Xinhai Revolution

Something to celebrate?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 October, 2011, 12:00am


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As celebrations marking the centenary of the 1911 revolution near their climax on the mainland, the usually politically sensitive anniversary has become a rare opportunity to revive debate about democracy and political reform - even in a year that's seen intensified efforts to stifle dissent.

For reform-minded officials and liberal intellectuals, ideas of constitutional democracy that ignited the revolution 100 years ago - marking the end of China's imperial dynasties and the first attempt by Chinese people to establish a republican government - are still very much alive.

Despite the Communist Party insisting on controlling political and historical discourse at officially sanctioned commemorative events, bold calls for substantial political change, largely a taboo topic on the mainland, have been voiced both inside and outside the party at some of the events.

But there has been obvious confusion within the intelligentsia, and even among party cadres at the grass-roots level, regarding the scope of Beijing's tolerance of events organised by non-governmental groups and think tanks.

While a good number of events - including seminars and book launches of anniversary-related publications - have been allowed to proceed, others have been either suspended or called off, some at the last minute, without official explanation.

The apparent lack of consistency has left many wondering about Beijing's wariness towards the highly charged anniversary. Some blame the government's heightened censorship and clampdown on dissent this year, but others say there haven't been any reports about a uniform policy on the issue, and that local authorities may have largely acted on their own in deciding whether a specific event should be allowed to go ahead.

While Beijing wants to shore up ties with Taipei by jointly celebrating the anniversary, it is nonetheless wary that the celebrations could steal the limelight from the party, which celebrated its 90th birthday in July. There is also the worry that reopening discussions about that part of history could give rise to political dissent and further undermine the legitimacy of one-party rule.

Chen Ziming, a dissident scholar on constitutional democracy, said that revisiting the history of the1911 revolution may have struck a nerve in Beijing.

Unlike the founding of the People's Republic and the party, the history surrounding the revolution remains contentious.

'Authorities are reluctant to review the history because it will inevitably raise sensitive issues about re-evaluating the revolution and comparisons will be drawn between the ruling regimes - now and then,' he said.

Chen was jailed for 13 years as one of the 'black hands' behind the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement in 1989, along with another activist, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Liu Xiaobo.

Echoing many leading Chinese historians, Chen said mainland authorities have felt the heat because of the striking similarities seen between the problems plaguing the country a century ago, before the revolution, and those of today's China. 'It is embarrassing for the party leaders to face the fact that, despite the country's economic success, most aspects of the political system and social management have yet to reach the level of 100 years ago,' he said.

Zhang Lifan, a historian formerly with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, agreed.

'It's not surprising that [the authorities] are jittery about this and want to keep control of commemorative events but do it in a low-profile way. It shows a lack of confidence and a fear of re-examining the past,' he said.

Professor Lei Yi, another academy historian, said many of the goals put forward in the 1911 revolution - notably constitutional democracy and the rule of law - had yet to be realised on the mainland.

'The history of the Xinhai Revolution lives on,' Lei said, using the common Chinese name for the 1911 revolution.

He noted the revolution's anniversary had been politicised and was viewed by people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait with mixed feelings.

While the 1911 revolution is recognised in Taiwan as the official start of the Republic of China, mainland authorities have long seen the anniversary as an opportunity to reinstate its legitimacy as flag-bearer of the revolution's legacy and spirit.

'For one thing, Sun Yat-sen [a founding father of the Republic of China] has become a political symbol shared by both sides despite their different understandings of his historical role,' Lei said.

While the Kuomintang's legitimacy derived directly from the 1911 revolution, the Communist Party gained its legitimacy from the KMT's failure to complete the democratic transformation in the years afterwards, and from the spirit kindled by the revolution, according to Lei.

Chen said many events marking the anniversary had been cancelled by mainland authorities who fear that such comparisons would subject the party's ideologically driven historical narratives to open challenges and give rise to public dissent.

Professor Yuan Weishi, a historian from the Guangzhou-based Sun Yat-sen University, said he was to give a public speech on the 1911 revolution recently but it was cancelled at the last minute.

Yuan was to address a group of lawyers in Beijing on September 17, but it was called off by the city's lawyers' association and the China University of Political Science and Law, said lawyer Wei Rujiu, who had helped organise the event.

But Yuan noted that the local authorities appeared to hold differing views on the subject, since his other speeches scheduled for Beijing and Tianjin had gone ahead as planned.

Professor Zhang Ming, a political analyst with Renmin University in Beijing, said Yuan's experience showed that tertiary education officials were more jittery about the event than others. While some events have been cancelled, he did not believe it was part of a wider crackdown.

'I've been invited to various talks about the Xinhai Revolution, and the historical resemblance between China 100 years ago and now, and most of them went ahead as planned, except for some that were to be held at colleges and universities,' he said.

But the censors have apparently been busy. Officials with the General Administration of Press and Publication have been scrutinising books about the 1911 revolution in line with a strict censorship programme, according to an official with its publishing management department who declined to be named.

Analysts also agreed that, despite efforts by authorities to clamp down on dissent and muzzle traditional media and the internet, heated discussions on political reform and debates about China's political future are unlikely to be smothered given the growing awareness of rights in the country.

Additional reporting by Priscilla Jiao