The year that will be 2009

More than for George W Bush, having a shoe thrown in his face is ominous for the Chinese Premier.

Popularised by the Iraqi journalist now seeking asylum for fear of persecution, shoe-throwing has become the preferred manner of displaying political opposition. Bush showed much agility, dodging the offending footwear better than he has his other critics. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao didn't quite get a chance to match that, since the sneaker missed him by more than an arm's length.

Just as well. In Mandarin, the word shoe sounds like the word for evil or bad luck, and to be hit by a shoe would sound just like being hit by evil or bad luck. Not the best thing for a people who can be somewhat suspicious and interested in signs.

Wen had braved the worst snowstorm to hit Britain in 18 years to make this speech at Cambridge University. Opening the speech with a deep bow to the audience, he expressed what he said was a sign of respect to the principals and professors of the famed institution, “as a student”. It was to have been a perfect end to the end of a four-nation tour that took him to the World Economic Forum in Davos where he dutifully along with the Russians, chastised the capitalist movement for the financial woes that have befallen on us all, and to which the Chinese have not been immune.

Instead of the usual optimism and possibilities a new year brings, 2009 seems doomed to be one of those that will be just plain hard, and predestined with difficulties, especially for the Chinese who know as they celebrated the Lunar New Year that this will be worse than the last year.

Not that anyone should forget the year did not start out that well in 2008, either. And it had been one of promise. 2008 was the year that China would shine because the Olympics were coming to Beijing, and China would finally take its place on the international stage. Even the diaspora was not immune to it. Their blood flowed a little redder as the year arrived, and many waited as China's carefully selected torch-bearers made stops on the Games' longest race yet. All the world was going to experience a bit of Chinese pride.

And they did. They clashed with it heavily as criticism of Chinese policies in Tibet created animosity and rained on China's parade. The Chinese people taken by surprise came out in emotional defence of their country and their government on the Internet, which had more often than not been the refuge of those who wanted to voice dissent. That was the extent of their anger, and it rallied them.

The year had begun with snowstorms that left migrant workers returning home from the cities stranded. A nation that understood the importance of the annual Chinese New Year reunion with their families for these workers threw their arms, blankets and aid behind them.

This was the same solidarity that came out for the victims of the earthquake that hit Sichuan province in May. As thousands perished, rescue workers from all over the country came to help with rescue and recovery efforts.

On hindsight, these appeared to be a prelude to the grand spectacle that was Beijing 2008. Now the Chinese diaspora finally had something they could be proud of.

With the year finally concluded with news of melamine poisoning Chinese food products and a global financial crisis to dent the years of fantastic economic growth in the country, China begins this year with nothing if even more trepidation.

According to the Chinese horoscope, the Ox was to have won the race to be the first animal in the zodiac. But it was thwarted by a clever rat that rode on its horns and hopped off over the finishing line at the appropriate time.

As the country ushers in the Year of the Ox, it will be aware that it, too, has started 2009 somewhat cheated of an auspicious start.



Over in the Middle East

The Middle East doesn't work on weekends. Fridays are the designated day of rest of the predominantly Muslim countries and sundown on Saturdays mark the end of the sabbath for the religious Jews. By Sunday it is back in business for everyone.

This past weekend marked important dates in the Middle East. In an almost poetic occurrence – coincidental or otherwise – Iraqis went to the polls in the first election in five years, the second time since the US invasion; while the Iranians marked the 30th anniversary of the revolution that toppled the Shah and brought Ayatollah Khomenei and an Islamic Republic into being. Israel rained more shells on Gaza, after Hamas, too, violated the flimsy ceasefire that had been brought into being, as its prime ministerial hopefuls went on television to discuss what they will bring, if they got elected.

This is an important election, the first since the last elected prime minister was sent prematurely into (and still remains) a coma. The last memorable act of Ariel Sharon – the hawk – in the office was withdrawing Jewish settlers from the settlements he proposed in the first place that had been constructed on disputed territory. The Israeli Defense Force were thrown into a morally conflicting position as the pull-out became rather literal. The faces of the young soldiers, especially the tear-streaked ones of the girls, said it all as they forcibly evicted the settlers that refused to leave the land they believed the Almighty had specifically bestowed on them.

Ehud Olmert, the former mayor of Jerusalem who took over from Sharon, has now presided over two disastrous wars – one against Lebanon last year which ended with the country demanding an inquiry, and the most recent one in Gaza which has now made Israel more hated than it already was.

February 10 elections will see a new prime minister and there is a two-in-three chance it will be an old hand who's done it before. Benjamin Netanyahu is currently the favourite over the man who succeeded him previously, Ehud Barak and current Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

They are all saying that they will protect the integrity of Jerusalem as a unified city, and no one wants to appear weaker than the competition. Whoever wins will have to establish a coalition that will include the ultra-orthodox Shias Party.

The only democracy is hampered by exactly that, and climbing into bed with the most right-wing elements of the Jewish society will guarantee a clash with not just the other party to be voted into power, Hamas, but also all the other hot heads in the region.


p.s Israel got its own shoe-assailant, too, in Stockholm when its Ambassador to Sweden found footwear flung at him during a speech at the city's university.

Ongoing investigations prevent more details on the case from being revealed by local police, but two people have been arrested.




Flash points: Anniversaries in China to watch in 2009
Zhao Ziyang's Tiananmen Square speech



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