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Date Posted: 22:07 03/01/2005

The more things change…..

Running Dog reviews 2004

2004 WAS an interesting but ambiguous year for China watchers. Most significantly, Jiang Zemin finally departed from the scene, citing illness as he resigned from his final position as Chairman of the Central Military Commission. The Party conducted a stilted but symbolic handover ceremony in front of China Central Television cameras in September, with Jiang bearing the sort of rictus grin last seen on those that have just been strung up with piano wire.

Many believed that the departure of Jiang would lead to a thaw in the Chinese Communist Party and a more relaxed attitude towards criticism, a more aggressive push for political reform and a shift of emphasis away from spectacular eclats such as the Three Gorges Dam and towards more substantial gains. Hopes were high, with the new supremo Hu Jintao dubbed in many foreign articles as China's Gorbachev. Along with his Premier, Wen Jiabao, the new President was supposed to be dedicated to improving the lot of the countryside, after a decade and a half spent enriching Jiang's power base in Shanghai.

Of course, China watchers have customarily set up good cops and bad cops, contrasting the 'self-serving' Jiang with the 'capable' Zhu Rongji, the 'ruthless' Li Peng with the tearful Zhao Ziyang and the exiled Hu Yaobang, or the delusional Mao Zedong with the practical Deng Xiaoping, the shrewd Zhou Enlai and the earthy Peng Dehuai. In reality, the situation is never quite so clear-cut. Western observers, almost to a man, expected some noticeable shift in the hardline approaches forged by Jiang Zemin in areas such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and the F* L*n G*ng, but Hu has proved to be a Party man forging policies and alliances in a Party context, where orthodoxies cannot easily be undermined. Disappointed observers like Joseph Kahn of The New York Times are already saying that the current leadership is even more hardline than the previous one.

Of course, the divisions between the city and the farm are now larger than ever, and a vast proportion of the rural population has seen nothing of the reforms that have swept along the eastern coast. A change of political emphasis is crucial.

Indeed, 2004 has also been a year of growing dissent, with the number of people submitting petitions to the central government growing significantly and an outbreak of unrest across the country, particularly in areas where national economic interests have collided with the grim conditions suffered by local communities. With their slightly more liberal reputations, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the new leadership felt compelled to crack down on the protests as quickly as possible, lest more be encouraged. Prominent intellectuals have been among the regime's targets in the second half of the year, with many reported to remain under observation or house arrest. Dissent has been piecemeal and spontaneous, arising in response to enforced relocations or local government corruption, and the government are having to deal with opposition on a thousand fronts. The challenges facing the central government cannot be underestimated, with ethnic unrest also among the list of problems.

One typical case was in the county of Hanyuan in Sichuan Province, where the Guodian Corporation had colluded with the local authorities to minimize compensation payments to those residents forced to relocate to make way for yet another hydropower station, the Pubugou.

China needs electricity. Without electricity, there will be no growth. Without growth, there will be no 'well-off society'. And without the 'well-off society', the likelihood of political unrest grows. As with the Three Gorges and various other projects currently being built or considered in Yunnan, Sichuan, Guangxi and Guizhou, the government hopes to contain the local pockets of discontent created by these projects in what it says are the interests of the nation as a whole. At the Three Gorges, the authorities have made lots of noises about how the local population have made glorious sacrifices in the name of the nation, but what happens when the losers of economic reform start to outweigh the winners? Has that already become the case?

As for the economy, official figures indicate that growth remains high. The government sought to restrain excessive investments this year as part of the efforts to ensure a 'soft landing' when the downturn inevitably comes to pass.

Taiwan was also in the news this year, with China's bete noir Chen Shui-bian narrowly winning an election after a bizarre shooting incident that many believe was self-inflicted, and with the Beijing authorities continuing to shout angrily across the Strait about Taiwan's 'separatist' education policies and the evil plans to attack key locations on the mainland in the event of a war. China has now implemented an anti-separatist law, aimed primarily at Taiwan independence… sorry, that should be 'Taiwan independence' activists, but it seems that Beijing is not yet in a position to do anything other than bark.

We have also seen growing tensions between China and Japan, ostensibly over the thorny issue of the Yasukuni Shrine. The trend is worrying, and events this year indicate that Japan itself is going to defend its own interests in a far more resolute way, particularly over the oil and gas reserves in the disputed seas between the two countries.

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