For China, 2009 brings glorious — and painful — anniversaries

BEIJING — Celebrations for the 60th anniversary of modern China's founding are still nearly 10 months off, but newspapers are already full of stories about the grand military parade in Tiananmen Square that will show off the country's muscle.

The parade Oct. 1 will be the first such display this decade, and it's likely to showcase some of China's newest weaponry.

The pageantry to mark six decades of Communist Party rule is only one of the key dates coming up this year, however, some of them marking particularly painful episodes in China's past — and they have leaders a tad nervous.

In a nation where numbers play a prominent role in culture, and anniversaries often are noticed dutifully, the year 2009 marks an unusual confluence of such anniversaries, most of which are likely to be swept under the collective rug or suppressed through force.

June 4 will mark the 20th anniversary of the massacre of pro-democracy protesters in and around the capital's huge Tiananmen Square, a historic smudge on China's leadership for which it's yet to be held to account. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the famine that left tens of millions of people dead during Mao Zedong's ill-fated Great Leap Forward, a calamitous push for China's rapid industrialization.

Other anniversaries, great and small, are around the corner.

Some of China's social commentators say that a recent police crackdown on writers, authors and intellectuals who dared to sign a new charter demanding political reforms is a sign of the apprehension in Beijing's Zhongnanhai, the walled compound of the Chinese leadership, over opposition to its monopoly grip on power since 1949.

"The Public Security Bureau officers have come looking for me twice," said Li Datong, a sacked newspaper editor who signed Charter 08 last month, a bold manifesto named after the Charter 77 dissident group in the former Czechoslovakia three decades ago.

A group known as China Human Rights Defenders said in a statement Tuesday that authorities had summoned and interrogated at least 86 people who'd signed the manifesto.

"The government is nervous," Li said, adding that sputtering economic growth has given authorities particular concern about unrest. "Many factories are closing. . . . Millions of migrant workers have lost their jobs."

David Kelly, a political scientist with the China Research Center at Australia's University of Technology Sydney, said China didn't have "a government that feels it can let its guard down. . . . This is a regime that feels threatened by any challenge. Even a minor challenge can potentially shake the government."

China's security forces are adept in handling unrest, as they showed in quashing ethnic Tibetan uprisings last March that were the broadest ethnic protests in nearly two decades.

The Tibet issue may come to the fore again around March 17, the 50th anniversary of the flight into exile of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, who's become a global icon.

July 22 brings the 10th anniversary of the banning of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, a little-known meditation cult that mushroomed into a virulently anti-party force. The anniversary may become a test of whether security officials have effectively extinguished the movement.

Even the celebrations over China's 60th anniversary haven't been without controversy.

In December, the liberal Yanhuang Chunqiu magazine, run by retired political elders, criticized plans for the Oct. 1 military parade as being lavish in a time of hardship.

Earlier this week, Xinhua, China's official news agency, carried a report that China's leaders had ordered the parade "to be carried out in a strictly frugal manner."

President Hu Jintao will oversee the parade, cementing his legacy on a par with predecessors Deng Xiaoping, who presided over the 35th anniversary parade, and Jiang Zemin, who oversaw the 50th anniversary celebrations, the year of the last major military parade.


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