2011 - the centenary of two very different revolutions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 January, 2011, 12:00am

The guide at the Sun Yat-sen memorial museum knew everything about the 'Father of the Nation', but little about the Republic of China which he founded. 'We learn about the Communist Party but not the Republic of China,' said Tan Jinye. 'They do not teach that at school.'

Her answer helps to explain how Chinese people marked two different centenaries yesterday - the Xinhai Revolution that ended the last imperial dynasty and the foundation of what eventually became the government in Taipei.

Yesterday, the government in Taipei held events to mark the centenary, as did several hundred supporters in Tuen Mun, where they raised Taiwan's flag and sang its national anthem. But for the museum in Zhongshan in Guangdong, it was a normal day.

The mainland and Taiwan both rejoice at the end of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). But Taipei regards the revolution of October 10, 1911, as the start of its history, while Beijing sees that date as only one halting step towards the foundation of the People's Republic in 1949.

So this year, Beijing will celebrate the Xinhai Revolution but ignore the establishment of the Republic of China, which it regards as dead and buried. Taipei will celebrate both, especially the second, and highlight what it sees as its achievements in the last 100 years.

Students on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are taught different histories. In Taiwan, they are taught that they live in the republic which Sun founded and which implemented his political legacy, the 'Three Principles of the People' - democracy, nationalism and welfare.

Those on the mainland learn little about the republic founded in 1912, which is presented as a semi-colonial and corrupt regime. They are told that the Nationalist period, from 1911 to 1949, was one of chaos and civil war, of warlords fighting the central government and of failure to address poverty and land reform. It was left to the Communists to expel the foreigners, set up an independent state and complete the revolution. If asked about the Republic of China, many mainlanders say that it disappeared in 1949.

Last month, mainland magazine National History echoed this official view. 'Sun Yat-sen was an idealist who had lived abroad for many years. When he took the oath of office as the first president of the republic in Nanjing on January 1, 1912, he had no money, no army and the support of no foreign government.'

When Sun approved the issue of government bonds for the military, no one would buy them; only 7 per cent were sold and Sun was forced to turn to Japanese conglomerates to raise money, offering them mines and factories in China in exchange.

To win the support of the Beiyang Army - China's most modern military force, led by Yuan Shikai in Beijing - Sun had to give Yuan the presidency after just 90 days. 'Farmers outside Beijing said they had swapped one emperor for another named Yuan. In an old imperial country of 400 million people, the idea of becoming Asia's first republic was hard to imagine,' the magazine report concluded.

'Sun Yat-sen did not make a great contribution to the transformation of Chinese society,' said Yuan Weishi, a professor at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou. 'He did not adequately understand Western thinking, nor had he a thorough understanding of Chinese thinking. Xinhai was an incomplete revolution.'

Yuan was speaking at a seminar last autumn on the centenary of the Xinhai Revolution organised by China Reform magazine in Beijing.

He did say the Republican era was one of strong economic growth. 'During the 10 years after the revolution, industrial output rose 13.8 per cent a year. Many economists consider the period between the foundation of the Kuomintang government in 1928 and the Japanese war in 1937 as the 'golden decade', with rapid growth of the economy. This was due to the separation of powers and a liberalisation of government control.'

Such conditions were not repeated until the 1980s, Yuan said, which led to unprecedented economic development.

So the view on the mainland is that Xinhai was a partial revolution and Sun an important but flawed character. But in Taiwan the view is that the Japanese invasion was the main cause of the downfall of Sun's republic on the Chinese mainland. The economy and state institutions grew steadily after the establishment of the KMT government in Nanjing in 1928. But the invasion destroyed the economy and killed many of its best soldiers and generals, enabling the Communists to win the civil war that followed.

According to figures on both sides, the Nationalists had 3.2 million killed or wounded during the war, more than six times the figure of 500,000 for the Communists.

A century on, have the ideals of the revolutionaries been realised on the mainland? Scholars see a mixed record - extraordinary economic growth but an ossified political system, a widening wealth gap and social injustice which may bring about another revolution.

Wang Xiaolu, deputy director of the National Economic Research Centre of the China Reform Foundation, said that since 1978, the government had major achievements and major failures.

The major achievement was the shift to a market economy which helped to lift 200 million rural people out of poverty and raise the average per-capita gross domestic product from US$200 to almost US$4,000.

The major failure was not reforming the political system, which remained the same as that of the pre-1978 period. 'The lack of supervision of the government has led to a concentration of power and capital, creating corruption and interest groups, which pose a great threat to the future development of China,' Wang said.

Another failure was not creating a system of public welfare and social protection, which will be essential for the 500 million rural residents who will move to the cities over the next few decades. Wang said China could not be a stable and peaceful society without such a system.

Zhou Xiaozheng , a professor at Renmin University, said that over the last 30 years, 13.3 million hectares of land had been transferred from agricultural to non-agricultural use, with a huge increase in the value of the land. But only a fraction of this windfall had gone to the farmers, with the other 90 per cent divided between developers and local governments. 'Collective ownership is a myth,' he said.

Wu Jinglian, an economist at the State Council's Development and Research Centre, said that the mainland's wealth gap had become extremely wide, mainly because of corruption and monopolies.

'A consensus of economists has calculated that rents account for up to 30 per cent of national wealth, a level rare in the world. From this, we can see the scale of corruption and its enormous impact on the wealth gap,' he said.

Wu said that the share of GDP of government and state companies was rising, while that of blue-collar and white-collar workers was falling, because they had a weak hand in wage negotiations, with no trade unions and with local governments backing employers.

He said that the mainland today was like Spain on the eve of its civil war in 1931, when fascists faced left-wing republicans. 'The far right - the rich, powerful and corrupt - exploit the poor, weak and the middle class. The far left exploits the anger of the public against the rich and powerful to call for a return to the later years of Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution. This is a dangerous situation.'

Xu Youyu, a philosopher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, also said the future was full of dangers, including radical nationalism which could lead to fascism. 'This risk is very real. If people of this kind are successful, China could go backward to the era of the Cultural Revolution.'

In the new year, the mainland and Taiwan have much to celebrate as they look back on the last century. But it will be years until they look at that century with the same pair of spectacles.