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China's year of tumult and triumph

By James Reynolds
BBC News, Beijing

Tibetans throw stones at army vehicles as a car burns on a street in the Tibetan capital Lhasa, March 2008
The year started badly for China, with violence in Tibet
The year 2008 promised China just one big event, but instead of one, the country got four.

2008 was meant to be all about the Beijing Olympics - the giant sports day that this country had been planning for more than a decade.

But in March came big event number one, and it had nothing to do with sport.

In the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, Tibetan monks demonstrated on the anniversary of the Dalai Lama's escape into exile in 1959.

These protests escalated into the biggest disturbances in Tibet for more than 20 years.

The demonstrations brought into relief the profoundly different ways in which Tibet is seen by China and the West.

For China, Tibet is an inalienable part of the Chinese motherland which has been transformed from a medieval, feudal backwater into a more equal society.

For many in the West, the people of Tibet are occupied and oppressed by a hostile country which denies Tibetans the freedom of worship.

'Century of humiliation'

Western criticism of Chinese actions in Tibet hit a sensitive spot in China.

People here grow up learning of something called the "century of humiliation" - the time from the 19th to 20th centuries in which chunks of imperial, and then republican China were bitten off by foreign powers.

This year, then, many in China were convinced that the West was trying to break Tibet away from the motherland in order to humiliate China once more.

Devastation caused by the Sichuan quake
The world felt sympathy for China after the earthquake
The demonstrations in Tibet were followed by protests along the route of the Olympic torch relay as it headed through Paris and London.

Some people in China were convinced that the West was doing its best to try to sabotage the Beijing Olympics.

Then, at 2.28pm on 12 May came big event number two - and the atmosphere of hostility changed at a stroke.

In the central province of Sichuan, an earthquake struck.

More than 80,000 people were killed - it was China's worst natural disaster in 30 years.

It showed a different, more compassionate side to a country normally focused on the pursuit of money.

The government was widely praised for its quick response and for its decision to allow reporters to show the full scale of the disaster.

For the first time, many in the outside world felt deep sympathy for China - and the bad feelings raised by the demonstrations in Tibet faded.

Games winner

And then, three months later, came big event number three - the Olympic Games themselves.

At 8pm on the 8 August, the Olympic Stadium shook as fireworks marked the start of the Games.

To China's relief, every country invited to the Games accepted its invitation.

Olympics closing ceremony banners reach for the sky
The Olympics highlighted China's new status as a key world player
Despite alleged rights violations and media controls, no one boycotted or stayed away.

The world's most powerful man, President George W Bush, even took his seat for the opening ceremony.

Despite fears of bombs, protests, and pollution, the Games were a success - China even won more gold medals than any other country.

Victimhood denied?

The protests in Tibet earlier in the year showed that China continues to see itself as a victim.

But it may be hard to keep calling yourself a victim when the entire world comes to your party to watch you win.

The sometimes comforting national narrative of victimhood may have to reconsidered.

I think the Chinese people should be very worried about the future
Professor Liu Jin, Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, Beijing
"Because of the Olympics, a lot of people who haven't been to China now know us," said one spectator, Zhang Feng. "We will tell the world that our country, China, is the best!"

This view was reinforced the following month when China carried out its first spacewalk.

The photograph of astronaut Zhai Zhigang waving the Chinese flag in space may come to be seen as one of the iconic pictures of 2008 for China - the moment that this country's ambitions burst out of this world.

Downturn

But in case anyone was in danger of getting carried away, along came big event number four - the world financial crisis.

Since 1978, China's growth has been built on its engagement with the outside world; in particular, its rise has been driven by its exports.

That is where the financial crisis is so dangerous for China; if the West can no longer afford to buy, then China can no longer sell as much.

"I think the Chinese people should be very worried about the future," says Professor Liu Jin of the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing. "There's a global drop in demand so Chinese exports cannot sell."

Thousands of factories in southern China have already closed down.

Unemployment and unrest have risen. The government has cut interest rates and announced a huge stimulus package designed to keep the economy going.

It is the view of the Pacific Ocean which may define where China goes in 2009.

On the horizon, cargo ships make their way through the sea. The more ships there are, the more business China's doing, and the better the economy will be.

The world is waiting to see how the financial crisis will hit the world's fasting growing economy.



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