Planes, Trains, and Chemical Plants: China in 2001 and 2011

What kind of year was 2001?

American government figures and candidates for office can only answer this in one way—if, that is, they want to be seen as mainstream representatives of either of the main political parties. They have to begin by referring to the tragedies and traumas of 9/11 and move on to the challenges the country faced a decade ago in the aftermath of that horrific day. Leading members of a very different political organization, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), might be strongly tempted to respond to the query in a radically contrasting way, at least when talking among themselves. For them, looking back to 2001 could be an exercise in nostalgia. They might think of the year not with sadness or anger but with a sense of fondness for simpler times. This would be not be due to callous disregard for the suffering caused by the planes that struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon but because other things about 2001 simply stand out more sharply for them.

One significant thing about 2001 for the CCP was that it marked the passage of ten years since the implosion of the Soviet Union. When the USSR ceased to exist, not long after the Berlin Wall fell, some Western analysts spoke of the onset of a global “Leninist Extinction” that would make communist party rule a thing of the past, and the fairy tale of the imminent arrival of an “End of History,” in which liberal capitalist democracy would become the order of the day around the world, gained more adherents. So, for China’s leaders, the simple fact that the CCP was still alive and kicking and indeed in power a decade on was a victory of sorts.

There also was a more specific victory to celebrate that year: the party’s successful bid to host the 2008 Olympics. For Beijing’s leaders, the July 2001 International Olympic Committee decision to allow the Olympics to come to China for the first time ever was particularly sweet due to the bitterness of a failed previous effort. In the early 1990s, when Sydney had bested Beijing in the bidding for the 2000 Summer Games, this was widely interpreted as a slap in the face of the Chinese authorities, punishment for the June 4th Massacre that had crushed the protest wave of 1989. Winning the right to host the 2008 Games was seen as a sign that China’s global reputation had changed, that in spite of continuing criticism of its human rights record (and continued repression), it was no longer seen as a pariah state.

Another important 2001 indication of China’s shedding any lingering outsider status was its entrance into the World Trade Organization in the last month of the year. Many analysts saw this as a move that would help China continue to experience high growth rates—a rare prophecy linked to the PRC that would prove to be true. There was also the expectation in some quarters that enmeshment in international systems would spur democratization—a prophecy that, more typically, has not been vindicated.

Turning from national to local events, 2001 was a banner year for at least one of China’s major cities: Shanghai. In the early 1900s, this metropolis and Tokyo had been considered Asia’s most modern and international cities, but by the 1980s many would have said that Shanghai was no longer even in the top five, thanks to the rise of other urban centers, such as Hong Kong, Seoul, and Singapore. Shanghai’s resurgence first gained steam in the 1990s, as skyscrapers shot up (some of them among the tallest buildings in the world), investment poured in, and a state-of-the-art new international airport opened in Pudong. It was in 2001, though, that it became clear just how much ground Shanghai had gained in its return to global-city status.

One thing that stands out about Shanghai’s 2001 is that work began on the city’s magnetic-levitation rail line. When completed, the first-of-its-kind vehicle that would run on the track would secure bragging rights for the city in the realms of engineering and transportation—for the Maglev would reach a top speed even greater than Japan’s fabled bullet trains.

It was also in 2001 that leaders from many countries, including Russia and the United States, came to Shanghai to participate in an APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) Summit and left impressed by what they saw. The October extravaganza, which included a spectacular fireworks display over the river that bisects the city, generated enthusiastic press coverage abroad, much of it focusing on Shanghai’s ultramodern infrastructure and luxury hotels.

Switching back to the nation as a whole and its political leaders in particular, 2001 was such a charmed year for the CCP that even when things went wrong, there was often a silver lining. This was the case with 9/11. In the wake of the terror attacks, Washington went into overdrive in trying to convince Beijing to support its efforts to battle Islamic extremism, putting the CCP in position to achieve something it had previously failed to secure: broad international support for treating a key group agitating for greater independence for Xinjiang as a “terrorist” organization.

Prior to that, another troubling event with a silver lining had taken place: the April collision of a PRC jet and an American spy plane that precipitated the death of a Chinese pilot and the crash landing of the US craft on the island of Hainan. The crash placed an enormous strain on relations between Beijing and Washington. In the end, though, in order to gain the release of the American plane crew, detained in China, Washington offered the Chinese leaders the apology they demanded and a formal expression of deep regret for the loss of the pilot’s life.

The incident gave the CCP an opportunity, much like that provided by the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy (the focus of my contribution to the SSRC’s original After September 11 web project), to buttress one of the main stories it likes to tell about itself, namely, that the contemporary world is a dangerous place, in which developing countries need strong governments to keep from being bullied by more powerful ones.

The party presented itself in 1999 and then again in 2001 as an organization determined to protect the lives of the people of China against all threats to their welfare and as the group best able to ensure that patriotic martyrs, such as the three who died in the Belgrade Embassy and the one who died in the spy plane incident, were honored properly. Moreover, in 2001, as in 1999, a great many Chinese accepted this vision of the party’s role. In both years, there was an uptick in online expressions of virulent nationalism. And when anger was expressed on electronic bulletin boards in 2001, in yet another parallel to 1999, it was most often directed not at domestic authorities but at the interfering foreigners blamed for incursions against Chinese sovereignty. In this case, the Web buzzed with anti-American sentiment and sorrow over the death of the pilot Wang Wei, who was himself a devotee of the then-new medium of the Internet (on one pass by the US plane, he had even flashed his e-mail address on a placard, along with a note daring his American counterparts to send him a digital message).

In the years to come, there would be other victories to celebrate and more dark clouds that would turn out to have silver linings for the CCP. In 2008, for example, there was the summertime spectacle of the Olympics (a victory). And then, in the fall, the CCP could boast of the country’s ability to fare better than nearly any other country as financial markets crashed (a dark cloud with a silver lining).

Still, in 2011, there are more dark clouds that seem to be, well, just dark. It now seems easy to imagine that a day will come when 2001 is seen as the start of a Chinese golden age that was not all that long lived. Consider these ten-year-apart contrasts: The biggest news story related to a train in 2001 was, as already noted, the start of work on the Maglev. Flash forward to 2011, though, and when the Maglev is mentioned, it’s likely to be in a report describing it as a white elephant that never lived up to its promise or alluded to as the form of transportation that inspired an important 2008 NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) protest by mostly middle-class Shanghai residents. The 2008 Shanghai protesters took action to try to stop a line from running through the center of the city, due to worries that its presence would endanger their children’s health and reduce property values. This was the same mix of concerns behind a quality-of-life demonstration in Xiamen the year before that had succeeded in scuttling plans to open a toxic-chemical plant near the homes of the demonstrators, and in Shanghai plans for the Maglev extension were put on hold.

The most important news stories involving high-speed ground transport this year, though, have not had anything to do with the Maglev: they have been reports about the devastating July collision near Wenzhou of more conventional types of very fast trains. This was an event that not only had a tragic human toll (at least forty lives lost) but was seen by many Chinese citizens as something that could have been averted. If only, they lamented, railway officials had been less corrupt and new safety systems had been tested more thoroughly.

Equally dramatic then-and-now contrasts relate to how new media are used to express opinions in China. It is true that the Web can still be an important vehicle for nationalistic outpourings of varied kinds, including those that castigate a foreign power for its real or alleged trampling on Chinese sovereignty or mistreatment of PRC citizens. It is also important to note how much use the government makes of new media to spread information and misinformation designed to back up its positions on issues. Nevertheless, when anger is voiced through new media now, the target of outrage is at least as likely to be the latest misdeeds of corrupt Chinese officials or the latest examples of high-handed behavior by people with government connections as anything done by people outside China.

Most generally of all, in terms of 2001 versus 2011 contrasts, it is much harder now than it was then for the CCP to present itself as an organization devoted to protecting the well-being of the Chinese people. There’s no sign of an organized opposition taking shape that could bring about a change in government, but each month seems to bring new scandals and other developments, from tainted-food crises to complaints about cover-ups, like the one that involved efforts to literally bury evidence about the cause of the July train crash, which undermine trust in the authorities and raise doubts about the degree to which China’s leaders care deeply about anything other than staying in power.

We also keep seeing new signs that no group can be counted on to accept the status quo. In the now seemingly simpler time of 2001, it was possible to assume that disaffected people would tend to belong to certain social groups that were being left behind by the economic boom or be living in particular areas known for having populations with good reasons to question Beijing’s goodwill, such as Tibet and Xinjiang and poor rural counties. Now, as shown by the NIMBY protests in Xiamen and Shanghai in 2007 and 2008, as well as the very recent similar demonstrations calling for the closure of a toxic-chemical plant in Dalian, even people generally doing quite well in material terms, living in communities that are prospering and modernizing, are sometimes taking to the streets to call for more transparent governance, cleaner air and water, a safer environment for themselves and their children, and a government more willing to listen to their concerns.

Earlier this year, the CCP, which was founded in 1921, prepared to mark its own ninetieth birthday. Consequently, we saw local and national authorities invest a great deal of time and energy in activities that could be seen in part as expressing a nostalgic longing for long-ago periods in the organization’s past, when it was clearer just what it represented. First came “red song” galas, where participants sang and encouraged audiences to sing patriotic songs from the Mao years (1949–1976), and then a big-budget film celebrating the heroism of the first decades of CCP history began showing in theaters across the country.

But does the Chinese Communist Party need to look back as far as the Mao years and beyond when trying to strike a nostalgic note? If I were a Chinese leader, I would wish simply for a return to the opening years of this still-young century.


Jeffrey Wasserstrom is chair of the history department at the University of California, Irvine; an associate fellow of the Asia Society; co-founder of the China Beat blog; author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford 2010); and co-editor of the forthcoming anthology Chinese Characters: Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land (University of California Press 2012).