A year of joy, sorrow - and new conflicts

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 December, 2008, 12:00am

Marking the 30th anniversary of China's opening up and reform policy, 2008 will be remembered for a plethora of events loaded with contradictions and thought-provoking connotations about the current state of the nation.

Let's start with the positive. With its economy going from strength to strength, China may well become an economic superpower in a couple of decades. As the global economy suffers, China is seen as a source of hope and the engine for an early end to the crisis.

Then there were the Beijing Games, which lifted the mainland's development to new heights. If there were doubts about the nation's ability and expertise to host the biggest international sporting event, they have been laid to rest. Meanwhile, the success of the historic Shenzhou VII mission, featuring the first Chinese spacewalk, marked not only a breakthrough in space technology but also a symbolic elevation of the nation to superpower status.

However, the euphoria over China's big strides in the world's economic, sporting and space exploration leagues has been dampened by a string of natural disasters and man-made blunders during the past 12 months.

There is no denying that the severity of the Sichuan earthquake meant that the most any government and society could do, practically speaking, was reduce the damage to a minimum through prevention and relief work.

Post-quake scenes showing shoddy building work were a grim reminder of the real state of the nation's development: in areas such as quality control and supervision of building construction, much remains to be done.

The melamine scandal shook international confidence in Chinese-made milk products, while also exposing the intrinsic weaknesses of the nation's food safety supervision system and the cover-up culture among enterprises and local authorities.

On the eve of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on December 10, the detention of various signatories to a bold call for political liberalisation by about 300 intellectuals was a pointed comment about the underlying tensions in society.

The wide discrepancies in the country's development have not been taken lightly.

In a major speech delivered at a ceremony in the Great Hall of the People on Thursday, President Hu Jintao - speaking in his capacity as Communist Party general secretary - sought to instil a sense of crisis with a warning that the party's hold on power 'is not immutable'.

Events over the past 12 months have provided food for thought for the ruling party, particularly the urgent need for modernisation of the system, and a culture of good governance and democratic institutions.

This is because economic success is no longer sufficient to boost the political mandate of the ruling party and, also importantly, to resolve the increasing conflicts in society.

Admittedly, few find anything inherently wrong in the notion, expounded by Mr Hu and his predecessors, that China has to find its own path to democratic development. It is unrealistic to expect any kind of multi- party system to emerge in the near term.

Obsessed with fears about internal instability and external shocks, the ruling party is understandably bent on keeping control.

But with the growing development of civil society and the penetrating power of new media in a society rife with conflicts of interest, the influence of the central and local authorities is vulnerable to challenge.

As it engages the people to strive for greater prosperity in the next stage of economic reform, Beijing will have to be bolder in the development of political and social institutions to help attain its goal of balanced, sustainable development.

Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large.