- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2003

BEIJING — China’s newly installed leader said it himself as he accepted the reins of the ruling Communist Party. Over and over, images of tomorrow’s China streamed from Hu Jintao’s mouth: “New situation.” “New century.” “New phase in our nation’s history.”

No kidding. The first year at the top has been a landmark one for Mr. Hu, an earnest-looking technocrat who sometimes seems dwarfed by the profile of the nation he leads.

Even for China, a country that has grown accustomed to paroxysms of progress during the past two decades, 2003 was extraordinary for its achievement, its influence, its calamity — and, most important, its hints about the optimism-streaked path that the world’s most populous nation has chosen.

A new generation of leaders claimed their places and, moving ever onward from their Maoist past, promised continuing growth and prosperity. A deadly disease crawled out of southern China and terrified the world. The first “taikonaut” streaked into orbit. And, as Beijing fashioned its own brand of mediation in the North Korea nuclear standoff, other countries started looking to China for regional leadership.

“For China, there has never been a year like 2003,” said Shen Jiru, a professor with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of World Economy and Politics. “It was a period of inheriting the past and, at the same time, ushering in the future. It is worthy of being remembered.”

Momentum toward the future is a high priority in China. The 2008 Summer Olympics will be held in Beijing, and the leadership has been using that as a carrot for the populace and an encouragement of the profit motive — get moving to develop a “great country” for a “great Olympics.”

It reflects a hunger for respect, and most of the events China faced this year helped that quest. These events were duly reported to the citizenry on a slick, newly minted 24-hour news channel — the latest accomplishment of a once-sluggish communist propaganda machine.

The crowning achievement was the Oct. 15 made-for-television launching of Yang Liwei into orbit, the culmination of a decade of efforts. Mr. Hu and other leaders were on hand, wearing aviator sunglasses as they watched Shenzhou 5 streak into a brilliant morning sky.

Also pivotal was the Korean nuclear dispute. Beijing — ally to North Korea, and economic partner to the nations that felt threatened, including the United States — became a de facto mediator and arranged for a six-nation summit in the Chinese capital. The summit didn’t produce much, but China came out looking positively statesmanlike.

This was a striking evolution for a government whose foreign-policy hallmarks had long been official nonintervention and reflexive defensiveness, and the efforts earned praise from Washington.

It was followed within months by a diplomatic victory early this month: President Bush, with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao at his side, urged the island of Taiwan not to make one-sided moves toward the formal independence that Beijing has threatened, by force, to prevent.

“China’s position in the world and its role in international affairs is getting more and more important. This is the trend — and it’s a reality that any country in the world should face up to squarely,” said Zhang Hanlin, director of China’s Institute of WTO Studies.

Hong Kong, a crown jewel since it was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, proved more of a problem, with the public resisting unpopular legislation and heavily favoring democrats over pro-Beijing candidates in local elections. But fears voiced a few years ago that such rebelliousness would provoke a Chinese crackdown have proven unfounded.

The leadership’s response to the most fearsome calamity of the year, SARS, was bumpier. When severe acute respiratory syndrome first began to alarm people, in late February, the government denied the problem, hid information — and kept doing so as the epidemic got more serious and more global.

After international criticism reached fever pitch, China fired its health minister and Beijing’s mayor and began a stouthearted campaign to recover its damaged credibility. Another striking change came on the AIDS front, from denial to a high-profile prevention campaign.

Noteworthy, too, was the fading of human rights from the agenda. Though the United States and the European Union continued to press China for improvement on that front — be it issues of religion, political speech or Tibet — their efforts were more muted, and were largely overshadowed by economics.

The evolutions of this year, though they might appear minor, were remarkable when viewed against the backdrop of recent Chinese history.

From the communist takeover in 1949 until 1976, things were run by a small group of oligarchs under Mao Tse-tung, founder of the People’s Republic. Mao’s vision of an agrarian utopia scorned commercialism and cast a cold eye on relations with most “bourgeois” nations. Anyone dissenting was branded counterrevolutionary and banished to the countryside or worse.

By the time Deng Xiaoping began China’s “reform and opening-up” after Mao’s death and the country started embracing the outside world, a high-gear approach was needed to play catch-up.

It was a dizzying period for many in the generation of Jiang Zemin, China’s previous leader, whose contemporaries are the last to have lived in pre-communist times. Mr. Hu’s generation of technocrats largely is unburdened by firsthand memories of the communist guerrilla mythology, and they may feel freer to distinguish themselves from their elders.

In that respect, what was most unusual about 2003 in China was not the events themselves, but the way the government handled them.

When Mr. Wen visited the United States this month, he cut a very different figure than his predecessor, Zhu Rongji. Mr. Zhu, a rumpled policy wonk, appeared dour and even intimidating when he visited New York in the late 1990s.

Mr. Wen, the dapper and smiling representative of what still remains a dictatorship, presented just the image China seeks: firmly but benevolently in control after a year of staggering challenges and memorable victories — the stewards of a better Chinese tomorrow.

“China yesterday was a big ancient country that created a splendid civilization,” Mr. Wen said during a speech at Harvard University.

“China today is a country in reform and opening-up, and a rising power dedicated to peace. China tomorrow will continue to be a major country that loves peace and has a great deal to look forward to.”

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