From a devastating earthquake to the Beijing Olympics, China witnessed a tumultuous year of triumph and tragedy last year that sorely tested the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to manage.
The worst anti-government violence in decades wracked the restive regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, freak snowstorms paralyzed the southeast and deliberately contaminated milk powder killed six infants and sickened nearly 300,000.
Through it all, the government remained firmly in charge, though the worsening economic outlook for this year may prove its toughest test yet.
Historically, the party has kept its grip on power through tight political restrictions and powerful security forces. Those remain, but increasingly it also draws support from a burgeoning patriotism and the government’s new, more human face.
Quick responses to crises such as the snowstorms, which stranded hundreds of thousands of train passengers in January, earned party leaders popular support and helped direct anger away from them and toward local officials.
That strategy has limitations, however, said Yang Fengchun (楊鳳春), professor of political science at Peking University’s School of Government.
“The government simply acts as a firefighter but never moves forward to solve the underlying social and political problems,” Yang said.
Even as the nation’s leaders celebrated the achievements of 30 years of economic reforms last month, their greatest concern was the uncertain outlook for continued job-creating growth. Economic turmoil and anger over a yawning wealth gap could lead to social unrest and challenges to the CCP’s rule.
“When the economy slows down, this is the real crunch. This sharpens all the contradictions,” said Joseph Cheng (鄭宇碩), chairman of the Contemporary China Research Center at the City University of Hong Kong.
Ironically, Cheng said, the challenges may have actually strengthened party rule by reminding people of the need for a firm hand to avoid the political and social chaos that characterized much of the country’s 20th century history.
“The Chinese people see no alternative to Communist Party leadership at this stage,” he said.
China entered last year focused on staging a successful Olympics, the climax of more than a decade of vertiginous expectations and seven years of preparation.
The months before the August games were far from smooth, however.
The January snowstorms, which hit as millions of migrant workers were heading home for the Lunar New Year holiday, prompted Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) to make a personal inspection tour that included an extraordinary public apology for the government’s lack of preparation.
Riots broke out a month later in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, spreading throughout the Tibetan areas of western China and prompting a massive security crackdown.
The tension moved overseas with demonstrators disrupting the Olympic torch relay. Those images, particularly an attempt to snatch the torch from a disabled Chinese athlete in Paris, stirred outrage among Chinese who protested outside local stores of the French company Carrefour.
The tone changed radically following the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan, a 7.9-magnitude temblor that left almost 90,000 dead or missing. The scale of the tragedy and outpouring of international aid and sympathy seemed to cool passions on both sides, while casting a more somber mood on the Olympics run-up.