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Happy Birthday China: A Year in Review

Shannon Rayner, BA Middle East Politics

China is in a state of flux, with all its power it clings to tradition and authenticity in a way that is unique and often inflammatory. 2019 saw headlines on everything from Xinjiang and Hong Kong to Peppa Pig and the NBA. Whilst celebrations continue to commemorate the occasion, it’s important to look over the turbulent year that the world’s second-biggest economy and political powerhouse has had.

Internal media representation of China must be polished and show a particular image, which is how Peppa Pig fell out of favour in 2018 when the children’s cartoon character and her friends were used by groups in China to demonstrate rebellion against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). However, in a seemingly all-forgiving – and forgetting turn of events, Peppa Pig became a star just in time for Chinese New Year corresponding with the 2019 zodiac animal – the pig. Peppa quite literally became an icon, with dubbed episodes and a dedicated Chinese New Year film being produced. In reality, both before and after Peppa’s pardon it was undeniable that her popularity was being capitalized on, the design could be found on phone cases, car stickers, shoes and my personal favourite – on the knock off Gucci t-shirts. Although rather comedic, this turn of events demonstrates how rapidly ideas can change and decisions can be made.

All of these headlines were very different but they all showed one common theme. China is in a state of flux.

At the start of the year, the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China began to dominate headlines both domestically and internationally. Domestically, Chinese news outlets such as Xinhua News and China Daily were reporting on the ‘dangerous region’ and making claims of measures taken ‘against extremism and terrorism’. Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, global newspapers were reporting on families being separated and compulsory re-education camps. Turkish newspapers began to speak up on violence as increasing numbers of Uyghur Muslims fled to the country. As the CCP continued to defend actions taken in Xinjiang, on the 31st March protests began in Hong Kong. What began as protests aimed at the controversial extradition bill, became a global movement in support of democratic rights for Hong Kong citizens.

Then we hit the halfway point of June 2019 and the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. In the days leading up to the anniversary of the ‘July 4th Incident’ massacre, Tiananmen Square was full of tourists visiting Beijing. There was a notable increased police presence questioning tourists – like myself on what they were doing in the area. Just as the world thought another anniversary would go by unacknowledged, Defence Minister Wei Fenghe defended the action taken as the best way to stop the turbulence of the time.

As Autumn arrives in 2019 as does the NBA drama. The NBA in China was almost an institution. Across classrooms you can find NBA pencil cases or jackets, whilst advertisements and athlete endorsements line East Nanjing Road in Shanghai. At least some credit to the success of basketball in China needs to be given to Yao Ming, who is truly a Chinese hero. Not only in the sporting world also socially, by backing campaigns against the ivory trade leading to the ivory ban. All of this sets the NBA up in a very profitable position in China, until recently. As public attention and support mounts for the Hong Kong citizens, the NBA’s silence has been seen as a measure of how much China’s stake in the industry is worth. In early October Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, Yao Ming’s team tweeted in support of Hong Kong protestors. Despite the deletion of the tweet what followed was a firestorm of sponsors pulling out, the national broadcaster refusing to play the games, merchandise has been pulled and outrage sparked across Chinese social media.

All of these headlines were very different but they all showed one common theme. China is in a state of flux. No one can argue that China has huge influence in almost every industry, but with that influence also comes an image that it cannot control.