As pundits both knowledgeable and sketchy proclaim a new era in Chinese global assertiveness, it’s helpful to recall one thing: the Chinese people are an immense force, a force whose collective and chaotic power is never more evident to Chinese leaders than in the Spring Festival travel season.
For this reason, I have to recommend scrolling through this Huanqiu BBS photo-montage of the craziness of 2009 Spring Festival (featuring, among other things, a classic photo combining an open train window with something that babies do really well). It’s hard to imagine that the same Wen Jiabao who so coolly strode into Pyongyang with billions in hand this past October 2009 was, a year ago, bullhorning assurances to the masses in Changsha’s cracked edifice to railway travel (and probably hoping not to be torn limb from limb).
The first netizen comment on the story both gave the government a pass and spoke a kind of eternal truth about China: “人多没办法 (Too many people; nothing you can do)！“
Yet thinking about the travel season leads me to wonder: Did the Chinese government want to make a bit of a show of strength before families get together for Spring Festival, when some assessments of the nation’s progress — and the effectiveness of the CCP — are inevitably made? Certainly they were given that opportunity in spades. This year, the United States somehow managed to bunch up the one winning issue (Google and free speech/the right not to be hacked) with three losing ones (cybersecurity cooperation with India/arms sales to Taiwan/Obama meeting with Dalai Lama) right in the same frame. Why did Obama wait to see the Dalai Lama anyway? Now Chinese anxieties about the man get lumped in with fears of Taiwan independence, and we’re back to the 1950s.
I wonder if the period leading up to Spring Festival is, then, sort of like late spring: predictable chaos in predictable sectors. Chinese universities, for instance, in April and May tend to become pressure-cookers for any number of issues that somehow correspond with upcoming exams. And the gao kao, or university entrance examination, is another period when youth are feeling extreme pressure; last year, the Dalai Lama made a very stupid move by meeting with Paris mayor on the same day as the exam, making His Holiness a kind of Wailing Wall or proxy for all manner of complaints, the very projection of an enemy when anxieties among youth were high.
Finally, along the lines of understanding China’s internal dynamics and the fury that the CCP is eager to dissipate or channel: when was the last time someone mentioned China’s unemployment rate among recent college graduates? Next time Obama is in Shanghai, let’s hope he can give Chinese youth some hope for more MBA degrees in the United States, and, for heaven’s sake, shoot some hoops. That is, if he can muscle his way first to the front of the line to get some of this Spring Festival bling: