Top 5 China events of the decade (for me)

A week ago the Shanghaiist asked me if I’d prepare an end-of-year or end-of-decade list of what were for me the top 5 China-related event.

Now that the post has been up on their site a few days, I’m reprinting it here for posterity. These are not necessarily the most important things that happened. The Sichuan earthquake, for example, is more important than some of my other choices. There were too many to choose from, like Sun Zhigang, the tainted milk scandal and Hu’s tremendously important strides in bringing Africa closer to China. Instead, these are the items that touched me on a very personal level, inspiring me to feel joy or outrage, hope or gloom.

From Shanghaiist:

Richard Burger worked in Greater China (mostly the PRC) as a PR executive for more than six years, the last few months of which he spent as editor and columnist for the English-language Chinese daily newspaper The Global Times. He is also the author of one of the oldest and most respected China blogs, The Peking Duck

What a difference ten years has made for China, from the new kid on the block to one of the world’s most influential movers and shakers. Since 2000, China has turned the notion of “New World Order” on its head.

During those 10 years we’ve watched China experience some breathtaking highs and painful lows. I first started watching China early in 2001, when I moved from the US to Hong Kong, and still remember exactly where I was and how I felt when I heard the big news that made it to No.1 on my Personal Five Most Significant China Stories of the decade.

1. July 13, 2001: Beijing is named host city for 2008 Olympic Games

This announcement created a wave of euphoria that only intensified as the Opening Ceremony approached. From the moment it was reported until the Olympic Green was locked down at the end of August 2008 we’ve never seen so many people so motivated for so many years over a sports competition. Nothing since has ever topped this one.

2. April 20, 2003: Chinese government holds live on-air SARS press conference

I know, that sounds kind of dry. But if you were there watching it live you’ll know just how jaw-dropping it was. Some of the world’s most tight-lipped, rarely seen leaders took live questions from the international media pool in Beijing and revealed there were hundreds more known cases of SARS in Beijing than they’d admitted earlier. Afterwards, the minister of health and the mayor of Beijing were fired for negligence of duty and the May holiday was canceled to keep people from traveling. Live and in person, we watched China’s government realize that being a global power demands accountability.

3. April 7, 2008: A Chinese hero is born

It couldn’t have been better scripted by the propaganda department: A graceful young woman, an Olympic torchbearer confined to a wheelchair, is attacked in full public view in Paris by a pro-Tibet activist determined to grab the Olympic torch from her hands. She refuses to yield, using her body to protect the torch as if it were a child. The timing was incredible: China was reeling from criticism of its handling of ethnic tension in Tibet, and photos of the emotionally charged scene galvanized the global Chinese community and created a groundswell of national pride just when China needed it. This sense of commonality and closing rank was to be matched only by the volunteerism generated by the Sichuan earthquake the next month – a close runner-up for this list.

4. June 16, 2009: Chinese court frees Deng Yujiao

The release of Deng Yujiao, the 21-year-old Chinese karaoke waitress turned folk hero who stabbed to death a drunken party official who tried to force her to have sex, resonated with everyone in China. Originally found guilty of murder, her plight captured the imagination of Chinese activists and netizens and her release was historic, proving that with enough pressure from an energized and outraged public the Chinese government will respond to injustices that in the past were swept under the carpet. We’ll know in the year ahead if it truly marked a turning point.

5. June 2009 – present: Post-Olympic communication crackdown

After opening its Internet more than ever before for the 2008 Olympic Games, China took a sharp swerve in the opposite direction the next year. The ominous clouds of heightened censorship moved in prior to the 20th anniversary of the “Tiananamen Square Incident” with the banning of Chinese and English-language social media sites and it kept getting worse right through the October 1 festivities, with no end in sight to this day. Many had misread the April 20, 2003 press conference as a sign China was ready to open up. In some ways it has, but the Internet remains more censored than ever.


I know we all have our different picks for a list like this. So feel free to suggest your own.

The Discussion: 37 Comments

Great list, but I feel obliged to comment on a couple of things:

“Live and in person, we watched China’s government realize that being a global power demands accountability.”

That must have been some moment, holding the promise of so much more. But have they really delivered?

Global power demands moral responsibility, for sure. But those demands fall on deaf ears when the boys in charge are drunk with increasing power and paranoid about losing their grip. Consequently, we have witnessed more recently an aggressively assertive CCP that is wholly disinclined to be held accountable for anything. Copenhagen was a perfect example.

“… photos of the emotionally charged scene galvanized the global Chinese community and created a groundswell of national pride just when China needed it.”

Yes, amazing scenes at a time when feelings and accusations were running high. She was a hero in China – for a week. And then she did something unforgiveable and the tide of nationalistic vitriol turned against her. Her crime? She extended the hand of friendship to France by accepting the humble apology of the Mayor of Paris. Go figure.

December 28, 2009 @ 9:32 am | Comment

That was a sad epilogue, Stuart, but it was not the end of the story. She ended up playing a lead role in the Paralympics and most rational people continue to hold her in high esteem. That breakout on the message boards condemning her for pressing for better relations with France was shameful, but it was the usual suspects, the BBS-addicted fenqing, for whom the BBS is a sorry substitute for getting a real life. It’s going to take a lot more than that to vilify someone like this, who made a great life for herself despite impossible odds.

December 28, 2009 @ 1:44 pm | Comment

I think there’s different way for France to try to say sorry for the incident with that Jin Jing. The Mayor of Paris is probably to apologize for the incident while being sympathetic to the Free Tibet movement. Some Chinese thinks that Jin Jing shouldn’t accept the apology at all because they think the Mayor is sympathetic to the Free Tibet movement.

December 28, 2009 @ 2:15 pm | Comment

That was a sad epilogue, Stuart, but it was not the end of the story. She ended up playing a lead role in the Paralympics and most rational people continue to hold her in high esteem.

Of course stuart knows this.

And Stuart, is your government still trying to save that drug dealer? Are you going to try saving him too? You better hurry, the deadline is quickly approaching.

December 28, 2009 @ 3:08 pm | Comment

Tightly written list of personal highlights. It’s been a privilege to have experienced many of these events with you, Richard.

December 29, 2009 @ 12:03 am | Comment

I have a question about the mayor of Beijing who got fired after the SARS outbreak. Is it true that he was later the provincial party boss of Hebei, when the tainted baby formula scandal surfaced?

December 29, 2009 @ 1:10 am | Comment

Oh, nice, HongXing. Celebrating the impending death of a mentally ill man. That’s a new low, even for you.

You disgust me.

December 29, 2009 @ 5:09 am | Comment

You must not be serious. At the last minute they have some doctor’s note saying he’s “bi=polar”. If he’s able to travel to China to do business and successful in his business, then that is evidence alone his mental state is normal enough to know what he was doing. You cannot argue that “yes he may be normal most of the time, but he was abnormal just at that moment when he was tricked into carrying the drugs.”. That is an absurd argument. I am normal every second before this moment, and every second after this moment, but only at this moment I am abnormal. Give me a break.

Anyway, bi-polar is not a mental illness. It is a mood swing. It does not affect judgment.

December 29, 2009 @ 6:14 am | Comment

For me, the decade’s most important ongoing story is Hu Jintao’s rise to power and the subsequent communications crackdown.

I won’t argue with you about Jin Jing. She was a hot topic – for about 2 seconds. As far as “attacks” go, however, she got off pretty easy (A single scratch! My cat is more dangerous than Jin Jing’s attacker.) The poor wretch who attempted to grab the “sacred flame” from her was tackled to the ground before he could finish shouting “Free Tibet!” Not much of a hero – this Jin Jing – if you ask me. Unless, of course, frowning and turning one’s body to the right make one a hero. (In which case, I’m a hero for riding the Beijing subway during rush hour.) Indeed, I’d say that Jin Jing’s attacker was a damn sight braver than she was. After all, he knew he would take a beating and did it anyway. That’s not to say that the sorry episode wasn’t a perfect opportunity for the Chinese press to go on once again about the outstanding character of the Chinese people. “Wheelchair Angel,” my ass. God bless her anyway. None of it was her fault.

As far as the whole Beijing Olympics story goes, what’s most interesting to me now is how quiet everything’s gotten now that it’s all blessedly over. A very brutal return to normalcy: polluted skies, an increasingly paranoid regime, housing prices through the f***ing roof. Talk about post-Christmas letdown. Better yet, postpartum depression (symptoms include: sadness, fatigue, crying episodes, anxiety, and irritability). In short, without the Olympics to look forward to, Beijing is the same old boring drag it every was. In fact, it’s worse.

For my part, I’m hoping that one of the top stories of the next decade is the release of Liu Xiaobo. A China in which Liu Xiaobo is as widely celebrated as Jin Jing would be a huge improvement, don’t you think?

I second O.L.’s sentiments vis-a-vis that loser HongXing. Anyone who supports capital punishment is an ignorant dumbass (redundant, I know). Anyone who supports the execution of a mentally retarded person is an evil ignorant dumbass. (Please feel free to edit this portion of my comment.)

December 29, 2009 @ 6:41 am | Comment

Edit that portion, Ma Bole? I’m more likely to highlight it in bold and large screaming font. I could not agree more.

Capital punishment is barbaric, and that goes for it here in the US too.

December 29, 2009 @ 7:21 am | Comment

The guy’s mental illness, if any, apparently is not considered serious enough to justify a pardon. Did he carry a qualified doctor cert when he was carry 4kg of heroin? Was he on medication? His mental illness suddenly came to the spotlight AFTER he was caught. His family had no problem whatsoever with him running a business in the UK, wondering around in Europe, AND boarding a plane, travelling to a romote country. If he was so ill that he couldn’t possibly tell drug from “white power”, who let him go around freely.

Why whatever alleged by the convicted and his supportors/sympathizers must be taken as “facts”?

People have the right to object capital punishment, but at the same time, they should also respect others in different countries/cultures’ right to think otherwise.

December 29, 2009 @ 7:45 am | Comment

Red Star is as charming as ever.

As I said, Ma, this is a very personal list. I remember the Jin Jing attack and what it meant to my colleagues in China, and it was certainly one of my most powerful memories. Whether what she did was heroic or not (and personally I thought it was – not worthy of the medal of honor, perhaps, but very brave), she did strike a responsive chord in the Chinese soul when it was most needed.

Bob, the privilege was mine.

December 29, 2009 @ 7:47 am | Comment

Ma Bole,

There are many many people in this world who do support death penalty including many many in countries which have abolished the practice. Are they all your examples of an evil ignorant dumbass? You are perhaps talking about billions of evil ignorant dumbass. There are only about 6 billion of mankind at the moment alive.

December 29, 2009 @ 7:54 am | Comment

Capital punishment is state-sponsored murder. Maybe a lot of supporters of capital punishment don’t see it that way. I wish they did.

December 29, 2009 @ 8:35 am | Comment

As usual, Lisa is right. Support for the death penalty is something I could never understand, and America’s love affair with this barbaric practice is a big embarrassment.

December 29, 2009 @ 8:52 am | Comment

Oh, I missed this additional gem from HongXing:

Anyway, bi-polar is not a mental illness. It is a mood swing. It does not affect judgment.

The Google is your friend. You really are jaw-droppingly ignorant. Thanks for playing. Bye now!

December 29, 2009 @ 9:11 am | Comment


by the same token, many in European countries find it embarrassing when serial killers AREN’T executed, no?

This isn’t to excuse execution of drug traffickers. Even ones that are clearly sane enough to know they shouldn’t have drugs in China.

December 29, 2009 @ 10:32 am | Comment

Chip, I hadn’t heard that Europeans find it embarrassing when serial killers aren’t executed. Maybe it depends where in Europe we’re talking about? I thought the more highly educated Western European nations were all against the death penalty. Don’t know about the Baltics or Eastern Europe.

There are moments when I feel the death penalty is justifiable, like in the case of Timothy McVeigh or Ted Bundy. But then my more rational voice tells me it’s better to put them away forever. Killing a human being, no matter how you do it, is cruel and unusual punishment and therefore not acceptable.

December 29, 2009 @ 10:46 am | Comment


my pet peeve with the death penalty is the fact that there is always a possibility of innocence. Although that is the same with ALL punishments, it makes the death penalty a very risky endevour. Hence I think it probably shouldn’t be used. But I still defend it as a concept, if a person truly has murdered in cold blood, I don’t see it as a cruel or unusual punishment. But since there is always the possibility of error, it’s hard to support it.

December 29, 2009 @ 10:56 am | Comment

Interesting. A ‘top five events of the decade thread’ morphs into a debate on the death penalty.

Although opinions in the west are probably divided on the issue, China is almost exclusively pro-capital punishment. And that view (in my experience) doesn’t change even with the assumption that some of the executed are innocent or didn’t deserve it.

December 29, 2009 @ 11:14 am | Comment

While it is sad that Akmal Shaikh is being put to death, I don’t think the mentally Ill are any better off here in the US. I recall that most of the mental asylums were being closed down in the 80’s and people with mental problems are being put in jails instead. There’s a great documentary in PBS’s frontline about it.

December 29, 2009 @ 1:58 pm | Comment

Pug, you are right about that — mentally ill people who commit crimes are likely to end up in jail and not receive the treatment that they should, and there have been mentally ill people executed in the US as well. Equally appalling.

And yeah, Stuart is right, this thread has gone far off-track, mostly my bad.

I can’t come up with my own top 5 list right now, but I will definitely agree that the last item on Richard’s list, the crackdown on the internet and on civil society abiding by the rule of law in general, is a big one.

December 29, 2009 @ 2:24 pm | Comment

Here are my 6, in no particular order:

1. the hateful, wretched, sorry-assed, pathetic, backward-looking embarrassment that is the ongoing media crackdown (Will the Chinese people ever enjoy freedom of speech? Not if the CCP has anything to say about it.)


3. 2008 (i.e., the Tibetan mess; the earthquake in Sichuan; the Olympic torch relay fiasco; the Beijing Olympics)

4. Ethnic unrest (Tibet in 2008; Xinjiang in 2009)

5. China and the global economic crisis

6. the Chinese internet (i.e., human flesh searches; Green Dam; the Fifty Cent Party)

December 29, 2009 @ 4:41 pm | Comment

Richard, all such things are personal, but I found that a rather touchy-feely list and bit short on substance and wildly over-optimistic. Somewhat as if I had judged the greatest moments of American history as being Washington crossing the Delaware, “Sailor Kisses Nurse” (Time Square 1945), and Barack Obama’s inaugural speech. I’ll be honest with you, I was in China for just over half of the decade, and really can’t think of more than 3 true high-points for the whole country:

1) Yang Li Wei in space – The Chinese people seemed strangely unimpressed by this, but it is a feat which will be remembered, repeated, and built upon.

2) Lenovo buys IBM laptops – Many other moments might be chosen, but for me this was the advent of Chinese business on the world stage.

3) China joins the WTO – This confirmed China’s rise to the top table of world financial affairs. Simple as that.

December 29, 2009 @ 5:55 pm | Comment

I’m shocked that things like the WTO or Sichuan earthquake aren’t on the list but Jin Jing is, though its a personal list and thats up to the individual who picked it. Just minor quibbling, Jin Jing isn’t confined to a wheelchair and she played virtually no role in the Paralympics. Further, I’d guess that if you said the name Jin Jing today, 90% of Chinese would have no clue who you were talking about. She had her 15 minutes, but it quickly passed.

December 29, 2009 @ 9:57 pm | Comment

Sorry for keep hijacking this post, but i have to point out that China has been lenient on mentally-ill foreigners in the past, but there are much pressure from inside China for this case, as overwhelminglly people want this guy dead and want China to standup and face the pressure from the British.

As mentioned by Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore here:

December 29, 2009 @ 11:53 pm | Comment

FOARP, it was a very touchy-feely list, and I tried to make that clear – these were stories that touched me personally, not the stories that were necessarily the most important for China. Of course sending a man into space has greater implications for the country than Jin Jing. But her story touched me. Her photos touched me. And that’s what this list is about.

Lenovo’s purchase of IBM and China joining WTO were monumental. And they didn’t touch me in the least. The ones on my list are items I felt personally involved in, for a variety of reasons.

December 30, 2009 @ 12:08 am | Comment

2009, I felt that anyone could list the obviously huge events of the decade. I took a different approach. (See the reference to the Sichuan earthquake in my post, by the way.) This would be drier than dust if I just stated the obvious. Thus, in the headline, I clearly say these are the most important things to me. And I clarify it again in the copy that this is a personal list, not the kind of list Time magazine would offer.

December 30, 2009 @ 12:28 am | Comment

@Richard – There was plenty in my life in China that touched me personally, this is my list:

1) A teacher friend of mine, much loved by her students, a member of the Hui minority, crying as she explained to me how poor her home town was. I had never had such a clear idea of how crushing poverty could be until then.

2) The obvious love that a friend of mine and her husband paid to her daughter, gave to her only child as she prepared to sit her exams, a daughter born to her when she was 45 years old and had given up all hope of ever having children. Far from the stereotype of the pushy Chinese mother she was an exemplary human being.

3) The moments when sheer ice ran down ones spine. I remember a conversation I had with a woman I knew, a communist party cadre, about a protest which happened outside the university I worked at in Nanjing by farmers who had had their land appropriated for derisory compensation. I asked her what she thought of it. She turned to me and simply said “I don’t care”, not in an off-hand fashion, but as a clear declaratory statement of ruthlessness – the same kind of ruthlessness which allows people to be beaten, tortured, and murdered merely for being in the way of such a person. Not vindictive, merely machine-like calculation from someone who was otherwise quite personable.

4) The look of devotion on the face of an ex-girlfriend of mine who I was at the time madly in love with as she bowed before a statue of Guanyin. The sheer feeling of seeing someone you adore doing something which you do not understand, common in China but never felt so strongly as then.

The rest, well, they were the ins and outs of life in China which everyone experiences there and in many other places. I guess living in Nanjing and Shenzhen I was never at the political heart of things as someone who lived in Beijing might be, nor did my work take me inside the media cycle in the same way yours did, so the things I remember are the things I saw with my own eyes.

December 30, 2009 @ 12:53 am | Comment

That’s a great list, FOARP. In mine, I tried to choose events that I felt were pivotal and historic and that affected all of China, and that also had a deep personal effect on me. But we all have the freedom to make up whatever lists we see fit.

December 30, 2009 @ 1:23 am | Comment


“She turned to me and simply said “I don’t care”, not in an off-hand fashion, but as a clear declaratory statement of ruthlessness”

This is an appallingly amoral attitude that my own experiences confirm is peculiarly CCP in essence. I’m betting that the more heart-warming expressions of the human condition in 1), 2), and 4) were not inspired by individuals under the spell of the Party.

December 30, 2009 @ 9:33 am | Comment

@Stuart – Mere membership of the CCP doesn’t say anything one way or the other, save that that person usually has above-average intelligence.

December 30, 2009 @ 6:41 pm | Comment

Many here question the ‘greatness’ of events which may have signalled progress for freedom and human rights referenced by Richard in his list. For me, this para from “5 big gay China events that made international headlines” by Kenneth Tan over on Shanghaiist pretty much describes all progress in China:

” . . . Yunnan officials blew our minds earlier this month with their uncanny ability to think outside the box in a move that promises to redefine “socialism with Chinese characteristics” — they’ve spent ¥120,000 in public funds to open up a “gay bar” in picturesque and touristy Dali, one of China’s top ten cities most afflicted by Aids. According to the bar’s non-gay manager, Zhang Jianbo (who really is a health official), beverages would not be sold in the “bar”, but gay men would be taught about safe sex practises here. Unfortunately, on Dec 1, when the bar was scheduled to be opened in conjunction with World Aids Day, the venue remained shuttered as volunteers disappeared, freaked out by the media exposure. Last week, the bar finally opened its doors, this time with a simple ceremony that involved little fanfare. How successful the venue will be over the long term remains to be seen (we’ll admit we’re skeptical), but the very idea of a government-sponsored gay bar sure did capture the imaginations of people everywhere and caused more than a few sparks to fly around the world.”

Talking about progress in China in the areas of accountability and human rights now is like talking about it in the context of the Soviet Union in the seventies – highly dubious, and bound to be based on minor and easily reversible points.

December 31, 2009 @ 2:04 am | Comment

“Talking about progress in China in the areas of accountability and human rights now is like talking about it in the context of the Soviet Union in the seventies”

So they have still 10 years more to go….

December 31, 2009 @ 3:30 am | Comment

Foarp: Many here question the ‘greatness’ of events which may have signalled progress for freedom and human rights referenced by Richard in his list.

I make no claim that any of the items on my list represent progress for “freedom and human rights.” In fact, I never use those terms at all, and end on a decidedly grim note, with the observation that censorship has only worsened.

December 31, 2009 @ 3:31 am | Comment

“they’ve spent ¥120,000 in public funds to open up a “gay bar””

They could try rather to replicate the experience from Chueca in Madrid

It was even good for real state in the area. 😉

December 31, 2009 @ 3:33 am | Comment

“So they have still 10 years more to go….”

I’m not one for wild predictions, but it being New Year’s Eve and all – why not?

December 31, 2009 @ 11:33 am | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.