A once-in-a-hundred-year snowstorm marked an ominous beginning for a supposedly magnificent year for China. In its aftermath came violent protests in Tibet, the controversial Olympic torch relay, the devastating Sichuan earthquake, the Olympics themselves, a poisoned milk powder scandal and financial turmoil.
In some quarters, the handling of these events by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), particularly the response to the earthquake, was praised for its openness. But as someone who has suffered persecution and oppression at the hands of the current regime, my view is somewhat different.
In 2001, after spending a year in the Beijing Female Forced Labour Camp for practising Falun Gong, I escaped to Australia to seek asylum. Electric shocks, beatings, sleep deprivation and endless hard labour had been daily ordeals, and every moment was a battle between life and death as the police used all means to force us to renounce Falun Gong.
Once in Australia, I wrote about my experiences. Speaking at a forum, I was asked whether I saw any similarity between the suffering Tibetans have endured and my own. I suddenly realised that much of my knowledge about Tibet came from the CCP propaganda I had grown up with, such as how China had ‘liberated' Tibetans from feudal slavery and how happy Tibetan people were today.
Why was I so ignorant of the real state of affairs? I had a Masters degree from Peking University, and after graduating I worked as a policy researcher and consultant in the Development Centre of the State Council (China's cabinet), even writing a speech for the then Premier. Such a background should have qualified me as informed rather than ignorant. Yet my world view had been totally shaped by the oppressive, pervasive information control in my native country.
Olympics and PR perpetuate China's legitimacy
A controlled world view was the reason that thousands of Chinese students turned Canberra into a sea of red to ‘defend' their motherland when the Olympic torch reached Australia. The students' actions were reported to have strong Chinese government support, which is hardly surprising given that patriotism and nationalism have become the two most important weapons used by the CCP to maintain its power, and the regime plays those cards at every opportunity.
Now that Western journalists have been allowed back into Tibet, it has become apparent that, despite Kevin Rudd's criticism back in April, terrible things continued to happen in the region while the world was focused on the Olympics. Yet inside China until very recently, few people sought to challenge the Party's version of events, instead applauding the government's censure of foreign leaders who had the temerity to question China's human rights record.
It is this long-term absence of criticism - achieved through suppression and information control - that has historically given the authorities the licence to act with impunity in Tibet. Even the Dalai Lama now appears to have admitted defeat, announcing in October 2008 that he had ‘given up on efforts to convince Beijing to allow greater autonomy for Tibet under Chinese rule.'
Information control even extends to natural disasters. My parents and two sisters live only 100km from Wenchuan, the epicentre of the Sichuan earthquake. Amazingly, I managed to speak to my mother only three hours after the quake. ‘I heard rumours that there would be earthquakes in May,' she said, ‘but I never dreamed there really would be one...'
In his book, The Tangshan Warning, Zhang Qingzhou details how the prediction of the Tangshan earthquake that killed an estimated quarter of a million people in 1976 was suppressed by the authorities, and how a local official in Qinglong County managed to save 400,000 lives because he ‘happened' to hear of this prediction and chose to warn people.
The ‘rumours' my panicked mother was referring to concerned reports that the CCP had again suppressed the earthquake forecast because it did not qualify as ‘harmonious news' in the run-up to the Olympic Games.
Wang Zhaoshan, Vice President of the Writers Association in Shangdong Province, claimed in his poem, ‘Accounts under the Rubble', that even those children who were buried under the ruins were impatient to cheer together with 1.3 billion Chinese people, if only they could have a TV set in front of their graves to watch the Beijing Olympics.
The International Olympic Committee, Western leaders, sponsors and business leaders who attended the opening ceremony may continue to insist on the importance of engaging China and that politics should be separated from sport, but that does not disguise the fact that the CCP cynically used the Beijing Olympics to enhance and perpetuate its own political legitimacy.
For the Party, the Olympics represented the ultimate PR campaign. That is why more money was spent on these Games than any other Olympics in history. That is why the thousands whose homes were bulldozed to make way for Olympic infrastructure were considered expendable and thrown out onto the street with little or no compensation. And that is why over 8000 Falun Gong practitioners were arrested in the six months before the Olympics. Most are still in custody, many have been tortured and, according to the Falun Dafa Information Center, at least six deaths have occurred.
Pollution, corruption, food adulteration
The Paralympics had barely drawn to a close when news of the poisoned milk powder broke. If the Sanlu Group had not been partly owned by New Zealand's Fonterra and launched an investigation, thousands more babies might be dying from the results of melamine poisoning. The authorities had known there was a problem since December 2007, but it was all hushed up because of the Olympics.
Food and water contamination is a massive problem in China. Zhou Qing, award-winning author of What Kind of God - A Survey of the Current Safety of China's Food, warned years ago that food security could ultimately spark the collapse of the CCP, and there are increasing signs that the people are less accepting of the situation. Certainly the statistics make sobering reading.
Over 40 per cent of drinking water in rural China falls short of government standards, animal feed is almost universally tainted with melamine, excessive pesticides and chemical fertilisers are used to boost yields, and harmful antibiotics are widely administered to control disease in seafood and livestock. Talcum powder is routinely added to flour and rice is chemically whitened. And yet, miraculously, the CCP is still able to ensure access to the best-quality organically grown produce for party officials.
Throughout 2008, the CCP has used the global financial crisis to reinforce the superiority of the country's social system. In reality, though, China is far from immune. Its stock market has plunged by nearly two-thirds in the 11 months to September and the economy remains sluggish, with large numbers of factories going bankrupt as international demand for Chinese-made consumer goods slides. According to the State Planning and Development Commission, nearly 70,000 small- to medium-sized companies went out of business in the first half of 2008.
It is these factors and their associated social repercussions that most threaten the CCP's monopoly on political power. As well as the poor and hungry, beneficiaries of Party patronage, who had grown extremely rich in previous years, are known to be unhappy that their worth has been cut by 50 per cent of late.
Meanwhile corruption, rampant throughout the financial markets, has reached epidemic levels among government officials, and people have finally had enough. In August, 28-year-old Yang Jia allegedly broke into the Zhabei Branch of Shanghai's Bureau of Public Security, where 2700 police officers were working, and stabbed six policemen to death and wounded four more.
In any normal society, this would be horrific news. Yet 90 per cent of bloggers and Internet users in China showed sympathy and support for Yang after rumours spread that he had been badly treated by police in the past. At his second trial in October, in a display of public dissatisfaction with the regime, more than 1000 supporters gathered outside the court to support Yang. One man held a huge banner that read, The knight-errant will endure forever. Many others shouted, ‘Overthrow the fascist government! Overthrow the Chinese Communist Party! Yang Jia is a hero!' A small group was even bold enough to wear T-shirts displaying Yang Jia's photo. The protests were to no avail, however, as Yang was executed in November.
It is a measure of the level of anger at social injustice and the bias of the judicial system that so many people, including ‘Bird's Nest' Olympic Stadium designer Ai Weiwei, should publicly support a suspected cop-killer. And the prevailing mood of dissatisfaction is growing. Riots are now a daily occurrence, including in June when an attempted police cover-up over the assault and death of a teenage girl triggered large-scale violence in Guizhou Province. Up to 100,000 are reported to have participated in the riot, with 160 office buildings and 40 cars torched.
Millions of Internet users renounce the Party
While governments of Western countries, including Australia, still fail to appreciate how fragile the communist regime really is, more and more people in China are awakening from their previous delusions about the Party.
On the Internet, more than 44 million people have already publicly renounced the CCP and its related organisations, while many so-called ‘naked' officials are busy transferring their money - and sending their wives and children - overseas in anticipation of having to leave the country in a hurry one day.
Official figures show that at least 4000 suspected corrupt officials have already fled China, taking with them more than five billion yuan ($1.1 billion), but it's not only low-ranking officials who are leaving the country.
In 2005, Chen Yonglin, consul for political affairs in the Chinese consulate in Sydney, defected. This year two high-profile Party cadres, Xin Weiming, Deputy Head of Luwan District of Shanghai, and Yang Xianghong, Party Member Secretary of the Lucheng District of Wenzhou City, did likewise. They both disappeared while visiting France in October.
Many people, including a large proportion inside the CCP, no longer doubt that the Party boat is sinking. The question is, of course, how many more people must suffer prior to its ultimate demise?
- Jennifer Zeng's biography, Witnessing History - One Woman's Fight for Freedom and Falun Gong, is published by Allen & Unwin.