from the industrial belt in China’s northeast. "They are angry because they have no jobs or money, but they see people in Beijing spending a lot and enjoying themselves," said a woman who identified herself as Xiao Tong.

Last year witnessed 100,000 outbursts of anger around the country, involving anything from five up to a thousand people on separate occasions. People rioted over land abuses, government injustices and out of frustration with the yawning gap between the so-called haves and have-nots. The 2008 deadly riots in Tibet followed by violent clashes this year in Xinjiang left Chinese communist leaders feeling nervous, uncertain if they will be able to control ethnic and social tensions in the future, analysts say.

"Our leaders are worried that separatist forces are all becoming proactive and linking forces together," said Gao Heng, research fellow at the Institute of World Economics and Politics of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The visit of Tibet’s exiled leader, the Dalai Lama, to Taiwan, and Xinjiang’s pro- independence campaigner Rebiya Kadeer’s planned trip to the island have given rise to some worrisome scenarios about communist China’s encirclement by "splittist elements," Gao said.

At the communist party’s annual meeting, which concluded in September, Chinese leaders vowed to "effectively prevent and resolutely crack down on ethnicity-related separatist activities". But an unusually frank document released after the meeting also admitted that the party’s standing as the leading political force of the country was severely endangered by ethnic tensions and rampant corruption, among others.

The plenum communiqué, according to the Xinhua News Agency, urged party members to "have a sense of urgency about the future, and to think of (possible) dangers in times of prosperity." It added: "We must be brave in reform, courageous in innovation; we will never become fossilised, and we will never be stagnant."

The party’s success in avoiding major economic turbulences during the global financial crisis has boosted some watchers’ belief that the "China model" of centralised political power and market economy is still the country’s best path towards achieving a democratic society.

"With a lot of political control and ability to ensure stability, the party is strong enough to consider some social demands," said Wang Zhengxu, research fellow at the China Policy Institute of Nottingham University.

He predicts growing economic prosperity will inevitably lead to gradual democratisation in China, in much the same way it did in other fast-growing East Asian economies like Taiwan and South Korea. Wang believes the party will experiment with nationwide elections beyond 2020.

"If the international society wants democracy to grow in China, it should ensure that China is safe," he said, warning that any attacks on or insults to China’s perceived national dignity would give rise to a dangerous nationalism and impede democratic reforms.

What remains in doubt, though, is the party’s own commitment to democratic change.

At the just concluded annual party meeting, it promised to expand "intra- party democracy" in order to enhance its governing abilities as the country’s ruling power. But in the same breath, Hu Jintao spoke of the party’s need to "sinisize and popularise Marxism".

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