A Century After Xinhai: Whose Revolution?

100 years ago Sun Yat-Sen’s Xinhai Revolution began with the Wuchang Uprising, representing the beginning of the end for the Qing dynasty and thousands of years of imperial rule in China. The Asia Pacific Memo has been following the lead up to the centennial celebration, anticipating what it will mean on either side of the Taiwan Strait:

The goal of the Xinhai Revolution, for its leaders, was to establish a democratic republic in China. Working out how to celebrate the centenary of the revolution on October 10, 2011 has not been easy. The republican ideal has been achieved, but in most of the Chinese world, democracy has not. Only the Republic of China (ROC, or Taiwan) and Singapore have full democracy. Hong Kong has a free press, rule of law, and limited elections. The Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) has virtually no democracy, despite the many rights and freedoms listed in the constitution.

The PRC and the ROC relate to each other well with a tacit agreement for ‘mutual non-recognition and mutual non-denial’, i.e. a tacit agreement to continue the status quo. But this strategy cannot extend to celebrating the Xinhai Revolution.

The PRC’s democratic deficit makes it difficult to celebrate the democratic aspect of the revolution. Instead, the planned celebrations are cultural events, conferences, the opening of museums, and the unveiling of statues. Recognition will be given to the overseas Chinese who supported the revolutionaries. The most spectacular production is a movie starring Jackie Chan as Huang Xing, one of the revolutionary leaders, and Joan Chen as the Empress Dowager, which will open on the anniversary.

The ROC is playing the democracy card. A series of events – conferences, rock concerts, a peace bell, and a mass bike ride around Taiwan – are planned to present the ROC as the pioneer of Chinese democracy. The ROC’s message is that the road to democracy need not be violent or threatening.

A recent article in The Economist mentions the worries that went along with planning a celebration of revolutionary activity on the mainland:

China and Taiwan have long disputed each others’ claims to be the heir of the 1911 revolution. Sun Yat-sen, regarded as the revolution’s leader, is officially revered on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. As usual around the time of the anniversary, a giant portrait of him was erected on October 1st in Tiananmen Square, opposite that of Mao Zedong (both wearing Sun suits, as they were known before their rebranding in Mao’s day). But the Communist Party’s efforts to play up the occasion have revealed its nervousness.

[...]In recent months, upheaval in the Arab world has made officials even more nervous. In April they banned a symposium on the revolution planned by students at several leading universities in Beijing. A website advertising the event said that it aimed to look not only at “inspirational revolutionary victories” but also at things “hidden deeper” concerning democracy.

[...]But the authorities are not letting their political worries spoil a spending opportunity. In Wuhan, where the revolution began, they announced plans to splurge 20 billion yuan ($3.1 billion) on 1911-related exhibitions and on a makeover for the city. The Manchu emperor abdicated in February 1912, ending over 2,000 years of dynastic rule. Officials in Wuhan, and elsewhere, have been keeping quiet about the orgy of violence against Manchus that accompanied the upheaval (see article).

Beijing did more than just give the city of Wuhan a makeover.  From NYTimes.com:

In Wuhan, the birthplace of the 1911 uprising, police were directed to reinforce their patrols between Aug. 27 and Oct. 10. Apart from the several thousand officers conducting patrols each day, 100 paramilitary police and 200 special police armed with submachine guns have been assigned to street duty. A quarter of a million surveillance cameras watch every corner 24 hours a day — all in the name of “creating a peaceful environment for the centennial.”

In Beijing, President Hu Jintao used the celebration as an opportunity to speak about cross strait reunification. From China Daily:

President Hu Jintao called on people on both sides of the Taiwan Straits to work together for national rejuvenation as the country marked the 100th anniversary on Sunday of the revolution that overthrew imperial rule.

Addressing a commemoration of the 1911 Revolution, Hu said that national rejuvenation, a cherished goal of Dr Sun Yat-sen and other revolutionaries, should be the common aspiration on both sides of the Straits.

Peaceful national reunification best serves the fundamental interests of all Chinese people including Taiwan compatriots, he said.

“We should … end cross-Straits antagonism, heal wounds of the past and work together to achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” Hu said.

The article continues to speak of China’s peaceful intent:

Wang Chaoguang, a researcher with the Institute of Modern History under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Hu’s speech showed that China is a peace-loving country.

China cherishes peace more than any other country because it was nearly torn apart by the turbulence of violence, he said.

“Those who worry about China’s growing strength and regard us as a threat are wrong.”

The Wall Street Journal reports the rhetoric on the other side of the Strait:

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou used the occasion of an important and politically sensitive date in Chinese history to call on China to embrace democracy, as Taiwan’s opposition ratchets up criticism of his closeness to Beijing ahead of elections early next year.

Taiwanese reports focus elsewhere. An article from the Taipei Times covering Hu’s speech about reunification brings into question the CCP’s interpretation of history regarding the fall of the Qing:

[...]the party’s version of the fall of the dynasty has been challenged by critics who say the chaotic chain of coups and insurrections that toppled the corrupt empire and subsequent violent faction conflicts and invasion by Japan are a reminder of the need for democratic reform in the present.

China again faces a dangerous confluence of official corruption, volatile public discontent and stalled reform, Zhou Ruijin (周瑞金), the former deputy editor-in-chief of the People’s Daily newspaper, said in a recent essay about the 1911 revolution.

[...]“For us, China’s Xinhai Revolution is still not dead history, it still has a strong resonance with present-day realities,” said Lei Yi, a historian at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. “A key lesson of the revolution is that the country’s fate depends on whether the rulers make the right choices about advancing reforms. Above all, there’s still the issue that a modern China needs a modern form of government — constitutional government.”

From Taiwan’s The China Post:

Beijing believes it is heir to Sun [Yat-sen]‘s legacy and argues that a dramatic rise in living standards during the past 30 years of economic reform is the fruit of his revolution.

But the ideological battle between the Nationalists and Communists continues over whether the Xinhai Revolution ushered in a truly republican form of government in China.

For in depth analysis of the implications of the Xinhai Revolution, see the Asia Pacific Memo’s 100 Years After the Xinhai Revolution series.

To read more about Jackie Chan’s big screen portrayal of the Xinhai Revolution, see China Daily.

Also see this list of a UC Irvine reading group’s links concerning the revolution from The China Beat.

Fans of The Wire check out The Wire Guide to the Xinhai Revolution via Jottings from the Granite Studio.

October 10, 2011 6:25 PM
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Categories: Politics, Society, Taiwan