China: Expect a Communist Party on the offensive in a year of potential unrest
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China: Expect a Communist Party on the offensive in a year of potential unrest

THE next 12 months promise to be eventful for the People’s Republic of China. It’s a year of landmark anniversaries, painful reminders, and possible flashpoints for unrest that will have the ruling Communist Party (CCP) worried.

China’s President Xi Jinping has made a point of imposing his supremacy over his five-year tenure; ramping up anti-corruption laws that allowed him to imprison opposition, positioning himself as ruler for life, and having his own political philosophies – commonly known as “Xi Jinping Thought” – adopted into the party constitution.

Today, the political unrest and rebellions Xi grew up with are a thing of the past, in large part due to China’s success. Becoming a dominant world power with a booming economy and exploding middle class has a way of keeping people happy. But that hasn’t stopped Xi taking a heavy-handed approach to criticism, keeping dissent to a minimum, and inducing fear of reprisal in anyone who dare speak out against him.

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Despite these already tight restrictions, expect a heightened sense of unease to come over Xi and leading members of the CCP, as this year offers more opportunity than ever for rising tension.

The June Fourth Incident

Security forces will be on high alert as the year of notable anniversaries rolls on. Most contentious of which will be the June anniversary of the bloody Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

Censorship boards will be working double time to wipe any mention of the event online. Maintaining political conformity will be at the top of the CCP’s priorities. But while the mainland remains under the tight control of China’s Great Firewall of online censorship, the territories are far more difficult to restrain.

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Protesters hold a banner which reads “March For Democracy in China” as they take part in a march in Hong Kong on May 27, 2018 to commemorate the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing. Source: Anthony Wallace/AFP

Each year semi-autonomous Hong Kong commemorates the protests, holding a vigil for the lives lost and those who still suffer under the party’s control.

The pro-democracy message is clear, much to the disdain of the CCP. Last year, organiser of the vigil, Chow Hang-tung, called for an “end to one-party dictatorship.” But despite the international attention the anniversary inevitably garners, the event will go largely unmentioned in mainland China.

Some anniversaries, however, are far more difficult to ignore.

This year marks the centenary of the May Fourth student uprising that formed the basis of the party’s founding – difficult to ignore an event so central to the CCP’s history.

While this may seem like a time for celebration, it was the rebellious sentiment behind the 1919 student movement that inspired much of the unrest leading up to the Tiananmen protests. The spark for reform was lit by them and carried through by new generations as a patriotic duty.

The sense of rebellion

October 1 will mark 70 years since Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic following a bloody civil war against the Kuomintang-led government of the Republic of China.

An occasion of pride for many Chinese who are benefitting from the fruits of a booming China. But less so for those feeling the tyranny of an oppressive government.

For those persecuted minorities, of which China still has many, the holiday will hold a less celebratory tone.

Many of these anniversaries, in fact, will act as a painful reminder of one’s powerlessness in the face of the CCP juggernaut and a reminder of battles fought and lost.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) arrives at Tiananmen Square for a tribute ceremony in front of the Monument to the People’s Heroes, ahead of National Day marking the 69th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing, China, September 30, 2018. Source: Reuters/Jason Lee

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None more so than the 60-year anniversary of the uprising that prompted the exile of the Dalai Lama and, eventually, the imposition of martial law in Tibet.

This time is often fraught, with Tibetans and their supporters around the world marching to commemorate the unrest. In 2017, Xi Jinping threatened to “resolutely strike” against the “Dalai Lama clique’s separatist activities” if there were protests.

It’s already begun

Xi has already weathered the first of these storms with the 40th anniversary of the thawing of ties with Taiwan, which took place on January 1.

Ironically, Xi marked the occasion of conciliation with a combative speech at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on Wednesday. He used the opportunity to ramp up pressure between the two, calling Taiwan’s independence a “dead end” and threatening force if they don’t comply.

All people in Taiwan must “clearly recognise that Taiwan’s independence would only bring profound disaster to Taiwan,” he said.

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China’s President Xi Jinping (C) speaks during an event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Message to Compatriots in Taiwan at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on January 2, 2019. Source: Mark Schiefelbein/Pool/AFP

With China battling the United States in a trade war, and the economy reporting a slew of disappointing figures, including the worst manufacturing output for 19 months, Xi has been trying to keep the negative press at bay.

News outlets have been banned from using the words “trade war” in their headlines and online news portals instructed to publish only government press releases. With criticism of Xi’s handling of the negotiations mounting, the president will be more eager than ever to quash any bubbling sentiment for reform.

It’s fair to expect the hardline stance applied to dissenting territories like Taiwan to be echoed in Xi’s handling of other landmark anniversaries in the uncomfortable times ahead.

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