Visitors take pictures of an installation at a flower fair ahead of the Chinese Lunar New Year of the Pig, in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China February 3, 2019. Picture taken February 3, 2019.  REUTERS/Stringer ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. CHINA OUT.
© Reuters

To a western ear, the year of the swine may not sound particularly auspicious. But the Chinese zodiac sign of the pig is usually considered lucky, since it represents wealth and good fortune.

As the Sinocised world ushered in the lunar new year on Tuesday, China’s leaders must have been praying for some of that luck as they struggle with a slowing economy, burgeoning trade war with the US and a series of symbolic, and politically dangerous, anniversaries.

It is an open secret in China that many members of the officially atheist Communist party are actually devout believers in Buddhism, Daoism or ancient folk traditions the party derides as “superstition”. At this time of year, temples across the country, many of which were closed or destroyed in the 1960s during Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution, are teeming with party bigwigs praying for luck or consulting fortune-tellers about the year ahead.

Given the importance of numbers and anniversaries in Chinese cosmology, and political life, this year of the pig is particularly portentous.

Most significantly, 2019 will mark the 100th anniversary of the May 4 movement, in which nationalist student protests erupted in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and across the country. Those demonstrations initially focused on the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, which handed German territorial concessions in Asia to Japan instead of returning them to China. But the unrest soon blossomed into a much broader political and cultural movement that led directly to the founding of the Chinese Communist party two years later, and has shaped the country to an extraordinary degree ever since.

Central to the movement was a rejection of traditional Confucian values and an embrace of western ideas, particularly “Mr Science” and “Mr Democracy”. While the former is crucial to current President Xi Jinping’s vision of a powerful modern nation, the latter gentleman remains a pariah in modern China.

The long list of significant anniversaries this year also includes 70 years since the founding of the People’s Republic, 60 years since the failed Tibetan uprising that forced the Dalai Lama to flee to India, 20 years since the start of a crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement and 10 years since race riots killed hundreds in the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang.

This year is also the 30th anniversary of the student democracy protests in Tiananmen Square that ended in a massacre on June 4 1989.

It may seem coincidental that so many significant anniversaries seem to fall in a single year. But, to a large extent, it is the importance of anniversaries themselves that has led to so many stacking up together. Without getting bogged down in the finer points of Chinese astrological numerology and the significance of “celestial stems” or “terrestrial branches”, suffice to say that anniversaries involving multiples of 10 or 12 are especially momentous.

Festive pig-themed displays and decorations stand as people walk through the Yuyuan Garden ahead of the Lunar New Year in Shanghai, China, on Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. The Lunar New Year begins on Feb. 5, and marks the start of the Year of the Pig. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg
© Bloomberg

The 1989 Tiananmen protests attracted so much popular support in part because their student leaders explicitly drew parallels between their demonstrations and those of their patriotic predecessors in 1919. Communist elders delayed sending in the tanks for months because they felt it was too risky to crush such a movement on the 70th anniversary of the May 4 protests, which they claimed as the precursor to their own revolution.

While it has been overshadowed in history by the subsequent massacre in Beijing in June, there was also a violent crackdown in Tibet in March 1989 after protests erupted to mark 30 years since the Dalai Lama fled over the Himalayas.

The significance of these dates is heightened by the Communist party’s fixation on anniversaries. Mr Xi himself has made celebrating the “two centenaries” — the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist party in 1921 and the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic in 1949 — central to his ideology of “rejuvenating” the Chinese nation.

China’s leaders are acutely conscious that commemorations of past events have historically been used to express demands for political change. The secret police will be especially vigilant for any signs of dissent, even as most of these dates go unmarked. If you visit China from abroad this year you will probably notice the internet is even slower and more censored than normal.

There is one final milestone the Chinese Communist party will be watching closely. This is the year that the party’s time in power will exceed the reign of the Communist party of the Soviet Union, which ruled the vast Russian empire from victory in the civil war in 1922, until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

If the party can make it through this pig year without mishap then it really will be one for Mr Xi to celebrate.

Get alerts on Chinese politics & policy when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article