2019 is a year of sensitive anniversaries in China

March 10 marked the 60th anniversary of the uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet. It was one of several difficult anniversaries China will be grappling with in 2019, writes Jason Young.

OPINION: 2019 is a year of anniversaries in China. Some will be highly celebrated. Others will conjure up painful memories that will be shunted from mainstream discussion.

October 1 marks 70 years since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. This anniversary will saturate Chinese media with celebrations and highly scripted speeches that define what has been achieved in China over the last 70 years.

Other anniversaries, such as 100 years since the May 4th movement, will be treated with caution and be subject to very careful framing.

May 4th was a social movement that protested against China’s unfair treatment at the end of the First World War and called for competent and fair governance in China.

It symbolises a spirit of revolution and an intellectual and social transformation that broke with centuries of dynastic norms. It is the movement that gave birth to Chinese socialism and its calls for ‘Mr Science’ and ‘Mr Democracy’ remain highly relevant for contemporary China.

Opening old wounds

Yet other anniversaries this year will be buried in an effort to prevent a reoccurrence of instability, protest and rioting and a questioning of contemporary Chinese politics.

June 4 marks the 30th anniversary of the crackdown in Tiananmen Square when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was ordered to crush a large protest movement led by students, workers, intellectuals and locals.

This marked a crossroad in Chinese reform when the ruling elites chose unity, order and stability over the right to popular protest and acted firmly to maintain those priorities. Such a painful and controversial memory is unlikely to be discussed openly on its 30th anniversary.

The first major anniversary of 2019 was the 60th anniversary of the uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet on March 10, 1959. This anniversary marks a dark day in the consolidation of the People’s Republic.

The PLA entered Tibet in 1950 and signed the Seventeen-point Agreement in 1951 to formally incorporate Tibet into the newly constituted People’s Republic. This agreement gave the PRC responsibility for external and military affairs but also provided a high degree of autonomy for local government, religious practices and the role of the Dalai Lama. 

By March 10, 1959, popular dissatisfaction with these arrangements boiled over into mass protests calling for protections on the independence of the Dalai Lama and against Chinese rule. The Dalai Lama was forced to flee to India as the ensuing uprising was crushed by the PLA in under a month.

The memory of this rebellion, the plight of the Tibetan people and the flight of one of the world’s most recognizable spiritual leaders has captured the attention of the world ever since.

In the following years Tibet suffered greatly during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76), as people were encouraged to persecute religious observance as one of the ‘four olds’ leaving deep scars on the region.

A way forward

In the post-Mao era the promotion of Chinese migration, education, language and governance transformed Tibetan society raising questions about the ability of Tibetans to freely practice their religion and way of life. New technology and methods of social management intensified these concerns.

For some, self-immolation appeared the only way to speak out for religious freedom and against conditions in the region. For others, support for economic development and improvements in education were viewed as a positive contribution to the social and economic development of the Tibetan plateau.

The March riots of 2008 came as a shock to many Chinese and demonstrated long-rooted dissatisfaction with China’s Tibet policies as well as illustrating the ongoing sensitivity of the anniversary.

March 10 is a day of painful and uncomfortable truths that the Chinese people are yet to have the opportunity to fully confront. Like all painful historical events, open discussion and efforts to acknowledge the wrongs of the past are needed for reconciliation.

China’s reckoning with its contemporary history, from May 4, 1919 to March 10, 1959 and June 4, 1989, will require a far more open discussion than what we have witnessed to date.

Such discussions will not be easy but should be encouraged to help heal wounds and move forward. They would contribute greatly to the celebrations of October 1 in the eyes of the Chinese and international community alike.

- Asia Media Centre