The Year of Living Anxiously: China’s 1999

The Year of Living Anxiously: China’s 1999

A year ago, two unexpected incidents, one involving an international crisis and the other a domestic one, each associated with protests, sent shock waves through China and provoked surprising responses by the Beijing regime. Taken together, these incidents and the reactions to them made 1999 the most confusing year of the decade for China specialists to figure out. We saw many departures from what seemed to be settled post-1989 patterns. The very unpredictability of the year, however, conformed to a long-term pattern. Years ending with the numeral nine have often been trying ones for Chinese regimes, the fall of the Nationalist Party in 1949 being the most famous case in point. Nineteen ninety-nine was no exception.

As we start the year 2000, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) shows no sign of following soon in the footsteps of its erstwhile rival, but recent events show that the CCP is still dealing with the legitimacy crisis that both caused and was exacerbated by the demonstrations of 1989. The CCP is in much the same predicament now that it was in at the start of 1990: struggling to reposition itself so as to hold onto power at a time when few Leninist regimes remain on the world scene. In addition, now as a decade ago, it must contend with a populace that is skeptical about the official ideology, doubtful about the moral character of top government leaders, and has recently been reacquainted with a potent repertoire of political street theater. Looking at the surprises of 1999 and how official responses to them diverged from post-1989 patterns can be useful to us as we enter the second decade of the “New World Disorder” and the CCP starts the second decade of its ongoing legitimacy crisis.

I will begin with the two main unexpected incidents of 1999. The first, which occurred on April 25, was a sit-in staged by some ten thousand members of Falun Gong, a spiritual group that extols the virtues of special breathing practices and physical movements that are said to have curative powers, and that incorporates into its creed beliefs derived from a variety of Chinese folk religious traditions. The surprising response to the sect’s sit-in came only in July when the CCP announced a ban on Falun Gong gatherings, and then began to arrest members of the group. Accompanying this crackdown was a media campaign, involving everything from political posters to comic books, designed to discredit Li Hongzhi, Falun Gong’s China-born but now New York-based leader.

The second important, unexpected event came in early May when NATO missiles destroyed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing a trio of China journalists. The surprising response in this case came immediately. The regime reversed its nearly decade-long policy of discouraging all forms of student activism and allowed, even encouraged, students to take to the streets to express patriotic outrage. In this case, too, a mass media publicity campaign was launched. Officiall...