China's Interesting Times

The year 2009 sees a remarkable coincidence of anniversaries that tell the history of modern China. Some will be celebrated by the authorities on a grand scale, others will be wilfully ignored, but all reveal important aspects of the country’s past, as Jonathan Fenby explains.

If there is one major country where history is a political instrument, it is China. The treatment of the past has been a function of power since the centuries of imperial rule when new dynasties would set officials to write accounts of their predecessors to prove how the old rulers had forfeited the Mandate of Heaven and how the newcomers were entitled to ascend the Dragon Throne. That has remained the case under Communist rule. Recently, an academic got into trouble for suggesting a reexamination of the Boxer Rising of 1900, which is officially classified as a proletarian movement whereas it was actually the work of unemployed rural youths animated by hatred of foreigners rather than driven by Marxist ideology.

So an unusual coincidence of a series of historic anniversaries this year presents a particularly interesting moment both to look back over how China has evolved in modern times and to consider how the Communist Party is going to deal with some decidedly awkward events from the past. The anniversaries range across a century and a half and constitute more than a conflation of dates that happen to end in the numeral nine. They contain major themes of China's modern history, running from the intrusion of British warships into the Pearl River delta 170 years ago to the emergence of the People's Republic as a major global presence in the generation since Deng Xiaoping's market-led economic reform got going at the end of the 1970s and the crushing of dissent in Beijing in 1989.

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