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Two big China stories you missed this year

The brief yet radical shift of patriotic fervor into criticism of the government after the Sichuan earthquake and the official revival of Confucius were crucial moments in a pivotal year.

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To say the least, 2008 has been a pivotal year for China. It was marked by tragedy (the Sichuan earthquake) and by triumph (the lavish Olympic opening ceremonies). Riots in Tibet, the milk scandal, and, most recently, the crackdown on democratic dissent, are just three of the many China stories that captured headlines across the globe.

Yet there are two major stories that received little notice. Each reveals important things about China. Each helps place its tragedies and triumphs into a richer context. And each presages the bigger pivots ahead in China's course.

1. Chinese nationalism becomes an oppositional force

Chinese patriotic fervor, especially as manifested on the Net, got plenty of attention, mostly portrayed as something welcomed or even stirred up by the regime. This portrayal makes sense, up to a point.

Yes, officials liked seeing posts denouncing the French after a torchbearer was roughed up in Paris, and later, after French President Nicolas Sarkozy met the Dalai Lama. But these same authorities never forgot that patriotism has often proved notoriously difficult to control in China. Chinese elites know that the mix of patriotic outrage and frustration with official corruption, malfeasance, or selfishness has often driven people into the streets.

This didn't happen in 2008. But at one crucial moment in May, right after the earthquake, a familiar shift from outward-focused to inward-focused patriotic fervor occurred. This made Chinese officials nervous – for good reason.

The tone of the Chinese blogosphere suddenly changed, with posts criticizing foreigners for being unwilling to let the Olympic torch relay be a celebratory event disappearing. In their place came posts chiding the government for continuing to run upbeat stories about the torch.

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